Giant Swing, Bangkok
In the center of the busy square in front of Wat Suthat stands one of Bangkok's most eye-catching sights, the 27m (88-ft) high teak frame of the so-called Giant Swing. This used to be the focus of a religious ceremony held every year in December after the rice harvest. Teams of three took turns to balance on a dangerously narrow board and be swung 25 m (82 ft) or more off the ground "up to Heaven", at which point they would attempt to catch a bag of silver coins in their teeth. Following a number of fatal accidents, the contest was banned by King Rama VII in 1932.The ceremony was Indo-Brahman in origin, based on the legend of the god Shiva who was sent by Brahma to visit Earth. Brahma bade Shiva first test the firmness of the Earth by putting down his right foot, crossing his left leg over his right knee, and waiting to see what came to pass. Shiva did as he was told, and nothing happened. Brahma then ordered Shiva to test whether, as prophesied, the mountains would fall into the sea when the nagas (water snakes) abandoned their mountain homes and returned to the ocean. Shiva again obeyed, whistling the nagas down from the mountains to the east and to the west into the billowing waves, waiting once more to see what would happen. The mountains did not fall into the sea, the nagas swimming happily in their new element where they have remained ever since. Each year thereafter, on the fifth day of the new moon in the second moon month (mid- December), Shiva honored Earth with a visit lasting ten days.Naturally enough the god required an offering. His visit moreover coincided with the rice harvest (there was only one rice crop a year in those days), so Shiva had to be thanked and his blessing sought for the following year's crop. Four elements were deemed crucial to this: sun, moon, Earth and - most important of all - water, carved symbols of which were kept in the little Hindu temple inside Wat Suthat (the temple can still be seen). These would then be taken out for the ceremony and put on display. At the same time the "Minister for Rice", the highest official in what was then an agrarian society, accompanied by hundreds of Brahman Court Astrologers, would go in procession around the city walls and then to the temple precinct where, at the Giant Swing, the remainder of the ceremony took place. Shiva's representative would test the solidity of Earth just as the god had done, placing his right foot on the ground near the Swing and crossing his left leg over his right knee, remaining in that position to witness the rest of the "trial". The mountains, symbolized by the upright frame of the Giant Swing, would again not fall into the sea even though the nagas, represented by the contestants in tall pointed hats, be swung back into their new element.While the success of the harvests may have shown Shiva to be generally pleased with the spectacle, his earthly representative must have found the ceremony extremely tiring and provision of the silver offering expensive. Whatever the reason, Rama IV eventually decreed that the ceremony be carried out by a different dignitary each year. And while the "trials" are unlikely always to have gone to plan - the bag of silver perhaps eluding capture between the teeth and dropping to the ground or, worse still, one of the nagas on the swing or the left foot of Shiva's representative touching the ground - Thai chroniclers have drawn a veil over any such mishaps.The festival continues to be celebrated within the temple precinct, but inside the temple and with only 20 astrologers. First, before sunrise, Buddhist monks are made gifts of suitable offerings; afterwards the four elements - sun, moon, Earth and water, symbolized by little statues - are placed inside a golden goose known as Hinsa which is then perched on a miniature swing to be ridden up to Heaven by the god Brahma.
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