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315th Meeting - Tuesday, September 8th 2009  

Magic and Modernity in Southern Thailand
Reconfigurations of a multi-religious Performance and Art Genre

A talk by Alexander Horstmann


Present: Suriya Smutkupt, Siripan and Tony Kidd, Manfred Liebig, Bob Vryheid, Jonathan and Beryl McKeown, Rosalie and Michael Dean, Nichola Davis, Martha and John Butt, Carol Grodzins, Bonnie Brereton, Daniel Bellamy, Hans and Sangdao Bänziger, David James, Monek Hut, Megan McArton.
An audience of 20

The full text of Alexander’s talk

Taming the Gods in the Manooraa Rongkruu Performance: The Post-modernization of Spirit Beliefs in Southern Thailand by Alexander Horstmann Chapter for the book Southeast Asia’s Spirited Modernities by Kirsten Endres and Andrea Lauser


In Ban Dhammakhot, a Manooraa Rongkruu performance is underway. Designated family members holding lighted candles, possessed by deities, dance like professional dancers on the stage under the guidance of the bird-winged Manooraa dancers who invoke the ancestor spirits by singing Manooraa verses and by arousing the goodwill of the ancestor spirits. In certain parts of Southern Thailand, on the east coast, bordering Lake Songkhla, the Manooraa Rongkruu enjoys great popularity.

Manooraa Rongkruu is an example how art creates a space that reaches from the world of the living to the realm of the dead. The essence of this possession ritual lies in the performance of designated spirit-mediums or even members of the community who become possessed by ancestral spirits. This allows the living to remember loved ones they have lost, talk to the dead, and recollect memories in communitas. The liminal beings are invited and entertained with dance and dramatic performances. (Parichat 2006; Phittaya 1992, 2003; Thienchai 1999)

It is not uncommon in the Lake Songkhla area to observe a multi-religious ritual, in which spirit possession blends with Theravada Buddhism or Islam (Horstmann 2004, 2008). Like other rituals, in which the benevolent ancestor spirits are venerated, there is a reciprocal relationship between the living and the dead. The benevolent ancestor spirits protect the living and provide fertility, fortune and good health, while the living reciprocate by giving a sacrifice. The Manooraa Rongkruu is a unique institution in which it is possible to communicate with the benevolent ancestor spirits and ask them for advice. The performance of a Manooraa Rongkruu gives high veneration to the grand ancestors and generates merit for the host. The aim of this chapter is to show the reconfiguration of the Manooraa Rongkruu performance as a religious expression to respond creatively to the conditions of late modernity in Southern Thailand.

Thai popular religion

The picture of religion in Thailand today is characterized by a contradictory move: While conventional Theravada Buddhism seems to have lost much appeal with the younger generation, Buddhism is also being revived in new forms. The worship of Buddhist saints, the booming cult of Buddhist amulets, and the presence of magic monks show that Buddhism is far from being replaced by secularization (Jackson 1999b; Pattana 2002; Taylor 1999). The expansion of the capitalist market economy in Thailand has resulted in a deeply polarized society and in a widening gap between the poor and the very rich. Religious forms are no essential phenomena, but have reacted with flexibility to the conditions of dislocation, rapid social change and social uncertainty and developed niches in the religious market and religious forms, catering to the poor, the lower middle class and also to the very wealthy. (Guelden 1997/2007; Morris 2000).

Buddhism is also fragmented: Taylor argues that it has been commodified (Taylor 1999). In Bangkok, for example, some of the temples have become like shopping-centers in which wealthy patrons donate lavishly to the Sangha for Kathin or funeral ceremonies. Buddhism becomes also revitalized in new Buddhist movements where it appeals closer to the aspirations of the middle classes: While the capitalist economy and the growing nation-state weakened ancestral traditions and traditional authority in the village, the same forces propelled the dramatic expansion, presence and visibility of spirit mediums in urban areas. (Pattana 2005b; Morris 2000; Tanabe 2002). These urban spirit-mediums coexist and hybridize with revitalized and fragmented Theravada Buddhism. In the “parade” of deities, Lord Buddha is regarded as the most respected spirit by spirit mediums (Pattana 2005a).

Recent research shows that spirit mediums enjoy huge popularity in contemporary Thailand (Pattana 2002). It is the thesis of this chapter that the growth in spirit mediums is a reflection of social, political and economic changes in Thailand and that religious practices of participation in spirit cults respond creatively to the social transformation of everyday life. The phenomenon is spread throughout the country. First studies emerged in the South of Thailand (Cohen 2001, Golomb 1978, 1985; Guelden 1995/2007, 2005). Regional differences in mediumship reflect the ethnic and religious composition and cultural diversity of the South. The manifestations of mediumship include Thai Buddhist, Malay Muslim and Chinese mediums which are being possessed by different classes of spirits. The issues brought to mediums concern adultery, financial problems, and various ailments that might be caused by black magic. Despite the existence of numerous clinics and hospitals in the South, healing of physical ailments, including chronic health problems, are still a major issue brought to mediums in parallel to mental problems (Golomb 1985). Such ailments are also the triggers that urge people to host a Manooraa Rongkruu performance.

Theoretical Developments

Bruce Knauft’s idea of an ‘articulatory’ space of the alternatively modern seems to be particularly apt to describe this adaptation of the local script to global economies (see Knauft 2002). Knauft suggests that alternative modernities “happen” in a “multivocal arena” that is delimited and framed by local cultural and subjective dispositions on one side, and by global political economies (and their possibilities and limitations) on the other. This perspective has also been used by scholars of Thai religion.

J.  L. Taylor is among the first scholars to speak about the hybridization of Thai Buddhism (Taylor 1999). Hybridization means a temporal moment and site of contestation for spiritual meanings and relevance. Taylor argues that the rise of the neo-Buddhist movement Thammakai is a response to the wider forces of globalization that have profound ramifications for Thai social life. Besides hybridity, the postmodernist lens has been used by scholars to refer to current developments in Thai religion that already seem to have passed the modern stage. Peter Jackson argues that “the modern phase in Thai religion refers to following a path of doctrinal rationalization accompanied by organizational centralization and bureaucratization whereas the postmodern one is characterized by a resurgence of supernaturalism and an efflorescence of religious expression at the margins of state control, involving a decentralization and localization of religious authority.” In other words, religion can become a commodity, political ideology, marker of identity, marketing machine or object of worship (Jackson 1999a).

In Manooraa Rongkruu performances the actors and dancers – using local semiotics – show the local meaning of what it means to be modern. The Manooraa Rongkruu engages playfully with modernity and integrates modern techniques and commodities in their performance – using modern keyboards, microphones, integrating the vastly popular country song art genre Luuk Tung, TV soap operas (lakhon), comments on sexuality, and jokes on politics. The Manooraa troupe becomes an economic enterprise that advertizes its services. The Manooraa troupe of Sompong from Ban Takae, for example, owns a fleet of five trucks packed with props for the stage, costumes and crowns. The female Nai Noora in Tamot who organizes a Manooraa dance school also operates a modern video-game hall to make a living. In many ways, the local art form Manooraa represents Knauft’s ‘articulatory’ space in which local belief and cosmology articulates with global culture and where customary production and exchange meets capitalism. The Manooraa performer today has to balance traditional beliefs, values and obligations and modern needs, aspirations and expectations. He is a “shaman” and modern entertainer.

The Thai in Perak, Malaysia, distinguish themselves from the Manooraa in Southern Thailand by insisting on the authenticity of their form of the performance. While there are few Manooraa troupes left in Northern Malaysia, they claim that the Manooraa Rongkruu in Southern Thailand is corrupted or “Westernized”. Their claim to authenticity is just another engagement and articulation with modernity.

What is Manooraa?

The Manooraa Rongkruu is a performance genre in which the ancestor spirits are entertained by music and dance and invited to come down to communicate with the living. The ancestor spirits are elevated to the status of teachers and healers. By singing the Manooraa verses, the Manooraa master and medium is able to mobilize the power of healing and knowledge kruumor and to transmit it to the designated mediums which become possessed by the spirits of the great Manooraa teachers. The Manooraa Rongkruu illustrates the vitality of popular religion and the spirit world, in tandem with the fragmentation of Theravada Buddhism and Islamic revivalisms in Southern Thailand (see Horstmann 2004). While other authors talk about the end of ritual and the weakening of ancestral tradition, the Manooraa Rongkruu is very much alive and the schedules of the Manooraa troupes are fully booked. The public spectacles in Takae and Takura attract thousands of worshippers.

In the Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony, social relations between the family members can be renewed and refreshed. In the Rong, the power and knowledge of the world is present in a particularly condensed form. The offerings carry the soul of the ancestors with them. They express something which cannot be expressed with words. The Nairong Manooraa is a sort of shaman who uses his privileged access to the spirit world to invoke the great ancestor spirits and to make them benevolent: Those who hold a Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony will be rewarded. The meeting of the ancestor spirits and the living is a precious moment in which it is possible for the host family to ask for advice about their financial woes and physical ailments (Thienchai 1999).

For three days the Manooraa master prays, sings, dances, and acts out a dance-drama, while directing the ritual sequences invoking the ancestral spirits to descend from their heavenly realm to enter the trance mediums. The Manooraa benefits from a common knowledge in the genealogy of the Manooraa as well as a wide common sense that everybody in Southern Thailand is a descendant of the first Manooraa teachers. The belief in the power/position of the ancestors is widely shared (Gesick 1995). Hence, people believe on a meta-physical level that the Manooraa is able to deliver health and well-being. Scholarly analysis of the Manooraa has emphasized the cosmological function through which the Manooraa is embedded in village culture. Thus, the main experts of the Manooraa have underlined the continuity of a tradition that is deeply embedded within the minds of the villagers (Thienchai 1999; Phittaya 1992, 2003).

People in Southern Thailand feel they are part of an imagined community, as they are all considered descendents of the first Manooraa teachers. People and houses and sometimes whole villages are considered of Manooraa descent (trakun Manooraa). People are trakun Manooraa because their ancestors were. Affiliation with the Manooraa is thus transferred from parents to their children (Gesick 1995: 67).

There are many versions of the origin myth of Manooraa (Ginsburg 1972). Some scholars believe that Manooraa is derived from the Suthon-Manohra, a jataka tale from one of the many previous lives of Gautama Buddha. Some feel that this story has given birth to the ritual dance-drama and that the tale’s major character, Manooraa, has developed into the cross-gendered shaman and winged dancer. Others believe in their local version of Manooraa myth, which usually concerns a story of a young aristocratic lady who became pregnant out of wedlock and was driven away from her homeland. This lady gave birth to a son to whom the art of Manooraa was passed.

The term Manooraa is used to designate both a dancer of the genre as well as the art form itself. In cultural festivals such as temple fairs, a Manooraa performer may dance, sing, improvise comic stories, or perform skits with other Manooraa dancers. But as a ritual act in a specific social context such as in a grand ceremony for ancestral worship - Manooraa rong khru chao ban (ancestral trance Manooraa ritual for the villagers) - Manooraa serves a very serious function, since the ritual brings the living in contact with the ancestral spirits. In the grand Manooraa Rongkruu ritual, the aesthetical dimension cannot be distinguished from the ritual function as the great Manooraa teachers receive their knowledge from the gods and the body becomes a divine entity during dance performance.

Manooraa Rongkruu literally means Manooraa-Stage-Teacher: The ancestors are elevated to the highest position of deities and teachers who transfer their knowledge to the living and who enter the stage from heaven. Typical occasions for this type of Manooraa ritual include social or family functions, conflict within the family, miraculous healing of an illness, or a vow fulfillment ceremony. The ancestors help the living in life crises here and now. The dances performed by the possessed spirit mediums are also called vow-dances (Hemmet 1992: 276).

State of the Art

The study of the Manooraa Rongkruu is characterized by a folkloric and ideal perspective on its cosmological aspects. The perspective which I want to call folkloric does not consider the rapid transformation of the Manooraa Rongkruu and its reflexive response to the conditions of modernity. Its focus on the ritual frame presents a picture of an unchanging ritual. This perspective is a-historical because it ignores the adjustments that the ritual has made in relation to the external forces that impinge on the lives of the people in Southern Thailand. This static approach has to do with the motivation of the researcher to provide an authentic picture of the ritual, regarding new elements of the Manooraa as unauthentic or corrupt. Unfortunately, the perpetuation of the traditional image of the Manooraa is not helpful for finding out the modern articulation of the Manooraa.

The revitalization of the Manooraa cannot be explained away simply as a continuity of communitas, rather we need a more dynamic perspective that can explain new forms and functions as well as the breaks and ruptures. The Manooraa Rongkruu has always responded to the specific conditions of the time and has accommodated the specific interests and power constellations of specific local settings through history. Second, I think that previous studies have completely ignored the question of class. Thus, they have portrayed the Manooraa Rongkruu as an essentially rural tranquil ritual that reflects the values of the people in the South. The Manooraa Rongkruu of today, the boundary of the rural and urban is withering away and merit-making and religious practice in Thailand has a fundamental class dimension (Bowie 1998).

The Manooraa Rongkruu is increasingly used to repair the ruptures, fragmentation, insecurity and anxieties that are caused by the entanglement of the villagers and people in urban areas (migrating from the rural areas) in the capitalist market forces and the potential threat to the social security and the livelihood, including health. The Manooraa is appropriated by different actors by using the beliefs in its huge power to serve social, economic and political interests.

The Current State of the Manooraa in Southern Thailand

The host and the Manooraa artists carefully follow the script: The conventions (costume, movement, offerings) of the Manooraa are not changed and the offerings are the same as hundred years ago. The Manooraa Rongkruu is fundamentally an exchange between the living and the spirits. On the other hand, the Manooraa hybridizes with modernity in a way that allows the mobile middle class to express its aspirations of fortune, wealth and success. The performance of a Manooraa Rongkruu is being used to establish one’s benefactor status in society or it is being used to exhibit one’s power and prestige. By far the most encompassing meaning of the Manooraa Rongkruu is healing. In modern times, the Manooraa Rongkruu is one of the most efficient and powerful remedies for modern illness: depression, nervous breakdowns, disputes or clashes within the family, personal crises. In this, the Manooraa Rongkruu keeps the traditional function: It is essentially a vow ritual. But the therapy concerns the maladjustment to modern times.

Thienchai, in my opinion, makes a mistake when he distinguishes the traditional Manooraa Rongkruu from the public spectacle in Takae. The performance in Takae keeps the form of the Manooraa Rongkruu, but it is a much bigger event. But the basic meaning of the performance in Takae is similar to the traditional performance in the village: The performance in Takae is a prosperity ritual: The sponsors and participants hope to excel in business: if the powerful ancestor spirits come down and are prepared to consult with the living, and if the host has been generous, he will be reimbursed with fortune, health and incredible wealth. The difference is that the traditional ritual remains limited to the kinship group, while the events in Takae equal a pilgrimage. The travel and participation in Takae is a sacred journey that is regularly undertaken by some pilgrims. The pilgrims hope to merge with the power and charisma of the first teacher of Manooraa and the tutelary spirit of Southern Thailand, Si Sata. The meaning of the ritual is the same. Only the size differs.

The Manooraa Rongkruu has evolved in close association with professional spirit mediums that become possessed by a variety of deities. The Manooraa has responded to the spiritual need of the lower middle class who feel alienated in the modern urban environment and therefore draw on familiar cultural resources. The ancestral domain of the household represents a safety belt, in which “bad” money earned in the market economy can be “cooked” and invested in the ancestral economy. The invitation of Buddhist, Muslim and Chinese relatives and ancestors in the ritual contrasts sharply with a world in which anonymous market forces prevail and in which many of the “villagers” now live in the City and even abroad.

Buddhism in Southern Thailand was indigenized in order to become accepted by the rural population, whereby the spirits were subordinated to the growing authority of the Buddha. In the post-modern era, new forms of Buddhism emerge that hybridize with spirit cults and magic. In Southern Thailand, the Manooraa Rongkruu was always associated with Buddhism. Ideally, the Manooraa teacher performs an ordination ceremony and spends some time in the temple. The best Manooraa teachers were allowed to perform in the oldest and most recognized temples and a regular competition was hold in Wat Kian in Bang Geow, in Patthalung province.

The Manooraa always depended on the patronage by wealthy local élites, the Buddhist Sangha and the nation-state.  Yet, it would be erroneous to call the Manooraa a “Buddhist” ritual. The Manooraa Rongkruu is a multi-religious ritual, in which both Buddhism and Islam were integrated. When I talked to a Manooraa master, shadow puppet master and national artist who performed for the royal family, he said that the power of Manooraa depends on the sincerity of the heart and not on any religious affiliation. Manooraa is about the relationship between the people and spirits. The religious affiliation, Buddhist or Muslim, is secondary.

The Songkhla Lake area, the heart of Manooraa, came under the influence of competing Thai and Malay mandala, whereby the Siamese quickly gained the upper-hand. Hence, Theravada Buddhism was installed in Southern Thailand.  The chronicles of Southern Thai townships show that local society was concerned about coming under growing control by the centre in the North and that ethnic or religious affiliation was not as important as a marker of cultural distinction as it is today (cf.  Gesick 1995). It is difficult to speculate, but from the biography of famous Manooraa teachers, we can assume that the Manooraa came under the increasing influence of the nation-state and the Buddhist Sangha.

In the 1930s, the Manooraa Rongkruu was instrumentalized for government purposes by using famous Manooraa teachers for government propaganda. Manooraa teachers were invited to teach in public colleges. The introduction of new forms of patronage strengthened the morale and prestige of the Manooraa genre. Manooraa teachers showed that they were able to incorporate a politization of the Manooraa and to mediate between the government and the villagers. As media in the countryside were rare, the Manooraa troupes that traveled the countryside became themselves mediators who transmitted the latest news to the population. Although Manooraa troupes fell under new forms of government patronage, the Manooraa troupes were able to keep much of their autonomy. Sometimes, sketches were used to comment on the politics and to joke about certain politicians (Phittaya 2003).

In the last decades, the expansion of markets did not leave the Manooraa genre untouched. The market economy poured new energy into the Manooraa and in turn provided the means to keep modernity spirited. As Manooraa troupes depended on the market, Manooraa teachers became religious entrepreneurs and their troupe religious enterprises. Manooraa Rongkruu became a religious commodity and one that was eagerly demanded. The Manooraa troupes that used to travel the countryside now were hired for their performance. It was no longer enough to provide food and drink, but the performance, including the Manooraa teacher, the Manooraa dancers and Manooraa musicians had to be paid. In addition, Manooraa troupes now were hired for the public performances in Buddhist monasteries like Wat Kian, Wat Takae and Wat Takura. The troupes began to specialize and occupy specific segments in the market. It was more important then ever to be famous and to have a great reputation. The Manooraa now operated within the booming consumer culture and adjusted once more to current economic realities.

A Manooraa teacher in his house shows me his calendar which is fully booked. His troupe meets regularly in his house to prepare the next performance. He performs throughout the region, including in the urban area of Songkhla. The Manooraa Rongkruu is not a rural romantic phenomenon anymore, but has moved into the city. This Manooraa teacher lives in a rowhouse in a suburban area of Songkhla. His urban connection does not make him less authentic in the eyes of his audience. What counts is his communication with the power of the ancestor spirits.

The absence of invited Muslim relatives in one Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony of a Chinese-Thai family which I observed in Tamot, Pattalung, illustrates the exhaustion of the integrative potential of the Manooraa. The Islamic ancestor spirit did enter and possess the Buddhist medium which was dressed in Islamic clothes, because no Islamic medium was available. The Manooraa Rongkruu is strongly identified with the Buddhist temple, and the reformist Islamic discourse widespread in the Muslim communities resents the Hindu and Buddhist elements of the ceremony.

However, the revived Manooraa Rongkruu tradition in the Songkhla Lake area seems to be losing its Islamic component, which was always weaker than the Buddhist one. While the belief in the power of the ancestors has not withered away in the Muslim communities, the Manooraa Rongkruu ceremonies of the present are largely reserved to Buddhists. That does not mean that the Manooraa Rongkruu is a Buddhist tradition, but rather it is a hybridized ceremony integrating myth, history, performing arts, belief and ritual practice. The absence of Muslims in the Manooraa ceremony confirms the transformation of plural spaces into a type of mere coexistence, in which the ritual spaces of Buddhists and Muslims are increasingly separated. The Manooraa is thus no longer able to bring all family members together, and there are other dimensions than “communitas” that motivate host families to book a full Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony.

Conventions of Manooraa Performances

The performance space for a Manooraa dance-drama varies. Traditionally, it was a makeshift space on the ground, with only four bamboo pillars and a roof signifying the performance boundaries. The Manooraa Rongkhruu is performed in the intimate compound of a private house and is available only for invited family members, relatives and good friends. This intimate nature is collapsed in the public spectacle, in which only the knowledge of the Nooraa and the relation of the vow-giver to the deities remain as intimate.

The rong stage is constructed only for the duration of the performance and will be completely dismantled afterwards. Music plays a very significant role. A Manooraa dancer’s costume is layered with a chest piece, a neckpiece, and shoulder ornament, all made from strings of colourful small plastic beads. Other unique features are the golden crown (soed), the silver wing ornament, the bird-like tail, and the long, bent fingernail extensions. A soed crown is considered sacred; only those who have gone through a krob-soed initiation ritual are allowed to wear it.

Performances of the Noora Rongkruu in the Songkhla Lake Region today

The following provides a concise overview of the Manooraa Rongkruu ritual cycle:

The Manooraa will be prepared months or even years in advance, because it is crucial that all of the family members are present, and to complete all associated financial and organizational arrangements. The head of the family will set a date in the period from May to September with the trusted Manooraa master. The Manooraa master seeks intensive communication with the host family, which is indispensable for the preparation of the ritual and especially its ancestor-part. He will inquire about every single deity and ancestor spirit in the house. Not all dead have the privilege to receive ancestor status and only very powerful people who accumulated a lot of merit receive the status of great ancestors. The nairong Manooraa is not able to contact the ancestor spirits of the house directly, but he can mediate between the ancestors of the first Manooraa teachers and the ancestor spirits of the house. He will also be responsible for the call to the ancestor spirits and for the control of harmful spirits who may enter the stage through the back door. During the consultations which precede the performance, the nai Manooraa also inquires about the motivation of the family to invite the Manooraa band.

The host family will place photographs of their ancestors on the shrine in the house, prepare the offerings, food, and drinks for all the visitors for the three days and build a temporary ritual stage on a lawn near the house. The stage serves as a ceremonial space as well as a performing area for Manooraa. The palai (spirit shrine) is a small elevated platform on the right side of the stage. It represents a high house where only Manooraa ancestral spirits reside, the shrine for the host family’s ancestral spirits is in the main house. During the ritual, a white sacred string (sai sin) will link the palai by the stage to the shrine in the host family’s house. The palai serves as the link between the godlike realm of the Manooraa spirits and the host family’s ancestors.

The main Ritual

First Day: The Opening

The host asks for a bai-sri (ceremonial offering tray of beautifully arranged flowers and leaves) to be made. Twelve kinds of dishes are the prescribed offerings to the spirits, and they are beautifully laid out on the floor of the stage and on the palai shrine. The nairong Manooraa comes with his family and his troupe of five to seven musicians, and seven to ten male and female dancers. The group unpacks the soed crowns, costumes, accessories, and musical instruments. They arrange the ritual materials, such as areca nuts and betel leaves, some cash, a white cotton sheet, uncooked rice, flowers, candles, incense, banana leaves, and a mat and pillow. The opening ritual starts with the wai khru Manooraa ceremony for all Manooraa masters, from the mythic founders to teachers who have passed away more recently. Then the performers put on their costumes. The dance is an offering to the deities who have been invited, to be appeased and entertained.

Second Day: The Main Ritual

Thursday is considered the teacher’s day in Thailand, so it is appropriate that the vow fulfillment and teacher/ancestor worship rituals are conducted this day. A Manooraa performance is always preceded by a wai kru (or kad kru) (honouring the teachers). The ceremony commences with a musical prelude, followed by a sung invocation addressing Manooraa ancestor-teachers.  This ritual serves as an acknowledgement of the ancestors who are the source of the performers’ skills. Once the invocation is complete, the customary sequence of youngest to oldest dancer/singer takes place as the twelve Manooraa maebot dances are performed with agility and grace. The show culminates in the dance-drama of jab sib song (twelve folktales) performed in verse and skits. Performances are watched not only by the host family and the onlookers but also by the ancestral spirits. The song ta-yai (ancestral trance ritual) is conducted during the night of the second day. Designated trancers usually dressed in white, sit in meditation waiting for the spirits to possess them while the narong sings the invocation verses accompanied by percussion orchestral music. Only persons who have a place within for the spirits can possibly be possessed. Such persons need to have lived a meritful life.

Each one of the host family’s ancestral spirits is called by name and invited to descend to the trance medium’s body. The trancer asks for a candle and accepts the offerings by eating the fire of the candle. The trancer converses with the living relatives voicing the ancestral spirit. As Thienchai has (1999: cited in Parichat 2006: 389) stated: “It seems that the atmosphere during the trance possession is mixed with respect, love, warmth and fun. Overjoyed to meet the dead ancestors, many family members shed tears while conversing with the spirits. They embrace, talk, laugh, and exchange stories. The living ask the dead for advice or assistance, a process that is therapeutic for the living.” There are many pi ta-yai spirits, and each one of them has its own characteristics and temperament. Some spirits may leave after a few minutes, while others may be more demanding. Sometimes, the spirits also possess other participants, making the session quite unpredictable.

Third Day: The Tad Merai Farewell Ritual

On the last day, the performers sing and dance for the last time to please the spirits. The sequence is similar to one on the previous day, except for three climatic dances called ‘capturing the bird’, ‘spearing the crocodile’ and ‘beating evil’. Then comes the final ritual called ‘cutting the sacred string’, which is meant to terminate the connection between the spirit and the mundane world. The nairong recites a sacred farewell khata and dances the tad merai, using a knife to symbolically cut the connecting string. After the cutting of each connecting string, each ritual item is removed from the spirit shrine. The last step of the farewell is the dismantling of the Manooraa stage and turning over the floor mats.

In the following, I provide sketches of the new performances of the Manooraa Rongkruu as I observed them in my fieldwork to bring out the new articulations of the Manooraa Rongkruu with the forces of modernity.

The Manooraa Rongkruu in Ban Dhammakhot, Songkhla

Ban Dammakot, where I observed 3 consecutive Manooraa Rongkruu ceremonies in the household of Wandi and Leg, is exemplary for villages in rural Thailand. Here, many villagers have to leave the village to make a living. There is simply not enough land to feed everyone. The village is not far from the district centre and the main road. Away from their ancestral land, they are not protected by the benevolent spirits and are thus vulnerable to the fluctuations of the market.  The village is named after the Buddhist temple. Not far from Ban Thammakhot, there are Muslim villages near the Lake. The Muslim villages are much poorer than the Buddhist village. Wandi and her husband Leg made a small fortune by making cakes and selling them to wholesalers in Hat Yai. Thus, the status of Wandi and Leg rose to new rich, and they employed many households in their business. But the business was not stable, and the income highly fluctuating. In addition, Wandi became ill. She became depressed, anti-social and less lively. She felt unwell. Wandi and Leg dedicate a room to the ancestors. In the garden, they keep a spirit house, where the guardian spirits of the land live. They give regular offerings to the spirits. Wandi and Leg hold Manooraa Rongkruu for three consecutive years.  They believe that they should hold a Manooraa for every year to have their business protected by the spirits.

The Nai Noora promises that their generosity towards the spirits will be recompensed by increased wealth. Wandi and Leg hire a highly reputed Manooraa troupe from Songkhla, and they prepare the food and offerings for month in advance. The offerings are presented on great silver plates and include elaborate and accurately presented dishes. In addition, the hosts prepare flowers, fresh fruits and more platters. The offerings include both Buddhist and Muslim items that are presented on different shrines in the Rong. However, the performance was opened by 5 monks and hardly any Muslims participated. The Buddhist spirit medium was possessed by the Muslim ancestor spirit.

Relatives arrive from many directions and give donations to help cover the cost of the ritual. In addition to the rich offerings, the food for the guests is plentiful and delicious, consisting of Southern Thai dishes. The guests are served fresh water, but joke during the performances with alcoholic drinks. Wandi and Leg make a point that the performance is very costly and that not every family could afford this. In a bad year, even Wandi and Leg have to postpone it.

Some details deserve special attention. The spirit mediums are professional mediums from the City. Family members become possessed, too, but one can say that the urban spirit mediums returned to the village and merged with the Manooraa Rongkruu. The boundaries become blurred. The ritual was used to treat some patients from the kinship group in the rong. This did not include the host. These sessions between the professional spirit mediums and the patients were special. The spirit medium was possessed by powerful ancestor spirits and moved the burning candle in circling movements over the head of the patient who lies on a mat in the rong. Through the therapy, the spirit medium aimed to remove excess heat and wind, thus exorcising the harmful spirit.

My field notes illustrate the atmosphere of the possession of Wandi by the ancestor spirits of the family:

The Nai Manooraa, his wife, his assistant and the musicians invoke the ancestors with loud verse. Wandi, the female head of the household, appears as a medium and embodies the powerful spirit of the domain. The spirit accepts the offering by Wandi’s eating of the fire. The trancer returns ecstatically with the candle in her hand to the shrine in the house, to pay her respect to the deities in the house, moves back to the rong and climbs the ladder to the palai to venerate the great teachers before returning to the core family where the spirit meets the family members, beginning with the oldest grandfather and proceeding by declining age through to the daughter. In great emotional warmth, she hugs and embraces the family members and tears are shed, because the ancestors have not seen the living for a long time. The spirit is joking and laughing with family members and the community. The ancestors inquire about the status of the family and provide valuable advice. Then, Wandi is waning, fully exhausted, to reawake later as Wandi.”

Manooraa Rongkruu in Ban Tamot, Patthalung

In Tamot, Patthalung, the host family decided to hire a Manooraa troupe from Nakhon Si Thammarat. The Nai Manooraa was a young and inexperienced Manooraa teacher who happened to have its own Manooraa troupe. A modern keyboard replaces the traditional flutes. The reason for hiring in this case was not an ailment but the forthcoming marriage of the daughter after her graduation from College. Again, visiting kin came from neighbouring villages as well as from Bangkok and Pattani. Muslim relatives from the neighbouring villages were invited, but did not show up at all. The host family prepared food for the guests and cared for every guest. The family dedicated the altar for the ancestors in the main room of the house. Lord (ong) Buddha is invited as the most sacred spirit on the top of the spirit’s hierarchy. However, Buddhist mediums are again possessed by Buddhist and Islamic ancestor spirits.

Among the designated media dancing Manooraa in the rong, women are dominant. The Nai Manooraa somehow invites only the ancestor spirits of the father’s side. A field note again catches the special atmosphere and shows that every performance is unique and situational. A female relative who was about to leave the scene returned possessed to the stage to complain loudly about the neglect of the pi ta-yai ancestor spirits of the female side. The lady returned to the stage, put on white clothes and ate the fire of a candle before noisily challenging the young nairong Manooraa.  Obviously, the spirit was voicing her profound dissatisfaction and her claim of representation of the female side of the ancestor spirits also made transparent conflicts within the family. The nairong Manooraa and his crew had to repeat the whole sequence to appease the angry and noisy female ancestor spirit. Other possessed family members can be seen dancing wildly in and around the stage, eating the fire of the candles, and jumping in or running around the stage and inside the house. The second day culminates in the blessings given by the spirits before leaving each trancer’s body.

The mother and host of the performance is Sino-Thai and has Chinese descendents. That’s why Chinese elements entered in the performance in the form of offerings and ritual elements. Chinese elements include the pig’s head and the walking over fire ceremony. The multi-cultural elements illustrate the composition of society in Southern Thailand. The absence of Muslim relatives reveals the growing disinterest of Muslims toward Manooraa. I asked the Muslim relatives about the invitation and they joked about the superstitious beliefs of their Buddhist relatives. The revitalization of the Manooraa Rongkruu is only among Buddhists. The host also made a case about the cost of the ritual cycle and that there are few Manooraa Rongkruu performances left in Tamot. She notes that people are lucky that she hires a Manooraa troupe so they can benefit from its healing power.

I also found interesting that the host lady’s daughter was attracted to a new Japanese religious movement that she encountered in Hat Yai. I was stunned that she did the new religious practice in the main room during the breaks. She did not see any contradiction between her main role in the Manooraa and her participation in the new movement.

The Manooraa Rongkruu: Between Healing, Social Reputation and Prosperity Cult

Spirit possession is a technique to cope with affliction and illness, in which the host possessed by a spirit speaks in the manner and tone, and performs the role of the spirit to communicate through bodily movements with the clients. This fusion of the other within the self is most profoundly observable in ritual sequences. Thus the person could be transformed through embodied ritualised action and knowledge from living to dead, from ordinary class to prince. In spirit possession, the mimetic sensuous experience is fully activated to incorporate the power of the external ‘other’ that generates the differentiating identity of the medium herself (Tanabe 2002: 58).

The Manooraa Rongkruu performance in which the mediums are possessed by the ancestor spirits and actually listen to the spirits and speak to them in a warm emotional climate can be conceptualized as a crucial instrument of people in Southern Thailand to stabilise and to repair a disturbed mind-body equilibrium and to call back the life energy or soul of an ancestors by using embodied practice and knowledge. The Manooraa Rongkruu is a healing ceremony in which the social relations of the living and the dead are being refreshed and by which the ancestors speak to the living. People in Thailand believe if the life essence leaves the house, its inhabitants are left vulnerable to spirit attack. By tying white cotton thread (Sai sin) to the shrine, the Nai Noora is calling back the life essence to the house.

The motivations to stage a Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony are manifold: First of all, one crucial function of the Manooraa has often been overlooked: The Manooraa Rongkruu is one among a variety of multi-religious rituals that reflect the ethnic and religious diversity in Southern Thailand. The Manooraa Rongkruu was always performed in multi-ethnic and multi-religious settings as both Buddhist and Muslim villagers shared the fundamental belief in the healing power of the ancestors. Although the Manooraa Rongkruu came under the early patronage of the royal court and the Buddhist Sangha, the Manooraa performance genre continued to enjoy vast popularity among Muslim villagers. The religious affiliation of the Nai Nooraa was secondary as either musicians or dancers could be Buddhist or Muslim. The ritual also reflected the fact that many kinship groups in the Songkhla Lake region consisted of Buddhist and Muslim relatives, as Muslims converted to Buddhism and vice versa.  The offerings to the deities included specific items and foodstuffs that are closely associated with Buddhism or Islam. Therefore, the Manooraa Rongkruu could be conceptualized as a forum in which the fragile equilibrium between the ethnic and religious groups was also balanced and in which the ancestor spirits were both Buddhist and Muslim.

The religious affiliation was not the quality to be possessed by benevolent ancestor spirits, but the only quality was merit. If a person accumulated sufficient merit, this person would be venerated during the Manooraa performance and her/his picture shown on the altar. If a person had the place to receive a spirit, the person could do so. If the person did not have the place, they could not receive the spirit and the Nai Manooraa would have to dismantle the stage and leave the house.

The therapeutic function is among the most important. In the case of the host in Sichon, Nakhon Si Thammarat, the head of the family lost her voice and regained it only after requesting it from her ancestors. She vowed that she will host a Manooraa every year. In Songkhla, Wandi was not in good shape. In a third case, the head of the family again felt depressed.  In the Manooraa Rongkruu, the ancestor spirits are called to exorcise evil from the house and the community, to tame the malevolent spirits and to rebalance the fragile equilibrium of benevolent and malevolent spirit forces.

The Manooraa helps boost the economy of the household. In Songkhla, the nairong Manooraa on the last day of the ceremony spread red confetti on everybody and had everybody taste and share some of the food. He told the audience that the spirits are appeased and that the host family will be rich and healthy. The Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony has become a costly enterprise as the Manooraa troupe normally does not receive any sponsorship. The host has to pay for the artists, the dancers, costumes, and stage and, most costly, for the food to entertain the guests. Every guest, whenever she or he arrives, should be properly served. The guests also donate some money to the hosts, but the donation will not cover the expenses. Hence, the poor cannot afford the Manooraa and the performance. But the poor can flock to the Manooraa ceremonies in the village, enhancing the benefactor status of the host family or to the big spectacles in Takae or Takura. Some people hope to boost their reputation by performing a Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony.

In Ranong, Songkhla, for example, a lady hoped to reconstruct her reputation which had been badly hurt as a result of her being indicted for theft of communal money. By staging a Manooraa she hoped to be forgiven by the ancestor spirits. In Ranong province again, the influential people of the district, including politicians, civil servants and police wanted to boost their prestige by inviting a famous Manooraa group and by investing heavily in the pavilion, the offerings as well as in food and drinks for the guests. The medium was a policeman and known spirit medium who was recognized for his powerful love charms. As the Manooraa Rongkruu becomes increasingly commercialized, Manooraa groups vie for reputation and prestige and so do host families.

Thai popular religious beliefs are expanding and diversifying in response to the challenges of modernity and the new global economy. In Southern Thailand, we find a deeply polarized society. Modernization has tended to be detrimental to small-scale agriculturalists that have protested the degradation of their environment and the threat to their livelihoods. Young women now find jobs in the tourist and sex industry in Hat Yai, Phuket and border towns while others work in rubber factories and food processing plants, often leaving young children behind in the care of the elderly.

The enchanting arena of the Manooraa Rongkruu reflects highly contradictory modernization processes. Although the poor can hardly afford to host a performance, they are not excluded from the audience and are equally fed. They participate in the preparation of the dishes and elaborate offerings. The rich hosts hold Manooraa Rongkruu performances in which they display their power and wealth. The choice of the Nai Noora, the decoration of the stage, the offerings, the choice of the spirit medium, and the food all influence the representation of the host in the community. Thus, the Manooraa Rongkruu is not only a ritual of communitas, but is a ritual in which power and wealth can be celebrated and in which merit-making is in the hands of the new rich. The Manooraa Rongkruu is used equally to rebuild one’s social reputation in the community and kinship group after falling victim to all kinds of   modern misfortunes, and as an increasingly individual strategy for social, economic, and political success.

This new meaning of the Manooraa Rongkruu becomes even more evident in the public, spectacular performances of the Manooraa Rongkruu in Wat Takae and Wat Takura that are sponsored by extremely wealthy temples, the local government, or wealthy businesspeople in the area. These public performances attract thousands of pilgrims and worshippers every year.

The Manooraa Rongkruu in honour of the first teacher in Takae and the Ta Yai Yarn in honour of the first  teacher’s mother have become highly commodified festivals that however keep the intimacy and the spirituality of the original Manooraa epos - in which all people are descendents of the first teachers and are thus expected to venerate the great ancestors.

The grand crowning Manooraa Rong Kru for the first Manooraa teacher in Wat Takae, Pattalung

The ceremony in the temple Wat Takae in Pattalung takes place yearly in the last week of April for veneration of the first teacher of the Manooraa, Khun Si Sata, the son of Mae Simmala, and believed to be a reincarnation of the Hindu god Shiva. Six of twelve Manooraa founder spirits are said to possess spirit mediums in Wat Takae.

The grand ritual in Wat Takae is a public spectacle which attracts hundreds of people from all parts of the South to honour the first teacher of the Manooraa, Khun Si Sata and to offer him a gift. It is believed that the soul of Si Sata is living in Wat Takae. The Nairong Manooraa who has the privilege to perform in the grand ceremony in Wat Takae is regarded as direct successor of Si Sata and has to be among the greatest living Manooraa teacher in Southern Thailand. During the grand Manooraa Rong Kru ceremony at Wat Takae, the successor of the first Manooraa teacher is crowned and accepted as a teacher of the grand Manooraa. The Manooraa teacher derives his power from the spirit of the first Teacher, Khun Si Sata, whose spirit is present and who observes the performance with keen interest.

Khun Si Sata is commemorized with a statue that sits like a Buddha in a small viharn that has been constructed to accommodate him. The pilgrims offer flowers and food offerings to the spirit of Si Sata in the small viharn. The great ritual is carried out among the Manooraa family which includes all people with Manooraa descent. As nearly all households in old villages are trakun Manooraa, everybody is called upon to join the ceremony in Takae.

It is a hot day and huge crowds come to the temple. The event is organized by a committee, which consists of the abbot, local civil servants and prominent businessmen. The main representatives of the preparation committee present the Manooraa Rongkruu at Takae as a Buddhist tradition. One particular businessman in construction and engineering who dresses in the traditional white clothes of the spirit mediums is the main sponsor of the event. This businessman accumulates huge prestige by sponsoring the ceremony. During the ritual, he will be possessed by the ancestor spirits and dance among other mediums in the pavilion. He is among the designated spirit mediums that participate every year in the Takae ceremony. Entrance to the stage is restricted by the authority of the Manooraa teacher. Nevertheless, it seems that people come and go and that the stage becomes a very fluid space. A hundred onlookers are allowed to stay closely to the stage in the hot sun to observe the spectacle and to comment on it. The music is extremely noisy and loudspeakers blast across the temple terrain.

After the performance of the Manooraa dancers, the stage is filled with dancers, and people who wear the Manooraa mask of the hunter. Old women join and begin spontaneously to dance. Spirit mediums in white clothes join the scene and become successively possessed by the great Manooraa ancestor spirits. The stage is constantly filled with possessed spirit mediums and dancers, unless the nairong Manooraa calls the dancers from the stage to make space for a ritual.

After a break, the Manooraa teacher gives waiting families the possibility to enter the stage and to present their babies and children. Some babies suffer from a skin illness that leaves terrifying red sores in the face. As the medical treatment of this illness is difficult and costly, the magical treatment by the Manooraa teacher is a viable alternative.  This special ritual - called yiap sen (“stepping on the sore”) - is well known in Southern Thailand and has been performed for centuries. In the perspective of the Manooraa, the illness is caused by malevolent spirits: A female spirit would have selected the child and therefore marked it. According to the legend, Khun Si Sata healed this illness and removed the sores from the faces of two hunters by washing his feet in sea water and putting them on the wounds. The parents bring their babies on the stage and put them on a soft pillow. In the dance the nairong Manooraa bathes his bare foot in a bowl of sacred water and betel leafs. He writes a mantra in old Khmer language on the big toe and puts it into a flame. The rhythm of the music intensifies, when the nairong Manooraa moves his foot turns around and touches the face of the child firmly with his bare foot. The musician beats the drums strongly and increases the dramatics. The nairong Manooraa is possessed by the spirit of the first Manooraa teacher and uses his power and knowledge in the healing ritual. The authority of the nairong Manooraa in healing the sores is unquestioned and widely known in Southern Thailand. The yiap sen ritual is repeated several times as many parents come with their babies to the ceremony full of hope that the spirit can be domesticated and bring healing.

The climax of the Takae ceremony is the crowning initiation ceremony. The assistant of the nairong Manooraa, who was dressed in white clothes during the ritual, is prostrating in front of the nairong Manooraa. There is concentrated silence at this stage as everybody is aware of this precious moment. The nairong Manooraa puts a crown on the head of his assistant, thereby transmitting the power and knowledge of the Manooraa tradition to him. The so-crowned assistant is now able to found his own Manooraa group and perform with it. The new Manooraa master is now allowed to change his costume and to wear the beautiful costume of the Nai Manooraa. He submits himself under the authority of his teacher for the duration of the ritual, but will eventually succeed him. After the crowning ritual, he carried out his first performance under the auspices of his teacher and the spirit of Si Sata.

During the ritual, the stage is one of the main theatres of action, but in parallel, the image of Si Sata in the small temple building also attracts large crowds who offer candles, flowers, incense, betel leaves and food in worship of the first teacher. In the Takae ritual, only the great ancestors are invited to the boost, including the first Manooraa teachers, the guardian spirits of the land of Takae, the kings and Buddhist saints. Spirit mediums and masked dancers feel free to occupy the stage throughout the ritual. Every single ritual, whether in the intimate sphere of the house or in public space, represents the microcosm of the world and the universe in the understanding of the Manooraa. The public performance in Takae attracts hundreds of participants and onlookers who hope to benefit from the presence of Si Sata’s spirit and his power to heal.

In the first week of May, another grand ceremony attracts thousands of pilgrims who come in families to flock to participate in the merit-making activities at the temple of Ta Kura in Satingpra. The ritual in Satingpra is also organised by a committee consisting of local bureaucrats and the Buddhist abbot of Ta Kura. The ceremony transforms the sleepy village of Ban Ta Kura into a huge feast in which large crowds are attracted by the healing power of the Buddha image that is stored in a box behind two temple doors. The unwrapping of the small Buddha image under the music of the Manooraa musicians is the highlight of the festival. In addition, hundreds of young women are ordained as Buddhist nuns for one day in fulfillment of a vow to Mae Simmala.

The Ta Yai Yarn ceremony in honour of Mae (mother) Simmala in Wat Ta Kura, Satingphra, Songkhla.

The Manooraa Rongkruu in Takura is a hybridization of Theravada Buddhism and Manooraa. Basically, two things happen in Takura at the same time: First, Ta Kura is an important place in the Manooraa myth. According to the old people, Mae Simmala donates the gold that the elephant has found in a bamboo tree to the temple of Wat Ta Kura to distribute it among the people in one narrative, or donates it to the abbot to have it transformed into the holy Buddha image according to another. The Buddha image is presented in a cage to the pilgrims who wait for hours to catch some holy water and to sprinkle it on the Buddha image. The unwrapping of the Buddha image is preceded by intensive chanting of Buddhist monks in Pali sacred language and drum play by selected Manooraa musicians located in the temple hall in front of the door. Male dancers wearing the ancestor Manooraa mask of the hunter dance wildly in the smaller pavilion.

A special stage is again erected for the Manooraa Rongkruu performance. Hundreds buy 50 Baht tickets to enter the stage and to dance along the music transmitted by audio-cassettes on loudspeakers. The dancers wear only individual parts of the Manooraa costumes or the hunter-masks. After 5 minutes, the music stops and the nairong Manooraa sends the dancers from the stage. He gets ready for the next ritual, the yiap sen (stepping on the sore).  Again, people buy their ticket for 50 Baht and in this case mothers bring their children on the stage. Before curing the babies with his foot, he inquires with the mother about the illness of the child. Just as in Takae, numerous families flock to the temple in the hope of a cure.

Another event brings hundreds of young women to the temple festival at Ta Kura. Young women are ordained resulting fulfillment of a vow they made to the mother of the Manooraa. In contemporary Thailand, women are heavily marginalized, especially for ordination. In Ta Kura, women have the special opportunity to be ordained for one day. The young nuns-to-be are eager to perform the ordination ceremony, but because of the sheer number, the ceremony is carried out in a very concise form. Every 30 minutes, ten women are ordained in a row. The young women identify with the female hero of the Manooraa epos. Their ordination to the status of Mee Chi in Ta Kura as a meritful act and as a way to reciprocate their vow. The sprinkling of the Buddha image, the dancing in the viharn, the yiap sen on the stage, the horoscopes of monks, and the mass ordination of young nuns all take place in a atmosphere of a popular festival with a hundred market stalls, selling food, drinks, Buddhist amulets, handicrafts, fake hunter-masks and musical Manooraa instruments. The commodification of the Manooraa Rongkruu, its hybridization and post-modernization is brought to a climax in Ta Kura.

On the second day of the ritual, on Thursday, a striking scene takes place: A young mother with a black jilbab pushes her way through the crowds. The nairong Manooraa nods and orders her baby on a pillow. He slowly rotates, puts his foot into the holy water, the fire and on the face of the crying baby. In her desperate need for a cure, the young Muslim mother comes all the way from the province of Chumphorn.  Ready to find her way to the Nairong Manooraa, she ignored the Buddhist environment.

The Manooraa Rongkruu as Spiritual Experience, Prosperity Cult and Pilgrimage

The crowds joining the festivals do so for several reasons. Many come regularly every year as pilgrims to worship the great Manooraa ancestors. They emphasize the importance of the ritual by giving it the attribute: Big. Here, the cosmological power is particularly dense. It is thus possible to participate in the life essence and to dance to the Manooraa verse even only for a few minutes and for a 50 Baht ticket. My friends join the Ta Yai Yarn every year.  They also participate in the ritual of two religions at the cemetery in Ban Tamot, Patthalung, since my friend’s grandparents are buried there. My friends are also interested in Buddhist saints, amulets, and all kinds of Buddhist relics which he collects. He visits a Buddhist nun regularly who resides alone in the wood. They believe that the Ta Yai Yarn is especially benevolent to women who worship Mae Simmala, the mother of the Manooraa and the mother of Southern Thailand. Young women flock to the Ta Yai Yarn in order to fulfill a vow to Mae Simmala, thereby conflating Manooraa Rongkruu and Theravada Buddhism. Many people are attracted by the Noora troupes that are being considered the greatest in the region and the successors of the great Noora teachers who themselves passed away and are among the great ancestors. The participants request a boon and reciprocate by dancing with the hunter’s mask in the temple. People come in large families to party, mingle with the crowds and visit the many market stalls, selling Buddhist amulets, Manooraa music, food and drinks.

In Wat Takae, the “stepping on the red sore” healing ritual is very prominent. Nai Noora Sompong is widely known for his delicate dance, for his proximity to the Gods and for his healing power. Families come from everywhere to have their infants cured through the Nai Noora’s foot. All kinds of patients come to have their illnesses or misfortune cured. People come also to worship the first teacher of the Manooraa epos, Si Sata, and stay for hours in the small pavilion. They come also to consult the spirit medium which sits in front of the image of Si Sata and is in a state of spirit possession.

All this happens in an old Buddhist temple which is widely open for the Manooraa ceremony. All the hotels in the surroundings of Wat Takae are fully booked. Some local teachers describe the Manooraa Rongkruu as a Buddhist art genre and Si Sata as a Buddhist. The Buddhist character of the Manooraa Rongkruu is also underlined in the narrative of the donation of a golden Buddha image by Mae Simmala to Wat Ta Kura and by the ordination of young women as nuns for one day.

Perhaps the most interesting case is the arrival of a group with a veiled Muslim woman and a sick baby. Because of her veiling, everybody recognizes her as modern Muslima. Some of the Muslim participants may not wear Islamic clothes and are not recognizable as Muslims. This woman made a case in showing off her Islamic affiliation, but made a desperate move to find a cure for her baby. She was received by the Nai Noora who put his foot on the baby’s face under some drumming. The Muslim woman was unaware of the commercialization of the ceremony and deeply uncomfortable in the crowd. Finally, she bought the ticket and her right to see the Noora master for 5 minutes. This case shows that even as a modern Muslima, the woman hoped to receive a cure from the great ancestor spirits, in whose power she clearly believed.

Although the Manooraa ceremony was performed in a Buddhist temple, the Manooraa Rongkruu remained a multi-religious ritual that is open for Buddhists, Muslims or any other religion. Nevertheless, the Manooraa Rongkruu ceremony is appropriated by the local government, some businesspeople and the Buddhist Sangha. The Manooraa Rongkruu in the modern era has thus changed into a hybridized Buddhist one and few items remember its multi-religious character.

The relationship between the intimate and the public is thus an important aspect of the Manooraa Rongkruu. Even the mass gatherings in Takae and Takura keep some intimacy that is associated with the possession of the spirit medium by the great ancestor spirits. As to the private performances where strangers are not allowed (in difference to the anonymous crowds arriving in Takae and Takura), the Manooraa Rongkruu is a combination of the intimate and the public par excellence. The Manooraa Rongkruu is intimate as the spirit altar for the ancestors of the house is intimate; it is public as the performance is open for relatives, friends and neighbours. It would be a-social not to appear for the Manooraa performance.

In conclusion

Early ethnography on the conceptualization of popular religiosity and the Manooraa seem to be caught in a substantialist and essentialising categorization of ritual in which the person is conceptualized as a total, unchanging entity. While structuralist concepts have pointed out the importance of exchange of gifts in the interactions between healer and patient, they have limited themselves by ignoring the transformation of the person under external conditions and the religious strategies of the clients and patients to cope with the emotional disturbances they face, as well as with issues of modernity. Exchange models that rely on the reproduction of social relations fail to account for the processes of individualization of spirituality in a postmodern world. I argue for a more dynamic perspective in which the revitalization of the Manooraa and its changing functions can be explained more convincingly.

To explain the agency of Thai popular religion, we have to consider the new functions of the Manooraa Rongkruu during the economic boom and economic decline of Thailand in the last few decades. Host families sometimes book a Manooraa Rongkruu full ceremony as a conscious strategy to accumulate merit and to enhance social prestige in the community. I would argue that the decisive factor in the revitalization of the Manooraa Rongkruu is the individualistic search of the lower and middle class for spiritual experience, performance and fulfillment of their spiritual needs. To understand the structuring contribution of Thai popular religiosity and the agency of the spiritual seekers it would be helpful to compare the Manooraa Rongkruu with a wide array of other contemporary religious and spiritual practices beyond the mainstream.


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1) Convenor: Brian Hubbard. Email: <brihubb@loxinfo.co.th>; Tel: 053 40 94 18.
2) Secretary: Louis Gabaude: e-mail: <gabaudel@loxinfo.co.th>.

H/O Phone: 053 11 73 19; Mob. 087 188 50 99. H/O Fax: 053 85 04 85.
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