Childbirth and tradition in Northeast Thailand
Childbirth and tradition in Northeast Thailand. Forty years of development and cultural change
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2007. 267 pp. ISBN 978-87-7694-003-4, pb £18.99
Reviewed by Jana Igunma, British Library
Anders Poulsen’s field of specialisation is child psychology, in which he worked for many years and became well known internationally as founder-president of the International School Psychology Association (ISPA), and as director of the Danish Psychological Press.
His interest in Thailand rose with his involvement in a UNESCO-funded project studying social influences on the development of Thai children. In connection with this project, Poulsen worked in the village of Baan Phraan Muean in Northeast Thailand in 1961-62. Several appointments by the Danish International Development Agency brought him back to this same village in 1967, 1977, 1988, and 1999 to continue his research. His most recent stay there in 2005 made it possible to conclude a longitudinal study which also focuses on traditions and socio-cultural conditions surrounding pregnancy and childbirth in Northeast Thailand.
The book, which is dedicated to pregnancy, birth and puerperium, is divided into three parts. Firstly, an introductory description gives insight into the village and its population, together with an analysis of the traditions, beliefs, and rituals associated with pregnancy and birth, and the changes and developments in this respect over about 40 years. The khwan rites (‘calling the soul’ rites) are of particular interest in this part, and the importance of the mae kamlerd, a spiritual entity that is believed to cause illness or misfortune of the newborn, is explained. The rituals associated with the mae kamlerd and other spirit cults are analysed, before the author gives a survey of ritual practice, pregnancy and birth that he witnessed between 1961 and 2005. Interestingly, the ritual practice has not changed very much whereas nutritional habits during pregnancy and actions taken if the baby falls ill have changed significantly. Poulsen also examines the role and work of traditional midwives (mae tamyae), including practical aspects of giving birth, confinement and postnatal care of both mother and child.
The second part, which accounts for far more than a third of the book, is on the ritual texts connected to the rites mentioned earlier. It contains a critical Thai and English edition of the three most important ritual texts, which were originally written on palm leaves in Tham script and/or Lao buhan script. Some smaller, however not less important texts, have been added, too. The transliterations and translations were prepared by Pernille Askerud and Supranee Khammuang who attempt to interpret the original texts for the non-Isan/Lao speakers, and which at the same time corresponds best with the original texts. Personally, this is the most valuable part of the book since transliterations (into Thai) and translations (into English) of such texts from Northeast Thailand are very rare and extremely difficult to find. Also included is some information on the ritual masters who carry out the rites, and their work and role within the community is described. Furthermore, the recipes for various traditional medicines, which are used in the village during pregnancy, birth and puerperium, are presented.
Part 3 reveals details of the research methodology that has been applied throughout Poulsen’s research as well as a very useful glossary and notes on the language spoken in Northeast Thailand, which is similar to Lao. Finally, there is a 12-page bibliography which is a good entry point for further studies on the topic and on Northeast Thai or Lao traditions.
Richard A. Engelhardt, UNESCO Regional Advisor for Culture in Asia and the Pacific, states in the foreword to the book that ‘Anders Poulsen’s work is an invaluable contribution to the safeguarding of the oral culture that is so determining a component of Isan culture. At the same time, it documents aspects of that culture which is seldom the subject of research and documentation… future researchers now have a chance to study these texts and traditions in depth and unveil layers of meaning that continue to make these rites so relevant and meaningful today.’
I would go even further to say that Poulsen’s work proves how important it is to work with original texts and with those who are still able to understand the ritual and religious background of these texts which may appear strange and perhaps unreasonable to the outsider. Poulsen’s revelations about the traditional confinement, for example, show that traditions and practices considered to have died out were still very much alive when he conducted his research in Northeast Thailand. Poulsen’s book highlights understanding of cultural diversity and oral traditions in particular – most especially the role they continue to play – even in modernising cultures and societies.