The Wax Castle Festival is held each year in Sakon Nakhon, on the full moon of October (15th day of 11th Lunar month), marking the end of Thai Buddhist’s Lent.
The Buddhist Lent called “Kaw Phansa” in Thai, is a practice of Thervada Buddhism, when wandering monks seek retreat during the rainy season to avoid walking over rice fields. It ends after three months, at the end of the rainy season, celebrated as the “Ok Phansa”.
It was recorded that when Phansa was first practiced during the time of Gotama Buddha, the monks took vows of silence to avoid potential conflict during their time of confinement. The Buddha criticised this practice and initiated the practice of atonement or “pavarana” instead.
Buddhist stories say that on his seventh phansa, Gotama Buddha went to heaven to give a sermon to his mother who had passed away without receiving Buddhist teachings. On his descent from heaven, the Buddha miraculously sent forth a light so bright it opened up the three realms of earth, heaven and hell, and all beings who awaited him on his descent from heaven were united in the marvel of enlightenment.
Another story tied to the Ok Phansa tradition tells us that during one lent period, the Buddha had no company except for an elephant and a monkey. These animals offered him a honey comb and when the monkey and elephant died they were reborn in heaven. So when the Buddha went to visit heaven, he brought with him honey for the monkey and elephant angels.
In Sakon Nakhon, the Wax Candle Procession is a homage to their sacred temple, Phra That Choeng Chum Vorawiharn. During this celebration, the people wish for a happy live, with wealth, as symbolised by the castle. The 11th century Phra Thad Choeng Chum is scared not only for Sakon Nakhonians but for all people of Thailand because it is believed to hold the footprints of 4 Buddhas, representing a location that past Buddhas have passed through.
Communities from all over Sakon Nakhon province will join hands at their local temples two to three months in advance to build, mold, carve and decorate the magnificent beeswax castles. The wax castle is built from a wooden frame and then covered with wax patterns and carvings. The wax castle in its current form was first created about 60 years ago at Wat Chaeng, based on the model of the royal Bang-Pa-In Palace. While its current form reminds us of the palaces in heaven in which the Buddha visited, its older form, the bee’s tower, as it was called before, had two earlier forms.
The old wax tower forms were originally in the shape of a ‘Talum’. The Talum is a ten or twelve sided, layered, lacquered rattan, elevated bowl. The Talum form evolved out of an older tradition of a bee’s tower from banana trunk decorated with bee’s wax patterns. This bee tower was used in ceremonies for paying final respects to the deceased after a cremation. In its older form, bee’s wax patterns were created from carved papayas that were dipped into softened bee’s wax and alternatively dipped into cold water to release the patterned forms. This was placed onto a round cut turmeric, to support the wax, pinned into place onto the banana trunk with rattan picks. At the base of the tower would be a three legged stand that was used for picking up the left over cremated parts. After which the tower would be placed over the ashes and blessed before the ashes are collected into urns.
Ok Phansa is celebrated with Thod Kathin offerings, which would include, apart from saffron robes, food, toiletries, simple utensils, and a rattan tree with silver and gold branches in which donation money were tucked in as leaves. The Kathin procession used to be brought to a temple through the water, accompanied with music and dancers. As it arrived to the temple, it would have to circulate the temple three times while prayers were chanted.
The present day procession is led by traditional local dancers on foot, from the Sakon Nakhon city gate to the temple and then carried to the old government plaza at Sanam Ming Muang where visitors can admire the castles, and take selfies.
On Kathin day, a ceremony of presenting the offering is held at the temple. At other temples all over the country, many other Kathins are presented. In Isan, crocodile flags are placed at a temple’s entrance to show that it has received the annual Kathin donations, so worshippers can find another temple to present their seasonal merit.
Para Thad Choeng Chum had been maintained by generations of local communities whose forefathers had dedicated themselves as slaves to the temple. When King Rama 3 integrated Isaan into his kingdom, these caretakers were exempted from tax collection. The caretaker communities grew to include several other areas far from the temple. The Ok Phansa ceremony is also a leave taking from their duties to temple to return to their families’ rice fields for harvesting season.
The seasonal food for this period is steamed sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves and Khao Mao, a delicacy of unripe green rice that is pounded close to a paste and served with shaved coconut.
Sakon Nakhon’s celebration of its Wax Castle Festival is a testimony to the binding power of culture. It has endured from time immemorial, transformed in multiple facets, and year by year has become a larger and more renowned celebration.