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Ka Bin La Phom, Luang Prabang’s god of the sky

I am fascinated by cultural stories of non-western people and one fascinating story is the one in Luang Prabang, Laos about the four faced god, Ka Bin La Phom.

Not only does the god personify a whole value system, he also features very prominently in the lunar new year celebrations each year.

Ka Bin La Phom, Wat Mahathat, Luang Prabang, Laos

A statue of Ka Bin La Phom at the top of stairs leading to Wat Mahathat

If you walk up the stairs leading from the main road into Wat Mahathat you will pass through a gateway featuring the god’s head on the top of the ornate gate posts. In his four faces are four guiding principles which people believe gives guidance on how to interact with people – especially your children.

The four things exemplified in Ka Bin La Phom’s four faces you should use in any interaction are:

  •  Loving Kindness,
  •  Compassion,
  •  Sympathy, and
  •  Neutrality.

Sounds good to me and from my interactions with Lao people, I think they take this lesson fairly seriously.

Entry Doors, Wat Mahathat, Luang Prabang, Laos

One of the beautiful entry doors to Wat Mahathat

But, Ka Bin La Phom plays a strong part in Lao New Year, or Pi Mai. Yes, I know there is a lot of water throwing and mud smearing and drunkenness too, but there is a serious religious side to the festival and the parade through town and the blessings at the Pac Ou Caves are serious affairs – featuring Ka Bin La Phom.

Let me tell you the story as it was told to me by our friend and guide Lathasak Manilatsamy.

Ka Bin La Phom created the world and its people and remained the god of the sky. It was the custom for people to ask his advice to solve problems or to grant them their wishes. But the people started to favour asking a learned man called Tamaban to solve their problems. Tamaban had studied a lot and had actually learnt to speak the languages of the birds and beasts of the forest.

Ka Bin La Phom is carried by the current Miss "Lao New Year" at Wat Mahathat

Ka Bin La Phom is carried by the current Miss “Lao New Year” at Wat Mahathat

In time, people started to forget Ka Bin La Phom and he became jealous and angry. So he decided to set Tamaban a problem to show the people who was the smartest. So he came down to earth in human form and showed himself to Tamaban and the people. He told Tamaban that they were now in a life and death struggle – after the competition either Tamaban or Ka Bin La Phom would die.

To save himself, Tamaban had to answer three questions:

  • Where is the sin of the people in the morning?
  • Where is the sin of the people in the afternoon?
  • Where is the sin of the people in the evening?

Ka Bin La Phom told Tamaban that he would return in seven days to hear his answers – expecting that Tamaban would not have the answers.

With Ka Bin La Phom at the front of the float, the daughters take up positions on and under a Garuda

With Ka Bin La Phom at the front of the float, the daughters take up positions on and under a Garuda

And he would have been correct because Tamaban did not have any idea what the answers were. For six days he thought, asked people and prayed for the answers – but they did not come. So, in fear of his life, on the sixth day, he ran away into the deep jungle.

He clambered for hours through the dense jungle and becoming very tired, he lay down under a huge tree and as he lay resting two large eagles landed in the branches.

Crowds arriving at the Miss Lao New Year Competition

Crowds arriving at the Miss Lao New Year Competition

Not realising that Tamaban could hear them, Mrs Eagle said to Mr Eagle “I am very hungry. Will we get anything good to eat tomorrow?”

Mr Eagle replied “Tomorrow we will have a treat. The god Ka Bin La Phom has asked a man called Tamaban three questions and if he does not give him the answers tomorrow, Ka Bin La Phom will cut off his head and we will have days of feasting on his flesh.”

The daughters of Ka Bin La Phom sprinkling holy water on Buddhas at Pac Ou Caves

The daughters of Ka Bin La Phom sprinkling holy water on Buddhas at Pac Ou Caves

“That’s good news,” said Mrs Eagle, “But what are the questions and do you know the answers?”

“Listen, and I will tell you the questions and the answers,” said Mr Eagle – and he did, while hiding below them, Tamaban listened intently. When they were finished, Tamaban ran back to his village.

On the seventh day, Ka Bin La Phom returned and confronted Tamaban.

“Well, do you have the answers or shall I cut off your head?” he asked.

“I have your answers” said Tamaban boldly.

“The sin of the people in the morning is on their faces so they wash their faces before they start the day.

The sin of the people in the afternoon is on their bodies so when they come home from the fields they wash the sin away and refresh themselves.

In the evening, it is on their feet so before going to bed, they wash their feet.”

Some of the Buddha statues inside the caves at Pac Ou

Some of the Buddha statues inside the caves at Pac Ou

“You are correct!” exclaimed an astounded Ka Bin La Phom, “and as I promised, I will now cut off my own head instead of yours. But, this will be very dangerous for human kind and you must follow my directions or the world will come to an end!”

With that, he called his seven daughters to him and explained to them what they needed to do. He told them that once his head was cut from his body it would be very dangerous. If it was placed on the ground, the earth would catch fire and burn to dust. If it was placed in a river or stream, all the water in the land would boil away and if they threw it into the air, the air itself would catch fire and all life would perish.

To make the head safe, it would have to be placed on a golden platter and kept inside a cave – except for once a year, when it must be brought out to be venerated and washed in holy water.

And this is the ceremony that takes place every Lao New Year.

The seven daughters are picked in a huge contest for their looks as well as their character and intellect. They bring the god’s head out and venerate it in a building inside Wat Mahathat. It is then carried in procession from Wat Mahathat to Wat Xien Thong where it can be worshiped before returning it to its resting place.

The seven daughters also visit the ancient caves north of Luang Prabang which overlook the Mekong just where the Ou River flows into the Mekong.

Here, the daughters sprinkle holy water on the hundreds of Buddha statues crowded into the caves .

Worshipers leaving Pac Ou by canoe

Worshipers leaving Pac Ou by canoe

A Bit of the Real Bali

Galungan Banner CS_2716

We last visited Bali during the major Festive of Galungan and Kuningan (23 October to 2 November 2013) which is one of the biggest in the Balinese calendar – well one of the calendars anyway – they have three: the Gregorian (the regular one); the Pawukon (210 day calender with ten different weeks running simultaneously) and the Saka calendar which has 12 months each of 30 days – yeah, confusing huh?

Anyway, we were lucky enough to be invited to go back to our friend’s villages to celebrate with them.

That’s how we found ourselves at Kusamba Village for Galungan.

One of our young companions, ready to go.

One of our young companions, ready to go.

Our friends taught us how to pray the Balinese way

Our friends taught us how to pray the Balinese way

We first had to learn how to tie on our sarongs, a long one covered by a shorter one. Etiquette demands that the men wear white shirts, preferably long sleeved. On the head must be the traditional Balinese hat – which takes a little time and care to tie just right.

This day is very family orientated – like most things in Bali. There’s a fair bit of praying as well.

It starts at home, at the home shrine. It seems most Balinese houses have a shrine, some small and some large and elaborate. Then, its off to the family shrine where all the uncles and aunts, siblings and cousins meet up. Then, if you’re up to it, it’s off to one of the major public temples for a blessing and a bit more praying.

Once all of that is over, its time to sit with friends, drink a little arak or beer (or both at the same time which tastes a little like scotch) and relax.

Kusamba Beach, Bali, Indonesia

Kusamba Beach

On Galungan, we trooped down to Kusamba Beach, a black beach with headlands at both ends and a view out to sea.

It seemed that people came from all over Bali to this beach and it was crowded.

Kids love having their picture taken

Kids love having their picture taken

Still, it was relaxed and easy going. There were many stalls selling food or toys or trinkets. Hawkers walked the beach selling balloons, coffee, saté, drinks and much more.

Kids (and adults) flew kites and model aircraft and paddled on the shoreline.

The mood was gentle and respectful. No alcohol, no musclemen, no bikinis just a gentle onshore breeze and the laughter of the kids as the played in the water.

Our little group were the only white faces in the whole throng, and we felt at peace as we sat in the black sand, turned our faces to the breeze and took in the view.

As the sun began to dip behind the mountains at our backs we walked back up into the village where I got to achieve one of my long held ambitions.

We get to hang with the boys

We get to hang with the boys

As you enter a Balinese village you will always pass a group of men sitting cross legged in a small covered pavilion at a strategic street corner.

Galungan, it's a family thing

Galungan, it’s a family thing

They sit and smoke cigarettes, play cards, gossip and generally watch out for the village. I have always wanted to be one of those guys and back in Kusamba Village, I got to be one.

We sat, chewing the fat, drinking beer and arak – I watched them smoke cigarettes – and watched the village troop by.

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer – the Ancestors

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer on the steps to Wat Aham

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer on the steps to Wat Aham

The religion in Luang Prabang is Therevada Buddhism which also includes the spirits of the land and water, the Nagas, and also the tutelary gods of Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer (with their stepson the lion named Singkow Singkom).

The story goes that when the king of the gods came to earth, before there were people, he brought with him two helpers who cleared the jungle for him as he moved west.

Those helpers were Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer.

When they came to the spot that is now Luang Prabang, Pu Nyer and Nya Nyer decided to stay.

They came to an agreement with the 15 families of Nagas that already lived here and they settled down to grow rice. Their rice fields were close to the current location of Wat Visoun and Wat Aham.

They became the ancestors of the Lao people and they are still venerated in Luang Prabang.

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer lead the New year Parade

Pu Nyer & Nya Nyer lead the New year Parade

Their masks and costumes are kept in a small building alongside Wat Aham where there used to be an alter to them for people to make offerings.

Each year, after a ceremony to bring the spirits of these gods back to their costumes, they play a feature role in important ceremonies.

For example, they march at the head of parades and they collect holy water from the rivers to use to wash the most sacred Buddha statue, the Pra Bang during Pi Mai.

You will find miniature versions for sale right across Luang Prabang.