Craft, Currencies, and Ritual Orders in a Northern Thai village

18. Sep 2015

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller is an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, Lund University. His PhD project examines the organization of the trade in jade between Northern Myanmar and China, and the role of jade in Chinese cosmology. Henrik has done fieldwork among jade traders and carvers in the town of Ruili on China’s border with Myanmar, as well as interviews with jade traders, carvers, and buyers in Shanghai, Kunming, Mandalay, Myitkina, and Chiang Mai for the project. 

 Henrik will share some of his field notes on the InFocus blog. The first blog post discusses economic cycles in a Northern Thai woodcarving village.

The field notes were taken during the PhD course Reading Craft: Itineraries of Culture, Knowledge and Power in the Global Ecumene, organized by the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden and Chiang Mai University.


We arrive at the village Ban Tawaii, some 20 kilometres from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, at around 9 am. The car drops us off in the main street, which is dominated by shops offering woodcarvings. The woodcarving craft has gained Baan Tawaii some reputation throughout Northern Thailand, especially as the local tambon (an administrative unit usually comprising around 10 villages) has been promoted as a specialized woodcarving area under the government-organized system of OTOP (‘One Tambon, One Product’). The materials for the carvings vary, but prominently include teak and mahogany. The carvers in a workshop that we visited the previous week were reluctant to talk about the sources of the hardwood, but a large part of it is likely smuggled in from neighbouring Myanmar. The illegal trade in hardwood comprises a vast and highly profitable trade in Myanmar’s borderlands; not the least in Ruili, the border town between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Shan state, where I conduct my fieldwork. Due to its economic profitability and environmental consequences, it is also one of many sources of the ethnic conflicts permeating these borderlands. Also, one of my informants of the Jingpo minority (a Kachin sub-group) in Ruili says that the traditional authority of ritual specialists, dhumsa, is being eroded partly due to the logging of forests, where spirits (nat) reside.

We stock up with a cup of coffee and head towards the house of Baan Tipmanee. We are all wearing white clothing, as is obligatory in the Ganesh ritual we are about to attend. The temperature is already above 30 degrees Celsius, and a light drizzle dampens our clothes. We walk for about ten minutes, until we arrive to a crowd of 70-100 people standing in a line along the road, all of them dressed in white. A loudspeaker transmits the chant of a male voice. Upon our arrival, we are told to line up alongside the other participants and receive a coconut, which we are instructed to hold with two hands underneath our chin, in a manner similar to the Thai wat greeting gesture. Suddenly, people start to smash their coconuts on the concrete road, the sweet-smelling coconut milk splashing around us. I smash my coconut on the road. Klok! I am immediately given one more coconut, which I smash, then another one, and another one. The street is a mess of people dressed in white, splashing coconut milk, and chirps of brown coconut shells whirling through the air.


When all coconuts have been smashed, Salah Kasem enters the street. Dressed in a red garb, he is carrying a small jar containing a red paste. Walking along the line of participants, he draws a vertical line from their forehead to their nose with the red paste. Upon reaching me, he laughs, and draws a red line on my forehead too. He remembers me from last week, when he gave us a guided tour of Baan Tipmanee. The house contains a vast courtyard garden, exhibition room, woodcarving workshop, sales floor, and temple rooms with woodcarvings placed throughout the space. The temple rooms feature pictures of prominent visitors, which include the king of Thailand. A huge woodcarving of Ganesh, Shiva’s son, who is half human, half elephant, is placed centrally in the courtyard on a podium. The deity carries a necklace of flower petals, and is surrounded by a wealth of sacrificial gifts; fresh fruits, flowers, food, and money bills. The other spaces of the house feature woodcarvings in various templates. There are a lot of figurines of Ganesh and of elephants. But also of the last supper of Jesus, and of the smiling, sitting Buddha, Fo, the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and the war god Guang Gong, all of which are commonly worshipped in China. In the exhibition room, these wooden figurines of deities are plastered with money bills from different countries, dominated by Chinese RMB and Thai Baht money notes. The house has a lot of Chinese buyers, who believe their donations will bring them luck. Salah Kasem then uses the donated money to finance this ritual, which he holds once a year.

The house of Baan Tipmanee constitutes a powerful node in a network of woodcarvers from Baan Tawaii and neighbouring villages. A week earlier, we had visited Baan Tawaii’s Buddhist village temple. The wooden temple is built and maintained by donations from village men with certain social positions. One local man can for instance donate a door to the temple. If he is a woodcarver, he will usually make the door by himself. Otherwise, he will hire a local woodcarver to do it. He has a certain liberty regarding the design, but it has to be fit within the overall design of the temple and its components. When woodcarvers carve and donate the temple components by themselves, they will often include their names in the carvings. But even when this is not so, local villagers will know who has donated what. This information is spread throughout the community, and is visibly encapsulated in the styles of the woodcarvings. This way, the temple and its different material components become social confluence points that gather people, while communicating masculine prestige of woodcarvers and donors throughout the village and its surrounding area.

I notice that Salah Kasem is still wearing his large ivory rings. The first time I met him, he immediately said that the rings are made from ‘waste’ ivory material, as if to emphasise his non-complicity in an illegal ivory trade. He said he wears the rings to avoid evil spirits from exiting the wood and entering his body when he is carving wood. This belief hosts a certain analogy to the ways in which Chinese people say that they wear jade jewellery in order to avoid evil forces and spirits entering their body. In both cases, the material – ivory, or jade – functions as a kind of shield blocking the human body from penetration by non-human external forces and agents. Other craftsmen in this area hold a taboo against menstruating women coming near their materials, and in some areas women are not allowed nearby the craftsmen’s workshop at all. But for Salah Kasem, the ivory rings also seem to contain a certain element of self-promotion; they have become part of his image. After all, he is not really a wood carver anymore. He buys and sells woodcarvings made by other carving masters in the area. In some cases, he lends his exhibition room to the carvings of local masters and takes a commission, when they are sold. In other cases, he selects designs and motifs from books, or takes orders on specific designs from customers, and then commissions the work to local master carvers. Salah Kasem’s real talent, it seems to me, consists in his ability to link suppliers and customers by gathering and composing different material components in the impressive frame that is the house of Baan Tipmanee, with himself as its flamboyant face, and probably his wife as the backstage organizer. When I asked about his ivory rings last week, his wife interrupted his explanation, saying that he would have worn the rings no matter whether or not he believed in them shielding him from malignant spirits residing in the wood. He laughed like a schoolboy whose boasting had been called out in the schoolyard.

picture 2

We are aligned into two lines that stretch from the street to the exhibition room inside the courtyard garden, and given a handful of flower petals. A procession walks through the two lines of people from the exhibition room towards the street. Four young women clad in dresses with inlaid gold head the procession. A guy made up as a woman and wearing a golden crown follows. Salah Kasem is the last man in the procession. As the procession walks by, we pour the flower petals over them. They turn left and stop in front of the podium with the Ganesh woodcarving. We follow. People sit down on a red carpet with their legs pointing backwards. It seems that the prohibition against pointing your feet at Buddhist figurines or monks also extends to non-Buddhist figurines. A single red cotton string is unfolded among the audience, who holds the string between their hands, which they form in a wat gesture underneath their chin. The string thus ties all participants together. Salah Kaseem has hired a ritual specialist from neighbouring village, who starts chanting in a microphone. The chanting continues for a very long time. Occasionally, an orchestra joins the chanting. The instruments – wooden xylophones, gongs and drums – and the rhythm remind me of Gamelan-orchestras I have seen in Bali. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the ritual contains several elements of Hinduism, most notably of course the worship of Ganesh. Much more so than in Southern Thailand, Ganesh is an omnipresent figure of worship throughout this region. On his part, Salah Kasem says that Ganesh is the God for craftsmen, as well as for businessmen and for money.

The chanting voice continues, when the orchestra finishes. It just keeps going. The only words I get are “Baan Tipmanee” and “Salah Kasem”, who seem to be praised for arranging the ritual. We have been sitting like this for two hours, and as my legs hurt. Even Carla, a seasoned yoga practitioner, is struggling. We finally give up, and go outside the temple garden to the street, where tables and chairs have been arranged, and food is distributed from large cooking pots. Salah Kaseem is the sponsor. People have come from Baan Tawaii, neighbouring villages, Chiang Mai, and even some Chinese visitors are here. Salah Kaseem says the Chinese participants have been there earlier to buy woodcarvings and have donated money to the woodcarvings inside the exhibition room.

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts
The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

A few weeks later, I go back to Baan Tipmanee, where Salah Kaseem is organizing another ritual. But this time, the participants are restricted to the staff of the house and some local carving suppliers. Food is served for everybody, and there is music. Three silver-grey Nissan pick-ups and a large blue truck have been elaborately decorated with flowers, and red and white fabric. The blue truck carries three woodcarvings of Ganesh sitting on wooden podiums. The two pick-up trucks in the back carry neatly organized flower bouquets and piles of coconut, pineapple, papaya, apple, and watermelon. The pick-up truck in front carries sacrifices, which are set on small trees. Most prominent is the money tree, the branches of which hold money bills on sticks ornamented as flowers. Unlike the wood carvings of Fo, Guanying and Guang Gong inside the exhibition room that are stuck with Chinese money bills, there are only Thai Baht bills on the money trees; green 20 Baht below, and the red 100 Baht on the top of the tree. Next to the money trees are small trees with other sacrificial gifts hanging from the branches. These gifts span an impressive range, including toothpaste, a comb, instant noodles, fish oil, salt, sugar, dried chilli, a notebook, sewing thread, incense, washing detergent, garlic, and talcum powder. The four trucks will drive to a temple in a nearby village to donate the sacrifices as a gift from the house of Baan Tipmanee. It is a Buddhist temple, but it does not seem to be a problem to be arriving there in a procession dominated by Ganesh figurines. Here, Salah Kaseem will give back some of the wealth he has attracted to the house of Baan Tipmanee with the help of Ganesh, and he will pray for luck in the coming year for his house, as well as for the craftsmen supplying him with wood carvings.

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations
A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations


A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation
A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

The two different ritual events seem to support two kinds of cycles. The first cycle ties together carvers, traders, and buyers through the medium of several different monetary currencies. People donate money to the carved wooden figurines that include Jesus, the Fo, Guanyin, Guang Gong commonly worshipped in China, and, most prominently, the Hindu God Ganesh. The monetary donations in the exhibition room manifest the belief in the ability of Ganesh in bringing luck in craftsmanship and in business. The money laid on the woodcarvings includes a variety of bills, including US Dollar, alongside various European, and Asian currencies. But the dominant currencies are Chinese RMB, and Thai Baht, reflecting the largest national bases of customers and worshippers. Salah Kaseem then collects the money bills and uses them to finance the annual Ganesh ritual, which – also quite literally through the string – ties together different people. Seemingly an eclectic gathering of different religious, material, and monetary components, the ritual conjures the local community, while contributing in increasing Salah Kaseem’s prestige and business. This business, in turn, provides an income for woodcarving houses – usually comprised of a master carver and a handful of apprentices – in the region.

The second ritual held a few weeks later constitutes a cycle that is narrower in terms of its social and monetary diversity, but seemingly wider in terms of its temporal extension. The participants are restricted to the employees and core suppliers of carvings of the house of Baan Tipmanee. In the first cycle, money donated by customers is spent on food, decorations, music, and the chanting priest in a singular event of consumption. In the second cycle, money earned through market transactions of woodcarvings are injected into a wider temporal order by being donated to a Buddhist temple, and thus contributes in maintaining throughout time a wider religious order through the temple. In that sense, currencies from donations and market transactions are converted into ritual and market spheres in different ways and temporal stages.

Salah Kaseem himself appears as the confluence point that ties together different social and business relations, masculine prestige, religious components, and flows of woodcarvings and money. Furthermore, in diverting flows between different monetary and religious orders, Salah Kassem upholds money and religion as mutually constituting, rather than mutually exclusive conceptual and effectual orders.

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller
Henrik can be contacted on Email: [email protected]