Did you know that junior monks follow a set of 10 precepts or rules of conduct, while a fully ordained Buddhist monk observes 227 precepts? One of their daily monastic observances is the alms food collection. Each monk carries his own bowl and with around 300,000 monks in Thailand you’d think the bowl business would be booming, but as Steve Davey explains, hand-made baat are an endangered craft…
“If you are up early enough, then you will be able to see the same ritual played out all over South East Asia. Just before sunrise, Buddhist monks leave the sanctuary of their Wats, or monasteries, and walk silently around the nearby streets collecting alms from the faithful.
You can even see this ancient ritual in the Thai capital Bangkok, where the saffron-robed monks form an incongruous sight, walking around the deserted modern streets of the capital. Uniquely at the so-called Marble Temple, Wat Benchamabophit, the monks don’t walk around, but wait outside of the monastery for the faithful to turn up with their alms.
The donations are collected in the characteristic begging bowls, called baat. These used to all be made by hand, but most new ones are mass produced. One of the only places where monks bowls are still made in the traditional way is at Ban Baat, also known as Monk’s Bowl Village in Bangkok.
Ban Baat was one of three communities formed by King Rama I two centuries ago, in order to preserve the craft of making monks bowls by hand. Even at this time the art was dwindling. Now only three families still make bowls in this one remaining village, which has long since been swallowed up by the expanding metropolis, and is pretty indistinguishable from the many warrens of backstreets in the capital.
Finding Ban Baat can be tricky: just a couple of small signs point down to a network of alleyways off the busy Boriphat Road. There is fierce competition between the surviving families for visitors, and as you get close then small children will usually appear and lead you down to their family home, where you will be shown a demonstration of bowl making and usually be expected to make a donation, or even buy a bowl.
The bowls are all made laboriously by hand. They are constructed from eight pieces of steel – particularly auspicious as this invokes the eight spokes on the Buddhist Wheel of Dharma and the enlightenment of Lord Buddha.
It takes many thousands of taps with a hammer to shape the inside of the bowl, before the outside is hammered smooth over an anvil. The process is so time consuming that even a sixth-generation craftsman can only make one or two bowls a day.
Some of the finished bowls are polished to give them a clear, natural metal finish, but others are coated with layers of black lacquer. New bowls range from around 700 to 3000 Thai baht, depending on their size and complexity, and also your haggling capability.”
Steve Davey is a internationally renowned author and professional travel photographer. He has launched a series of travel photography tours, with all land arrangements provided by Intrepid Travel. The next trip is on 6 April, 2010, to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. More details on bettertravelphotography.com.
* photos © Steve Davey