Marking the start of Buddhist Lent with flowers

by NILUBOL PORNPITAGPAN, Bangkok Post, July 14, 2005

Bangkok, Thailand -- Buddhist Lent, the three-month retreat into monkhood every rainy season, is just around the corner. It signals a time when monks remain in monasteries to concentrate on Buddha's teachings. But for laymen and adventure travellers, it's time to explore the lush wild greenery across the country brought about by monsoon rain. It's also that time of the year when flowers are in full bloom.

<< Wat Phra Phutthabat in Saraburi marks the beginning of Buddhist Lent with its famous Tak Bat Dok Mai Festival.

In Saraburi, 108 kilometres north of Bangkok, famous for its limestone cliffs and mountains, the residents there know it's time to admire many kinds of hong hern blossoms growing on those hills. The blossoms of hong hern or dok khao pansa (Globba winiti) signal the arrival of lent season.

As Phra Phutthabat District of Saraburi is also famous for the footprint of Lord Buddha, local residents see the flowers as a perfect offering when paying homage to the sacred footprint and mark the beginning of annual monk retreat. The practice has kept an old tradition alive.

As we all know, Buddhism and flowers go hand in hand. The Buddha was born under the shade of a gustavia tree and attained enlightenment under the bo tree. With the tourism boom in the past decade, Saraburi's Tak Bat Dok Mai (Floral Merit-Making Festival) is now an integral part of the tourist calendar, pulling in more and more visitors to the province.

The purple hong hern is rare and is believed  >>
to bring more merit to those paying homage to the sacred footprint of Lord Buddha.

People line up to offer hong hern flowers during merit-making at Wat Phra Phutthabat.
In recent years, the provincial administration, the Tourism Authority of Thailand and private sectors have joined forces and added floral procession and other shows to make the annual festival more colourful and exciting.

Some villagers climb the mountains to pick hong hern flowers and arrange them in small bunches for sale in the temple compound, especially to merit-makers who can't find the time to go fetch the flower themselves. The hong hern, which means dancing swan, comes in various shades of yellow, orange, white and red, but rarest is the purple which is believed to bring more merit to those offering them.

The morning of the Buddhist Lent starts with alms-giving to monks that includes food, candles and joss sticks. In the afternoon, Buddhists bring hong hern and other flowers for another round of merit-making. Villagers stand in long lines on both sides of the path leading the stairs of Wat Phra Phutthabat temple which houses the sacred footprint.

More than 100 monks and novices then walk in line to receive the flowers in their alm bowls and walk up the stairs to pay homage to the footprint. They then descend via another set of stairs at the back of the temple where villagers sit waiting with bowls of water to pour over the feet of passing monks in a mark of cleansing of the mind and soul.

<< Monks with alm bowls filled with flowers on their way up the temple that houses the footprint of Lord Buddha.

Phra Phutthabat homage-paying festival goes back to the time when Lord Buddha's footprint was first found during the reign of King Songtham of Ayutthaya, who regularly paid homage to the footprint from 1620-28. Since then succeeding kings and Thai people have made it an annual merit-making rite.

This year, Tak Bat Dok Mai Festival at Wat Phra Phutthabat located in Tambon Khun Khon, Phra Phutthabat District, Saraburi, will be held from July 20 to 22.1

On the first day, the festival will kick off at 5pm with a floral procession and cultural performances, followed by a round of flower merit-making.

Two rounds of such ritual are set for each of the next two days _ at 10am and 3pm. Throughout the festival, there will be an exhibition of hong hern flowers and cultural shows, as well as sale of OTOP products.

For more information, call 01-994-0827.