light in the darkness

img_0050POSTCARD #229: New Delhi: The photo on the left is from our Thai social network, continuing sad imagery mourning the death of the King. The allegory of light in the darkness is significant in many countries in the world. Here in India at this time of year there’s the festival of Diwali – the date is calculated according to the position of the moon and the Hindu lunar calendar. This year (2016) Diwali occurs on 30 October, one day before Halloween on 31 October which would have had the same lunar date in ancient times.

The Diwali festival is observed by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains, celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, good over evil, knowledge over ignorance and hope over despair. In the days prior to the festival, it is traditional for business contracts to be completed, homes to be cleaned and anything unfinished must be brought to a satisfactory close.

The Halloween festival in 21st century Western society marks this lunar event with a playful portrayal of the spirits of darkness and evil coming back to life. At a glance, it would seem to be the opposite of the Diwali festival. Halloween is about dressing up like the dead who wander the streets, knocking on doors and seeking hospitality from the living. Whereas, Diwali is about lighting up your home with candles, color and brightness, exchanging gifts, wearing new clothes and receiving guests.

In both cases, however there is this imagery of a light in the darkness. For the Halloween festival (Celtic Samhain), the dead emerge from darkness into the light and remain here for 24 hours then disappear, a time of great significance in pagan religions of the West. Similar mythology for Diwali surrounding Amāvāsyā, and the dark moon lunar phase, the period when the moon is invisible against the backdrop of the Sun in the sky.

Diwali and Halloween both take place on a ‘cross-quarter day’, the halfway point between a solstice and equinox – a time of seasonal change marked by the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the darker half of the year. For the ancients in both East and West, the invisible moon became part of a spiritual teaching; the unity of opposites, life and death, and why things are the way they are. Spirits were (are?) a tangible presence, benign or hostile, and gather at this time of year when food and drink are shared among the living and offered as a gesture of appeasement for the dead.

Here in New Delhi on Diwali night, people light up diyas (lamps and candles) inside and outside their home, and participate in family puja (prayers). There are also huge firework displays, which recall the celebrations believed to have taken place in the legend of Lord Rama and his wife Sita returning to their kingdom in northern India after defeating the demon king Ravanna in 15th century BC.

Significant also for all Thais, although Diwali is not celebrated there, this lunar event marks the passing away of the much loved monarch Bhumibol Adulyadej at the age of 88, the world’s longest-serving head of state and the longest-reigning monarch in Thai history, serving for 70 years, 126 days.

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October 31 and the Aos Sìth

thai-ghostPOSTCARD #161: New Delhi: Ghosts are pretty convincing in Thai culture – not overly dramatic or garish, very realistic and intense. Thais take care to appease these invisible entities so that they will bless them with good fortune (save them from ill-fortune). Every home or building has a dollhouse-sized shrine on its premises, called a Spirit House. The shrine serves as an altar for gifts to appease guardian spirits of the land. There are offerings of fruit, flowers, bowls of rice, beverages and figurines of people and animals. It’s widely known that accidents or bad luck afflict those who fail to acknowledge the rights of the supernatural beings who rightfully dwell on the grounds.

There’s no Halloween in Thailand maybe because the seasonal change is not so clearly defined, no harvest coming to an end in October/November. But spirits are everywhere, in the same way, the ancient Aos Sí (usually spelled Sìth), in Celtic countries would appear, and offerings of food and drink were left outside for them. The souls of the dead were also thought to revisit their old homes at this time, seeking hospitality. Feasts were had, at which the souls of dead kin were beckoned to attend and a place set at the table for them. These Aos Sí, were the supernatural race who were said to live underground, across the western sea, or in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. They would be able to cross the boundary between this world and the Otherworld during the Gaelic festival of Samhain celebrated from sunset on 31st October to sunset on 1st November, marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter or the “darker half” of the year – halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Samhain was observed in Ireland, Scotland the Isle of Man and in other Celtic lands; the Brythonic Calan Gaeaf (in Wales), Kalan Gwav (in Cornwall), and Kalan Goañv (in Brittany, North of France). There is evidence of Samhain since ancient times; the Mound of the Hostages, a Neolithic passage tomb at the Hill of Tara, is aligned with the Samhain sunrise. It is mentioned in some of the earliest Irish literature and many important events in Irish mythology happen or begin on Samhain.

October 31st was the time when cattle were brought back down from the summer pastures and when livestock were slaughtered for the winter. There were rituals involving special bonfires, deemed to have protective and cleansing powers. It was believed that the Aos Sí needed to be propitiated at Samhain, to ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter. Performers were part of the festival, and people going door-to-door in costumed disguise, reciting verses in exchange for food. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival and often involved nuts and apples.

IMG_2379Halloween suits the East very well where animist beliefs and superstitions are a part of everyday life for Thais. My Thai niece M (aged 11 years) sent me pics of her halloween party, there’s one where she’s staring at the camera with an intensity that’s a bit scary and hair all spiked out. Also this pic of a halloween pumpkin lamp carved out of a pineapple, something I’d never seen before.

You hide me in your cloak of Nothingness
Reflect my ghost in your glass of Being
I am nothing, yet appear: transparent dream
Where your eternity briefly trembles [Rumi]

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Upper photo source