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Ref ID: 22581
Ref Type: Book Section
Authors: Sparkes, Stephen
Title: Rice for the ancestors: food offerings, kinship and merit among the Isan of Northeast Thailand
Date: 2007
Source: Kinship and food in South East Asia
Place of Publication: Copenhagen, Denmark
Publisher: NIAS
Notes: Introduction: The aim of this chapter is to investigate aspects of food offerings, in particular offerings of rice, with the intention of shedding light on the complex cosmology and kinship relations among the Isan of Northeast Thailand. As the quotation above suggests, there appears to be a contradiction between beliefs in ancestral spirits and Buddhist doctrine among some of the Tai-speaking peoples of Thailand. After taking a closer look at food offerings and the role of women in their preparation and ritual performances, this apparent contradiction appears to have far less significance. Food offerings are an integral part of both spirit and Buddhist rituals, and I shall argue that there is a similar underlying logic of reciprocity in both despite the differences between the religious terminology of Buddhist merit-making (<i>tham bun</i> or <i>het bun</i>) and that used for conducting a spirit ritual (<i>het phithii</i>). Food offerings provide an insight into aspects of gender relations and kinship. Because women are responsible for the preparation of food, including cooking and arranging food offerings, it is important to understand female perspectives regarding these events. The fact that the Isan have been described as being uxorilocal, at least for a period of time after marriage, with the youngest daughter having the responsibility for looking after her parents in old age (Keyes 1975) and as having 'matrilineal tendencies' (Sparkes 1993
1997) suggests that residence patterns are determined by women to a large extent. Women are what Hale (1979) refers to as the 'fixed points' in the kinship system, and the ancestors (<i>phii s├╝asaay, phii diawkan, phiiphau phiimae</i> or <i>phiipuu phiinyaa</i>) are usually reckoned along female lines. Hence there is a cluster of associations between women, food offerings, kinship structure and the ancestors that should be investigated in order to form a better understanding of gender, cosmology and food offerings in Isan society. This chapter is divided into three main sections. I shall first attempt to give an overview of Isan cosmology presenting both the differences in concepts in Buddhist and spirit rituals and similarities in light of food offerings. In the second part I shall discuss the important role of women in the house by means of examining the significance of food in the domestic sphere, a predominantly female one, and how relations among the living (kinship) and between the living and the dead (ancestors) are maintained. In addition, the use of rice, symbolised as a female goddess, illustrates yet another aspect of how food is intimately related to female identity. In the third part of this chapter, I shall investigate food offerings in the context of Buddhist rituals and making merit for deceased family members. Fieldwork for this chapter was carried out in the Isan village of Na Din Dam ('Black Earth Rice Fields') in the province of Loei, Northeast Thailand. The Isan of Loei have many cultural and linguistic affinities with the Lao on the other side of the Mekong River whence they originally came. Loei was until quite recently relatively isolated from both the rest of Northeast Thailand and from Bangkok, and elderly informants explained that less than fifty years ago, in order to reach the capital, villagers had first to take a boat down the Mekong to Nong Khai, a terminus for long-distance buses and, later, trains. It was not until the 1970s, when Loei was properly linked to the rest of Thailand via a road network, that the cultivation of cash crops began on a large scale and the general integration into the rapidly growing Thai economy commenced. Despite the influence of the Thai Sangha or monkhood, put in place for the most part during the reign of Chulalongkorn in the middle of the nineteenth century, and the Thai education system, introduced in the 1930s, Loei has retained its own particular dialect of Lao and many cultural traits that are not only different from central Thai traditions but also vary from those of the rest of Northeast Thailand. This can be seen in the following exploration of rituals that combine notions of kinship and food offerings.
Date Created: 4/13/2015
Editors: Janowski, Monica
Kerlogue, Fiona
Volume: 38
Page Start: 223
Page End: 241
Series Title: NIAS Studies in Asian Topics