Notes on the Bai religion

 

In most of the Bai villages the religious life turns around the cult to Guanyin and their Benzhu or Local Lords cults. The cult to Guanyin is mixed with some ancestral feminine cults, as usually include rituals related with the fertility and the protection of the children, as well as to mythic and historic personages that have antedated the arrival of the Buddhism to the Bai lands. The Benzhu cults are also a syncretism of beliefs of different origins, heavily influenced by the Han Chinese popular religions; or by beliefs in spiritual lords of the earth common to many races of East Asia.

This belief in the lords of the place has been exuberantly developed by the Bai people, in a parallel (an maybe influenced) way as the Chenghuangmiao or Gods to the City developed among the Han Chinese, in a way that every village has its own local god, usually an historical personage that justify the domain of the inhabitants of the village over this territory; some times the first ancestor who settled in this place, or a hero who, saving the people in difficult times (war or catastrophe), performed a kind of re-foundation, achieving with his heroic accomplishment the right to inhabit this land, he and his descendants.

     
   
  A Banzhu Temple near Dali City  

In the Benzhu Temple the people perform ceremonies when some new member of the community is born, when he is sick, when he get married and when he dies. In this way we see that the cult of the Lord of the Locality in the Benzhu Temple is related to the continuity of the occupation of the land by the integrants of the village.

The mythology surrounding this Benzhu cults is very rich, as every local hero or ancestor later deified, has his own mythology that justify his high position.

¿Who presides over these ceremonies? ¿These old ladies that take care of the temple? ¿It is there any kind of ritual marriage between them and the gods they serve?

The main task of these Benzhu or Local Lords is the protection of the people of the village. To ensure that he is able to fulfill his task, in every village has been developed an unique iconography related with the mythic history of the hero, as well as with local beliefs, tastes or traditions, in a way that, for from finding a regular set of images around the Lord of a certain locality, they are extremely varied. And even some of the deities that frequently appear in these temples, as the God of the Fortune riding a tiger, can be found at times stepping on a tiger, that recalls to this Buddhist iconography where the tiger is dominated by the Buddhist saints.

Also frequent in these temples are the warriors guardians, usually at the two sides of the entrance, taking their horses for the reins, are extracted of historic episodes.

     
   
  Shrine to the God of the Mountain  

Expressions of the religious feeling of the Bai are not found only in their temples, but are manifested in a wide variety of forms. Near the fields are usually erected shrines to honour the God of the Mountain, donor of rains and in this way necessary to the growing of the rice and vegetables. Some fields also have in the corner a kind of stone or vegetal shrine where incense offerings can be found.

Inside the village, besides the gates paraphernalia common to the Han Chinese, simple offerings of incense can be found before shops and houses, big trees, and even in some places of the streets.

Pedro Ceinos

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