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By Jorge Silva
MAE HONG SON, Thailand (Reuters)

Golden umbrellas draped in beads and flowers provide shade for boys as young as seven riding on their fathers’ shoulders in a procession through the mountain town of Mae Hong Son on Thailand‘s northern border

Dressed in clothes dominated by neon pinks and greens with elaborate headgear, their lips and cheeks brightly rouged for the most important day of their short lives, about 50 boys advance to the lively beat of drums, cymbals and gongs.

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
August, 8, is dressed up for an annual Poy Sang Long procession, part of the traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The event is a rite of passage to initiate the boys as Buddhist novices, the highlight of an annual celebration by the Shan ethnic group that lives mainly in neighboring Myanmar, but is also spread through China, Laos and Thailand.

“I was overwhelmed with happiness and excited about the ceremony,” said Kasen Kongtui, 58, a Thai trader who sponsored the participation of a 12-year-old family friend, Poo Sit, from Myanmar.

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
August, 8, has his make up applied inside Wat Klang Thung temple in preparation for an annual Poy Sang Long procession, part of the traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

“He told me: ‘Grandfather, I want to become a novice!’ So we helped him,” Kasen told Reuters. “I did it to make merit.”

To fulfil the dream of a son’s participation in the prestigious event, parents willingly scrimp for a long time, others accept relatives’ donations to defray costs, and the poorest may even send offspring to live with wealthier families.

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Boys with their heads smeared with thanaka bark wait to pray inside a temple after being shaved in preparation for an annual Poy Sang Long celebration, a traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The rite of Poy Sang Long, as the celebration is known, represents the early childhood of the founder of Buddhism, Siddharta Gautama, who was born a prince about 2,600 years ago.

He is said to have given up a life of royal splendor to live as a holy man after witnessing sickness and death outside the palace.

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Danusorn Sdisaithaworn (L), 10, and Gorsak Kong Tawan, 13, rest at an altar made for them at their home after an annual Poy Sang Long procession, part of the traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The boys’ ordination is thought to bring honor to their families, and the event runs for a week during the dry season before the traditional Thai New Year, when most villagers are home for the holiday and children are on a school break.

For these ‘beloved princes‘ of the Shan families, the ceremony runs through several stages, from the shaving of their heads, with the shorn locks wrapped in lotus leaves by their mothers to be saved as a keepsake, to a bath in scented water.

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Gorsak Kong Tawan, 13, is carried by a relative after using the toilet at their home in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

They dress in white and have dazzling patterns drawn on their faces and heads with a yellow cosmetic paste made from ground-up thanaka bark thought to have protective properties.

From now until the end of the festival, the boys are believed to have acquired semi-divine status, and are not allowed to touch the ground or walk by themselves.

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Boys stay inside a temple during an annual Poy Sang Long procession, part of the traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The parade takes place the next day, preceding a more contemplative period on the third day, when the boys visit relatives’ homes to pray for their families.

After the week is up, the boy novices live at a temple for one or two months during school holidays, studying Buddhist scripture.

 

 

“I like having my head shaved,” said August, a smiling 8-year-old clad in red and gold, with an ornate hat that featured pink flowers and diamante trim, as he described his favorite part of the rite.

“When I saw my friends doing this, I decided to become a novice. I want to be the Buddha’s representative. I want to be a good person.”

 

(Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Karishma Singh and Clarence Fernandez)

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
A boy waits inside Wat Klang Thung temple in preparation for an annual Poy Sang Long procession, part of the traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
A woman smears a boy with paste made from thanaka bark after his hair was shaved in preparation for an annual Poy Sang Long celebration, a traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Boys have their hair shaved by monks in preparation for an annual Poy Sang Long celebration, a traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Boys are bathed with scented water in preparation for an annual Poy Sang Long celebration, a traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

The Wider Image: Beloved princes become Buddhist novices in Thailand
Boys have lunch after an annual Poy Sang Long procession, part of the traditional rite of passage for boys to be initiated as Buddhist novices, in Mae Hong Son, Thailand, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

 

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