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Traditions and Spirituality in Dance of Lan Na (Northern Thailand)


by Max Holmquist August 20, 2020

A Necessary Introduction!

A couple of weeks ago, we wrote a blog post to introduce a new series focusing on traditions and spirituality in sound healing throughout history. Why are we doing this? The spirit of curiosity! Also, we believe it's valuable to reflect on how ancient practices and beliefs have blended together to give birth to modern sound healing. We think there is a deeper understanding to be discovered, one which can strengthen our healing practice.

You can read that blog here, and then read below to explore the connection between Theravada Buddhism and healing dance traditions in Northern Thailand.

Spiritual and Cultural Influences on Thai Music and Dance 

The Lan Na region of Northern Thailand has been heavily influenced by Indian, Chinese, Burmese, and ancient Mon culture and religion. Theravada Buddhism has thrived as the primary form of worship in the Lan Na Kingdom going back to the 14th century at least. Modern Thai Buddhism has evolved to include regional influences and beliefs, originating from Hinduism, animism, and ancestor worship.

A rich tradition of spiritual healing through sound, dance, and ritual has developed around the influence of Indian dance culture and Theravada Buddhism (which mention dance in their cosmology in the form of karanas). While patronage of the arts in Thailand has preserved much of classical and dramatic dance traditions, folk dance (known collectively as rabam phun muang, which refers to “organized dance for functions and occasions”) has lived on in villages and communities of rural areas of Thailand.

There are over a hundred dance traditions in Thailand. They all have a similar emphasis on the accentuated movements of the arms, hands, and fingers. This is partly due to the influence of the Indian kinnari, a mythical half-bird, half-human. The bending fingers emulate the movement of the Kinnari’s wing-like fingers, often accentuated with metal fingertips. Different regional styles vary in their speed, dynamics, the level of accentuation of movements, but they all possess some spiritual features in common with Indian techniques and Theravada Buddhism (108 basic movements and karanas of Indian dance).

The 108 Karanas are laid out in the Nāṭya Śāstra an ancient Sanskrit work that influenced dance, music, and literary traditions in India. It outlines that the primary goal of art is to transport the viewer into another parallel reality, full of wonder, to experiences the essence of their own consciousness and reflect on spiritual and moral questions.  

An example of the accentuated hand movements and influence of karanas:

Below is a small selection of the many, many classical and folk dances from Northern Thailand, with video and description of each:

Fon Phee or Faun Phii (Spirit Possession Dance)
Fon Phee is a three-day community dance ceremony, typically called by a clan or group of families. On the first day, they build a pavilion where offerings are brought. Spirits are invited by the family. On the second day, they dance non-stop, acting as spiritual mediums, consuming alcohol and tobacco. On the third day, they perform rituals designated by the spirits.

Watch this playlist of videos to see an in-depth view of this days-long ceremony:

The dance itself begins with spirit possession initiation, involving a dancer holding onto a long cloth hanging from the ceiling of the pavilion. They dance, clinging to the cloth, while a group of musicians plays gamelans, ranat ek (similar to a xylophone), and a type of Thai flute. Dangling from the white sheet, they become possessed by a spirit that steps down onto their shoulders. Some fall to the floor, or walk around dazed. Their dancing takes on the characteristics of a given spirit. As they do this, they are dressed in traditional Mon or Burmese clothing to reflect the personality of the spirit and they’re anointed with water.



Once the possession and transformation have occurred, the slow, rhythmic group dancing begins. The dancer-mediums invite spectators to join in the dancing which carries on through the day. The dance style mimics the hand movements and poses of the karanas of Indian dance. Through this communal, ceremonial dancing, clan members and their neighbors can pay tribute and honor to the spirits of their own ancestors while letting loose a little bit.

Phee Mod Phee Meng
Similar or possibly related to Fon Phee, Phee Mod Phe Meng pays tribute to protective spirits of the home and family. Phee Mod is a house spirit that takes the form of a colony of ants. It protects the house and keeps the happiness and peace of the people that live within the house. Phee Meng represents the ancient ancestral spirits of the region. When a family feels like it is in need of protection and healing, they can call for a Phee Mod Phee Meng dance ritual. During this time, nests of ants are often offered for sale to the family putting on the ceremony and their neighbors. The nests are then kept in their houses, protecting the family and their well-being. I was unable to find a good video example of this dance, so we will have to go to the YouTube of our Minds to imagine this one.

Fon Ngiew (Scarf Dance)
Fon Ngiew is a more choreographed, formalized style folk dance (one of many), similar to the "Lanna, Heaven Flower" video at the top of this page. There are usually many dancers and the rhythm is upbeat. The dance is usually performed in fun, joyous environments. The dancers wear their hair up with yellow flower tiaras. Notice the flowing hand movements and poses of the feet and bodies, influenced again by the 108 karanas of Indian dance, captivating the crowd and carrying them to another world, setting the tone of a spiritual, otherworldly atmosphere.



Khon and Lakhon (Thai Classical / Dramatic Dance)
Khon and Lakhon are stylized and dramatic forms of Thai classical dance featuring troupes of non-speaking dancers accompanied by a chorus, which tells the story through song. The dancers wear costumes and masks, depicting spiritual beings from the Ramakien (Thailand's national epic, derived from the Hindu Ramayana). Again, we can see the repetition of various poses and the flowing hand movements, influenced by the 108 Karanas of Indian dance.



Want to Read More?:

Below are links to some of the sources I used in researching this topic. There are many more examples of Thai folk and classical dance and a lot more history and context to sift through if you're interested.

https://sanuksanuk.wordpress.com/2010/11/19/trance-dancing-and-spirit-possession-in-northern-thailand/

https://voices.no/index.php/voices/article/view/2290/2045

http://factsanddetails.com/southeast-asia/Thailand/sub5_8e/entry-3262.html

https://thailandtravelbag.com/the-history-of-the-lanna-kingdom/#:~:text=Siamese%20nobility%20was%20installed%20over,into%20the%20Kingdom%20of%20Siam.

https://www.scene4.com/archivesqv6/2014/may-2014/0514/janineyasovant0514.html




Max Holmquist
Max Holmquist

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