311th Meeting – Tuesday, May 12th 2009

“Examining Tung: Northern Thai Banners and their Cambodian Counterparts”

A talk and presentation by Rebecca Hall


Present: Susan Morgan, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Naripaz Soler, Katrina Michel, Carole Beauclerk, Bonnie Brereton, Karin Bode, Renee Vines, James Bogle, Rudolf Ormerga, Lisa Keary, Tee, Ken Dyer, Robert Bloeser, Derrick Titmus, Janet Illeni, David James, Mark and Dianne Barber-Riley, Ron Emmons, Adriano Ovalle, Patricia Cheesman, Fred Lambersof, Sylvi Vekve, Jacques Leider, Louis Gabaude, Ian Ross, Adam Oswell, Rebecca Weldon, Felicity Aulino, Kevin Moore, Bodil Blokker. An audience of 32 plus a couple more.

 Summary of Rebecca’s talk based on extracts from her Ph.D. dissertation.

I begin my presentation today with a basic statement about banners in Southeast Asia: they are everywhere! OK, perhaps that is not exactly true but there are certainly banners in many locations hung throughout the year. It would be impossible for me to discuss all aspects of banners in a short period of time so in my talk tonight I am focusing on banners at Buddhist wats in Northern Thailand and Cambodia. The two different places might seem like an odd partnering but sometimes comparisons like these are the best way to gain insight in a large and sometimes confusing topic.

If you have visited wats or even been near a wat with an upcoming celebration here in Northern Thailand, chances are that you have seen a banner, or tung. The same can be said if you have traveled to see the many architectural wonders of Cambodia. Yet I personally find it very surprising that few people I speak with remember seeing banners when I mention that they are the focus of my research. Do the banners merely blend into their environment, or are they overlooked because they are thought to be mere decorative additions? Why are these lengths of cloth hung at the wat? In my presentation today, I have two objectives: the first is to bring banners to your attention as beautiful components of wats in Northern Thailand and Cambodia, and the second objective is to demonstrate that banners are symbols of religion or religiosity not only in Northern Thailand, but also in Cambodia, Laos, and other places in Southeast Asia. This presentation is based on field research in both Northern Thailand and Cambodia.

A significant part of my research on Buddhist banners has focused on Northern Thailand. During 2005 – 2006 I spent my time traveling around both Northern Thailand and Laos as part of my dissertation research to find and document banners, their functions, and local interpretations of meaning and use for my dissertation. I must emphasize here that my dissertation research was focused on breadth. I surveyed a sizeable area in a relatively short period of time in an attempt to figure out where banners existed and continued to be made and in what forms. As a result I did a lot of the groundwork for more in-depth studies which are the next step in understanding the many complexities of banners.

In addition to my dissertation research, I spent September through December 2008 in Siem Reap Cambodia, documenting banners and conducting interviews with the help of a Khmer-speaking research assistant. I conducted this research in Cambodia in an attempt to gain insight into the banners there, to help document and bring attention to them, and with the hopes that studying Cambodian banners would help me to gain a more in-depth perspective on the banners in Northern Thailand and Laos.

Northern Thai Banners

Beginning with Northern Thailand, let me talk about what banners are used for and their general meaning, or reasons for hanging them at the wat. But first let me describe in more detail what I specifically mean during this presentation when I say “Northern Thai banners.” It is not difficult to discern that there is a strong connection between banners (tung) and Northern Thai people and culture. When I first began my research I was amazed at the variety of types of banners here – not just cloth banners but also wooden banners (tung kradang), metal banners (tung lek tung thong), and paper banners (tung kradat). I think banners continue to maintain a strong presence here in part because they continue to preserve local identities as being the people of the former kingdom of “Lanna.” For all practical reasons and because of my own interests, I have focused on hand woven cloth banners. And even within that basic category I have tried to keep it simple in my presentation today for your benefit and my own These cloth banners come in a wide variety of colors and styles, but in showing you a few photos of them, hopefully you can get a sense of not only the characteristics of Northern Thai banners, but also the diversity of the banners here.

The hand woven cloth banners that I have largely focused on in my research here in Northern Thailand vary a great deal in appearance. Overwhelmingly, though, these banners are woven with a supplementary weft technique, called either either khit (ขิด) or jok (จก) in Thai depending on whether the supplementary yarn is continuous or not. Let me just explain briefly to those of you unfamiliar with textiles what I mean: “supplementary weft” describes a woven structure or ground that has additional yarn woven into its surface that creates a design or pattern.  Because these additional yarns are added or not integral to the structure of the cloth, they are “supplementary.”  Supplementary weaving techniques are employed by weavers in Northern Thailand to make a wide variety of textiles, which helps to explain why they are so common in the banners. This type of patterning allows the weaver to create intricate, colorful designs that include an assortment of recognizable motifs, including animals, flora, geometric, anthropomorphic, and architectural motifs.

These banners vary widely in appearance; for example, some supplementary weft banner styles include large prasat motifs and others may feature the twelve animals of the zodiac.  Northern Thai supplementary weft banners may include dense patterning and motifs throughout their length, sparse patterning, or they may have designs focused at the end that hangs closest to the ground.

These banners hang at the wat for several reasons. The most common that I have seen all around the north are banners hanging for special occasions: to announce a wat festival or ceremony or some type of meritorious event. For this purpose, banners hang around the perimeter of a wat, along the path or road leading up to a wat, and around the buildings at the wat. With bright colors and fluttering lengths, they function very well at getting attention of passersby and at creating a festive, attractive atmosphere. During the festival season, it is possible to drive around and see roads and paths leading up to monasteries lined with banners to announce any variety of meritorious celebrations. When not hanging, these banners are kept in storage at the wat.

Other banners in Northern Thai wats are hung inside image halls, filling the space along the wall, near the columns, or near the main Buddha images. These banners can be hung in large numbers, most often in wats in Tai Lue villages, but more often they may be hung as a series of single banners in a relatively inconspicuous place.

While it might be a bit of a generalization to say so, these banners, hung inside or out, often look the same, or at the very least they look quite similar. What I cannot judge at this point in my research is whether or not this was the case in the past. In fact, whenever I try to take a stab at this question I conclude it is not the kind of thing I can resolve for the time being. It will take further interviews, specifically focused on the older members of communities, and archival research focusing on extant photographs. While I am interested in understanding if a difference in appearance may have existed in the past between these banners, I should highlight what a young monk once emphasized to me: that no matter what the banners look like or where they are hung, they all have the same meaning – which is to gain merit and help the deceased get to heaven.  Banners are typically donated by the women who make them, who then gain merit for themselves but equally importantly transfer much of that merit to deceased relatives such as a parent or grandparent in order to help them in their next life.

While variation in terms of banners’ appearances and names (which I acknowledge I have not discussed) may be commonplace here in Northern Thailand, purpose of donation of the banners at the wat does not vary. The banners are given to the wat for merit, and if probed further about why the banners hang at the wat, people I spoke with might describe the banners as helping a deceased relative get to heaven. Many people I interviewed here in Northern Thailand acknowledged that in the past banners were donated by women who wove the banners themselves, but clearly that is increasingly not the case. Evidence in the markets, in the similarities of new banners hanging at wats, and in the lack of hand woven banners points to the fact that although fewer and fewer people weave banners continue to maintain a presence at Northern Thai wats, although at what costs I will discuss later.

Cambodian Banners

You can immediately see from this photo that Cambodian banners take a very different form than the Northern Thai banners, and as I mentioned at the beginning of this talk, they are constructed from scraps of cloth or lengths of cloth that are cut and then sewn into the banner shape. Cambodian banners are also called “tung.” The banners can be large or small, and very colorful or just white. According to Cambodians I interviewed, there are four or five different types of banners but I am only concerned with two for this presentation today.  Although I did not emphasize names of banners in my discussion of the Northern Thai tung, I bring them up here because in Cambodia banners are not discussed without mentioning their specific names, and the names did not vary at all from one informant to the next. I also think the names help to emphasize the various ways banners are used in Cambodia.

Before I explain the names of the Cambodian banners and the difference between the two types, I want to explain a simple detail about the banners I am about to discuss. To keep it simple, they basically come in 2 different sizes: large and small. It is not difficult to differentiate between the two, as the size differences are quite pronounced. The large banners are hung in pairs (always in pairs!) outside on the grounds of the wat and the small banners are hung inside of the buildings.

First we have tung rolok which are banners with horizontal bamboo rods systematically placed throughout the length or “body” of the banner. Tung rolok have a specified number of horizontal rods that correspond to whom the banner is honoring: mother (12), father (21), sangha/monk (14), dhamma (38), Buddha (56), and more. These numbers were consistently counted and stated to me by each and every person I interviewed. These banners really can be quite large and difficult to photograph, especially because they are often fluttering around in the wind. This movement is in fact what their name refers to as the word “rolok” translates as “waving” and thus the “tung rolok” is a “waving banner.” These large banners are always donated and hung in pairs. Importantly, “tung rolok” are not always large; this is also the name given to the small banners hung around Buddha images that take the same form as those large banners, with the horizontal rods used throughout the length.

Large tung aphithoam are associated with funerals, yet again small banners with a similar shape are given the same name by interviewees. These banners do not have horizontal rods throughout their length; instead they have four bamboo rods at the top and four near the bottom with a length of cloth in between. It was explained to me that the 8 rods are representative of the eight-fold path of Buddhism, but I am actually hesitant to believe that is really the reason that this banner type has 8 rods. The name “aphithoam” which made absolutely no sense to me when I first was hearing in interviews it is the Cambodian word for “abhidhamma” which is one of the three pitaka (texts, or “baskets”) of Buddhism and translates to mean, basically, “higher teachings.” If I understand correctly, the reason these banners have been given this name is that portions of the abhidhamma are read at funerals, where the large tung aphithoam are hung.

All of these banners, with the exception of the large white tung aphithoam, hang at Cambodian wats. The large tung rolok are most commonly seen hanging on long poles on wat grounds to announce a festival/celebration/gathering. Such banners are usually hung only for the duration of the festivities; they are raised the day before a festival and then taken down immediately after and stored at the wat. This short duration of hanging is practical as much as anything else – it helps to keep the banners in a nice condition and extends their life. At one wat where two large tung rolok hang year round, the abbot explained to me that the purpose was that people feel better when they see the banners.

The raising of the large tung rolok on its pole is an important part of the banner’s presence at the wat. In order for the banner to be hung for a ceremony or festival, it is first brought out of storage and then raised by the achar (layman who is a liaison between the monks and laity) and surrounding villagers who help hold it up. The banners contain a small pocket which is filled with money before it is raised – when it is lowered again this money will be donated to the wat or used by the achar to purchase things for the wat. As the banner is raised, the achar chants; it was explained to me that this chanting is a way to guide the banner to get to heaven; others told me that the chanting and banners themselves were intended to protect the wat from evil spirits.

The Cambodian banners work very well to signal a wat festival, and in general in many of the interviews banners were stressed as visual announcements of gatherings that would have been particularly efficient in the days before mobile phones. In general there are far fewer banners hanging at a Cambodian wat for a festival than we see here in Northern Thailand; frequently only 2 banners hang on the main poles. Yet with the height of the poles or the bright colors of the fluttering banners, this is all that is needed. Keeping in mind the general flatness of the Cambodian landscape, perhaps it is easy to understand why.

The small banners that hang in the interior of buildings are widely varied although I rarely saw more than a few scattered through the space or hanging near the main Buddha image. Sometimes these small banners would be hung at the four corners surrounding the Buddha image, probably to mark the sacred space and cardinal directions in a very Khmer manner, in my opinion. As I have pointed out, these banners are found in any variety of colors and styles. I believe that the wide variety of colors and individuality of these banners is likely a reflection that many more people make them themselves rather than commissioning them from specific sewers and so they reflect individual tastes and skills in a more broad fashion similar to what we have seen in Northern Thailand. The wide variation is also likely a reflection of the fact that there banners are most certainly made with scraps of whatever fabric might be around.

Comparison between Northern Thai and Cambodian Banners

In looking at the images of Cambodian banners that I have shown you, I hope you have noticed that while there is some amount of variation in the banners mostly in terms of color and size, overwhelmingly all of the banners have an incredible amount of similarity. I saw this in many different locations I traveled to in the country, as opposed to my travels here in Northern Thailand where there is a considerable amount of variation. And thus the next step in an examination of these two banner traditions or banner types is to makes a comparison, beginning with aesthetic or visual comparisons and extending beyond to looking at similarities or differences in use. In addition I will also briefly address issues for both Northern Thai and Cambodian banners in contemporary times.

In looking at the Northern Thai banners, one of the most attractive and appealing things about them, especially to me as I researched and wrote my dissertation, is the fact that there is so much variation in their appearance, clearly reflecting both local weaving styles and the interpretations or intentions of the weaver. I have felt throughout my research on these banners that I am working on are underappreciated works of art.

The Cambodian banners are quite different from the Northern Thai banners in this way. Because the Cambodian tung are not hand woven but constructed with either scraps of cloth or cut and sewn yardage, there appears to be a standardization of the banners not seen here in Northern Thailand, at least not yet. Due to the nature of the Cambodian banners, there is less room for individual expression or interpretation in terms of the banners’ appearance: size, color, embellishment, and quality are the specific characteristics that differentiate one banner from the next. While I enjoy Cambodian banners quite a bit and feel there is still a rich amount of research still to be done on them, it was difficult research for me at times because I felt as though my aesthetic sensibilities and training as an art historian were not particularly useful or applied in the way they had been up here in the north focusing instead on use and meaning. And again these differences largely come down to the nature of the way that the banners are constructed and the materials. But let me add that people I spoke with in Cambodia would often comment to me about the differences they saw in the banners, specifically noting when they saw photographs of banners they thought to be particularly beautiful, with color, proportion, and craftsmanship as contributing factors in their opinions.

In addition to the beauty of the banners, their initial reason for hanging on the grounds of wat is equally important. As I outlined already, the hand woven cloth banners here in Northern Thailand hung on the grounds of the wat are primarily used to announce celebrations or ceremonies. They are universally acknowledged as this by all the Northern Thai people I have spoken with and can be seen in most places serving this purpose. For example, just a few weeks ago they were everywhere for Songkran. In this incarnation, Northern Thai banners serve a very important function to only draw attention to the wat and bring people in to make merit. But hung in this way, banners also serve to mark the sacred space of the wat as separate from the mundane world which surrounds it.

The banners hanging inside buildings at the wat have a different function yet the underlying meaning is largely the same. Clearly these interior banners do not announce ceremonies and they cannot bring people in from the streets as the pass by the wat. These banners remain hanging throughout the year and work as reminders of the Buddha’s teachings, visual clues about the respect that laity have for the Buddha, and the generosity of the laity seeking merit to be applied in their next life or for transference to others. Another purpose that cannot be overemphasized is that they are also specifically intended to make a sacred space more beautiful. Rather than draw passersby in from outside the wat, these banners add to the ambiance inside and retain visitors once they have arrived.

In Cambodia we see nearly the same use of banners at the wats, but these appear in far smaller numbers. In fact I only saw one wat with a wihan full of banners and it was fantastic. Usually, though, the banners were hung sparsely; some appeared to be hung haphazardly while others were hung at the 4 corners around the Buddha image. It was interesting to me that in interviews people consistently had relatively little to say at all about these small banners. A handful mentioned that they added beauty to the wat or said they were for decoration. Others attributed the small banners to the actions of the thewada when the Buddha gained enlightenment and thus claimed that hanging them at the wat continues to show a connection or appreciation of this momentous event. At Angkor, images that are thought to contain great powers will often hold or be surrounded by small banners. This is sometimes attributed to a worshipper who makes a wish to the image and then brings the banner as an offering after the wish has been granted. When pressed people may talk about the merit they seek in donating these banners to the wat, but like I have said already, this is not the primary association expressed in interviews to the extent that we see it here in Northern Thailand.

As we move further into a time in which fewer people make things at home for donation to the wat, and in a time where boundaries between religious and secular objects are increasingly blurred for purposes of tourism, national identity, and commercialism, what effect has that had and perhaps will it continue to have on the banners I have been discussing? I have already alluded to one such issue in talking about the banners here in Northern Thailand in terms of the loss of individuality and the fact that many, if not most, that are donated at wats are purchased at markets or commissioned from the weavers themselves. Will banners decline in number as fewer are purchased and donated at the wat? Or, more possible from what I have seen, will the banners hung inside buildings at wats disappear more quickly as plain banners continue to be hung to announce wat ceremonies? Given the evidence I have seen so far, I would certainly venture to answer yes to both of these questions. In addition I have seen consistently the appearance of banners at places completely unrelated to the wat and unrelated to everything I have outlined here. 


I am still in the process of sorting out whether or not I can figure out if there is any specific connection or relationship between these two banner forms, from two different yet similar neighboring cultures. Clearly there are many similarities, only some of which I have emphasized in this presentation, although differences are apparent as well. A question I must ask but one which may be somewhat unanswerable is whether or not what we are seeing with these banners is a reflection of the nature of cloth or something much more. In saying “the nature of cloth” I want to be sure to clarify that I do not mean to imply that banners are hung at wats because that is a good use for cloth. Certainly after sitting through this presentation each of you can understand that there is more going on here than that. I have emphasized the role of banners at the wat and alluded to the connection that the banners have between heaven and earth.

Nevertheless, my goal here remains simple. I see banners as being an important component of Buddhist wats in Northern Thailand as well as in Cambodia. Rather than overlooking them completely or seeing them as “mere decoration” perhaps you can see that they are an integral part of the wat environment. In addition to a link heaven and the gaining of merit, I think the banners I have shown you today are markers of the religion itself and of the connection between the laity and the wat. This is perhaps one reason the changes that are transpiring around us with the banners in contemporary society and that I highlighted in my talk today can be seen as a cause for concern.

Rebecca’s most interesting and entertaining presentation was followed by an equally enthusiastic question and answer session.