Loy Krathong (ลอยกระทง), sometimes spelled Loy Kratong, is a colorful festival held every year on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai Lunar Calendar. In 2012, the full moon falls on November 28th, but in some places the celebration will be from the 27 to 29th.
This Thai Festival is held all over the country, but there are particularly beautiful celebrations held in Chiang Mai, Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, where the celebrations take place over several days. Celebrations are now held throughout Thailand including Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya, as well as parts of Myanmar (Shan State) and Laos.
In Chiang Mai the celebration is known as Yee Peng (the full moon of the second month), as the twelfth month in the Thai Lunar Calendar corresponds to the second month in the traditional calendar of the old northern Lanna kingdom. The festival features beautifully illuminated lanterns, which are either carried, displayed in houses and temples, and even launched into the night sky. Krathong which are an offering – traditionally made out of a banana stalk and adorned with candles, incense and some money – are floated down the rivers.
History of Loy Krathong
It is believed that Loy Krathong is an ancient Brahmanic or Indic festival. Originally it was a ceremony where people paid their respects to three different gods known as Phra I-Suan (Shiva), Phra Narai (Vishnu) and Phra Phrom (Brahma). People would make lanterns using candles and paper, which would then be displayed in the homes of royalty, rich people or high-ranking officials. One hundred and fifty years ago, at the urging of King Mongkut (Rama IV), it was later adopted by Buddhists as a ceremony to honor the Buddha.
In this new version people would make various kinds of lanterns, which would then be donated to the temples. At this time people would say prayers to ask that their wishes and hopes for the future be fulfilled. Of course, many of the former beliefs are still retained by some Thai people. The lights that are floated down the rivers are meant to symbolise the drifting away of bad luck and misfortune, but for many Thai people it is also an opportunity to honor the goddess of water, Phra Mae Kong Ka (พระแม่คงคา). Kong Ka is the Thai form of Ganga, the Hindu goddess of the sacred Ganges river in India.
Illuminated Lanterns for Loy Krathong
In the north of Thailand there are four different kinds of illuminated lantern or Khom. They are made of paper, but often contain a bamboo cylinder inside it to protect the paper from the heat of the candle. Firstly, there is the Khom Theua or carrying lantern. The citizens will carry this lantern with them on the Loy Kratong parade. Later it will be taken to the temple and used to decorate the temple buildings.
Secondly there is the Khom Kwaen (hanging lantern), which is offered to pay respects to the Buddha. They are made in four shapes: the star, the alms bowl, the basket and the wheel. Thirdly, there is the Khom Paad. This one revolves on a vertical axis, the heat from the candle spinning a wheel. This circular shaped lantern will often feature the twelve signs of the horoscope. This type of lantern can only be placed within the temple gates. Finally, there is the famous Khom Loy. This lantern is actually a small hot air balloon.
Sky Lanterns – Khom Loy / Khom Fai
The Khom Loy, also known as Khom Fai, is a cylinder of paper about one meter high, braced with wire circles. Suspended from the bottom of the cylinder is a tray containing cotton soaked in kerosene. Fireworks and firecrackers are also often attached to the tray. These catch fire and explode after the balloon is launched. Once the cotton is lit it takes about a minute for the air inside the cylinder to heat up enough to lift the balloon into the air.
It is believed that launching one of these balloons can send a person’s bad luck and misfortune away into the air, especially if it disappears from view before the fire goes out. Often people will say a short prayer before launching the balloon. Sometimes they will also place their address in the balloon, or write it on the outside. Anyone who later finds the balloon can then claim money from the sender. In this way the good fortune is shared.
The people in Northern Thailand also venerate Pra Ged Kaew Ju La Manee (the Crystal Chedi in heaven in which the Buddha’s hair is kept), and worship this by sending air ballooned lantern into the high sky. The Chiang Mai area has been the scene of massed balloon launches for a thousand or more.
Origin of Loy Krathong
The origin of Loy Krathong involves at least 7 legends. Most of them stem from Buddhism. The most popular ones are to show respect to the footprint of the Lord Buddha on the sandy beach of the Narmaha River in India, as well as to the great Serpent and dwellers of the underwater world, after the Lord Buddha’s visit to their watery realm. Others believe that the floral krathong is offered to the pagoda (Phra Ged Kaew Ju La Mane) containing the Lord Buddha’s topknot, which was cut off at his self-ordination and is now in heaven.
Another explanation is that it is a way to pay respect to one’s ancestors. It is also possible that this is derived from a Hindu festival that pays tribute to the god Vishnu, who meditates at the center of the ocean. Therefore the origin of the festival remains still obscure and is varied by region.
The former Lanna kingdom and the former kingdom of Siam have different purpose in celebrating Loy Krathong. The Central part of Thailand celebration is derrived from a royal Brahmin rite. They only changed it to Buddhism during the reign of King Mongut. On the other hand, Lanna already has had its own Yee Peng celebration. In Northern Thailand it has been always about Buddha’s stories, especially as it is the time for the Lanna people to listen to the Vessantara Jataka sermon.
Vessantara Jakata Sermon
Maha Wetsandon Chadok (the Vessantara Jataka) is one of the most popular avadanas of Theravada Buddhism. The Vessantara Jataka tells the story of one of Buddha’s past lives, about a compassionate prince, Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, including his children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity. It is also known as the Great Birth Sermon.
The Vessantara Jataka is celebrated in temples during a Buddhist festival known as Thet Mahachat (เทศน์มหาชาติ), from Maha Jati or Great Birth, in Central Thailand, Boun Pha Vet in Laos and as Bun Phawet (Bun Phra Wes). It is also an important celebration as well in Cambodia and Myanmar.
The Thet Mahachat is very popular both in rural and urban communities, often with dance and drama performances, as well as festive parades and processions through the towns. During this Buddhist festival the monks give a sermon of all chapters of the Vessantara Jataka, accompanied by rituals and cultural performances.
Because of its central role on theThet Mahachat or Boun Pha Vet celebrations, the Vessantara Jataka is an important part of the traditional folklore in many areas of Southeast Asian. Some of the scenes, especially the mismatched couple formed by Jujaka, the old Brahmin, and his nagging young wife Amittada, are avidly followed by the people during the festival.
While it has lost its traditional importance in some areas, in others it has gained in popularity. Scenes of the Vessantara Jataka are engraved on Angkor Wat murals. They are also often found depicted on the walls of Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia. This story is also depicted in ancient patterns on matmi silk cloth.
Krathong – Floating Lights
The krathong is a small floating offering about 20 centimeters in diameter. Traditionally this is made from the leaves and wood of the banana tree. The raft is decorated with flowers, a candle and an incense stick. People often leave a small coin in the krathong, and occasionally they will leave a lock of the hair or even nail clippings. On the night of the full moon people will light the candle and the joss stick, and float their krathong down the river.
As with the Khom Loy, this is a way that bad fortune can be discarded and made to float away. Thousands of these will float down the river making for a beautiful and moving spectacle. Usually, at the same time, thousands of Khom Loy will be drifting across the sky, so that the night sky mirrors the spectacle on the water. Almost constant firework displays, and the splashes of small boys diving in to collect the coins in the krathongs, complete the picture, and make for an unforgettable experience.
Lanna or Chiang Mai came to adopt the Central Thai Loy Kratong festival only when the Queen Dara Rasami (Lanna woman) of King Rama V came back to Chiang Mai from Bangkok and floated a krathong into the Ping River. Since then, floating of krathong became popular among people in Chiang Mai and later was made even more popular by the Chiang Mai governor to promote tourism. Since then the beauty contest and Kratong Parade have replaced the original spirit of Yee Peng.
Beauty contests are often a feature of Thai festivals and the Loy Krathong celebrations are no exception. According to legend Noppomas was a consort of the King of Sukothai in the fourteenth century. She was the daughter of a Brahmin priest at the King’s court. She made the first krathong out of banana leaves in the shape of a lotus flower and presented it to the King. He lit the candle and the incense stick and floated it on the water, so starting the tradition we know today. In fact, the floating of Krathongs (Loy Krathong means floating krathong) began as a Sukothai tradtion, but was later grafted onto these festival celebrations all over Thailand. The Loy Krathong Parade usually features contestants in the Noppamas Queen beauty contest, which is always held as part of the celebrations.