The Royal Ploughing Ceremony Cultivating a Bountiful Harvest

in Features on 19/04/2017

The Royal Ploughing Ceremony

Story by Mike Smith

One of the most anticipated days of each year for Thai farmers is the Royal Ploughing Ceremony, held this year on the 12th of May. The date changes every year as it is dependant on the full moon, but always during the sixth lunar month, either April or May. The significance for farmers is that this day marks the beginning of the rice-planting season, a crop of obvious importance to the number one rice exporting country in the world. The goal is to forecast and pray for a good harvest with plentiful rain, but without floods or plague.

The ancient ceremony is of Brahmin origin and has continued through modern times, although the style and importance have varied through the years. The Sukhothai period (1257-1350) saw Ploughing Ceremony’s height of pomp and circumstance, a grand affair with a long procession led by the King. In the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) the ceremony was very brief, with the King often delegating his powers to others, and escaping the ceremony altogether. During the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868), some Buddhist elements were added to the ceremony. Over time the ceremony nearly disappeared. Showing his care and love of the people and an understanding of the importance of farming, the ceremony was revived in 1960 by HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX. HM the King presents awards and certificates to outstanding farmers from each region, those whose fields have produced the highest yield of crops in the previous year.

The ceremony begins at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha with prayers and rituals designed to bring an abundant crop. The King then anoints the head of the Phya Raek Nah, or Lord of the Festival, and presents him with a ceremonial ring and sword. In past years, the Phya Raek Nah has been a Director of the Department of Agriculture, or the Secretary of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Also anointed by HM the King are four consecrated women, or Nang Thepis, carrying silver and gold baskets filled with rice seeds to be scattered during the ceremony. At this point, HM the King and HM the Queen depart the ceremony, and the Phya Raek Nah and Nang Thepis move to the Ceremonial Field at the Sanam Luang Grounds.

Here, the prognosticating for the season’s crops begins. A senior Brahmin presents the Phya Raek Nah with three Panungs (cloth worn around the hips) of varying lengths, which are concealed by another cloth to make their appearance similar. The Lord of the Festival must choose one length, and his choice determines the coming season, a situation not unlike drawing straws. If his choice is the longest panung, there will be little rain during the coming year. A selection of the shortest panung indicates plentiful rain, but so much so that fields in low-lying areas could be damaged. The best hope is for Phya Raek Nah to choose the medium length of cloth; it promises average rain, abundant rice, and plentiful fruit and meat.

The next step is for the procession and ploughing. Buffalo pull a red and gold sacred plough decorated with flowers. This is accompanied by an assortment of Brahmins chanting and blowing conch shells, drummers in green costumes, umbrella bearers, and the four Nang Thepi. The buffalo plough a few furrows in each direction, with the Nang Thepi following and scattering seed. More ploughing is done to turn the soil once more and cover the grain. Following this, the buffalo take their turn at conjecture. They are presented with seven different kinds of food and drink: grass, rice, corn, beans, sesame seed, water and alcohol. Whatever item is selected tells which crops will be plentiful in the upcoming year.

The ceremony now completed, barriers are removed and spectators are allowed onto the newly created rice field. Hundreds of people rush down in a frenzied attempt to find even one or two grains of rice seed for good luck. Farmers take any seed found home and mix it with his own, in hopes of ensuring a good crop during the coming year. For the Thai farmer, this could be a matter of survival.

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