Chapter 6: Lao Folk Medicine and Remedy

 

Introduction

Leaves of French weeds (Eupatorium odoratum) or aloe leaves could be rubbed on a cut, a burn, or a fresh wound.  In a few days, the cut, the burn, or the wound will be healed.1

           In the old times, there was no modern hospital anywhere, but the people could manage to live quite contentedly.  For some simple symptoms, the people themselves would know what to do, as in the above quote.   Almost everybody knows that leaves of French weeds or aloe could be used to heal a cut or a burn.   The use of herbal remedies is quite wide spread, and anyone can use the herbs.    However, when symptoms became complicated, the villagers would turn to their village medicine man who would also know what to do to help the people.  The healing of the complicated symptoms must be done only by well-respected and knowledgeable person.  

In one village, there may be only one medicine man.   There are many restrictions for the medicine man.  The medicine man must be devoted to the cause of healing people.  He must also learn all magic words of incantations for a variety of healing procedures.  He must sacrifice some personal pleasures and must refrain from certain foods or habits.  If he could not follow those restrictions, he may turn out to be insane or possessed by an evil spirit.  The knowledge of folk medicine and remedies is usually passed on only to a male member of the same family.        As the knowledge of folk medicine and remedy is considered sacred and secret;  it could be passed on to only a male member of the family.  It is not to be published for the public.    Thus, there are not that many publications on the subject.  We can see that in the entire Lao National Bibliography (1975- 1995),2 there are only three books on local folk medicine, two by the same author and one on the folk remedy of the katu tribe by the Lao Sociology Research Institute.3    

As we have no access to the above books, this chapter will give examples of folk medicine and remedy by Jaruwan Thammawat who gives a few examples of folk medicine and remedies or healing in two sections of her book entitled, Kati chao baan Isan (Isan Folklore.)4    In discussing healing in Lao tradition, it is necessary to understand the concept of "khwan."   Thus, the second portion of this chapter will focus on the "khwan" ceremony.

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Folk Medicine

Folk medicine or remedy refers to the actual use of herbs for curing or remedy for any physical  illness.  Examples are again from the same source.

In the section, "Beliefs on Folk Medicines," Jaruwan Thammawat gives two examples of folk medicine.

First, the folk medicine for longevity. The following ingredients will be marinated in whiskey to be taken morning and evening:

108 myranbaran fruit, 108 wild phyllanthus emblica fruit, 108 diospyros mollis fruit, 1200 grams of the root of solenospermum wallichii (Kurz) Loes, 300 grams of hot chili peppers, 150 grams of salt, 2400 grams of ginger roots, 300 grams of peppers, and 300 grams of sugar.

Second, the cure for malnutrition in children.  Grind the following ingredients together leaves of bottle gourd, earthworms, and clay.  Then, make small balls from the mixture, and dry them in the sun.  To use the medicine, fire the balls until they are red and then put them in water for children to drink morning and evening.

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Folk Healing

Folk healing refers to any ritual used in healing or preventing any symptoms of illness or signs of mishaps.  Jaruwan Thammawat also provides some examples.

In the section, "Beliefs in Magic and Words of Incantation," she gives five instances of the use of magic words of incantation. 

First, curing plague or cholera, the medicine man must have a ceremony to pay homage to his teachers on Tuesday by preparing khan haa (a set of five flowers, candles, and incense sticks on a tray).  The medicine man then recites words of incantation,

tosaa waranassa ohm nomoosuun haaya i-patsoo phakhawaa nguang ngaa pat din nii i-pat see waami phasuwannoo mahaa nikoo mahaa neet nichak khinii

and then blows the magic incantation over the drinking water for the people three times.  For animals the medicine man must blow the magic incantation over the grass for the animals to eat.

Second, curing pink eye in people, the medicine man must have a ceremony to pay homage to his teachers on Tuesday by preparing khan haa (a set of five flowers, candles, and incense sticks on a tray) and three coins.    The medicine man then holds garlic in his mouth before reciting words of incantation,

Ohm khing lua maa pao taa daeng ohm khing khaeng maa pao taa son pao hai lok sing puek puay ohm sahaaya

and then blows the garlic air on the sick person's eyes three times.

Third, to bless the ricefield for a good crop, the medicine man must have a ceremony to pay homage to his teachers on Thursday by preparing khan haa (a set of five flowers, candles, and incense sticks on a tray).  The medicine man then recites words of incantation seven times at the beginning of the rice planting procedure.  The words are 

pha sa pha phochanang laa phang sukhang hootu.

Fourth, to prevent pests, the medicine man must have a ceremony to pay homage to his teachers on Tuesday by preparing khan haa (a set of five flowers, candles, and incense sticks on a tray) and six coins.  The medicine man then recites words of incantation seven times before blowing air in the water to water the rice plants.  The words are

Ohm maeg too paak daeng ohm maeng khaeng too paak hon hai suu nii laa mue nii wan nii    ohm kho thang mang kho lai hai suu nii sa mue nii wan nii      ohm miid daam lek ohm miid daam thong chai kuu wong ying khwa thaan thang lai kuu si yaiy khaa thaa waed lom om khet hai naa ohm katsaha     ohm kattaati ohm toi toi nai soi somsii ohm somsii pong bai changsa yathaa waariwahoo puu roo suppakaarang phutthang saha.

Fifth, to reap good produce, the medicine man recites words of incantation three times and blows the air in the water to use for watering the plants.  The words are

sattha phiisang tapoowutthathi panyaamee yukkhanangkhalang hirii ii-saa manoo yoottang satimee phanlaapanang jai khuttoo wacheekhuttoo aa-haa-re uttharee yatoo wiriyangmee thurathoorai-hang yoosakakhemaa chiwaahanang.

The examples given above could be classed into three groups: first the two instances of the actual use of herbs to cure physical sickness in the section, "Beliefs on Folk Medicines;" second the use of rituals and words of incantation to cure physical sickness in the first two items of the section, "Beliefs in Magic and Words of Incantation;" and third, the use of rituals and words of incantation to prevent bad things from happening in the last three examples.   In the act of recitation of words of incantation to prevent bad things from happening, the people will feel comforted that precautions have been taken.    When they feel comforted, they tend to be successful in whatever they attempt to do.  When people feel comforted, it means their khwan or spirit is contained within their body. 

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Baa sii suu khwan Ceremony

In discussing healing in Lao tradition, it is necessary to understand the concept of "khwan."  It is believed that each person's well-being depends on their khwan or spirit. Each person has 32 khwan dwelling within his/her person.  If any of the khwan is frightened, the person may fall ill.  To help comfort a person to feel that the khwan is contained within his/her body, a ceremony is organized.  This ceremony is called, "baa sii suu khwan or suu khwan baa sii (the ceremony of calling back spirit).  This ceremony is commonly practised among the ethnic Tai people in Southeast Asia including the Thai/Lao people in the north, the northeast, and Laos. 

 

Baa sii suukhwan is a ceremony held to bless a person with health and happiness both physically and spiritually. A healthy and happy person is one whose good spirit dwells in his or her body. The spirit could be frightened and leave the body with any change in his or her life. When the spirit is frightened away from someone, the person usually feels unhappy and could fall ill.  There are many incidents that might frighten the khwan to go away from its dwelling place, for example when there is any change in a person's life, when a person is going away from a community, when a person is entering a new community, when a person delivers a baby, when a person reaches the age to be ordained as a monk, when a person gets married, and so on.  It is also believed that everything living or non-living has khwan also.  Thus, there are various kinds of baa sii suu khwan ceremony for both living and non-living things.5  

Chanmee Sitthimanotham6 gives many instances of the baa sii suu khwan such as "Pre-Wedding baa sii suu khwan, Wedding baa sii suu khwan, baa sii suu khwan for a new born baby and its mother, New Year baa sii suu khwan, baa sii suu khwan for a person going abroad, baa sii suu khwan for a person returning from abroad, baa sii suu khwan for monks, royal baa sii suu khwan, baa sii suu khwan for a sick person, baa sii suu khwan for a house, baa sii suu khwan for a new house, baa sii suu khwan for the new house post, baa sii suu khwan for the granary, baa sii suu khwan before filling the granary with rice, baa sii suu khwan for threshing ground, baa sii suu khwan for the rice in the threshing ground, baa sii suu khwan for the ricefields, baa sii suu khwan for the buffaloes, baa sii suu khwan for cars, and so on.

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    Procedures of Baa sii suu khwan7

     Preparation:  In organizing a baa sii suu khwan ceremony, one needs to have a master of ceremony or in Lao term, s,vrvo (mo phon, a giver of blessings).  A ceremonial tray  called rk-;ao(phaa khwan) must be prepared along with several levels of beautiful designed cones made of fresh banana leaves called s,kdg[a' (maak beng) to be set on the tray.  Rice grains, bananas, steamed sticky rice in banana leaves, four bowls of sweets or dessert, a boiled egg, a boiled chicken, flowers, incense sticks, candles, cloth, and shoulder cloth must be prepared.  If the ceremony is for a human, human ornaments need to be prepared such as rings, mirror, comb, bracelets, necklace, and perfume.  Cotton strings must also be prepared.  The candles are homemade from beeswax in various lengths: the length of the person's head in diameter, the length of finger tip and elbow, the width of the body, and the length from top to toe.  The following items are also required:  leaves of caricature plants, graptophyllumhortense (acanthaceae), morinda citrifolia (rubiaceae), leaves and flowers of Indian laurnum (cassia fistula, laguminosae).  The decorated tray then must be placed on the flat food tray.  On the side of the tray,  a sticky-rice box,  a water guord, a glass, and a bottle of whiskey.   People to attend a baa sii suu khwan ceremony, must wear polite clothes with a shoulder cloth (phaa biang) on the left shoulder.

     Seating position is important in this baa sii suu khwan ceremony.  After everything is prepared, people sit around the tray touching it, facing the good direction of the day.

Sunday--west ;   Monday -- northwest;   Tuesday -- east;  Wednesday -- north; Thursday -- northeast;    Friday -- south; Saturday -- southwest.

One must avoid facing the bad direction of the day.

Sunday--northwest ;   Monday -- east;   Tuesday --southwest;  Wednesday -- south; Thursday -- north;    Friday -- west; Saturday -- northeast

     The ceremony begins with everyone raising their joined hands when the mo phon lights the incense sticks and candles, prostrating to the Sanga or the Buddha image.  Then, the mo phon recites words of incantation, pays homage, and asks for permision from the Buddhist monks in Lao or in Pali:

sakkhee kaa mee charuupe  saatawoomee sunantu

     Then the mo phon recites the following verse three times:

namoo tatsa phakhawatoo a-ra-hatto samma sum phut thatsa

    Then he vows to the Tripple Gem (the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sanga) as one's refuge in the following verses:

1.

phutthang saranang khatsami  thammang saranang khatsami sangkhang saranang khatsami

2.

thutiyampi  phutthang saranang khatsami  thutiyampi sangkhang saranang khatsami thuiyampi sangkhang saranang khatsami          tatiyampi  phutthang saranang khatsami  tatiyampi sangkhang saranang khatsami tatiyampi sangkhang saranang khatsami

3.

itipisoo phakhawaa arahang samma samphuttatsa  sawakhatoo phakhawataaarahang samma samphuttatsa supatipanoo arahang samma samphuttatsa

Then, the Brahman chant follows.  The words depend on the occasion.  The words of the chants usually follow the same pattern.  At first the leader of the ceremony or the giver of blessings will explain how auspicious the day or the time is for the ceremony, then he will describe the baasii tray, the food, the people who love the person, and he will say that all of these are here to endear the spirit and to invite it back to the body. Then he may intermittently call "ma yoe khwan oye (Come Spirit, please come)" and the gatherers will echo the refrain in unison. Between the refrain, the leader of the ceremony will again say that the spirit may have gone astray to the heaven of Thaen or the lands of far away.  He may give incidents or places in Lao ancient literature to show that the spirit has gone so far away. Then, he would say the refrain again.  This calling of the spirit happens three times.  At the end, he would give blessings to the person and all the gatherers.    He may recite the blessings in Pali verses to signify the ending of the chant.   Then, he would dip some (prepared) auspicious branches or flowers in the whiskey and sprinkle it on the person and on everybody in the ceremony, saying blessings as well.   At the very end, everyone would pick the cotton strings from the tray to tie the person’s wrist to keep the spirit within the body of the person.   After that everybody will tie the strings on each other's wrist, saying blessing verses.   (The person receiving the strings must leave them on for at least three days.   Then, he or she can gently slide the string off his or her wrist.  One must not cut or bite off the string as it symbolically represents the cutting of ties and friendly connections between the people.)  After everything is done, people may have a meal together.

Baa sii ceremony is not explicitly a folk remedy, but it gives moral support to the person for whom the ceremony is.  The tying of the cotton string is also a symbol of love and concerns of the people who tie the string for the receiver.  The ceremony brings all people young and old in the community to be together wishing each other success, wealth, and health.  Thus, this ceremony becomes the well-being of the community as well as of an individual person

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Notes to Chapter 6: Lao Folk Medicine and Remedy

     1.  This is what most children have been told to do ever since we are very young.

     2. The National Library of Laos, National Bibliography 1975-1995, Vientiane: Longphim Santiphab, 2000.

     3.  Sommon Phunsawat, Tamla yaa phuen muang (Lao Folk Medicine Formula), Vientiane: the University of Medicine, 1986.

         ________. Tamla yaa phuen muang (Lao Folk Medicine Formula), Vientiane: the Lao Government Printing Press, 1990.

         The Lao Sociology Research Institute, Paphenii pan pou khong phao katu (The Folk Remedies of the Katu Tribe), Vientiane: the Lao Government Printing Press, 1995.

    4.  Jaruwan Thammawat, Khati chao baan Isan (Isan Folklore), Bangkok: Aksonwatthana, 1978, pp. 110-112.

     5.  For more information on khwan or baa sii suu khwan, please see the following sources:

Samlong Inthaly-Smith, Lao Culture, Minneapolis, MN: ECIA CHAPTER 1 PROGRAM, 1993, pp. 32-45.

Xay Kaignavongsa and Hugh Fincher, Legends of the Lao, a Compilation of Legends and other Folklore of the Lao People, by  [United States] : Geodata Systems, 1993, p. 79.

Rajadhon, Rhya Anuman. Essays on Thai folklore, Bangkok : Thai Inter-Religious Commission for Development & Sathirakoses Nagapradipa Foundation : distributed by
Kled Thai Co. and Suksit Siam, 1988.

     6.  Chanmee Sitthimanotham, Watthanatham Buhaan Lao (Ancient Lao Culture), Vientiane: Longphim Num Lao, 1999.

     7.  Ibid., pp.9 l -.

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