23 May 2024

Southeast Asia is a treasure trove of many cultures. The region’s rich diversity can be seen in many of its time-honored cultures and traditions but many of these are rarely observed these days.

In the midst of progress and modernity, the least we can do now is to preserve the legacies of our past and learn from how these have contributed to our evolution as a group of independent nations that are still bound by common traditions and beliefs.

Made up mainly of agricultural communities, Southeast Asian countries are mostly reliant on the arrival of rain as livelihoods depend on farming.

In the past, and even now in some areas, local farmers perform rituals to ask for favours from nature and the spirits. Water and rain are essential to sustaining the lives and livelihoods of farmers.

As such, traditional rainmaking rituals – from the most mundane to the most unusual – have also become a part of a colorful tapestry of cultures characterized by intricate offerings, chants, and dances.

Lives and livelihood

“Water and rain are essential to sustaining lives and livelihood, and fostering social and economic development throughout Southeast Asia. They are necessary for the cultivation of rice, a tradition that dates back thousands of years.”

“Rice has always been, and still is, an important commodity in the region, both as a staple food and an export product. The region’s dependence on water resources, especially for farming purposes, has given rise to a variety of practices and rituals that, more or less, describe our relationship with nature.”

How spiritual beliefs and practices have blended in make these practices even more intriguing,” said Dave, a lecturer in anthropology at one of the leading universities in Asia.

Rainmaking is a weather modification ritual that attempts to invoke rain.

Among the best-known examples of weather modification rituals are North American rain dances, historically performed by many Native American tribes, particularly in the Southwestern United States.

In Asia, ancient Chinese shamans performed sacrificial rain dance ceremonies in times of drought.

They also acted as intermediaries with nature’s spirits who were believed to control rainfall and flooding.

Rituals and beliefs

In times of drought in Thailand, rural farmers also have one such traditional rainmaking ritual, the Hae Nang Maew Ceremony or the Cat Parading Ceremony, which is practiced by Thai farmers in the central and northeast regions of the country.

Farmers parade the nang maew (cat) around their villages or temples when the planting season approaches, hoping for rain when it is most needed.

It is believed that cats are scared of rain, and if a cat cries out during the ceremony, it means that rain is imminent.

“We think that an animal that has the same color as a rain cloud can invite rainfall, so a silver blue cat, which we call si sawat in Thai, is paraded around the village.

As the procession passes in front of houses, the house owner pours water on the cat while praying for rain,” says Aek, who grew up in a farming village upcountry.

“Not only does the fur of the si sawat resemble a rain cloud, its green eyes also represent the growth of vegetation and fertility in the farmlands,” he added.

Over in Laos, and even in some parts of northeastern Thailand, the Rocket Festival or Bun Bai Fai, is held every June just before the planting season.

Villagers and monks gather in a procession around the temple holding rockets made from bamboo or iron pipes and then launch the rockets into the sky.

The act serves as an offering to the god called ‘Phraya Thaen” who is believed to be responsible for the rainfall.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has the Kebo-Keboan traditional ceremony, practiced by villagers of East Java to plead for rain, good harvests, and protection against disasters during the dry season.

“The villagers believe that adhering to this tradition symbolises their gratitude for the grace of God and invokes the ancestral spirits to grant their wishes,” said Angga, a university student in Jakarta.

Buffaloes are regarded as the key symbol for this traditional ceremony, where individuals dress up and role-play as buffaloes. The event brings together elders, community leaders, officials, and villagers, who all join a procession along the irrigation dams to witness the water flowing into the rice fields.

Vanishing tradition

Beliefs associated with negotiating for rain, along with cultural practices that are related to upholding order and harmony within the community, have always been integral aspects of these cultures.

While some of these customs and beliefs have been preserved over time and are still practiced today, they face a number of challenges.

“Climate change and extreme weather disruptions are not the only risks to vanishing rain-related customs. Modernity also threatens the continuation of these traditions.

Despite initiatives to pass down these customs to the next generation, ritual knowledge has been gradually fading among the elders,” said one university professor who recalls participating in one of these traditional rainmaking rituals when he was younger.

By Veena Thoopkrajae with additional report by Oz Hersa