BANGKOK – This year, Thailand will enjoy a bountiful rice harvest and enough rainfall, according to the presage of an ancient Hindu ritual with sacred oxen that prompts both enthusiastic fervor and irreverent skepticism among the populace.
The so-called Royal Plowing Ceremony, which is held every year before the crops are sown to predict their yield and the amount of rain, was headed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn – who was formally crowned last Saturday – and his consort, Queen Suthida.
Led by white-robed Brahmins to the tune of hypnotic traditional Thai music, two albino oxen drew a plow through a plot of land in Sanam Luang Square, located near the monarch’s official residence, the Grand Palace.
Anan Suwannrat – the permanent secretary at the agriculture ministry who officiated as the royally-appointed master of ceremonies or “Lord of the Harvest” – scattered rice plant seeds around the enclosure, emulating the sowing that predates the monsoon season.
The oxen were later offered seven bowls containing rice, hay, water, corn, sesame, soy and liquor. They chose to feed on the first three, which led the priests to augur an abundant harvest and sufficient rains for the year.
Anan, who was garbed in a golden gown and sported a cone-shaped hat, randomly chose one of three available types of fabric; his selection also portends optimal rice production and moderate rainfall.
Shortly before the ceremony’s end, the Brahmins blew sacred conch shells while removing the statues of Hindu deities, including the elephant-god Ganesha and Lakshmi, the goddess of prosperity and Vishnu’s consort.
Civil servants and members of the government watched the ritual under the palliative shadow cast by large tarps, while the general public was forced to settle for a faraway view from behind a fence. Only after the ceremony ended were they allowed into the premises to collect rice seeds, flower pots and even banana plants for good fortune.
“This is the first time I’ve attended and I’ve found some seeds,” Khanathip Aemsurinm, a 41-year-old Thai from the eastern province of Chanthaburi, told EFE. “I feel proud of myself.”
Khanathip, who works as an employee at a fruit orchard, said he would keep the rice grains as a souvenir, which he hoped would bring good luck to his life.
Another attendee, Benjamart Koonmee – who was holding a 2-meter-long banana plant – said that the plants used in the ritual bring good fortune as they symbolize an easy, obstacle-free life.
She also explained that the plant, apart from producing bananas, was very useful, since its leaves could be used to wrap sweets, its stem to make decorations for weddings or festivals and its flowers were also edible.
But not everyone in the country believes in the rite’s effectiveness.
Many social media users criticized the practice or made comments drenched in irony.
“The plowing ceremony is what best represents the credulity rampant in Thailand. How is it possible to predict the economy by interpreting what oxen eat?” wrote Sharpgrib on Twitter.
Another user observed in a tweet that the ritual’s “results” were always positive, as the main options essentially range from moderate to plentiful rains and harvests.
One tweet sarcastically suggested that the oxen should eat the military junta and the Election Commission, a reference to the controversy surrounding the vote count in the March 24 elections.
A meme showed a picture of an ox depicted as a judge in a cooking competition with the caption: “I’m not gonna eat that.”
The Royal Plowing Ceremony reflects the importance of agriculture in the country’s economy and the vestiges of the strong Hindu influence in Thailand, a majority of whose population adheres to the Theravada school of Buddhism.
Asa Kumpha, a researcher at Bangkok’s Thammasat University, explained to EFE that this ritual originated in India and later spread through Southeast Asia. It is currently still performed in Cambodia.
In Thailand, the ceremony was abandoned during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, who ruled between 1853-1910). It was reinstated by King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) in the 1950s.
In Myanmar, it was abolished after the Burmese monarchy’s demise in 1885.