Laos

The Holy Spirit of the Soil

By Jheri St. James

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic is a landlocked country in Southeast Asia, bordered by Burma and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west. Laos’ history began in the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants) in the 14th century, founded by Prince Fa Ngum, who was descended from a long line of Lao kings. During the rule of his son, Oun Heuan, Lan Xang became an important trade center. This period was followed by 100 years of warfare.


Laos

Laos

Rice Fields in Laos

Rice Fields in Laos


Our soil collector in Laos was Kelly Nicholas, who writes, “Sorry it took a bit to get back to you. I have the package and everything looks great, but I’ll let you know if I have any questions. I am leaving Singapore to start backpacking on April 14 and I’ll be in Laos some time between about April 22 – May 6, so the sample will be sent off some time in there. I am going all over the country to Luang Prabang and Vientiane in the north then heading south to Paske, Attapeu, and Savannakhet. I don’t know how much you know about Laos and if you want something specific let me know and I’ll do the best I can. Otherwise, Ryan just mentioned that it should be from a site with some historical significance, which I can definitely do. I’m excited to be a part of this. The project sounds incredible! Thanks and good luck, Kelly.” Ryan is Gary Simpson’s son and Kelly is his friend. Commonground 191 is a family affair—personal and global family

Soil Collection for Common Ground 191 in Laos Soil Collection Soil Collection at Vat Phou Monument & Exhibition Hall

Vat Phou MonumentWe can see parts of the ancient temple in the photos of her soil collection at Vat Phou Monument & Exhibition Hall. A temple complex in southern Laos at the base of Mt. Phu Kao, within view of the Mekong River in Champasak Province, this holy site was established in the 5th century. The surviving structures date from the 11th to 13th centuries. A unique structure, the elements lead to a shrine where a linga was bathed in water from a mountain spring. A linga or a lingam is a very complex symbol of Hinduism, associated with Shiva, one of the three main gods of the Hindus. The Hindu scriptures say that a linga represents energy and strength. In almost all the temples, Shiva is shown in the form of a linga of light. Lingas represent the earth, the water, the fire, the air and the sky (or ether). (Photo left: natural linga at top of Mt. Phu Kao; below full view of temple.)


Vat Phou

In the book Soil, the Ecstatic Skin of the Earth, the writer William Bryant Logan makes the point that soil is unique to the earth in the universe, which suggests that the many components of soil could be called holy. Surely the soil from Vat Phou is the holiest of holies, in spite of 100 years of warfare. Thank you, Kelly Nicholas!


New Year's Dancers in Laos

Theravada Buddhism is a dominant influence in Lao culture, reflected throughout the country from language to temples, art, literature, and performing arts. Many elements of Lao culture predate Buddhism. For example, Laotian music is dominated by its natural instrument, the khaen, a type of bamboo pipe that has prehistoric origins. (Photo: New Year’s Dancers)

Mekong River at Luang Prabang in Laos

A view of the Mekong River at Luang Prabang in Laos


Rice, the staple food of the Lao people, has cultural and religious significance as well. Sticky rice is preferred over jasmine and its cultivation and production is thought to have originated in Laos. Many traditions and rituals have grown up around this tiny grain, which grows on the holy soil of the Great Mother. For example, Khammu farmers in Luang Prabang plant the rice variety Khao Kam in small quantities near the hut in memory of dead parents or at the edge of the rice field to indicate that parents are still alive. Rice as prayer.


We leave Laos with beautiful pictures in mind and spirit, even though this landlocked country too did not escape the ravages of war during its long long history. It is even possible that it was the horrors of wars that led to the outcries of the human spirit in prayer, which led to the construction of this beautiful temple. Let us harbor the spirit of the soil, the spirit of the temple, the spirit of the rice, in our hearts when we remember Laos.

Buddhist Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Buddhist Temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

 


 

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