According to ancient Thai tradition, the pillar, or inthakin, constitutes the foundation stone around which a city is built, meaning it is of utmost importance in their culture. That is why in Chiang Mai the pillar of Wat Chedi Luang, which designates the historic city center, is venerated in the spectacular annual Inthakin Festival – a celebration unique to the mountainous city.
This unique worship ritual and celebration, which takes place on the 12th day of the sixth lunar month each year, lasts eight days and this year takes place between 11th-17th May. Centered around the Wat Chedi Luang temple, rich offerings are laid before the city pillar and the Buddhist and Lanna-era icons housed there with singular devotion.
On the first day of the festival, a Buddhist image of Phra Fon Saen Haa (The Five-Hundred Thousand Raindrop Buddha) is paraded around old town where the faithful line the streets to sprinkle lustral water (Nam Som Poi) on it. Once it is returned to the Chedi Luang temple, devotees are allowed to venerate both Buddha and city pillar, placing flowers, candles and incense in each of twenty-eight bowls laid out on mats inside the temple. During the rituals, the temple is lit up, and the streets around the Wat are thick with music, color, scents and excitement. The event culminates in formidable chanting by 108 monks.
Throughout the weeklong festivities, traditional events take place every evening within the temple grounds, featuring such rarities as sword and lance dancing as well as other cultural performances. There are also the standard carnival games and the delectable (and ubiquitous) local Thai delicacies sold by vendors lining the streets all around old town.
Some scholars believe the pillar, built during the reign of King Mangrai in 1296 and moved to its current location inside the Wat of Chedi Luang, symbolizes a large phallus, made to encourage the fertility of the land in what was once a predominantly agricultural society. Largely serving to appease the city’s guardian deity who dwell inside it, the event is still believed by many to ensure the timely arrival of the monsoon (or rainy) season.
Chiang Mai’s pillar festival is as much a celebration of the city as it is a festive expression of an ancient belief, giving insight into the fascinating customs of an extraordinary land.