In Third World Laos Thaviesak Nachampassak APY 105 – Intro to Anthropology Poltorak, D L Rites of Passage: Laotian Culture “Here I am at the crossroads into adulthood. I stand before the threshold to adulthood ready to sever the ties of my youth, and begin new growth on the dead tree that represents childhood. The tree of youth that once stood tall with all of it’s quirky branches and knots, now lays horizontal, ready to give my new growth all the water and nutrients it needs to grow. (Eli Keltz) From birth to death in any culture whether it be eastern or western there are special times in ones life that signify the path to maturity through birth, adolescence, marriage and death. “Rite of passage” is a term that was coined by a man named Arnold Van Gennep who’s works have been widely regarded as the basis of anthropological thought. The rites of passages correlate in the transitioning period from adolescents to adulthood. They are rituals, events, and or celebrations that would scribe an individuals progression from one status to another to better generalize it.
The rite of passage is a widely accepted belief cross culturally a kind of phenomenon which reveals to anthropologist the complexities of social hierarchies, values, human development, and beliefs which are relevant in specific cultures. Laos for example, a country untouched by western modernization, whose natural geography has caused the culture to remain untouched by time for so many years until the mid 1900’s which is what’s most commonly on paper due to the Vietnam war, but anything before this event is not as nearly focused upon by today’s history books or anthropologists.
In many ways, the Lao people are not as conformist of collectivist as most of their neighboring East Asian countries. This is because it is a country with 65 ethnic minorities, each with their own identity and language. As a Laotian American raised by highly traditional old school Lao parents I have witnessed and undergone a majority of the rites of passage within the culture, starting with birth of course. For example after a couples first child is born, a ceremony is held to give an honorific name to the young father.
The ceremony marks the young grooms passage into full familial responsibility. During the event the father-in-law is invited to give the child an honorific name which usually means he would add one name to the son in laws original name. Occasionally the father in law would give the young man a completely new name which is usually two or more syllables long. Hence Laotians long first and last names on paper. But that isn’t all, three days after a child is born the family holds a sort of soul calling ceremony which is added on to the naming ceremony also.
The purpose of the ritual is to call upon the soul of the newborn towards the family to aid in giving the child a name. Being a highly superstitious culture the belief in ghosts, spirits and monsters is highly regarded. This relates back to the roots that are retained from ancient Buddhist beliefs that came throughout history over time. Yet in order to call the soul of the child to the family a pig or a chicken is ritually slaughtered, then roasted and eaten by the family thus ending the ritual.
As the child gets older there is not really any rite of passage into the adolescent stage of life. Unlike those who have Bar mitzvahs and quincineras to signify passage into adulthood for women and men Lao culture is more simple and everything is based on gender and again reflects Buddhist thinking of attitude and behavior. It is impossible to understand Lao Culture without having at least a basic knowledge of the Hinayana Buddhist tradition which came to the country from Cambodia over 450 years ago. Despite that the jump to marriage is very elaborate and celebratory among a Lao couple.
Laotian wedding ceremonies are no different from any other, they are a ritual to celebrate the bond between man and woman announcing them as husband and wife. In Lao culture the ceremony takes about the full day but a week for everyone to arrive. On the day of the wedding the husband and wife are blessed by a Buddhist monk called in from the local temple, the priest then states all the traditional ceremonial words and prayers thus signifying the groom and brides parents to exchange money or gifts to one another’s family in order to honor them.
A ceremonial walk is then held in which the groom and bride are led by one of the temple monks around their house or wherever they’re living at the time. The walk symbolizes the circle of life to promote a long fulfilling bond between one another, basically until death do them part. At the end of this walk the groom and brides fathers traditionally exchange shots of whisky at the front door to elaborate this new bond.
Afterwards guests are encouraged to take shots of whiskey with the groom as a celebration of his rite of passage into marriage thus beginning the rest of the days festivities. Although I’m not trying to be cynical, but after marriage there awaits nothing but death. Certainly burial ceremonies are truly common among all cultures and even a culture such as this has its own specifications. In Lao culture its natural to conduct an elaborate funeral that last one to seven days, depending on the social economic standing and age of the deceased persons and his or her family.
Additional factors would include the travel time needed for friends and close relatives to attend the funeral hence, it usually takes several days to walk to the village of the deceased because Laos does not have any such airports. It also takes one whole week of preparation for the funeral hence the monks have to be transported from the nearest temple. During this time any of the deceases closest relatives whether man or woman are to pay their respects by staying at the temple for 3 nights.
Although it’s different for both man and woman usually all women have to do is be initiated into being a nun for a night. They are to wear nothing but white for the evening, pray for a duration of the night and are absolutely not allowed to touch any men or monks. On the other hand boys and men must shave their head and eyebrows and be initiated into a state of monk hood by the head Buddhist monk of the temple. In this process the males are not allowed to touch any women, only eat one time during the day (most commonly at noon) and can only drink after.
This process lasts for the duration of the funeral until after the deceased is passed on to the next life. Traditionally the deceased member is to be cremated. While this is taking place the temple monks chant prayers until the body is fully charred. Flowers and candles are thrown into the fire as homage for safe passage into the next life. In spite of this general posture of acceptance, Laotians believe their world is in a constant flux with on incarnation flowing into the next. If things are not okay in this life, maybe they will be better in the next.
Overall Rites of passage are very powerful social events that help guide and transition from one status in life to another. One of the most critical conditions in most cultures is from adolescence to adulthood. From Baptism, to cutting off ones genitals youth will either progress with life trajectories for success whether it be responsibility, healthy relationships or difficulties life crime and unemployment. Even in Laos, a third world culture based on the teachings of the Buddha Theravada contain factors of rites of passage seen in cross cultures studied by anthropologists today.