My friend Noom often communicates with a nod or jerk of his head, a smile or snarl, and a widening or narrowing of his eyes. That’s usually a sufficient enough of a reply to whatever question I just asked him. Except when I’m looking for a detailed explanation. Which usually has to do with some odd local custom we’ve just run across. The first time we visited a wat that had miles of white cotton string running from the Buddha statues to every conceivable point within the temple I wanted to know why. The smile, jerk of his head upward, followed by his eyes tracing the route of one piece of string did little to expand my base of knowledge. No problemo. Google is often a bit more communicative.
But then using an internet search engine can be a lot like using one of those old magic eight balls; there is a lot riding on what you ask or search for. Whether I used Thailand specifically or SE Asia in general along with string and wat as search terms, all Google wanted to tell me about was the bracelets you sometime get tied around your wrist by a monk when visiting a wat, or the local marriage ceremony tradition that results in the same cotton wrapped wrist. Sometimes you’d be better off, or no worse off, if Google could nod its head, smile, and make an incomprehensible eye gesture.
More visitors to SE Asia run across the string bracelet than they do (or notice) the strings looped around the interior of a wat. So it makes sense that Google assumes that’s the subject you are interested in when you use string and wat in your search query. I don’t think quite as many visitors get to experience a local wedding, but since the two are closely related, there’s a lot of info on that subject too. Adding Buddha to your set of search terms only helps a little. But does begin to narrow down the results. From there, Google says you are on your own. I’ll have to try that search again in a week and see if this article has convinced Google there might be another answer.
It seems appropriate since The Buddha says attaining the state of enlightenment is a journey, that becoming enlightened about this custom should be a journey too. Yours, which took only three paragraphs, was shorter than mine. I suppose it makes sense that there’s not a big difference between the strings tied around your wrist and those tied around the inside of a wat; it turns out the binding aspect and meaning of the two are similar. In fact the more common of the two stems from the other. In most cases when the string tied throughout a wat has served its purpose it’s cut into small pieces and used to make the bracelets most visitors to Thai temples are familiar with.
Thais have always had a knack for assimilating other cultures into theirs and this one is no different. The string, called sai sen, comes from India and Hindu culture. Today it is predominantly used in the northern regions of Thailand, but also in a slightly different form in Issan where it first travelled through Laos and gained its own set of customs. Cambodia too has been heavily influenced by India in the past, so that the custom is popular there too makes sense. Whether wrapped around your wrist or throughout a temple the string, which has been blessed by monks, is intended to keep out evil spirits and protect everyone and everything inside its boundaries.
Considering the numerous times sai sin is strung it’s surprising you don’t see it in use more often. It is an integral part of house blessing ceremonies, funerals, weddings, graduations, ceremonies to celebrate the completion or anniversary of the construction of a new building within a temple, and as an observance of special Buddhist holidays. Typically, the sai sin starts in the hands of the head monk who begins to unravel the string, holding a piece while passing it to the next monk (and so on and so on) while the monks chant. The connection between the monks and the thread is thought to form a sacrosanct circle as the chanting infuses the thread with sacred power. Symbolically it links those tied with it to a source of special power, often times the wat’s primary Buddha image.
Sai sin is also used in villages where it is tied onto poles and fences above head height, leaving lengths branching off for each house along the way to connect their own piece of sai-sin to the main cord by circling it around the eaves of their home to form a loop. Usually as part of a house blessing ceremony, this custom serves to bind the community together. The Akha hill-tribe of Northern Thailand have their own cord-tying ritual, believing it to be a ‘soul string’ that stops the soul from becoming lost while maintaining a connection to the village. When used as part of a wedding ceremony, the purpose of the sai sin is to transfer the benefits of the blessing directly down to each of the participant, especially the newly married couple.
So the strings you see running through a wat and those tied around the wrists of visitors to the wat are yet another example of the typical Thai state of same same, but different. Even if it did take me far too much effort in scouring the internet to come to that conclusion. I coulda saved myself a lot of time by realizing that Noom’s smile, jerk of his head upward, followed by his eyes tracing the string’s route in the wat we were visiting the first time I ran across the custom pretty much said it all.
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