338th Meeting – Tuesday, September 13th 2011

Pu Sae -Ya Sae Spirit Worship: Highlighting the two sacred mountains of Chiang Mai

A talk by Reinhard Hohler

Present: David James, Mangkhoot, Rachel Leep, Holly Sarkissian, Mariella Fraser, Elaine Fraser, Valda Freestone, Fran Collins, Louis Gabaude, Francis Chan, Michael Sakamoto, Carol Grodzins, Tim Naparart, Kornkanok Boonmee, Michael R. Boeder, John Cadet, Oliver Hargreave, Jim Goodman, Suriya Smutkupt, John and Martha Butt. An audience of about 35.   

The full text of Reinhard’s talk:

In Thailand in general, the month of May marks the end of the hot season and the start into the rainy season. It is also the auspicious time to begin the yearly agricultural rice growing cycle and for that “festivals” are of paramount importance to cause rain, such as the Royal Ploughing Ceremony in Bangkok as well as in Phnom Penh in neighboring Cambodia, being a Hindu tradition.

Actually, the original technique for obtaining rain is the firing of locally produced rockets. The latter can be found in its purest stage at Yasothon in I-San during the “bun bang fai” or rocket making festival. Strangely enough, in Lan Na or Northern Thailand the tradition of firing rockets has currently fallen in oblivion, but is still actively practiced in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan, China.

Nevertheless, there is still the tradition that monks and lay people use to worship a forested hill pagoda and ask for rain from the sacred relics buried there (Cadet 1990).

In this connection, and contemporary with the Visakha Puja Celebrations, which in 2011 fell on May 17, in memory of Buddha’s birth, enlightenment and death, the people of Chiang Mai went to worship the Phrathat Doi Suthep by organizing a kind of pilgrimage. Thus, the Buddhist pilgrims went on foot to reach the temple along a short-cut trail within hours during the night before the festival (Premchit & Dore 1991).

According to a historical chronicle of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep (Tantalanukul 1999a), the name of the mountain was derived from Sudeva - a hermit’s name. It happened that in the 14th century King Kuena had invited a Ceylonese monk named Sumana Thera from Sukhothai to come to Chiang Mai to spread Buddhism. A Buddhist relic from the time of Ashoka (3rd century B.C.) was brought to Chiang Mai with him and Wat Suan Dok was established in the west of the city. When the relic split into two, the original larger one was transported in a howdah on the back of a white elephant to the top of Doi Suthep. The elephant eventually came to rest and it was at that place that the relic was buried and a pagoda built, which after some enlargements and gilding is the most sacred pagoda in Chiang Mai and North Thailand until today.          

Less well-known than Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep is Wat Phrathat Doi Kham – just only 7 km south of Doi Suthep as the crow flies. Interesting to note is that both mountains – Doi Suthep and Doi Kham – are interconnected in history going back to the time of the Buddha. It is at Wat Phrathat Doi Kham, where the visitors will be confronted with Pu Sae-Ya Sae, the ancestor spirits of the Lan Na Thai kingdom (Tantalanukul 2007).

According to some myths recorded by the late Kraisri Nimmanahaeminda (1967), once when the Buddha was traveling in the area of present-day Chiang Mai, he met three cannibals; a couple with their son. This trio followed his trail in the hope of making a meal of him.

Buddha frightened them by stamping his foot on a boulder, where today is Wat Phra Buddha Bat Si Roi in Mae Rim District. Finally, when the Buddha delivered a sermon to them, the cannibals converted to his religion and abstained from taking human flesh to be allowed the flesh of the buffalo instead. As for their son, he was so affected by the sermon that he pledged to abstain forever from consuming meat of any kind, and asked to become a monk. Later he disrobed to lead the life of a hermit, spending his time in meditation in a cave a-top the mountain that later took his name: Doi Suthep. After death, the trio became roaming spirits.        

It is intriguing to know that in the 7th or 8th century, there was a hermit on Doi Suthep who raised the future Mon Queen Chamathevi, who later ruled the city of Haripunchai or present-day Lamphun. One of her local opponents was the widowed Lawa King Khunluang Wilanka, who tried to marry Queen Chamathevi, but did not succeed because he failing in a competition to throw a spear from the top of Doi Suthep to Haripunchai (Tantalanukul 2008). To make a long story short, later the twin sons of Queen Chamathevi married the twin daughters of King Khunluang Wilanka. Now, it should be obvious that the trio of spirits is related through incarnation with these historical personalities.

To commemorate the original spirit couple, called Grandfather Pu Sae – Grandmother Ya Sae, there is an annual black buffalo sacrifice at Ban Pa Chi at Tambon Mae Hiya on the foot of Doi Kham on the 14th day of the waxing moon in June (in 2011 on June 15).

If the buffalo, which is killed with a big knife, will fall down in parallel to the Mae Hiya creek, the rain will be plentiful. If not, there will be a drought. Similar rites are known from Laos (see Archaimbault 1959).

After that, a complex ritual starts to summon all the involved spirits and a special medium will be possessed by Ya Sae, the grandmother spirit. Other possessed mediums join the ritual. In the meantime, the holy “Phra Bot” painting, showing the Buddha flanked by his disciples, Sariputra and Moggallana, will be hoisted up from the branch of a tree, illustrating that he is going to preach, while 9 invited monks chant in Pali, the language of the Buddha. The ritual, asking for rain and plenty, ends before noon (see Tanabe 1991).

Why does this happen at Doi Kham, I wonder? One answer is that when the Buddha decided to save the local people from the cannibals, the “rain god” Indra was so delighted and caused rain of silver and gold fall down. The places where the rain fell down have since then became known as Doi Kham or Golden Mountain and Doi Ngoen or Silver Mountain, later to be changed to Doi Suthep. Interesting to note is that Doi Kham is associated with the Grandmother Spirit Ya Sae, while Doi Suthep is associated with Pu Sae, the Grandfather Spirit, and this is until today (Pu Sae has his own spirit shrine in Tin Doi village at the foot of Doi Suthep).    

What follows is the report and photos to illustrate the Pu Sae-Ya Sae ceremony on June 15 this year:

It was some three hours after midnight on June 15, when four men arrived with a black water buffalo at the foot of Doi Kham Mountain to prepare for a sacrifice, whose tradition goes back to the time of the Buddha. Doi Kham is about 10km in the southwest of the city of Chiang Mai by road and located in Tambon Mae Hiya, Amphoe Muang.

The moon was brightly shining just one night before getting full. Villagers of ten villages had purchased the buffalo a few days before out in San Patong and now one of the men killed the buffalo with a big knife (a Muslim butcher) to see how it falls in the forest near the Mae Hiya Creek originating from the mountain.

After one hour, they moved the animal to another platform with the head and its horns as long as its ears looking east. This was the start of the annual Pu Sae-Ya Sae spirit worship ritual, which is nowadays more and more celebrated in style.

When I arrived at 6.00 o’clock in the morning, the outlay of the ritual ground was already prepared. The killed buffalo (liver and large intestine on a bamboo pole nearby) was located within a marked sacred space in front of twelve spirit houses, which were all named according to personalities, which are all worshiped according to the legend:

1. Arak, 2. Thorani Chao Ti, 3. Kumphan, 4. Kumphan, 5. Khunluang Wilanka, 6. Pu Sae, 7. Ya Sae, 8. Khun Saen Tong, 9. Pu Cham, 10. Ya Cham, 11. Suthep Ruessi, 12. Suthep Ruessi   

The legend tells of the old cannibal couple of Pu Sae and Ya Sae, who lived on the two mountains of Doi Suthep and Doi Kham. Doi Suthep (1,001m) is north of Doi Kham (200m). Actually, there are many mountain tops on the mountainous range of Tanontongchai, which is extending southwards from the Eastern Himalaya down to Doi Inthanon (2,565m) in Chom Thong, Chiang Mai Province (Swearer et al. 2004).   

In the time, when the Buddha was still living and traveled the world (Cohen 2009), he came to a village to take a rest. Thus, the Hindu Gods of Brahma and Indra blessed the village by bringing a rainstorm of gold and silver. As it rained gold at the village, the Buddha predicted that this place will be called Doi Kham meaning “Mountain of Gold” in the future. As it rained silver further north, the mountain there was called Doi Ngoen, meaning “Mountain of Silver” later to be named Doi Suthep.

At the village of Doi Kham, Buddha noticed a kind of the emptiness and asked for the reason. The villagers confirmed to him that there are two giants, who live on the two mountains as husband and wife. They often come to the village and catch people for food. That was the reason why it was so quiet and empty in the village.

Buddha felt sorry for the defenseless villagers and left to talk to the giants. He asked them to stop eating people and predicted that because of his teachings there will be soon many monks to live in this area.

When the two giants heard the Buddha’s plea, they asked him to allow them to have two buffalos per year instead of people and enlighten them with his teaching. Buddha blessed them by revealing to them the five precepts and left – not to forget to give them a hair relic, which Indra buried on the mountain and built a small pagoda, which was enlarged in the time of Queen Chamathevi, who lived in nearby Lamphun, where later was built Wat Haripunchai for another relic of the Buddha (Tantalanukul 1999b).

So it comes that even today, in the ninth month of the Lan Na Thai lunar calendar, there is still a forest feast at the foot of Doi Kham for Ya Sae. Actually, a parallel feast for Pu Sae was held at the foot of Doi Suthep, but fell into oblivion a long time ago. Nowadays, there is a newly built spirit house for Pu Sae in Tin Doi Village at the foot of the mountain, where offerings of meat are made a few days before the forest feast at Doi Kham (on June 11 this year).              

The ceremony started shortly after 8.00 o’clock, when some village women prepared the prescribed offerings to the spirits (da khua), containing pieces of bread, banana, popcorn, pork skin, sticky rice, sugarcane, tobacco and also water. There were bundles of 24 big silver and small gold candles each. Six trays for the spirits of the directions (tao tang si) were prepared along with 23 huge banana leave trays for the spirit houses, each containing six cigars and betel nuts.

In the south of the ritual area was a “sala” which slowly filled up with visitors to see the spirit medium, a Hang Dong villager in his thirties, who was to be possessed by the spirit of Ya Sae. At 8.20 the ritual master (tang khao) named “Achan Phromma” (77) appeared to read out the sacred texts to call the spirits to reside in the different houses. Actually, there were two spirit houses for the hermit “Suthep” which were erected in front of the others. Traditional music of drums, pipes, and xylophone filled the air.

At 9.00 o’clock the ceremony culminated with the hanging of the “Phra Bot” painting (drums and cymbals) featuring a standing Buddha flanked by two disciples. The banner, original kept at Wat Phra Sing, which was brought in a black coffin, is as nine arms length (4m long and 2.5m wide with bamboo poles attached at top and bottom). It is hung on a branch of a large tree with its back to the ritual ground facing north where it swings freely. Nine monks from Wat Pa Chi, sitting under a tent, recited holy incantations in the Pali language, while from a bronze Buddha image a white cotton string went through the hands of the monks ending in a silver bowl.

At 9.30 strange noises were heard from the nearby “sala” and the spirit medium was possessed by the spirit of Ya Sae in front of an altar covered with flower bowls. Shortly after, the spirit of “Suthep Ruessi” was called followed by the others. In the meantime the spirit medium had left the “sala” and went straight to the buffalo to feast on its meat and blood. Then he was guided by the former Mayor Boonlert Buranupakorn and others to walk along the spirit houses to end up eating raw meat and drinking blood sitting in a nearby tree. Some visitors tried to ask him for some lottery numbers (5-3-7) etc.

At 10.15 the spirit medium left the tree and continued his walk in trance to the “Phra Bot” to worship the Buddha. Going back to the “sala” more and more visitors got excited and tried to get in touch with the medium (kon song). Last but not least, visitors who had the chance to sneak into the sacred area could ask the possessed man to fasten a white string around their wrists to get health and good luck.

At 11.00 o’clock the ceremony was finally over. While the “Phra Bot” banner was broughy down from the tree and placed back in the black coffin, fire trucks, police cars and food vendors slowly went home to wait for the spectacular feast again in the coming year. Some visitors even went home with a small copy of the colorful “Phra Bot” purchased for some 300Baht =10USD each.

The whole festival must be seen in the context of the city pillar (“Intakin”) festival at Wat Chedi Luang, which is celebrated for more than a week in the beginning of June to safeguard the political space from the city center out to the forest (Turton 1978).

To sum up, the rain-making nature of the festival, which was in former time royally sponsored, is shown by the few lines to invoke and feed the spirits. “Let not the rice of the Lawa die in their swiddens, (versus) let not the rice of the Khon Muang (Northern Thai) die in their fields.” Thus, the Lawa are still seen and remembered as the ancestors of the Northern Thai.    


Archaimbault, Charles (1959): The Sacrifice of the Buffalo at Vat Ph'u. In: Rene de Berval (editor), Kingdom of Laos. Saigon.

Cadet, John (1990): Monks, Mountains and Magic: Explorations of Thailand. Chiang Mai.

Cohen, Paul (2009): In the Footsteps of the Buddha: Mobility and Residence in the Upper Mekong. In: Pika-Pika: The Flashing Firefly, edited by Anthony Walker, pp. 369-383.

Nimmanhaeminda, Kraisri (1967): The Lawa Guardian Spirits of Chiengmai. JSS55.2:185-225.

Premchit, Sommai & Pierre Dore (1991): The Lan Na Twelve-month Traditions. Chiang Mai.

Swearer, Donald K. et al. (2004): Sacred Mountains of Northern Thailand. Silkworm Books, Chiang Mai.

Tanabe, Shigeharu (1991): Sacrifice and the Transformation of Ritual: The Pu Sae Ya Sae Spirit Cult in Northern Thailand. National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka.

Tantalanukul, Prawit (1999a): A Historical Chronicle of Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Tantalanukul, Prawit (1999b): A Historical Chronicle of Wat Phrathat Haripunchai, Lamphun, Thailand

Tantalanukul, Prawit (2007): A Historical Chronicle of Wat Phrathat Doi Kham, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Tantalanukul, Prawit (2008): A bitter disappointment for Khunluang Wilanka's love. Chiang Mai.

Turton, Andrew (1978): Architectural and Political Space in Thailand. In: G.B. Milner (editor), Natural Symbols in South East Asia. London.