The Baci ceremony, with strings attached

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I was at the Selling Yarns market in the National Museum, chatting with Valerie Kirk, head of textiles at the Canberra School of Art. I noticed she had some string tied around her wrist. At first I thought it was some practical material related to a workshop she was assisting on the day. But when I inquired about it, she revealed a very different story.

Valerie had been given this string at a ceremony in Laos, where she had been visiting a silk farm. The ceremony is known as Baci, and consists of 32 pieces of string that are tied around the wrist. The purpose of the ceremony is to coax back the 32 spirits (kwan) that animate the body. These are wayward spirits who often need bribes of food, drink and chants to make their way back home.

The Baci ceremony is performed at times when a person is likely to be needing extra support, such as a woman who had recently given birth, or a young child going to a distant school. In Valerie’s case it was the mark of respect for a distinguished visitor.

In a way, it seems similar to the Brazilian braided friendship bracelet, which is usually fastened on the wrist as a mark of solidarity with someone else. In both cases, the bracelet is ideally worn until it falls naturally from the body. This finite time is appropriate to a relationship that cannot endure indefinitely without some further contact.

Jewellery like this tends to come to us from exotic places. It is often without cost, but we value it greatly for the tradition and warmth that it brings. It should make us wonder whether anything like this might emanate from a capitalist society like our own, when most public things tend to be commodified.

But perhaps things are changing. Maybe this is something we can look forward to.

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