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Pu Sae - Ya Sae

Pu Sae - Ya Sae

Guardian Spirits Of Doi Suthep


By Andrew Forbes

Every late May or June, near the beginning of the Rainy Season, two little-known but archaic rituals are held in the environs of Chiang Mai. These are the related Pu Sae and Ya Sae ceremonies, which are believed to pre-date the introduction of Buddhism to Northern Thailand. The traditions which they encompass similarly pre-date Thai and even Mon settlement in the area, and are associated with the Lawa, the earliest-known inhabitants of Chiang Mai.

According to tradition, Pu Sae and Ya Sae are the guardian spirits of Chiang Mai. Together with their son, Sudeva Rikshi, they wander the slopes of Doi Suthep, where they are attended by six lesser spirits. Although they are now thought of as "giants", in their lifetimes Pu Sae and Ya Sae were almost certainly Lawa, the indigenous inhabitants of the region before the establishment of the Mon Kingdom of Haripunjaya (Lamphun), and whilst the Thai still lived mainly in South China.

Little enough is known of the original Lawa, though they are believed to have been head-hunters like the Wa of Shan State, to whom they are related. They are also thought to have been cannibals, and this is closely bound up with the Pu Sae - Ya Sae ritual as still practised today.

Legend has it that Pu Sae, Ya Sae and their son were cannibals, who took great delight in human flesh. Once, when the Buddha was travelling in these regions, he passed through the area inhabited by the three cannibals. The fierce family followed his trail, intending to make a meal of him. Whilst meditating at Ban Panghai, Tambon Saluang, Mae Rim, the Buddha became aware of their intentions, and stamped on a boulder which to this day bears his footprint, and has become a shrine.

The sacred imprint of the foot terrified the three cannibals, who abandoned their earlier intention to make a meal of the Lord Buddha, and instead sat and listened to a sermon. They were persuaded to give up their former barbarous way of life, but still hungered in their souls for the delicious taste of human flesh. Accordingly, they begged the Buddha to permit them to kill and eat one human a year if they promised to observe the dhamma at all other times. Naturally, the Buddha refused. After this they begged to be allowed human flesh once every seven years, only to be refused again.

Eventually, when it became clear that their former custom of eating people was to be completely denied them, they asked the Buddha if they could eat the flesh of fresh buffalo once a year. Once again, the Buddha refused his approval, saying that he had no right to approve or disapprove this mundane request - buffalo belonged to their guardians, and the flesh-craving family would have to take the matter up with the owners of the beasts.

It must have been difficult, but so moved were the cannibal family by the teachings of the Buddha that Pu Sae and Ya Sae forswore human flesh forever, and all meat during the lifetime of Gautama. Sudeva Rikshi went still further, and gave up all meat forever, shaving his head and becoming a monk. Later he left the monastery and lived as a hermit in a cave on top of the mountain which later took his name - Mount Sudeva, or Doi Suthep. In the fullness of time he went on to found the city of Lamphun, in 663 AD bringing a Mon princess from Lopburi, later to become Queen Chamadevi of Haripunjaya, to be his wife. In this way the autochthonous Lawa and the much more sophisticated Mon incomers are conveniently linked in local oral tradition.

After death, the spirits of Pu Sae, Ya Sae and Sudeva Rikshi returned to Doi Suthep, where they roamed the slopes as indeed they still do today. To placate and honour their spirits, shrines were erected for them. The first of these, originally associated with Pu Sae but later believed to house the spirits of both Pu Sae and Ya Sae, is at Ban Tindoi, Tambon Suthep, at the foot of the mountain on land now belonging to Chiang Mai University. The second, generally associated with Ya Sae, is at the foot of Doi Kam in Tambon Mae Hia, about five kilometres south of Chiang Mai International Airport.

In honour of Pu Sae and Ya Sae, their son, Sudeva Rikshi, and the other, lesser guardian spirits of Doi Suthep, the ruling princes of Chiang Mai regularly sacrificed a buffalo and offered other delicacies at the beginning of each rainy season. Although the princes have since departed, the custom continues to this day at Tambon Mae Hia, beneath the wooded flanks of Doi Kam.

On the day of the sacrifice a young male buffalo, with horns no longer than its ears, is taken to the shrine and swiftly dispatched. In symbolic unity between the original Lawa inhabitants (now few in number, and largely ‘Thai-icised') and the later Thai settlers, the religious ceremony is a medley of Shamanism and Buddhism. The former (Lawa) element is represented by the medium, at present a female, who communes with the spirits and is eventually possessed by the spirit of Ya Sae. While the buffalo is being dismembered and cooked, the medium sits quietly consuming lao khao (white liquor) and smoking cigarettes. Suddenly, to the accompaniment of gongs, cymbals and drums, the spirit takes possession, and the medium begins to dance. Her actions become increasingly unpredictable and uncouth (as befits a cannibal giant), and she begins her progress across the wooded glade.

Firstly, the medium advances to an unusual spirit house near the dead buffalo, decked with slices of raw, fresh meat. Suddenly she seizes the meat, and begins to chew and suck it. Decorated with a garland of fresh meat round her neck the medium - now, really, Ya Sae - sits astride the buffalo pelt, holding the dead animal's horns, and swigs from a bottle of Maekhong whiskey. Later, still masticating the bloody flesh, she makes her way through the watching crowds towards a tall tree on the other side of the glade.

Here, to the accompaniment of sutras chanted by saffron-robed monks and white-robed nuns, the Phra Bot - a venerated banner about three metres high and two metres wide - is unfurled from a branch, representing the sublimity of the Buddha and Ya-sae's conversion to the dhamma.

The spirit - now theoretically sated with fresh meat and alcohol - sits beneath the tree cleaning its teeth with a giant tooth pick. Glancing upwards, it sees the Phra Bot, and wais the Buddha figure with a rather uncouth reverence. In this way the story of Pu Sae - Ya Sae is reenacted every year, the miracle of the conversion is celebrated, and the former cannibal spirits get their annual treat.

Ajarn Kraisri Nimmanhaeminda, whose account of Pu Sae - Ya Sae was published in the Journal of The Siam Society in 1967, argues convincingly that the presence of Buddhist priests and the Phra Bot at the buffalo sacrifice is intended to convince the spirits of the former cannibals that the Buddha was still alive, and that they should therefore adhere to their vow of abstinence from human flesh. To further appease them, they are granted their last wish - fresh buffalo meat with the approval of the owners.

Deeper, perhaps, than this, is the social message of Pu Sae - Ya Sae and its mixed Shamanistic-Buddhist, Lawa-Thai rituals. The Lawa and the Thai have lived together for centuries, sharing land and cultural traditions. As the Thai became dominant, they did not seek to stamp out Lawa rituals, but participated (as Buddhists) in the (very non-Buddhist) rite of buffalo sacrifice to adjure the spirits, in the words of a Pu Sae - Ya Sae invocation:

"Let not the rice of the Lawa die in their swiddens; let not the rice of the Thai wither and die in their paddies."

Clearly, the association between Lawa and Northern Thai has been long, close and fruitful.


Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media