Academic journal article Anthropologica

Charisma in the Margins of the State: Dara'ang Buddhism and the Khruba Holy Men of Northern Thailand

Academic journal article Anthropologica

Charisma in the Margins of the State: Dara'ang Buddhism and the Khruba Holy Men of Northern Thailand

Article excerpt


In this article I examine the relationship between the Dara'ang community of Huai Dam1 in northern Thailand and a contemporary charismatic monk known as Khruba Theuang Natasilo. The ton bun (literally source of merit) tradition of northern Thailand, which revolves around holy men reputed to possess miraculous powers, is found in various forms across the Tai speaking Buddhist world (Cohen 2001). In northern Thailand today a network of ton bun monks known by the traditional honorific title "khruba" lead movements to revive the old Buddhist traditions of the region, modelling their mission on the Ufe of Khruba Siwichai (1878-1939 CE). Through my analysis of Dara'ang participation in the movement of Khruba Theuang, I take issue with the characterization of religious charisma as an inherent property of their person. I argue for a more situated understanding of the popularity of khruba monks in the highlands, one that is embedded within the context of cultural revitalization and the distinct religious traditions being produced and reproduced within the margins of modern state Buddhism (Tiyavanich 1997).

Dara'ang in Thailand

The Dara'ang are a highland Mon-Khmer speaking population with a long history of Theravada Buddhism. Better known as Palaung in English, the Dara'ang of northern Thailand refer to themselves as "Dara'ang Re'ng" or "Red Dara'ang," a sub-group identification based upon the colour of skirts worn by Dara'ang Re'ng women. This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in the Dara'ang village of Huai Dam during a nine-month period in 2002-2003 and a fifteen-month period in 2007-2008, as well as interviews and fieldwork undertaken at Khruba Theuang"s temple of Wat Den.

The village of Huai Dam sits within the borders of the Chiang Dao Forest Reserve of Chiang Mai province. Like many highland ethnic minority villages, the Dara'ang who live there have no legal title to their land. They migrated to Thailand from Burma in 1983 to escape the ongoing violence that has marked life in Shan State since Ne Win's military coup.

Dara'ang began migrating from southern Shan State to the Thai-Burmese border in the late 1970s. A community grew on Angkhang Mountain, close to the site of the King's Royal Project Agricultural Research Centre (Howard and Wattanapun 2001:81). The Dara'ang who were living there were granted permission to settle within Thailand by King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) when he visited the area in 1982. Representatives for the Dara'ang met with the king at this time and presented him with seven old Buddha images they had brought with them from Burma and a complete set of Dara'ang women's clothing. After listening to their plight, the king granted the Dara'ang permission to live within the borders of Thailand and gave them THB 5,000 to construct a new Buddhist temple (Deepadung 2009:14). The first Dara'ang village in Thailand was thus established, but the limited land provided (250 rai)2 remained under the control of the King's Royal Project. Later arrivals were unable to clear new land for farming and sought wage work in Chiang Mai province's large agricultural sector.

The families who established Huai Dam village arrived too late to be allocated land on Angkhang Mountain and as a result migrated to Chiang Dao district to pick tea for a local Chinese businessman. After one year they had saved enough money to establish their own village. They purchased a plot of land from a local Tai Yuan (also known as Northern Thai or Khon Muang) man and several fields from Karen farmers who had been living in the area for decades. Since then the village of Huai Dam has grown to 56 households with a population of 279 individuals (in 2008).

The head of Huai Dam, an elderly man named A-Tun, recounts the following story about the founding of the village. It refers to a time when the community was picking tea in Chiang Dao district and searching for new land to settle:

The da bu meung [the village spirit specialist] and I were returning from Chiang Dao market where we were buying supplies. …

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