DAI RELIGION AND FESTIVALS

DAI RELIGION AND BUDDHISM

Most Dai are followers of Theravada Buddhism, while some still adhere to their traditional of animist beliefs based on the notion that all things, whether animate or inanimate, possess a soul. Although Buddhism was introduced to Yunnan as early as the A.D. 7th century, it was not widely embraced by the Dai until the 16th century, when it became their official religion Families have traditionally sent their sons to become monks under the belief that doing so would help the family win merit. The Dai were animists before they embraced Buddhism and their belief in natural spirits has remained alive. Most villages have temples. Many of their temples were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Most were not so elaborate and were easily rebuilt.

Theravada Buddhism holds that the world of senses is void, and that to reach nirvana, or the state of release from material existence, it is necessary to transcend the demands of the senses. The Buddha sutra of Theravada Buddhism is generally called The Three Tripitaka: 1) maintaining the stability in the laws of the universe; 2) Vinaya Tripitaka, advocates religious discipline; and 3) Abhidharma Tripitaka, promote Buddhism and its teachings. According to Theravada Buddhism, it is a common practice to send young boys to the temple to be educated. This also elevates the boy's social status. Temple life served as a form of schooling. Boys learned to read, write and chant scriptures. Some of the boys entered the monastery to become monks, though the vast majority remained in their villages, living secular lives. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Theravada Buddhism was introduced into Dai areas of China through Burma and Thailand, more than a thousand years ago. According to the Chinese-Marxist view: “The religious beliefs of the Dai people were closely related to their economic development. Residents on the borders generally were followers of Hinayana, a sect of Buddhism, while retaining remnants of shamanism. There were many Buddhist temples in the countryside, and it was a common practice, especially in Xishuangbanna, to send young boys to the temples. While staying in the temple, the boys had to do all kinds of hard work, and the Dai people had to bear all the financial burden of the temples. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

All Dai women have Yi at the start of their name. Among the Dai people, the peacock is a holy bird. See Dance

Dai Buddhist Monks

There are Buddhist temples in every Dai village, some of which had monastery associated with them. In the old days and to some extent today, Dai boys used to live in the temple monastery for a period of time separated from their family. In the eyes of the Dai, only men who had been a monk were considered knowledgeable and cultured enough to be respected in society. Men who had not been a monk were called "Yanbai" and "Yanling", referring to those having no knowledge nor cultivation. Monks in Theravada Buddhism are divided into different levels, which determine their positions in the monastery. Newcomers are called Heshang, which is further divided into Payi (senior Heshang) and Panan (junior Heshang). They were trained before entering temple, and allowed in only after they had become familiar with the rules and regulations of the temple. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

On the day, the boy was initiated as a monk he was dressed in colorful clothes and hat by his recognized godfather, who was faithful to Buddha, erudite and respectable, and then rides. He either rode on a horse, walked or was carried to the temple, accompanied by his relatives and neighbors. Sometimes people on the street would sprinkled parched rice over him. After entering the great hall of the temple, the boy kneeled down to start the initiation ceremony which centered around his godfather helping the boy to remove his clothes and hat and put on a monk’s robe. Sometimes his hair was cut. After the was regarded as a true junior monk. From that day on he lived at the temple-monastery, studied Dai language and Buddhist sutra with the help of a Foye, a higher-level monk, and begged alms and performed chores at the temple. If he studied hard and passed various tests he could be promoted up the rnaks to Panong, Du (Foye, both junior and senior) and Huba. Generally speaking, monks above Huba could not be secularized so few wanted to go that far. As is true with many Thais, Laos and Burmese, most young men were monks for a few weeks or months and then resumed their normal lives, establishing their careers and families after becoming a senior Foye or a lower level monk. ~

Dai Buddhist Architecture and Stupas

Dai architecture generally comes in two types: 1) religious, architecture, namely temples, pagoda and stupa, built according to architectural standards of Buddhism; 2) is vernacular architecture such as homes and storehouses found in Dai villages (See Dai Houses). A Buddhist temple is the place where Buddhists gather to pray and engage in certain rituals. A stupa (a Buddhist tower) is used to contain the teeth, bone, ashes and hair of Buddha, which are called Sheli, or a legendary monk. Stupas are generally older than temples but there are more temples than stupas. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Dai style stupas—also called pagodas—are usually made of brick. Either standing alone or as part of a Buddhist monastery or temple, they are the dominant feature in Dai villages and differ significantly from the stupas of Han Chinese and Tibetans areas. The pedestal of the Dai Buddhist stupa is typically in the shape of a lotus blossom. The overall shape of the stupa is in the form of an upside-down Buddhist alms bowl. The pedestal has a rock-solid appearance, which contrasts with the light appearance of the stupa that rises above it. Where there are multiple stupas, they generally come in varying shapes and sizes but are organized to harmonize with their surroundings. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

There is a famous Dai stupa named Manfeilong Bamboo Shoot Stupa on a hill in Damenglong Mengfeilong village in Jinghong County, Xishuangbanna. It is said that the stupa was built because of a footprint of Sakyamuni (the Buddha) was found there. Novel and beautiful, with Dai characteristics, it looks like a bamboo shoot after a rain, and thus is called the Bamboo Shoot Stupa. Built in 565 of Dai calendar (A.D. 1204), the main stupa is 16.29 meters high, with eight smaller stupas around it, each 5.02 meters high. All the nine stupas are snow white in color and have ornaments and bronze bells decorating the top that ring gently in the wind. At the foot of every stupa there is a square niche, with a stone sculpture in it. Beneath the niche of the south stupa, there is a huge footmark on the rock, in front of which there is a well. It is said both are "holy marks" left by Buddha. This stupa is well-known as a treasure of ancient Dai architecture and a giant among Xishuangbanna stupas. ~

Dai Buddhist Temples

Buddhist temples are called "Wa", places of reverence, in the Dai language. A typical temple complex consists of a temple gate, the main hall, and various rooms for the monks who live and work at the temple, as well as a special room for housing the drum. The larger the temple complex, the greater number of pagodas. The placement of the pagodas - indeed of the placement of all the building components - is undertaken with an eye to the overall aesthetics of the temple complex, taking the topography of the surrounding terrain into consideration. The temple gate usually faces eastward. Slightly set back behind a meter-high wall that surrounds the temple complex, the temple gate is built in a memorial archway style, with two equal-sized staircase steps before and after the archway itself.[Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

The main hall, or Buddhist Hall, of the temple is also called "Wei Han" in the Dai language. Situated on an east-west axis, it is the primary place of worship. Here worshippers light incense, chant sutras, and conduct the various religious activities in accordance with Buddhist tradition. The center area of the Buddhist Hall is topped with a roof with an apsis in the center, with one-half of the roof sloping in one direction and the other half sloping in the opposite direction. There is a dividing wall directly below the apsis, such that each half of the roof corresponds to a walled-off room below the roof, one room, or hall, facing eastward, the other westward. A large statue of Buddha stands in the hall facing eastward. \=/

The walls of the Buddhist Hall are only two meters high, and seem dwarfed by the height of the arched roof. Since Dai area are hot and humid, Dai Buddhist temple walls are constructed to permit ventilation. The temples are more like roofs supported on pillars than conventional buildings with walls. Windows, where present, are quite small. The supporting pillars of the main hall are thick and sturdy, and the pillars as well as supporting beams are painted a bright red. These pillars and the "Jin Shui" scripture and murals which adorn the walls and pillars are the main distinguishing features of Dai architecture. See Dai Art. \=/

Dai Sacred Forests

In spite of having been nominally Buddhists for more than 1000 years, the Dai still preserve vestiges of their indigenous religion. Among the customs that remain from this era is respect for sacred groves. The Daile people say: "Buddhism is for the future life, but the cult of the gods of the village is what can help in the present." Almost every Dai village has its small sacred forest, where the clan's ancestors, who are the protective gods of the village, are believed to live. The animals, plants, the earth and the water, everything is sacred and cannot be taken away. It is totally forbidden not only to cut trees, but also to take away anything, to hunt, to cultivate the earth, and even to gather the fruits of the trees that are left to rot in nature. Throughout much of the year—with the exception of two occasions when ceremonies in honor of the ancestors are carried out—people usually don't even enter these forests. [Source: Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\]

A study carried out by Mr. Gao Lishi has calculated that in the prefecture of Xishuangbanna, the sacred forests of the Dai people protect a total of 100,000 hectares, comprising approximately five percent of its total area. In his study he has concluded that due to their long interaction with the forces of nature, the Dai understand that without forests, there is no water, and without water they could not cultivate the rice on which they depend to survive, or catch fish. [Source: Gao Lishi, “Dai zu "longlin" chongbai dui shengdai gongxian huanbao” (“Contribution of the sacred forests of the Dai to the protection of nature”), In "Dai zu wenhua lun" (Discussions about Dai culture) Yunnan Nationalities Press, Kunming, 2000]

Recent studies have evaluated how sacred forests affect the environment and conserve nature. They concluded that scared forests: 1) protect biodiversity; 2) protect the soil and atmospheric humidity; 3) promote Oxygen production; 4) protect animals that fight pests that damage crops (as quiet places which people rarely enter, these forests are a favorite nesting place for different species of birds that eat crop-damaging insects); 5) provide natural protection against storms, floods fires and climatic changes; and 6) protect environmentally-friendly culture and traditions of the Dai. ~

Dai Funerals

The Dai embrace Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife and reincarnation but also believe that people became spirits after they die and these spirits are everywhere and some are good and some are malevolent.

Commoners have traditionally been buried while monks and aristocrats were cremated. Commoners that died natural deaths are buried in cemeteries in the woods near a village. People who died in accidents or as a result of violence are buried far away from everyone else because it is believed that these dead people become evil spirits.

When a person is near death, two pieces of yellow cloth and a small bamboo tablets from a temple are placed on him to assist in the admission to paradise. All work comes to a stop for it is believed that spirits dislike the sound of work. Monks perform rites at the house of the deceased. When the coffin is carried from the house the spouse of the deceased cuts a candle in half, symbolizing her separation from the dead. When the funeral is over people purify themselves by washing their hair with water and expose their skin to smoke of a burned nut.

The graveyards of aristocrats and poor people were strictly separated. When a monk or a Buddhist leader died, he was cremated and his ashes were placed in a pottery urn to be buried behind a temple. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

Dai Calendar

The Dai have their own calendar, which they still use today. According to Chinatravel.com: The Dai calendar is unusual, compared to the Han Chinese lunar calendar, in that the former incorporates elements of both the solar and the lunar calendars. Borrowing from the Han Chinese Taoist tradition, the Dai use the method of Heavenly Stems and the Terrestrial Branches to record days and years in their "hybrid" calendar (this is a reference to the Taoist sexagenary cycle, or a cyclical system of 60 combinations of the two basic cycles: the 10 Heavenly Stems and the 12 Earthly Branches). The Dai have chosen to not only employ much of the Han Chinese calendar terminology, they have also preserved the Han Chinese pronunication of this terminology. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

A year is divided into twelve months in the Dai calendar, while some months are called "single" months and others are called "double" months. There are thirty days in a "single" Dai month, and twenty nine days in a "double" Dai month. A year is also composed of three seasons: the Cold Season, which runs from January to April; the Hot Season, which runs from May to August; and the Rainy Season, which runs from September to December. To make the Dai calendar fit the actual solar year there are seven leap years with an extra day every nineteen years.

According to ancient Dai documents, there are four epochs, termed "Saha", in Dai history. The fourth epoch is the current one, or the "Zhujiang Saha", which began in the year A.D. 647, according to the Western calendar terms, and began with an announcement by the Dai religious leader Payazhula. \=/

Dai Festivals

20080305-Dai water_festival johomaps333.gif
Water splashing festival
The Dai have their own calendar and celebrate a number of Buddhist holidays and conduct a number of Buddhist ceremonies and rituals, which involve making offerings of food and flowers to Buddha at both temples and family altars in people’s homes.

Dai festivals are closely related to religious observances. They include the "Door-Closing" festival in the middle of the sixth lunar month, the "Door-Opening" festival in the middle of the ninth lunar month, and the "Water-Splashing" festival in spring. "Door-Closing" marks the beginning of three months of intensive religious activities. "Door-Opening" marks the return of normal life. The "Water-Splashing" Festival is the most important festival. Dais splash water on one another and hold dragon boat races in the hope of chasing away all the illnesses and bad fortune of the past year and bringing about good weather and bumper harvests. [Source: China.org china.org *|*]

The Dragon Homage Festival is held at a date determined by the Dai calendar, which means that it often falls in January of the Western calendar, and thus also occurs close to the traditional Chinese Spring Festival. During the Dragon Homage Festival, a monk from the village temple organizes the collection of food and clothing to be offered to the Dragon God. The Dai pay yearly homage to the dragon, who is seen as a deity with the power to bless or punish mankind, especially as regards the yearly harvest. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

Every Dai, without regard to income or social standing, is encouraged to make such an offering to the Dragon God, though one of course offers gifts commensurate with one's wealth. For example, rich families might offer items in gold or silver, including coins. All offerings are dropped off at the temple, where they are preserved in an appropriate "Dragon Palace" until the highlight ceremony of the Dragon Homage Festival, at which time the "Dragon Palace" is placed on a bamboo raft and allowed to drift away down the Menglong River, while the people pray and chant Buddhist scripture. \=/

At the Tan Ta festival in February or March, fledgling monks have their heads shaved at Buddhist temples and rockets and hot air balloons with lucky amulets inside are launched from special towers. People who find the amulets are supposed to have good luck for the coming year. The Dai bang on their elephant leg drums and set off firecrackers during the Dragon Boat Festival, held on the 5th day of the 5th lunar month, usually in June

Dai Water-Splashing Festival

The biggest event in the Dai calendar is the Water Splashing New Year's festival in mid-April. Commemorating the day a beautiful young girl defeated the Evil King of Fire, the festival lasts for three or four days and is celebrated with people tossing water all over one another to get rid of demons are wash away the old year. People use whatever they can get their hands on---buckets, wash basins, balloons, water guns and barrels. Water can be splashed gently or thrown aggressively. Older people however should treated gently; water should only be sprinkled down the back of their necks.

The festival also features dragon-boat races, swimming races, peacock dances, pedestal drum dancing, courtship dances and gaosheng launching. In the peacock dance, women wear brightly colored, eight-foot-long peacock feathers around their waists and twirl around. In the pedestal drum dance, a drum that looks like an elephant's leg is banged while dancers dance. In the courtship dances, young boys and girls stand in two lines opposite each other and throw small colored cloth bags at one another to express their love. Gaosheng are piece of bamboo filled with gun powder that are launched into the air.

The Water-splashing Festival celebrates New Year on the Dai calendar. It is sometimes called Shanghan or Jingbimai (both variants meaning "New Year"), but it is more commonly called Hounan ("Water Splashing Festival") in the Dai language. The Water Splashing Festival is not only the first Buddhist festival of a new year, but also the most important festival observed by the Dai. It is called the Water-splashing Festival because during the festival days, people splash water on each other for good luck, a custom derived from cleaning Buddha statues. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]

The Water-splashing Festival is celebrated in April (June by Dai calendar) every year, just before ploughing and rice seedling planting. People enjoy themselves and wish each other good luck, in order to send off the old year and welcome the new one, and to ask Sakyamuni (the Buddhia) and heaven gods to bring a good harvest and help people prosper. Similar festivals are big events in Thailand and Myanmar and among other Theravada Buddhist peoples. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

The Water-splashing Festival usually lasts three to four days. The first day is called "Wanduoshanghan" in Dai, meaning the New Year's Eve. In the morning, after getting their bodies washed and clothes changed, people attend events such as dragon boat races and firing Gaosheng (a kind of homemade rocket). The second and third days, called "Wannao" in Dai, usually have no activities. The last day is "Wanbawanma" in Dai, meaning "the day King of Days comes". On that day, people get up early and carry offerings to Buddhist temples. They listen to Buddhist sermons, chant sutras, clean Buddhist statues, asking them to bring health, harvest and happiness in the coming year. Afterwards, to the sound of Elephant-foot drums and Mang gongs, people splash water to express their best wishes to each other, all crying "water, water, water!" It is not rude to splash an elder, as long as blessing words are said at the same time. However, there are no rules on how young people should act. They like chasing and frolicking while splashing and shooting with squirt guns, basins and buckets of all sizes, because water splashing is a kind of blessing, and the more water splashed on you, the more lucky you are. There is a popular Dai saying: "At the Water-splashing Festival each year, splash whoever you think worthy." ~

The beautiful story about the origin of the Water-splashing Festival goes: Long ago, there was a devil in the place where the Dai people lived, doing all kinds of evil. All the people hated him but no one could figure out how to punish him or challenge his powerful magic. Then one day in June by Dai calendar, the demon’s seventh wife— who had been abducted from her village by the demon—coaxed him to admit his own weak points. When the demon was sound asleep, the seventh wife and the other abducted wives used the demon’s hair to cut off his head. But once the head touched the ground, it began to burn fiercely. So the girls rushed over bravely to pick up the head and hold it in arms tightly, and the fire died out immediately. Therefore, the seven girls took turns to hold the head, each for one year. Every year at the time of when the women changed turns, people would splash water on the girl who had just completed holding the head for a whole year, to wash away the blood on her body and the one-year fatigue. By and by, this developed into a happy festival to send off the old year and welcome the new. ~

Image Sources:

Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated July 2015

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