The banners named Phaa Koei are long bands of cloth decorated with complicated religious and magic symbols. They were employed in the funerary ceremonies of the various ethnic group of Laos.
Usually the daughters-in-law of the family weaved a phaa koei in honour of their parents-in-law with the aim of exhibiting them when their parents-in-law would have died.
When an old person died each of their daughter-in-law brought as an offer her long strip of phaa koei. These strips could have been either a creation of the daughter-in-law and a relic of her original family.
The number, the richness and the length of these strips attested the fame of the family in the community, showing:
• The strength of the family, that could be verified by the high number of married sons
• Their richness, indicated by the value of the yarns and the dyeing and by the amount of time and work employed for the realisation of the strips
• Their availability of rich and complex decorative models, which showed the long weaving tradition of the family and, as a consequence, the great ability of the ancient weavers who handed down their expertise to the youngers.
For almost every ethnic group of Laos, the funerary ceremonies were rather complex and elaborated. They required the participation of both the relatives and the community. The dead was dressed with specific clothes, put in a coffin decorated with colourful drapes and fine papers full of sacred scriptures and magic decorations.
The ceremonies lasted 3 days and were officiated by a shaman (phi khuen huean), who acted a complex ancient ritual, divided in various parts.
• During the first day, the deceased’ sons hung their phaa koei on long bamboo poles and put them in front of the house were the dead body was kept. Meanwhile, the shaman sacrificed a cow to the gods and then eaten by the community.
• During the 2nd day, the shaman invited the spirits to abandon the house of the deceased through prays and songs. Then he sacrificed three animals – a dog, a duck and a pig – that should help the soul in its travel to the afterlife.The dog would have cleaned the long magic bridge that connected the life and the hereafter; the duck would have carried on its back the dead soul across and beyond the many rivers that the spirit would have found during his path. The pig would have represented its food while reaching the hereafter.
• On the 3rd day, the relatives begged the shaman to give them the consent to bring the corpse out of the house. The shaman after having drunk a strong liquor reached the spirit of the departed, who accepted to move in the hereafter. Then the shaman in trance went with him in his voyage.
At the end of these complicated ceremonies, the poles with the phaa kuei followed the funeral procession up to the cemetery where they were thrust into the ground as a warning so that everybody knew that there was a recent burial and did not stay in the cemetery area.
On the grave a sort of little bamboo house was built where the relatives brought a pillow and a gear for hunting – if the departed was a man- or a kitchen set – if it was a woman.
During the days following the funeral, it was forbidden to stay in the cemetery, especially for women and children. It was believed that, by violating this taboo, the gods would have punished the community with many years of disgrace.
At the end of the period of religious ban the long strips were removed from the cemetry and brought back home.
TYPES OF PHAA KOEI
The Phaa Koey were realised by the family’s women for their parents-in-law.They were made of cotton cultivated in the village’s fields, hand spun and weaved on homemade looms.
The domestic looms were used in the rural areas of the Laos until the 60ies and then quickly abandoned, due to the facts that overturned the social structure of the country, during the Vietnamese war.
These cloths are now become particularly rare and the few specimen remained are still stored by the families as a heritage hard to sell both for their intrinsic and their sacral, magic and symbolic value.
The phaa koei are long rectangular strips of fabric with a considerably variable length from a minimum of 4 – 5 meters to a maximum of 10 meters. Their average width is around 40 and 50 centimetres.
The phaa koei were realised with a domestic loom in one piece, without interruptions of the warp, therefore without sewing the swatches.
The technique of sewing a unique piece of fabric and the complexity of the decorations produced a big effort:
• in maintaining a consistent compactness of the textile on the entire length of the product,
• in keeping a good balance both in the proportions and in the style of the patterns,
• in the choice of the colours which must have the most similar dyeing as possible one to another, so as to limit the discontinuity as much as possible.
The phaa koei have many types of patterns.Usually all the varieties of phaa koei have in common the two ends of the strip, decorated with stripes, which recall the colours of the main decoration.
The decoration that generally cover almost the entirety of the phaa koei can be classified into two main types:
• decorated stripes
The phaa koei with decorated stripes are divided in numerous parallel bands, which can be:
• bands made of simple stripes of different colours
• bands with decorated background either with geometric pattern and with representation of mythical and real animals, flowers, stars and sacred and magic symbols.
In this kind of phaa koei the dyeing are very intense, with a prevalence of red in all its shades and completed with other dyeing such as yellow, lilac, green, black and white. In this way, the impression given is extremely pleasing and intense. The indigo is rarely used in this kind of trimming.
On the other hand, in the phaa koei with diamond patterns, the range of colours is generally reduced to two or three dyeing. Using this technique, the pattern is clearer and instantly legible.
In these variety of phaa koei the back yarn is often used to realise the warp, while in the weave it is employed a black background on which stands out a decoration in contrast, thanks to the employing of the white yarn and only another intense colour, such as yellow, red, magenta, orange, fuchsia and purple.
In the central part, the fabric is decorated with large lozenge, containing geometric patterns or very stylised and symbolic figures, which are very complicated to decipher.
The variety of patterns for these fabrics is almost unlimited.
The huge range of decorations can go from little basic draws united in various way and repeated on all the main section, to well-structured figurative systems that join the basic motif with complicated mythic pictures. On this last case, the richness of the decorations can be so complex to become quite impossible to identify the nature of the composing designs even to specialists.
All the patterns are graphic and symbolic processing of:
a) figures of the plants and animal kingdom
b) fantastic and divine beings belonging to ancient myth
c) anthropomorphic images referred to ancestors and mythic giants
d) geometric patterns, stars, symbolic imagines and everyday life objects
a) The variety of real figures range from the symbolic representation of seeds, flowers, leaves and trees of different kinds, to figures of insects, in particular butterfly, and animals such as elephants, horses, monkeys, snakes, crabs, domestic animals and birds in any position.
b) The mythic patterns belong to the Lao legends corpus. They are basically ascribable to: the sacred snake (naga), various kind of river dragons (ngueak, ngueak horn, luang, ngueak soeng, ngueak sorng hua, ngueak naam Xam, naak phan haang, ngueak haang khor, ecc.), the mythic bird (hong), the mythic elephant (saang), the bird elephant (saang hong), the dragon that rides the elephant (ngueak khii saang), the bird boats etc.
c) The anthropomorphic pictures are less frequent, are littler in size – except for the giants – and are stylized. They embody the ancestors (khon buhaan), and are frequently frontally drawn with stretched arms and open hands. They are often represented while riding horses and other animals – both real and mythical – or on the bird boats. Sometimes they can also be portrayed near the funerary chapels.
An essential mythical image is the “Giant Spirit” (phii nyak), a magic being with human face, arms and hands but usually depicted also with dragon-like crests.
d) The fourth category of patterns has the most various range of subjects:
Geometric shapes, such as lozenges, hooks, spirals, slashes etc.
Astral decorations: the sun, the moon, the stars and the clouds
An endless set of illustration concerning the real life depicted in both realistic and symbolic manner. The diamond, the house of the spirits, the lantern, the candles, the keys, the swastikas, the top of the roofs etc.
The Phaa Koei always have a great elegance and a remarkable balance of form and colours. Moreover, they indicate a remarkable proof of the ability and the creativity of the women of Laos, who handed down from mother to daughter the ancient and precious knowledge of composing the complicated decorations of Phaa Koei.
The tragic events of 1960-1970 have fragmented and scattered this particular knowledge forever and without any possibility to rescue it. For these reasons the phaa koei are now considered a cultural heritage of the past time, no more reproducible in its original cultural and religious value. Nowadays they are becoming just another example of cultural depletion for the modern society and for the future generations.