A group of young Laotians have been heavily criticized – and could be subject to “re-education” – for carrying an ornately dressed woman in a palanquin around the country’s main religious landmark during a Buddhist festival
The youths apologized after being told to do so, but explained that they wanted to promote the arts and they did not mean it disrespectfully.
The idea for the procession came from Laotian literature and history, and the woman – an “Upson girl”, whose job was to entertain kings in the past – was based on a sculpture in an ancient temple, a member of the group organizing the procession wrote the procession on its FaceBook page.
“This image is now kept in the [old] Emerald Buddha Temple in Vientiane,” he wrote. “Our new generation of Laotian artists chose this artwork and just wanted to recreate it.”
“It was not our intention to show any disrespect to the stupa,” he wrote. “We performed that activity to promote the arts, but we now understand that that activity was not appropriate from the public’s point of view.”
But the November 6 procession around the great gold-covered Pha That Luang, known as the Great Stupa, in the center of Vientiane, the capital of Laos, led to heavy criticism from monks, government agencies and members of the public.
Many said it was against Laotian tradition and culture. Some said that only kings or monks should be carried around in palanquins, while others pointed out that an “Upson girl” was considered a “naughty girl,” or one of the prostitutes of the old court.
“It is wrong to carry a woman like that on a wooden box and on her shoulders in a parade around the That Luang Stupa,” said a senior monk in Vientiane, who, along with other sources in this report, asked for anonymity for security reasons. “The act shows that the group did not respect our sacred place, tradition and culture. It’s not right; I have never seen anything like it in my 60 years of existence.”
A young Buddhist follower told RFA’s Lao Service that parading an “Upson girl” around the stupa was a grave violation of Laos tradition and culture.
“Before, only the king could sit on the palanquin and be carried around,” he said. “It is not appropriate for a woman to be carried. It must be a king, according to our tradition, culture and history.”
The procession took place during the annual week-long That Luang Festival, Vientiane’s main Buddhist festival during the November full moon.
Laotians from all over the country go to the temple in ethnic costumes, play traditional music, dance and carry flowers, incense and candles. Led by chanting monks, worshipers usually walk around the stupa three times in a clockwise direction.
The organizing committee of the That Luang Stupa Festival decided to take action against the young people one day after the procession because they had not been given permission for the procession first and because their act was an insult to Laotian tradition and culture.
The youths were told to formally apologize to the That Luang Stupa and to the public in a ceremony in which they would also present four beeswax castles and four packs of candles and flowers to senior monks at the temple.
So said the member of the group who apologized on Facebook that the group members were unaware of the religious ceremony at the stupa and that guards at the gate did not prevent them from entering.
A county police officer said police would investigate the incident and “re-educate” the group. “That would be it; no other punishment would be imposed,” he said.
Re-education involves reminding offenders of the rules and norms of the Laos People’s Revolutionary Party, the county’s sole ruling party, and of government policies on specific issues.
A few days later, an official from Vientiane’s Saysettha district confirmed that the group issued a formal apology at a stupa, adding that the festival’s organizing committee believed the youths had no intention of offending Laotian tradition and culture .
Translated by Max Avary for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.