Hid­den among the paddy fields of a re­mote Thai province lies the home of a wizard.

Asian Geographic - - Front Page - RE­LI­GIONS

In a bungalow on the out­skirts of a small farm­ing vil­lage in Ut­tara­dit in North­ern Thai­land lives Ket­munee, one of the coun­try’s few re­main­ing ruesi.

The trans­la­tion of ruesi falls some­where be­tween “for­est sage”, “monk” and “wizard”. A spir­i­tual de­scen­dant of the rishi of In­dia – who are known for writ­ing the Vedas, the first scrip­tures that formed the foun­da­tion of Hin­duism, and liv­ing lives ded­i­cated to search­ing for en­light­en­ment – Thai ruesi have prac­tices tied to Hin­duism and an­i­mism, though they are con­sid­ered lay mem­bers of the Bud­dhist com­mu­nity.

Por­trayed in an­cient stat­ues and paint­ings, ruesi were once sought out to heal the sick, pro­tect peo­ple against evil, and fore­tell the fu­ture. But af­ter Ther­avada Bud­dhism swept the coun­try at the turn of the last mil­len­nium, their in­flu­ence waned, and they grad­u­ally faded from main­stream spir­i­tu­al­ism.

To­day, ru­mours of black magic, curses and even mur­der haunt ruesi prac­tices. Most Thais have never seen one in the flesh, only on tele­vi­sion, where they are typ­i­cally por­trayed in pe­riod dra­mas as men­ac­ing for­est sorcer­ers with sin­is­ter pow­ers. But Ket­munee chuck­les when asked about these char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions.

“I don’t watch tele­vi­sion, but I am noth­ing like how they por­tray us,” he says. “I just like to be alone – to fo­cus on my med­i­ta­tion, to bless the world around me.”

Tra­di­tion­ally, ruesi live an aus­tere life in im­i­ta­tion of the Lord Bud­dha, so as to gain a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the uni­verse. The pri­or­i­ties of each in­di­vid­ual dif­fer: Some act as heal­ers while oth­ers do for­tune-telling, per­form bless­ings, or sell love po­tions. Ket­munee chose to spend the past five years med­i­tat­ing in var­i­ous caves, and only just re­turned to the modern world, where he splits his time be­tween his house and the nearby for­est.

De­spite the tat­toos, dread­locks and tiger skins, Ket­munee cuts a serene fig­ure in the wild. Strolling through the for­est, he ges­tures with his staff to var­i­ous plants, fruits, roots and mush­rooms, point­ing out which are poi­sonous and which can be eaten or boiled into tea.

mys­te­ri­ous for­est recluses

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