The Light of Retreat: A History of the Thian Phansa
Vassa, or “phansa” in Thai, is a three-month annual retreat during the rainy season observed in Thailand and other countries where Theravada Buddhism is practiced. During phansa, monks will not stay overnight elsewhere except in one designated temple to dedicate themselves to meditation and religious study.
In Thailand, the beginning of phansa is marked by the “Khao Phansa” celebration on the first waning moon of the eighth month (July) in the lunar calendar. On this day, lay devotees donate large candles and other goods to the temple. The large candles, or “thian phansa”, are often sculpted into exquisite figures and paraded through the streets. Today, candle parades are found in various communities across Thailand and are a famous sight for both Thai and foreign tourists alike.
The tradition of making thian phansa dates back to ancient times when people relied on candlelight as a major source of illumination. Donating candles to the temple is considered as an act of merit-making that blesses the donor with insight and a sharp mind, as light also symbolises enlightenment. On Khao Phansa Day, Thais donate large amounts of candles to be lit as offerings at the temple altar and to be used by monks throughout the three months of phansa. In the past, the candles were originally gathered and arranged into bundles that were decorated with gold-coloured paper. Eventually, smaller candles were melted together to form large candles that are meant to last longer. These large candles became the common form of thian phansa in Thailand.
Over the years, the process of making thian phansa has become more aesthetic. Two methods exist for making thian phansa – the casting method and the carving method. The casting method involves the use of moulds to form small wax casts that are assembled into large intricate candles. In the past, the casts were created by dipping carved pumpkins and papaya into melted wax before letting the wax harden in cold water. In 1939, a goldsmith named Pho Songsri created cement moulds of traditional Thai patterns, which he then used to press soft wax into to create casts with traditional patterns of design. Later in 1954, candle artist Pradab Konkaew began applying wax casts onto human figures to recreate scenes from the Lord Buddha’s life story. The carving method was invented by artist Khamma Saeng-ngam, who first carved figures into candles in 1959.
The art of thian phansa in modern times has moved beyond the scope of traditional candle making. Although practical, thian phansa remains popular, and many artists now create liberal wax figures that focus more on form rather than function. Sometimes, the figures may even include themes of political satire. Majestic thian phansa figures are the focus of candle parades and competitions across the country. With regional styles and national themes being expressed through carved and moulded wax, thian phansa has become a source of national and local pride for the Thai people.