Saphao: Lan Na Perception on a Journey Across the Ocean

Surasawasdi Sooksawasdi


Saphao is a Lan Na word equivalent to the Central Thai samphao referring to a Chinese style ocean-going merchant ship or junk. There are many archaeological traces such as terracotta seals, medals and stucco motifs found in many sites in Thailand depicting the connection with India, the Jambūdvīpa, and Sri Lanka. Some of those present the journeys by one-mast vessels and also brigs. Several folk jatakas composed by Lan Na monks, as scholars, during the 15th - 16th Centuries A.D. referred to a journey made by samphao namely, Suwannasangaraja jātaka and Chanthakataka jātaka for example. Although the jātakas did not give any detailed description of the samphao and the journeys made by them, several Buddhist documents of several sects in Lan Na contain records of the trips made for the purpose of perpetuating Buddhism from its origin in Sri Lanka via such transportation as the samphao.
The ‘crossing the great ocean’ conveys both the concrete and abstract meanings which include crossing over the samsāra or the process of life and death (birth, aging, sickness and death) transcending the Lokīya, the worldly and mundane, comforts to Lokutara, the supramundane or absence of such unpleasant conditions. Several objects of sacrifice dedicated to certain important chedis containing the Buddha relics in the Lan Na tradition include saphao kham (golden junk) which is also part of the sacrifice in certain Lan Na rites. In some Lan Na folk rites practiced for the merit dedicated to a woman who died in giving birth to a child it is required to have a model of saphao to carry all kinds of fishing equipment. This is to assist the dead woman who died soaking in blood and amniotic fluid to ride on it and get released to be born again. Part of the merit dedicating phase accompanying the rite says that may the merits gained from this rite be like a crystal and golden ship taking the unfortunate person to the next life.
This article aims to investigate the allusions to saphao in the various contexts of Lan Na society in the past, especially those related to Buddhist history, social history and its culture.

Key Words: Saphao; Jātaka; Paññāsa jātakas; Lan Na; Sri Lanka

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