Banners from Laos and Vietnam

From 8 to 24 December 2013


The context

The lao-tai groups, who live in the north-east of Laos, although different among themselves in many aspects, have developed a culture of extraordinary homogeneity over time, despite living in a geographic area affected by many internal migrations, which have required a difficoult integration or a convivence between different cultures. Over time these groups have developed a system of laws, traditions, symbols, beliefs, tastes and quite homogeneus life-styles, which constitute a real common life-style, called “muang”, a kind of shared non-written rule, which favours and encourages cooperation, peaceful cohabitation, respect for different cultures and for different clans.

The religious culture of these groups is rooted in historical periods prior to the arrival of Buddhism, keeping a rich and articulate substratum of shamanic culture alive and current, which regulates and scans community and individual life.

Lao-tai shamanism has partly integrated and merged with Buddhism, but it fully keeps large areas of autonomy and originality, constituing a strong unifying cultural base (the muang) of these different populations.  

Shamanic faith regulates many important moments of collective and individual life, with important cerimonies and rituals, which range along the whole arc of human life, from birth to death, constituing fundamental moments of collective identity and of recognition of individual roles.

One of the fundamental assumptions of shamanism is the belief that the spirits of the ancestors, together with the spirits of all the animate and inanimate beings, populate reality (the world) and human life, influencing them with their constant intervention.

In particular, the ancestors are worshiped in all the different cultures of the area, because they are believed to have beneficial and generous or wicked and negative influences on the community and personal events.

So it is possible to count a large number of spirits which influence our life and might cause several misfortunes to the individual or the community, if they think they have been forgotten.


For this reason, on the occasion of problems arisen in individual or community life, or on the occasion of particular dreams or ritual moments, the Lao-tai apply to the shaman’s intervention, who is able to fall into a trance and to converse with spirits and with the afterworld, to calm anger and to obtain help and benevolence.

The Lao-tai also believe that our body has its own physical and spiritual unit, which foresees the presence of a soul called khawan, carrier of lifeblood and energy, which might come off from the body and make it ill.

On these occasions the shaman is called to bring the khawan back in the body of the believer, sick or in trouble.

When someone dies, the family calls the shaman, who leads specials ceremonies to fall into a trance and pray the dead’s khawan to split into three different shadows:

·      A first part (khawan kok) is requested to go to the afterworld

·      A second part (khawan pai) (is requested) to move to the family’s altar

·      A third part (khawan ngao) (is requested) to stay in the graveyard

The dead’s khawan pai shadow has a very important role for the family, even for the children who leave the parental home to create their own family unit.

In the lao-tai language the spirits are generally named “phii”. A second word is added to this one, to define precisely every kind of spirit, as “phii naa” for the spirits protecting the rice fields, “phii kong khao” for the one protecting the crops, “phii naen” for a female spirit protecting forests, rivers and trees, “phii taeng luang” for the sky spirit.

The ceremonies in which the shaman is called to converse with spirits are numerous and complex, they are officiated in the most important moments of life and in particular cases in which an imbalance of the individual or community life has intervened.

Therefore, there are different types of ceremonies: blessing and protection ceremonies in the passage rituals in life, ceremonies to restore physical or mental health, consultation ceremonies of spirits for the solution of complex problems or dangerous situations, propitiation ceremonies, funeral ceremonies.

Cerimonial textiles

Every ceremony or rite provides for the essential use of particular textiles, specially woven, prepared and adorned by family women for every occasion, differentiated by kind of material, shape and decoration according to the destination rite.

These textiles, unlike the Occidental ones, have not got a purely decorative or evocative function, but (they) play a specific role in the Lao-Tai rite and belief, playing for the comunity and the phii an essential role in the ritual and symbolic recall, constituing a sort of non-verbal message intended for everyone.

So, there are textiles intended for the clothing of the partecipants in the rite, differentiated for men and women, for social position or religious role, as well as for ritual typology.

Then there are textiles intended for the enviroment(place) where the rite takes place, special drapes woven with specific shapes and decorations, which are usually hung on the officiants’ shoulder or used as a seat for the present people.

Finally, there are really special drapes, which play a deeply religious and sacred role, intended for essential ceremonies in the rites of passage of the person’s life. These drapes are prapared, woven and decorated according to specific procedures and definite times, only by people of particular social positions and of specific and codificated relationships, specifically for each kind of ceremony.

In addiction to elaborated drapes, used as scarves, hats or shawls for the shaman, the most important ritual textiles are called phaa koei.

These drapes are particularly long fabric strips with elaborate decorations, intended to show the phii the physical and spiritual path to follow during the rites, which symbolically accompany them during the familiar ceremonies, in particular the funeral ones.

The indication of the way to cover for the phii is very important because, if they dind’t follow it and were set free from precise bonds, the spirits could be dangerous and cause considerable imbalances and chaos on the surrounding environment, with serious damage to the community and the individual.

The phaa koei

The Lao-Tai, in particular the Tai Daeng, weave special drapes for the ceremonies, in the form of long cloth strips, decorated with a wide range of patterns and sacred symbols, necessary to show the correct way to the phii attending the rite.

These strips are spread on the house floor on the occasion of funeral ceremonies, from the bed, where the deceased is laid, to his house exit door, as if it was a kind of sacred path, which shows the two souls khawan khok and khawan ngao the way toward their destination,  that is to say heaven and the cemetery respectively.

Other similar strips are hung on special cerimonial poles, placed nearby the house or in the cemetery, to show similarly the souls their correct way.

A wooden sculpture depicting a crow, which symbolically carries the soul to heaven, is placed on the poles top.

Moreover, these hung strips are to warn the passer-by that a dead soul is going to the afterlife world and not to distract it, since it might cause illness and serious trouble, both to the passer-by who could unwisely enter the cemetery, and to the whole village.

The entrance to the cemetery is particularly forbidden to women and children.

In the past, the strips were often left on the poles until they were completely destroyed.


Recently and nowadays, due to their high cost, they are exhibited for the strictly necessary days (at most 9 days) and then reused for the future funerals of other family members.
The number of strips and the wealth of decorations also have the function of placing the family in a value social gerarchy based on the family wealth, especially on the family women's skill and competence in the production of these sacred handmade articles.

Weaving tecniques
the drape is usually woven using warp and weft of handspun cotton and silk for the decorations made in a discontinuous supplementary weft.
Sometimes, the whole drape is woven from handspun silk, but cotton is usually preferred due its higher resistance; a structure only of silk might in fact be damaged due to the overall weight of the strip, which could be considerable in function of the lenght.
The cloth strips are large between 35 and 50 cm on avarage, due to the restriction imposed by the width of the familiar looms used in this area, which seldom exceeds 50 cm.
The lenght can change a lot in function of the family's richness and of the waver's skill. However, it is almost never less than 5 metres and it can often reach 7 or 8 metres (rarely more).
The rich and complex decorations are obtained with the supplementary discontinuous weft tecnique, using handspun silk dyed with vegetable colours.
The prevalent decorations depict:
abstract geometric symbols , with specific sacred meanings, such as lozenges, hooks, coils, bars, swastikas, endless knots, diamonds, etc. Anyway they all are deeply impregnated with very strong magical meanings; figures of stars and celestial bodies, as the sun, the moon, stars, clouds, which are part of the sky to which the soul is destined;
in the third case, figures of climbing plants, trees, birds, butterflies , monkeys and other spirits called phii nyak (figures of naga with human heads), anyway of beings recalling the image of the climb to the top and then symbolize the passage from earth to heaven.
This kind of textile is now becoming increasingly rare even in the interior villages of the area, due to the high cost of production, as well as the specific skills needed by the wavers to produce it, technical and cultural competences, which are now rarefying over the years and generations.

Written by Bruno Gentili

Traslation by Eva Gatti