Novice monks going back to their temples to share the bounty of their morning collection.
I was in Chiangmai when I first witnessed a surreal sight of monks doing their early morning rounds in collecting alms from the locals. I would sit on some bench and just wait for solitary monks pass by a still-drowsy neighborhood. And I was mystified!
Fast forward to the present. Location: Luang Prabang! It has become a daily ritual – an anticipated attraction in this somnolent mountain city. Not just one monk - but temples full of monks parading in the morning fog. My alarm was set at 5 AM. There was a dog barking hard at me - and ready to tear me to pieces as I stepped down from my room. Once I got past the mongrel, I stood right in front of my street – Sisavangvong. It was chilly and I could savor the fresh scent of the morning air. I walked to the next block. There were a bunch of drowsy Caucasians, a Korean girl – and myself - waiting from different vantage points. Elsewhere, the shops and restaurants are still fast asleep. By 5:30 AM, a group of Lao locals began setting up mats and baskets of food on the sidewalk. The buzz of excitement in the air was palpable while people waited. I couldn’t sit still. I lurched from my sidewalk and tried the other spots from the opposite side of the street. I decided I will be moving around.
At 5:40 AM, they came! In droves! Temple after temple of novice monks!
In a steady flow, barefoot monks started to parade, offering their empty brass bowls to the queue of locals. Their saffron robes gleamed in the dull morning hue. I went crazy clicking my camera as the frenzy of alms-giving kept pouring for 30 minutes. It was a dazzling reverie. Luang Prabang succeeded in evincing a dream-like state for its visitors.
GETTING MONKS SICK
The alms-giving ceremony, which is locally called the Tak Bat, has been one of the picturesque attractions of Luang Prabang but as wikitravel recounts, “It is not without its detractors. Some unscrupulous local merchants have used the eagerness of the tourists to participate in a local tradition as a means of making easy money, sometimes selling unsuitable, stale and unsafe food. This has resulted in monks falling ill after having consumed the offerings.” These monks take these offerings back to their temples and share this bounty among them. In fact, not a while back, monks from the different temples have refused to partake in such pageantry to protest against the giving of stale food. BUT – the local government threatened to replace these monks with lay people clothed in saffron robes. This underlines the significance of such ceremony in Luang Prabang! So if you are lucky enough to witness this ceremony, PLEASE… PLEASE - avoid giving food of questionable quality! Let’s not get the monks sick!
After the pious revelry of a hundred monks’ parade, I went back to my room. It was time to see more of the rest of Laos. It was time to go!
A novice monk offering his bowl for food. My heart just goes to these children. There were hundreds on that queue and I’ve never seen one offer a smile. Let’s not make them sick by giving them stale food, ok?
Here is a more in-depth feature of this ceremony which they locally call the Tak Bat. I hope everyone who gets to witness this will respect these ceremonies.
Low Down on the Tak Bat
The monks’ almsround is a living Buddhist tradition for the people of Luang Prabang which, because of its beauty, has become a major tourist attraction. However, when tourists are unaware of its customs, their inappropriate behaviour can be disruptive. We would like to draw your attention to this religious practice, which has great meaning for the population of Luang Prabang.The meaning of the Tak Bat is a profound expression of generosity, a cardinal virtue for the Lao people, and is a significant source of religious merit for the Buddhist community. It is probably the closest religious interaction between lay people and monks. Whenever it is performed, it is done with a profound sense of beauty and affection, with piety, care, thoughtfulness, and with deep commitment.
Most of the Buddhist believers of Luang Prabang practice this ritual every morning. At sunrise, they prepare the offerings by cooking the rice and kneeling on a mat, in silence, waiting for the monks to approach, their heads and feet bare in humility. They quickly and silently place a small amount of rice in the monks’ alms bowl without making eye contact. Sometimes cakes and fruits are offered. They practice this generous act with joy knowing that it will benefit them, their living or departed relatives, and all beings.For their part, the monks meditate on impermanence and on the meaning of the offerings they receive, which symbolise their intentional poverty, humility, and dependency on the lay community for their material needs. When they return to the monastery, they share the rice, accompanied by other dishes prepared by the community. They eat this first meal of the day in silence.
GIVING DUE RESPECT
Although the monks’ Tak Bat has become a tourist attraction, it is primarily a religious act for local lay people. It must be performed in serenity, silence, and concentration. Please show this ritual as much respect as you would your own religious ceremonies. Observe the ritual in silence, and contribute an offering only if it is meaningful for you. You can do so in a respectful manner. Please purchase the rice at the local market earlier the same morning. The cakes or rice from street vendors along the monks’ route are not free and their activities can be disruptive. If you do not wish to make an offering, please keep an appropriate distance and behave in a respectful manner. Do not get in the way of the monks’ procession or the believers’ offerings. Do not photograph the monks too closely; please understand that camera flashes are very disturbing for both monks and lay people. Dress appropriately: shoulders, chest, and legs should be mostly covered. Do not make any physical contact with monks. Large buses are explicitly forbidden within the perimeter in the Luang Prabang World Heritage Site and are extremely disturbing. Do not follow the procession on a bus - you will stand above the monks, which in Laos is disrespectful.