During our time in Laos, we had the opportunity not only to witness but to be the guests of honour at one of the most important ceremonies for Laotian people – the Baci.
Besides Buddhism, Animism and ancestor worship play important roles in Laos. The main function of a Baci is to reunite the body’s multiple souls. This ceremony plays an important role in everyday life, especially on occasions like birthdays, weddings or farewell parties. The central element of the Baci is the pakhuan – an elaborate bouquet-like “flower tower” made from tightly and artfully wrapped banana leaves as a scaffold, which is splendidly decorated with yellow and orange flowers on long spikes, candles on the top and draped with orange and white knotted threads or bands. The pakhuan serves as an offering to the spiritual world. It is the centre of the Baci, with offerings of food and drinks for the surrounding apostate souls spread on the table around it. The guests of honour sit in a circle around this table while they hold long white threads in their folded hands which are tied to the pakhuan. An animist priest begins to invite the absent khwan (souls) to return, in a mixture of Lao and Pali chants. Once the souls are back in their right places, the threads or bands tied to the pakhuan are removed and used by the congregation to ‘tie down’ the souls by tying them around the wrists of the guests of honour while personal blessings like ‘health’, ‘luck’, ‘happy life’ or ‘safe travels’ are added.
The first Baci we witnessed took place just 10 days after our arrival. It was celebrated in Sikeud Secondary School and was held for the family of the foundation’s chairman Christian Engel, the coordinator Mr Fürst and wis wife as well as for us, the English graduate volunteers. While this Baci was a farewell ceremony for the Engel and Fürst families, it was a welcoming ceremony for us at the same time. After the Baci, the opening ceremony of the Phang Heng Primary School took place. For this, the teachers and pupils had rehearsed a choreography: Every child, teacher and guest received a balloon and in the end all the balloons were sent to the sky with good wishes.
The second Baci we were invited to was held at Sikeud Primary School. For us, this Baci was the most personal. It took place on 17 December 2015 and was meant to be our farewell Baci since Prof. Martin was to leave on that day (of her second visit) and two of our team were also getting ready to leave Laos just before Christmas. As the guests of honour we sat around the pakhuan, holding the white strings tied to it and wearing some traditional Lao clothing. After the chanting of the priest, officials and elders from the village and the district, our colleagues, pupils as well as the Angel for Children team tied threads around our wrist. After the ceremony, everyone gathered around two long tables which were set up in the school yard and were loaded with traditional Lao food.
The last Baci was the smallest one and organized by our colleagues at Ban Phang Heng Primary School. It was a farewell ceremony for the three of us who had remained in Laos over Christmas and New Year. This Baci was also a very personal and emotional one and was rounded up with a joyful lunch consisting of grilled fish, vegetables, spicy dips, and fresh fruit. Prof. Martin was also invited, as she had arrived just after Xmas for her third visit to collect the results of our pilot project, to receive the Minister of Education and the German Ambassador at our schools, and then to return home with us.
Text by L. Kringe
Photos by I. Martin, D. Hartmann, J. Zeck