Of Magic and Men

 |  March 27, 2013

Susan Conway didn’t know what to make of it. There she was, sitting cross-legged on the floor, while a man in just a small loincloth performed a dance and mime in front of her. He had two swords in his hands. One of them he pressed against his skin, trying to stab himself, but to no avail. It wouldn’t penetrate him, or even leave a mark. His skin was invincible to all harms and ills, or so he said. After all, he was the magic man.

Was this some kind of crazy acid trip? No, it was a protection ritual performed by a magic monk, or sala, as they are called by the Shan people, which translates literally to ‘expert’. Living in a village near the Thai-Burmese border, the sala in question is something of a legend among the villagers. His entire body is covered in magic tattoos that have each been inked 27 times over, so that today you can’t even see his actual skin anymore, save for the palms of his hands and the parts of his face that aren’t covered by the naga snake inked on both cheeks. And while he looks to be about 60 years old, he claims to be 140, thanks to his magic skin.

This sala is just one of many magic monks that reside in the remote villages of Northern Thailand and Shan State. Magic is commonly practiced among the village people, either as a belief system on its own or as an unsanctioned part of the larger Theravada Buddhist religion. Much has been written about the rituals and ceremonies, but what has gone largely unstudied is the material that is used, such as the supernatural scripts, talismans and magic textiles. It was this informational void coupled with a deep sense of curiosity that ultimately led Conway to meet this magic man more than five years ago.

Practical Magic

Susan Conway is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London who stumbled upon Tai magic by accident. It all started in 2006, the year she published a book about the culture of the Shan people. Travelling throughout Shan State doing fieldwork for her book, Conway interviewed many villagers and learned of a unique but little known tradition of magic that ran like a secret current through the region. So, she began trying to make sense of it all, holding interviews with the magic men and collecting materials such as photographs of magic manuscripts and incantations written in Shan and Pali.

Upon her return to the UK, armed with all this newfound material, Conway received a grant from the British Academy and MacArthur Foundation to write a new book, this time about magic in northern Thailand and Shan states. She is currently finishing it up for release at the end of 2013.

During her time spent in the mountainous villages of Mae Hong Son province, Conway probably stuck out like a neon flashing light. She is middle-aged with a head of well-kept bright blonde hair and a pucker English accent. But her days in the villages led her into some interesting discoveries about the meaning of magic.

To the villagers, she found, magic is a necessity: the key to good luck in business, love and life. As such, due to the current climate of poverty and insecurity among the village people, there is a high demand for the monks and their skills.

“This is not just a historical tradition, this is a living tradition,” she says. “I had no idea.”

Not Just Tricks

It’s estimated that about 300,000 Shan fled their home state in Burma during the armed conflicts of the past decade. Many of them now live in rural villages in Mae Hong Son province. As displaced refugees, most of the villagers Conway met had no official status, which meant they had little to no access to doctors or modern medicine.

As a means of coping, the villagers rely heavily on monks as doctors and magic as medicine. Treatments take the form of herbs, incantations, and supernatural rituals, and although they aren’t scientifically proven to work, it’s more about giving villagers hope when their ailments seem hopeless; a notion that even the rather austere realm of Western medicine is beginning to acknowledge and embrace. Think placebo.

“Magic men work closely with the refugees and they do fantastic work,” says Conway. “They are thinking about psychological care, not just physical, so that people don’t get so depressed about their conditions. I think that’s beneficial within the conditions of the Shan villages.”

Some of the mystical remedies prescribed include protection rituals, such as the sword dance ritual performed on Conway. Incantations are chanted to ward off evil spirits and magic spells are written on paper using letters or symbols of various languages (Shan, Burmese, Tai Yai, etc.), then rolled up into candles and burned for good luck.

Over time, the role of magic in village society has changed. In fact, it’s become quite modernised, functioning almost like a business to keep up with demand. In some cases, women act as administrators and take appointments from villagers. And magic formulas, which used to be individually written by hand on mulberry paper, are now photocopied for the masses.

Despite changes in method, the care and attention of the magic men have remained steady, and they are still very much revered in village society. The ones Conway met consider themselves to be like Buddhist monks, observing precepts and practicing meditation, but unlike your typical monastic men in robes, magic monks are considered extraordinary and rare.

According to Conway, there may be one magic monk for every village, but it’s hard for an outsider to know for sure because much of the magic is practiced in secret.

“But if you’re a villager, you know the magic man,” adds Conway. “Everybody in the village knows the magic man.”

A Disappearing Act 

As with any ostensibly antiquated aspect of culture, there is reason to worry about losing the culture of magic men. While their knowledge can be passed down through generations, the supernatural materials don’t always come with it, and Conway says these materials could be headed for extinction.

“I think it’s because people don’t understand these manuscripts,” she says. Even for Conway, it took her and other scholars years to crack the code of the magic writings, and they were ultimately only able to crack part of it. The manuscripts feature letters and symbols that are contorted in such a mystical shape that it means nothing to most people. But as Conway puts it, these items need to be saved because they express a unique cultural identity.

Such manuscripts have been found for sale at street markets, bought by tourists who have no idea about the history and significance behind them. Some materials get used as interior decoration, others stashed away never to be seen again. And that’s part of the worry – that they will never be seen again. While Conway has met villagers who promise never to sell their 100-year-old manuscripts, to keep them in the family for better or for worse, there are still plenty of others who might be desperate enough to part with tradition for a quick buck (and honestly, how can we blame them?).

But having the magic materials fall into foreign hands is not the worst thing that could happen, Conway notes, as foreigners may actually be able to help keep the culture from vanishing into thin air.

“If you’re buying it just to keep it and take it home, then forget about it,” she told me. “But it might be a nice gesture to donate one of these manuscripts to a library or museum that’s interested in making a collection.”

Currently, there isn’t any known collection of magic manuscripts in Chiang Mai. But who knows? A dedicated library, or even an entire museum, might come to fruition upon the publication of Conway’s book, which will help expose people to the magic that can be found deep in the nooks and crannies of northern Thailand.

“I hope this book will make Westerners realise how interesting this culture is,” Conway says. “It will dispel the myth that it’s all about bad magic. It actually isn’t. There are a lot of monks who use magic for positive power.”

But can the monks use this power to keep their own culture from vanishing into the ether? Let’s hope that magic sword dance worked.

Tai Magic: Arts of the Supernatural in the Shan States and Lan Na is published by River Books and will be released at the end of 2013.