Lao youths blasted for carrying woman in palanquin around stupa in procession

The group says they wanted to promote the arts, recreate a temple sculpture and meant no disrespect.
By RFA Lao
2022.11.14
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Lao youths blasted for carrying woman in palanquin around stupa in procession A group of young Laotians carry a woman on a palanquin around the That Luang Stupa in Vientiane, Laos, Nov. 6, 2022.
Citizen journalist

A group of young Laotians have come under harsh criticism – and could be subjected to “re-education” – for carrying an ornately dressed woman in a palanquin around the country’s most important religious landmark during a Buddhist festival

The youths apologized after being ordered to do so, but explained that they wanted to promote the arts and meant no disrespect.

The idea for the procession came from Lao literature and history, and the woman – an “Upson girl,” whose job it was to entertain kings in the past – was based on a sculpture at an ancient temple, a member of the group who organized the procession wrote on his FaceBook page.

“This sculpture is now kept in the [old] Emerald Buddha Temple in Vientiane,” he wrote. “Our new generation of Lao artists picked this piece of art and just wanted to recreate it.”

“We had no intention to show any disrespect to the stupa,” he wrote. “We conducted that activity to promote the arts, but we now understand that that activity was not appropriate from the point of view of the public.”

But the Nov. 6 procession around the large gold-covered Pha That Luang, known as the Great Stupa, in the center of Laos’ capital of Vientiane, sparked heavy criticism from monks, government authorities and members of the public.

Many said it ran counter to Lao tradition and culture. Some said only kings or monks should be carried around in a palanquin, while others pointed out that an “Upson girl” was considered to be a “bad girl,” or a one of the ancient court’s prostitutes.

“Carrying a woman on a wooden box and on the shoulders in a parade around the That Luang Stupa like that is wrong,” said a senior monk in Vientiane, who like other sources in this report requested anonymity for safety reasons. “The act shows that the group didn’t respect our sacred place, tradition and culture. It’s not right; I’ve never seen anything like this in my 60 years of existence.”

A young Buddhist follower told RFA’s Lao Service that parading an “Upson girl” around the stupa strongly violated Laos’ tradition and culture. 

“In the past, only the king could sit on the palanquin and be carried around,” he said. “It’s not appropriate that a woman should be carried. It must be a king, according to our tradition, culture and history.”

The procession took place during the week-long annual That Luang Festival, Vientiane’s most important Buddhist celebration held during November’s full moon. 

Laotians from across the country go to the temple wearing ethnic costumes, playing traditional music, dancing, and bearing flowers, incense and candles. Led by chanting monks, worshipers typically walk clockwise around the stupa three times.  

The That Luang Stupa Festival Organizing Committee decided a day after the procession to take action against the youths because they had not first obtained permission for the procession, and because their act was offensive to Lao tradition and culture.

The youths were told to formally apologize the That Luang Stupa and to the public at a ceremony during which they also would present four beeswax castles and four packages of candles and flowers to senior monks at the temple.

The member of the group who apologized on Facebook said that the group members were not aware of the religious ceremony at the stupa and that guards at the gate did not stop them from entering.

A district police officer said the police would investigate the incident and “re-educate” the group. “That would be it; no other punishment would be imposed,” he said.

Re-education entails reminding offenders of the rules and standards of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the county’s sole ruling party, and government policy on specific subjects. 

A few days later, an official from Vientiane’s Saysettha district confirmed that the group offered a formal apology at a stupa, and added that the festival organizing committee believed the youths did not intend to insult Lao tradition and culture.

Translated by Max Avary for RFA Lao. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin. Edited by Malcolm Foster.

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