Mae Chaem, a small district nestled in a valley beyond Thailand's highest mountain peak in a remote area in the north, until 30 years ago was isolated and inaccessible, even to the majority of Thais. Today, Mae Chaem is still a foreign land to most visitors – Thais and westerners alike, leaving them with a strong sense of nostalgia because it shelters the life and culture that once typified the entire northern region of the country.

    The cultural heritage that enriches this isolated community includes a weaving tradition passed along from mothers to daughters and the unique textiles that these women produce. While most of the weaving communities in the area have disappeared, weavers in Mae Chaem have been able to maintain their distinctive textiles. Mae Chaem is undergoing changes as a result of rapid development taking place throughout the country. However, the recent revival of textiles has made a difference in development as it effects Mae Chaem.

    To present-day enthusiasts, many of whom live in Bangkok or outside the country, Mae Chaem textiles are fine, skillfully constructed handicrafts worth promoting and collecting. To the village women, however, these textiles are ceremonial items woven with devotion marking the passage of life guided and nourished by Buddhism and animism. This paper, based in part on my research in Mae Chaem, recounts the cultural and social context in which the textiles were created, forgotten, revived, reproduced and modified.

    Revitalization: Tourism and Development

    Revitalization, a country-wide phenomenon in Thailand, is an attempt to retrieve what has been lost from the remnants of our dying culture due to rapid economic development in the past three decades. Cultural conservation and preservation are new concepts recently introduced amidst the currents of change and the growth of tourism, which has been the top priority of government for more than a decade. The revival of traditional clothing and textiles is associated with the search for local identity to build an image of the north that is acceptable to the local population as well as to the tourist industry.

    Interest in Mae Chaem textiles coincided with a concerted effort by scholars to preserve temple-related valuables, including buildings, mural paintings and palm-leaf manuscripts containing sacred Buddhist texts. The past decade has produced a significant number of studies of Mae Chaem's art, architecture and textiles. The work of scholars in documenting textile designs was paralleled by that of development workers, who initiated a textile conservation project in Mae Chaem. Several books featured Mae Chaem's traditional clothing, including tube skirts, decorative borders and bags; and an exhibit in 1987 welcomed a group of Mae Chaem weavers who wanted to see their treasures on display. The project has resulted in the reintroduction of natural dyes, the systematic collection of traditional designs and the creation of new designs that appeal to urban dwellers.

    The textile conservation project has also helped the Mae Chaem villagers in several ways. Like other agrarian communities in Thailand, Mae Chaem has been affected by development that has brought about changes in lifestyle and an influx of new values and aspirations. In shifting from self-sufficiency to cash-crop cultivation, farmers have run into debt, since most of their money is spent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Despite hardships, however, the villagers are managing to survive, in part through reliance on weaving to bring in some extra income. Moreover, weaving has provided the village women with a way in which to come together to share their problems and think them through in the group dynamics that are encouraged by the textile conservation project.

    Reproduction & Decontextualization

    The recent successful revival of costumes and the re-invention of traditions in northern Thailand have ignited an interest in traditional textiles and promoted their reproduction with a large demand for a distinctive length of cloth known as tin chok. Woven in intricate patterns in a band spanning several inches, tin chok originally served as the lower border of the traditional full length tube skirt ( pha sin) formerly worn by all women. With the increased popularity of textiles, the tin chock border has been transformed into decorative trimmings and scarves. Moreover, tube skirts have been redesigned to consist entirely of an assortment of tin chok over the entire length of the skirt, rather than only at the bottom, to appeal to affluent urban women from outside the region. These trends have led to numerous debates regarding the modern use of tin chok, and academic institutions have made concerted efforts to publicize guidelines on how to wear northern Thai clothing appropriately.

    To comply with the government's policy of promoting local tourism, Mae Chaem district officials have recently joined hands with the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to create an annual fair featuring demonstrations and exhibitions of tin chok and other handicrafts. The fair is a duplicate of others organized throughout the country, based on local products or customs and sponsored by the TAT. It includes processions from sub-districts vying for awards and a beauty contest. Three years ago, in an effort to gain not only national but also international recognition, the district officer gave a press release that made headlines on the front page of Thairat, Thailand's most widely read newspaper, claiming that Versace, the late Italian designer, had shown an interest in tin chok made in Mae Chaem.

    The most recent annual tin chok fair in Mae Chaem in February 2000 witnessed an expansion of the fair ground with more booths selling textiles and more visitors from other places as well as the local people who willingly participate. There one can see diversity in both traditional and new styles of cloth.

    Undoubtedly, the revival of weaving in Mae Chaem has been remarkably successful. Efforts to promote local textiles have to some extent helped rekindle a sense of pride in the weavers. As Mae Chaem weavers continue to weave to supply a stronger local demand, they are well-adapted to produce textiles for the custom-made market. While new techniques and designs have been introduced, traditional patterns have been treasured as a testimony to the abilities of the women to make use of simple, natural materials within the environment and with patience and effort, transform them into objects of beauty and of ritual significance.

    Despite the successful revival in production, however, most textile connoisseurs have no understanding of or interest in the ways in which these textiles are part of the lived world of the weavers in Mae Chaem. The consequence is rampant decontextualization that, had it occurred in former times, would have been considered sacrilegious.

    Rituals: A Life Journey in Textiles

    Studies of northern Thai textiles by both Thais and Westerners have disregarded the symbolic and ritualistic aspects of the textiles, emphasizing only their value as historical, anthropological or artistic objects. In conducting my research on textiles, I became aware of the ways in which the weaving tradition in Mae Chaem signified a woman's entry into successive stages of life and a means for her to follow the Buddhist path.

    As was true in the past throughout rural Thailand, Mae Chaem's agrarian way of life, based around an annual rice crop totally dependent upon adequate rainfall and produced without modern machinery or fertilizers, was difficult. But here and elsewhere, cyclical ceremonies and rituals, based on a harmonious mixture of Theravada Buddhist and animist beliefs, helped bring regularity and stability, hope and wisdom to the people. Following the rhythms of nature, after months of hard physical labor ending with the rice harvest, Mae Chaem villagers would turn to less taxing work during the summer while waiting for the soil to replenish itself for the new planting season. It was during the summer that the village women would start to weave again.

    When asked to describe life in the past, old women recall how, as girls, they first learned to weave from their mothers or their grandmothers by practicing making lengths of plain white cloth. During courtship, a young woman would weave various special types of cloth for her suitor and also for herself and their household in preparation for their marriage. Life as housewife and mother kept her away from the loom for some time, but when the children had grown up she would begin weaving again. At this stage of life, she would master several motifs and devote her life to going to the temple.

    In Buddhist communities throughout Southeast Asia, temple activities are centered around the symbiotic relationship between monks, who lead an ascetic life with no possessions, and lay people, who provide them with such essentials as food, clothing and medicine. Temple festivals are joyous occasions, celebrations that combine religious teachings with social activities. At any temple event in Mae Chaem the women can be seen dressed in their best, wearing the traditional pha sin tin chok. The extent to which these designs have become part of the local Buddhist landscape can be seen in the murals of one of Mae Chaem's century-old temples. There, women in the story of the life of the Buddha can be seen wearing pha sin tin chok.

    According to the Theravada Buddhist tradition, men earn "merit" for a better rebirth by ordaining into the monkhood. Virtually every male will spend some time, ranging from several weeks to several years as a monk. Since women are not allowed to be ordained, they make merit in various other ways, including weaving lengths of yellow cloth to wrap around the monk's robes worn by their son or grandson upon ordination. Women also weave special textiles that are used to wrap sacred palm-leaf manuscripts and ceremonial banners that are offered in dedication to the deceased.

    Finally, women weave yet another set of textiles: the possessions that accompany them when they "return home." The women of Mae Chaem accept death unquestioningly as part of a continuing cycle of life. They learn these teachings through innumerable Jataka Tales recounting the previous lives of the Buddha that are recited in the temple and passed down in an oral tradition.

    When asked what her goal in life is, an old woman of traditional background in northern Thailand will say that she lives to accumulate parami, which in a Buddhist context means "perfections," or "modes of perfect practice" or "progress towards the ultimate goal of nirvana." This paradigm directs the way of life of members of all Buddhist communities in Southeast Asia. The Ten Perfections include the following values: generosity, morality, renunciation, wisdom, effort, tolerance, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness and equanimity. Each of these values is illustrated by one of the Ten Jataka Tales. It is also significant to note that the northern Thai version of the last Jataka, Vessantara, recounting the penultimate life of the Buddha, has a localized scene in which the wife of Prince Vessantara, the future Buddha, receives a pha sin tin chok upon their return to their home city after a long period of exile and suffering.

    Also noteworthy of Mae Chaem textiles is the significance of the names given to certain motifs and the ways in which they are connected with the life cycle of the weavers. Many of the motifs represent horses, elephants, mythical swans and other animals that play key roles in the Jataka Tales either as bodhisattavas (Buddhas-to-be) or as their supporters. Of all the designs the village women learn to weave, the most elaborate and difficult is the hong dam, or black swan, design. If a woman can weave the hong dam design, she can claim mastery over weaving, the final achievement in her skilled work. The black swan design is therefore said to mark a woman's maturity in Mae Chaem. The hong (or hamsa, from its Sanskrit source) is a mythical animal known in both Hindu and Buddhist contexts. In northern Thailand the old people recall a Jataka Tale about a hamsa that gets lost but eventually finds its way back to its original home, the mythical Anoh-daht Pond in the Himalayas. The return symbolizes the end of all suffering.

    For traditional Buddhist village women in Mae Chaem, then, weaving had not only a pragmatic function, but also a hermeneutical one relating to Buddhist values and stories. These values and stories were symbolized in the motifs that women created on the loom and passed along to their daughters and granddaughters. Weaving was a means to embark on a lifelong journey on the loom, from plain white cloth to the intricate designs of the black hamsa, from the mundane to the supermundane. It is sad to realize that textiles in Mae Chaem and elsewhere in the country have lost the connection to a journey through life in a tradition that was once dominant but that now is powerless and even irretrievably lost.

    Kruamas Woodtikarn serves as deputy director of the Center for the Promotion of Arts and Culture and teaches in the English Department at Chiang Mai University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Under a grant from the Thai National Culture Commission, she conducted research on northern Thai textiles and authored Life, Faith and Textiles: Passing on Knowledge about Textiles in Amphoe Mae Chaem . The following article is adapted from a paper presented at "Crossroads and Commodification: A Symposium on Southeast Asian Art," March 25 and 26 at the U-M, sponsored by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Department of the History of Art. The symposium brought together 30 scholars from Asia, Europe, Great Britain and North America and included papers on architecture, sculpture, shadow puppetry, textiles and ritual.