Inthakhin ceremonies—Lawa spirits and the city pillar

Pouring water over the Phra Fon Saen Ha Buddha image.

Pouring water over the Phra Fon Saen Ha Buddha image.

Inthakhin ceremonies

Every year, for seven days during the second half of May, or early June, the Inthakhin Pillar on Wat Chedi Luang, the large temple at Phra Pok Klao Road in the heart of the walled city, is at the centre of ceremonies that go back to the days of the foundation of Chiang Mai in 1296 AD.

They involve a procession of one the city’s most revered Buddha images, while thousands of devotees flock to the site to bring offerings of flowers to the city pillar, and pour lustral water over the image in front of the main wihan (assembly hall).

Over the course of time, the ceremonies have been subject to many transformations, but some elements still recall the days the muang (polity) was founded in territory once largely inhabited by Lawa people. What’s more, it is only during this week of reverence that the Inthakhin shrine is open to the public — though, alas, women are not allowed to enter.

Traditionally, Thailand’s fortified towns and the lowlands under their control formed political entities called muang. Even as vassals to a larger such polity, or incorporated into a Thai kingdom, like Ayuythaya or Lan Na, these smaller city/valley states enjoyed much autonomy. On the other hand, life in the surrounding countryside could be strictly regulated by the local ruler living in its power centre, the wiang (walled town).

Inthakhin shrine (left) with yang tree (background).

The Inthakhin shrine (left); in the background the giant yang tree.

This political system was particularly important to the Thai of Northern Thailand, as the people identified with it, calling themselves khon muang, which means ‘people of the muang’. Many of the larger ones coincide more or less with presentday provinces, such as Phayao, Chiang Rai, Phrae, Lampang, and Nan. All the formerly walled towns at  the political centre of the muang have a Lak Muang Shrine, the site of the town’s lak muang, a foundation pillar marking the territories’ physical and ritual centres, made from teak or another hardwood.

Chiang Mai’s one is always referred to as the Inthakhin, a Sanskrit/Pali derived word meaning Indra’s Pillar, Indra being one of the major gods of the Hindu pantheon. Besides its non-Thai name, it also differs from other lak muang in being made of bricks instead of timber.

In 1800, during the reign of king Kawila of Chiang Mai, and following a period when the city was almost completely deserted, the pillar was removed from its original site at the former Wat Sadua Muang (The Temple of the City’s Navel), exactly in the geographical centre of the wiang, to the nearby Chedi Luang.

The latter is the huge, fifteenth-century ruined chedi (pagoda), which in 1545 was destroyed during an earthquake. Before then it had been a landmark in the centre of the wiang that could be distinguished from far afield. During its 10-million baht restoration in the early 1990s, Sinhalese-style elephants around the base’s cornice were combined with a Khmer-style naga-balustrade, provoking a public outcry, as it does not fit in with the local cultural legacy. Another landmark at the pillar’s present site is a towering yang tree (Dipterocarpus alatus), planted in 1800.

Right at the foot of this giant tree stands the modest pavilion that houses the pillar. The four sides of the shrine are guarded by simple plaster statues of an elephant, a lion, a hermit, and a tiger. A small shrine close to the towering yang tree near the Inthakhin Pavilion houses a statue of one of the guardian kumphan giants, powerful spirits who are believed to protect the Inthakhin. According to local legend, Indra had ordered these giants to bring the city pillar down from heaven to Chiang Mai. (The shrine for the other guardian is to the right of the main gate, tucked away near the north wall.)

The present pavilion was designed by Khruba Khao Pi, a highly venerated monk, and completed in 1953. Phra Un Muang, this monk’s most respected Buddha image (a standing Buddha with the hands crossed on his breast, signifying deep reflection) was then placed on top of the pillar, where it can still be seen today.

Inthakhin Pillar with Buddha image.

The Buddha image on top of Inthakhin Pillar.

Chanting monk in the Inthakhin Shrine.

Chanting monks in the Inthakhin Shrine.

Throughout the year, the Inthakhin and the Buddha image are locked away in seclusion, while during the celebrations the doors of the pavilion are kept open. Yet only men are permitted to enter, since traditionally the polluting power of (menstruating) women is thought to be a threat to sacredness of the site. The annual ceremonies begin on the thirteenth day of the waning moon in the eighth Northern lunar month and continue until the second day of the waxing moon of the ninth moon.

The ritual is primarily an offering to the pillar and its guardians. Ancient chronicles list in detail what is appropriate to offer. This includes candles, bottles of rice liquor, coconuts, bunches of bananas, strings of sliced areca nuts, bundles of betel leaves, and baskets of unhusked rice. On the first day, these offerings are taken in procession around the city, together with the Phra Fon Saen Ha, a Buddha image reputedly with special powers to bring rain, which is usually housed in the wihan of nearby Wat Chang Taem.

The procession is accompanied by young women performing traditional dances, traditional orchestras, and men in the uniforms of the former Chiang Mai palace guards. Local government officials are also prominent. Returning to Wat Chedi Luang, the Phra Fon Saen Ha is placed on a platform raised in front of the wihan, next to the Inthakhin Pavilion. After the procession, and over the subsequent days, nine monks will sit around the Inthakhin and chant sutras in Northern Thai language (of which two are relevant to rain-making rituals). During the sessions, the monks all hold a white cotton thread that is believed to transfer the sacred power from the Buddha image to the Inthakhin. The thread is further wound around various sacred objects, including the two Kumphan statues, and the yang tree. For seven days the monks chant around the pillar every evening.

Flower offerings around the Inthakhin Shrine.

Offering flowers around the Inthakhin Shrine.

Throughout the week, thousands of visitors flock to the temple and offer flowers at a number of sites, both inside the main wihan and outside, in particular on rows of large trays west of the Inthakhin Pavilion and on eight platforms on each side of the ratchawat, a fence made of split bamboo around it. Beside this tham bun sai khan dok (making merit by offering flowers), song nam, or the bathing of the Phra Fon Saen Ha Buddha image, is the other important ritual. For the latter, lustral water perfumed with somphoi pods (a kind of acacia), or with saffron, is used.

The significance of pouring water over the Buddha image is quite overt: it is a rain-making ceremony similar to many others. Songkran, the traditional New Year’s water throwing festival in mid-April, also includes the bathing of Buddha images. As the Inthakhin is associated with the prosperity of the city and the fertility of the muang, it is obvious that the bathing of the Phra Fon Saen Ha Buddha is included in the ceremonies, despite their not having been part of the original ceremonies.

Over the past 150 years, the rituals at the Inthakhin have been subject to drastic changes. Until the early twentieth-century, spirit mediums dancing in trance, and animal sacrifices, were central to the ceremonies. Sacrifices were reported by nineteenth-century British travellers, one of whom even pointing out that formerly humans were said to have been sacrificed. According to reports, the rituals were financed by a levy on all households in the muang; nowadays they are under direct control of the Municipal Council.

Traditionally, lak muang cults essentially featured animal (and human?) sacrifices, along with spirit-possessions. Within these (and other tutelary spirit) cults, the set of ritual sequences is first and foremost concerned with the transformation of spiritual power into rewarding tutelary power. Through this complicated process of ritual, the tutelary spirits come to recognize the existing social order and in this way legitimate the authority of the sponsor of the rites, usually village chiefs and princes.

In Chiang  Mai, the sacrifices were associated with the Lawa, the original inhabitants of much of Chiang Mai Valley before the foundation of the city by the Thai ruler King Mengrai in 1296. The sacrificial ritual propitiation of Pu Sae Nya Sae, the cannibalistic Lawa demons and ancestral spirits believed to roam Doi Suthep, the mountain west of Chiang Mai, still takes place at the eastern foothills of the mountain and includes the slaughtering of a young water buffalo. During the process of the conquest of the indigenous Lawa, the latter recognized Thai authority and converted to Buddhism, while their ancestor spirits became the guardian spirits of the land of Chiang Mai. The rituals eventually came to mark the subjugated status of minorities within the Thai political system in the thirteenth century.


Offerings at the base of the Inthakhin Pillar, including sliced areca nuts and rice liquor.

Offerings at the base of the Inthakhin Pillar, including sliced areca nuts and rice liquor.

Offerings of flowers, candles and incense around the Inthakhin Shrine.

Understandably, these lost most of their meaning when, beginning from the late nineteenth-century, the local rulers, including the Prince of Chiang Mai, were stripped of their power by the Bangkok administration. Spirit possessions and animal sacrifices were abolished, while in the remaining Inthakhin rituals more emphasis was laid on Buddhist practices, as seen in the present ritual sequences.

This process was probably accellerated around 1928, during the restoration of Wat Chedi Luang, when both Inthakhin and the ruined chedi became included within the newly designated temple compound. The temple belongs to the influential reformist Thammayut sect which, since its foundation in the mid-nineteenth century by the later King Mongkut (Rama IV), is overtly associated with the royal power in Bangkok. The sect became instrumental in the protracted process of incorporating the clergy of Northern Thailand within the Sangha (monastic order) in Bangkok, all part and parcel of the fuller integration of Chiang Mai’s society into the centralized Siamese administration.

Even though sacrificial traditions had by then become regarded as a rather unsavoury practice by the government authorities, they may have been maintained at the level of community rituals. What still remains are the offerings of a boiled pig’s heads, but the ritual slaughtering of animals is suppressed in the city-centre. The cult thus came to lay a greater stress on the monk’s chanting, combined with a set of Buddhist merit-making practices, as seen during present day ceremonies.

Some twenty years ago, I remember, the Inthakhin rituals were combined with a lively temple fair in the compound of Wat Chedi Luang, including such attractions as traditional like theatre, or folk opera. I do not know why it has gone. The only remnants of the fair, are the dozens of food stalls lining Phra Pok Klao Road on both sides of the main temple entrance. Even given all these changes, though, it’s still worth visiting the crowded site during the ceremonial week. The devotion of the local visitors and the exuberance of the flower offerings remains an impressive sight.