Tung: An Expression of Belief

Belief is the magnificent birthplace and beginning of a culture. It is the sculptor that chisels and defines the shape of each civilisation into an unmatched, forever vibrant sculpture.

The culture of the people of the Lanna Kingdom has been created mostly from their deeply embedded beliefs in Buddhism. Thai people have bona fide convictions about such issues as sin, the laws of destiny, hell, heaven, and even of the life after, which they believe is determined by one’s past deeds. The unique convictions that the Thai people hold on these prolific issues, draw a very definite sketch on the distinct traits of the Lanna kingdom. This can be clearly seen from the tung, which is a direct result of the Lanna people’s devotion to Buddhism.

Tung in Northern Thai, can be literally means ‘flag’. The tung resembles a normal flag in that it is a rectangular piece of cloth attached on the shorter side to a pole. There is also a triangular-shaped cloth, most commonly called ‘Jau’. The material used to make the tung varies from wood, cloth or paper to brass.

There are many different appearances and uses for the tung. Every single Buddhist related ceremony would not be considered complete without a tung.

Historical evidence reveals that the use of the tung in Thai culture dates back thousands of years. The tung was used by the reigning, present ruler of the era to show his nationality, and by the blue-collar worker to represent his status in government.

In Northern Thailand, the tung was first heard of in the legend of ‘Phra That Doi Tung’. The legend states that during the building of the ‘Phra That’, a tung was made with a huge scorpion stitched in the centre. The thousand foot long tung was triumphantly placed on the top of ‘Doi Tung’. The distance it stretched out from the middle was where the foundations for the ‘Phra That’ would be set.

The legend of the beginning of the tung in the Lanna kingdom has been handed down for many generations. The legend states that there were five sacred monks who wished to make tung to show their filial devotion to their parents. Presently a tung is offered as a sacrifice to images of Buddha and to the deceased. To make merit for the deceased in the world to come, the living relatives often make a tung which has a wooden ladder and is believed to lead up to the highest heaven. The living believe that making the tung will allow the deceased to escape from the sin’s they may have committed, and allow them to be reborn into the human world with prosperity and high status.

Besides being used as sacrifices and offerings, a tung is often used to eliminate all evil and freak accidents that may occur as results of sin or deceiving spirits.

The tung that can be seen around homes and Buddhist temples are used as decorations and adornments for religious ceremonies and celebrations. During celebrations of making merit at local temples, tung are hung in the front of and inside the sanctuaries. In the ‘Poy Luang’ ceremony, which is the commemoration of the construction of certain rooms in the temples such as the stupa and viharn, tung are hung from bamboo poles and placed around the construction areas, as if to declare to all who pass by that there is a fiesta occurring inside the monastery. The tung are placed like toy soldiers in rows leading up to the temple.

Tung that are currently used today are varied and many. The names of certain types of tung depend upon the defining characteristics of the tung and the rite that it is to be used in. There are three tung most commonly used in merit-making ceremonies: ‘Tung Jai’, ‘Tung yai’, and ‘Tung Lao’.

The ‘tung jai’ is made from a lengthy piece of cloth, for it is believed that the longer the cloth the more the merit that will be received.

The cloth used is often silk or cotton spun into fine, elaborate patterns, in which each shining strand is distinct. ‘Tung jai’ are used in the making of merit for a deceased ancestor.

The ‘tung yai’ is made from silky strands bound together delicately like a spider’s web. White yarn is tied or knitted into different shapes using bamboo as a structural form. This tung is then decorated with flowers or frills. It often has ascending steps, which are believed to lead up to heaven. The smallest of these tung is the ‘tung lao’. It is made from colourful pieces of paper, often in a triangular or rectangular shape. The ‘tung lao’ is usually hung lengthwise from a string in the hall for sermons in a monastery.

A stiff type of tung is more difficult to make. This type of tung is made with either carved wood, cement or fretwork. Whatever substance is used to make this type of tung is then delicately designed into a sacrifice to be offered to Buddha. Nowadays these types of tung can be found in certain Buddhist temples and in the Chiang Mai National Museum.

‘Tung sarm harng’, which literally means ‘the three-tailed tung’, when seen in Northern Thailand signifies a funeral. It is carried in front of the casket, where the dead body lays, into the designated cemetery. This tung can be recognized by a rounded top that resembles a human head. It is made from filmy, white material, and decorated on the bottom in various pattems of gold or silver paper. This type of tung solely signnifies the death of a Buddhist person. If the body being cremated has no tung in front of it, it is generally accepted that the deceased was not a Buddhist, but followed some other religion. This is not always the case, though, and it could be that the deceased was of another ethnic group.

An ill-omened, inauspicious death can be identified by the tung made of zinc or brass. These tung are made as sacrifices to those who died unusual, freak deaths. They are often seen by the road sides where the accidents occur. Religious belief requires this tung to be constructed on the spot, in the time limit of seven days. A pagoda is made from a huge pile of sand and the tung of either brass or zinc is then inserted at the top. Exactly one hundred smaller pagodas are formed out of sand and placed around the largest one. A Buddhist priest is then brought to the exact location, to give his blessing with a sprinkling of water, and to pray that the deceased will be born again somewhere. It is avidly believed with much consternation that if the tung is not sacrificed, the deceased will wander there at the dead hour of night as a ghost, to torment those who pass by.

The tung that is most commonly seen is the triangular shaped tung called the ‘tung jaw’. Ceremonies in which certain types of ‘tung jaw’ are used include the Songkran Festival, where the ‘jaw-noi’ is used. The ‘jaw-noi’ is made of triangular shaped pieces of coloured paper, stuck onto a bamboo pole, and then placed on top of a sand pagoda. It is also believed to bring luck in villages and towns.

In Chiang Mai there are many opportunities in which tung can be observed. There’s the Loi Krathong and Flower Festivals in which the tung is proudly paraded through the streets along with countless, decorated floats.

The ‘tung’ of the Tai Leu (a certain Tai tribe in South China and North Thailand) is made with great technique and painstaking care. The bottom half of this type of tung is often woven into glorious images of trees, flowers, birds, elephants, houses, and certain household items, such as jugs and Lanna water ladles. These tungs of the Tai Leu are more often the highlight of different parades.

The ‘tung sai moo’ is another feature not to be missed in festival parades. The main characteristic that sets it apart is its stupa-like shape. This tung is made from hundreds of interwoven pieces of paper that scrunch up and stretch out lengthwise. Formerly used solely for the Songkran Festival, it is presently used in a myriad of different celebrations.

Thus these mysterious emblems of belief can be found sacredly collected in Buddhist temples, which relish the centuries of culture that keep the tung tradition alive to this present day.

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