Not far from our studio lies a twisted network of narrow streets lined with stilted farmer’s teak houses that sit hidden in the partial shade and foliage of wide-sprawling branches. Occasional rays of sunlight penetrate through the canopies to illuminate glimpses of a simple life: flocks of chickens in the dirt, clumps of bananas, a shaggy dog lazing around in a spot of sunshine and shadows of human residents as they go about their day. Every time we come here to visit a friend we feel as though we’ve just entered into a time-warp.
On one of these visits in last year’s October as we were walking back to the car our ears caught the unmistakable rhythmic beating of a loom punctuated by distinctly high-pitched “clicks” coming from a rickety old farmer’s house across the road. We couldn’t resist investigating further and walked through the rusted gate and past a shiny orange “Kubota” tractor as we called out to announce our presence. We came face-to-face with the only source of sound in the sleepy street: a lone weaver immersed in her work at an incredible contraption of a loom and surrounded by a sea of household objects. A deep earthy smile emanated from her face of kindness that was worn with time and long rays of sunshine as she beckoned us to come closer. The house she sat under looked as if it had moulded itself around her and there did not seem to be a distinct boundary between where her activities ended and where the surroundings began. Even her loom seemed as if it was an extension of the house – a squeaky collection of pipes, wooden cogs and lumber off-cuts that were all ingeniously held together with mysterious joinery and rusty bent nails. The high-pitched “clicks” that we heard earlier had been coming from a pulley system which she had rigged up to allow her to sling the shuttle back and forth with dazzling speed and precision. The cotton she wove was sublime. Soft as spun silk with a modest weight to it.
Her nimble fingers kept a coordinated pace with her feet as she pushed pedals, slung the shuttle to and fro and adjusted various things all the while happily chatting away with us about her work and life in the village. She told us about other weavers in the area who still supplemented their households’ income with this kind of work and then (casually) remarked how next week she and her weavers’ group planned to take their looms apart and re-assemble them at the local temple to collectively spin this year’s cotton harvest, weave bolts of cloth, dye it using jackfruit wood and then sew robes that would then be gifted to the monks of the temple. All in one night. Our eyes opened wider and wider as she went on until our jaws dropped and she smiled as we stood there blinking at each other. She seemed amused at our reaction. For her this was part of the way of life in the village, something that had happened countless times before and would happen countless times again: the annual Thod Kathin Festival. For us it was something we knew we had to see.
When we arrived at the gold speckled temple on the night of the festival the celebrations were already well underway and the village members sat in a semi-circle in the middle of the temple grounds, dressed in white. We silently slipped inside as their attention was focused on elaborate dances put on by the youngsters behind whom stood a small grove of potted cotton plants with fluffy flowers white and ready for harvest. An announcement rang out at the sound of which everybody promptly stood up. We joined our palms in Buddhist prayer and listened to the chanting of monks as two dozen children dressed as mythological characters in dazzling costumes of golden scales ran out and began to circle the grove of plants. With woven bamboo baskets in hand the children ran amongst the plants, picking cotton as they went. The chanting was said to be one of gratitude for this year’s bountiful harvest.
When all of this was done larger sacks of previously harvested cotton were brought out and a few elderly women in their 70s started making their ways to the looms. These were the weavers of the village and our new friend was amongst them. All the equipment was already set up. There was a group for spinning, another for weaving, and a third to keep everybody awake and cheerful with merry singing. There were bags of jackfruit woodchips that would later be simmered to dye the cotton in the splendid deep orange colour that is reserved only for monks’ robes. Singer sewing machines stood by at the ready. Somebody had even brought a washing machine to give the dyed cotton a good wash. As the hour grew late the singing grew more vigorous and a big pot of bamboo shoot stew was brought out. We eventually decided to start making our way back home around midnight, leaving the weavers to work deep into the night.
Unfortunately we had work to do the next day and are still kicking ourselves for not having the time to witness the ceremony through to its end when the spun, woven, dyed and sewn orange robes were finally presented to the monks the next day. They were said to be quite beautiful. We will make sure to go again this year. Until then we smile as our ears catch the occasional rhythmic beating of a loom while walking down sleepy street.