Entrance to Wat Thammarattanaram, the Therevadan Buddhist temple in Coteau, Louisiana. Photo: Maida Owens.
In the heart of Cajun Country there is a small outpost of Laos provided by Lanexang Village. The village was created in the early 1980s by refugees from the fighting in Southeast Asia, and today northern Iberia Parish is home to roughly 67 families. In the Laotian language, the village’s name means “million elephants”–Lane means “million” andxang means “elephant.” Approximately 2000 Laotians live in the Acadiana region. Lanexang Village continues to celebrate the Laotian New Year Songkran–their main traditional celebration–over Easter weekend.
Lanexang’s temple’s name is Wat Thammarattanaram.“Wat” is the Laotian word for temple, and“Thammarattanaram”refers to the chanting the monks perform. Laotians founded the temple, but it also serves the spiritual needs for Thai and Cambodian residents in the Lafayette and New Iberia area. In front of the temple is the small, three-street community that comprises Lanexang Village. The houses are Western in style and aside from the street names–Lungprabang Street, Suvanaket Street, Vientia Street, cities and provinces in Laos–and the residents’ shoes neatly placed by their front doors, one could not distinguish it from any other local neighborhood. At the back of the community, however, the Laotian presence becomes abundantly apparent. A brick wall runs roughly a hundred yards in front of the temple’s grounds, demarcating the temple from the village, and on top of the brick columns is the same teardrop design that can be seen on a Therevadan Buddhist cremation urn.
The festival commenced around 10 a.m. on Friday on the temple grounds with an offering ceremony received by monks. The ceremony ends in early afternoon, at which time people return to their homes, most of which are walking distance from the temple. Later in the afternoon, they return to the temple’s covered, open-air building that serves as a dance floor and stage for the Miss Sankhara pageant, a beauty pageant for high school girls.
On Saturday morning, people begin arriving at the temple around 7 a.m.; many bring offerings of household goods for the monks. After the ceremony, traditional Laotian food is served to the monks and then the lay persons. At 1 p.m., a small parade winds its way through the village’s three streets before entering the temple grounds, where the revelry continues well into the morning. Sunday’s activities start closer to noon, and the day is spent in more leisurely shopping and eating at outdoor shops set up on the temple grounds.
Laos lies at the crossroads of the Asian continent, assimilating aspects of Indian and Sino/Chinese cultures. The mythic story behind Songkran embodies this point. This Hindu myth came to Laos from India. When Hinduism arrived, the indigenous people already practiced animism. Later, when most Laotians adopted Therevadan Buddhism, they did not dispel the Hindu or animistic beliefs and imagery in their myths. Now, early in the 21st century, Lanexang Village is adapting the festival to fit their lives in America. For example, according to the 2007 lunar calendar used in Laos, Songkran fell on April 13, 14, and 15. Lanexang community leaders changed the date of their festival to coincide with Easter, thereby giving the community members a long weekend in which to enjoy New Years. Despite the fact that Songkran at Lanexang’s temple is not held on the traditional three days, according to community leaders their Songkran festival is the largest Laotian festival of any kind held in the United States and the only Laotian Songkran festival in the United States. Mr. Somvang Somemangkshala, one of the festival’s planners, says that each year approximately “3 or 4000 people attend, and not all are members of the local community. Laotians come from Houston, Dallas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama, Washington, D.C., and California. Sometimes friends and family who have been separated since immigrating to America find each other at the festival.”
Republished in Jambalaya Magazine & Clothing