The Enduring Sacred Landscapes of the Naga
Reviewed by Reinhard Hohler
Chiang Mai (29 March 2009)
This meticulously researched work about the phenomenon and appearance of the “naga” and the associated symbolism connected to Muang Badan, the Lao kingdom of the “naga” lords, was written by Mayoury & Pheuiphanh Ngaosrivathana, who are two foremost scholars of Lao PDR. The writing of the book was made possible only after receiving financial support for the 2001-2002 appointment as the ASEAN Chair of the Dr. David Chu Program in Asian and Pacific Studies at the Munk Centre for International Studies, Trinity College, University of Toronto, Canada. Heavily tapping into the unmatched resources of the University of Toronto Library, the two Lao scholars could successfully finish an initial study about “naga” worship that has pervaded the cultures of India, China, and Southeast Asia already in pre-historic and pre-Buddhist times, especially in the Central Mekong Region. Thus, the study finally became a well-documented journey of the “naga” lords along the Mekong River, which itself is the holy “Ganges” of Southeast Asia.
The book’s contents are divided into an important and useful introduction, ten chapters, appendixes, notes, references, and illustration credits. Also, there are three maps at the end of the main text, namely maps of Laos, including parts of Northeast Thailand, Vientiane and Luang Prabang. These maps are very detailed, showing the respective dwelling places of different “naga” lords (see the pages 66-71). Some 89 coloured and black and white figures illustrate the contents, including four figures within the three appendixes. Steve Northup has taken the scenic front cover image of the book, also the image of part of the “naga” staircase in a Chiang Mai temple at the back cover.
In Chapter 1, the authors mention folktales about the many rivers, lakes and swamps extending from the Nam U River in Northern Laos going down south to the Mekong River, where the two former royal cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane are located. To facilitate discussion, the roots and the origins of the word “naga” are given, evolving from “ngeuak” (salt-water crocodile), “ngu” (snake) and “luaang” (dragon). In connection with their southward (or westward!) migration, the T’ai tribes became acquainted with the Indian Sanskrit word “naga” what is pronounced as “nak” - meaning watery creatures to be able to metamorphose into other animals and even human beings.
In other words, “naga” became a metaphor for charismatic leaders, who guided their people into new areas to practice wet-rice cultivation. It is believed that the Lao entered the Central Mekong Region not later than during the first centuries AD. Actually, the second chapter makes references to the chronicle of “Urangkharat” – a controversial 14th century chronicle of the Stupa of the breastbone relic of the Buddha, which is also sold as That Phanom Chronicle today.
The primeval text of the Urangkhathat is preserved as a palm-leaf manuscript and is presumably one of the first texts to record human settlements on both sides of the Mekong River (see figure 16 on page 12). The Urangkhathat’s focus in on Vientiane as well as Northeast Thailand. Once Buddhism started spreading through the Central Mekong Region, the narrative about Buddha’s travels through this area was used to validate the older indigenous “naga” worship and all the places encompassed by that cult. Especially Khmer Buddha statues are found widespread, which are sheltered by a seven-headed “naga” supposed to protect the Buddha from torrential rain for seven days and nights. Interesting to note in this context is the Angkor Imperial Road System running through Sakhon Nakhon, then via Vientiane, through Loei, Paklei, Sayabouli to end up in Luang Prabang.
Furthermore, Luang Prabang’s legendary and historical traditions are described in the Khun Borom Chronicle that enumerates the 15 “naga” lords and describes exactly their locations along with lively portraits of each. Some Luang Prabang-focused researchers have even come up with a census of 23 “naga” lords including those residing at the most southern tip of Laos, namely at the Khone-Li Phi Rapids.
Chapter 3 describes the three groups of “naga” from Nong Sae (formerly known to be Erhai Lake in Dali/Yunnan), Vientiane, and Luang Prabang. The only link between the three groups was that the Vientiane “naga” were led from afar by Suvannanag, the chief of the “naga” who migrated from Nong Sae (Upper Nam U River) to the area of Phou Couvien in the Central Mekong Region (see Appendix A on pages 72-74). Today this is right at the location of Phu Phrabat Historical Park near Udon Thani in Thailand, also called Suvannaphum – the Golden Land (see on page 25 of Chapter 4).
Chapter 5 goes into more detail about Vientiane, its ruler Burichan Uai Luai, and its deities and “naga” – as “Bulging Belly Burichan” moved up the Mekong from his birthplace in Muang Nong Han (see on Laos Map no.41) to Vientiane. It was up to the nine indigenous “naga” and six autochthonous deities of Vientiane to make Burichan Uai Luai a ruler as well as protect his kingdom. Later, he became a cultural hero for the people on both sides of the Mekong River.
Also, a town was magically created surrounded by moats and featuring a sandalwood tree, thus perfuming the air all over the new muang called “Chanthanaburi” or the City of Sandalwood. The short “Vieng Chan” today just means the City of Burichan. According to a local chronicle about the kings of Lan Xang, mentioned by Raquez in 1902, Burichan’s enthronement took place in AD 457 – some two centuries earlier than Queen Chamadevi’s rule in old Haripunchaiya (Lamphun). Queen Chamadevi was a Mon princess, who is worshipped as a cultural hero in Northern Thailand, especially on Doi Kham near Chiang Mai, and was successful in not marrying a local Lawa chieftain.
Chapter 6 describes in detail the founding legend of Luang Prabang, when two hermits established a dynasty of 15 “naga” lords. This prepared the way for Khun Borom (from today’s Dien Bien Phu in Northwest Viet Nam) to come and rule over the area at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Traditionally, the rulers of Luang Prabang had to organise boat races in the seventh and ninth months in exchange for the protection of these “naga” lords. One of these is called Sisattanag, who lives on the summit of Phou Si Mountain, the sacred hill facing the former royal palace, which today is a kind of national museum.
Other “naga lords” dwell in Pha Dieo and Vat Phabat Tai at the Mekong River as well as Phou Suang, which is the abode of the very first mythical progenitor of Luang Prabang (see Luang Prabang Map). It is likely that the centre of Muang Swa, which is the old name of Luang Prabang, was in the vicinity of Phou Suang and moved only later and then in colonial times to Phou Si Mountain. Contrary to popular beliefs about the 15 “naga” dynasty, it seems that the original stock of spirit guardians was numbered only seven. In this context it is important to note that the legendary leader Khun Borom had seven sons. Possibly, the list expanded from 7 to 15 only in the 16th century, while during the reign of King Fa Ngum (1353-1373) just seven sacred places were known, including the famous Tham Ting Caves north of Luang Prabang. It is here that the Nam U River joins the Mekong River. Altogether, there were seven sacred river mouths and seven associated seven villages, which reveal the vital link between water and land.
To come to an end of a very in-depth research of oral traditions, the authors give an account of invocations and “naga” worship in Chapter 7 and mention the Vientiane Mantra in Chapter 8. In this mantra, 15 guardian spirits protect Muang Chanthanaburi: six deities and nine “naga” – what strikingly coincides with the 15 protectors of Luang Prabang. Furthermore, the mantra highlights that Nang Inthasirichiempang, who is the chief of the indigenous deities, looks after Vientiane and lives in the sky over the sandy island in the middle of the Mekong. All the other deities are hiding in a kind of sacred landscape together with the nine “naga” lords.
Finally, there is a decline of the “naga” worship in writings and rituals to observe, what is aptly described in Chapter 9. In Vientiane and adjacent Northeast Thailand, we nowadays find the worship of the emblematic spirit called Sisotho (after the name of Buddha’s father called Sisothothana), who has his home in Wat Kham Chanot in Thailand’s Udon Thani Province. Offerings to him are made in June each year at the same time as the rocket festival is celebrated. Sisotho is also connected with the political power of the Emerald Buddha statue in Bangkok (see figure 78), which was housed more than 200 years in Vientiane, before it was taken to Thonburi in 1779. According to a booklet at Wat Kham Chanot, Sisotho was one of the two “naga” lords – the other was Suvannanag – who had dug the Mekong River by coming from Muang Sae and had the Indian God Indra fill it with “pla buek” or the Giant Mekong Catfish.
In another development, even the cult of the main “naga” in Luang Prabang was only recently superseded by the cult of the great ancestors called Pu Nyoeu Nya Nyoeu (see figure 79), a tradition that resembles the Pu Sae Ya Sae cult in Chiang Mai.
A modern resurgence of the “naga” worship is question-marked in Chapter 10. Even though the late French ethnologist, Charles Archaimbault, has realised a kind of re-creation of “naga” worship in his published work of 1970 (La fete du T’at), it seems obvious that times are changing rapidly under the threat of modernisation and globalisation. Nevertheless, “naga” are still seen at work at the centre of the “Phaya Nak Fireballs” phenomenon, which occurs in the full moon night in October each year at the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat. During that period, more and more people flock to the shores of the Mekong River to watch colourful fireballs whirling silently up from the river’s bed. Especially at Phonphisai on the Thai side of the river (see on Vientiane Map no.19&20) the spectacle unfolds and it is here that the “naga" lords who migrated from Nong Sae settled next to the native “naga” of Vientiane.
The very useful bibliography at the end of the book is divided into reference works and works consulted and should be studied accordingly. The authors‘ special gratitude goes to Publisher Trasvin Jittidecharak and to the staff of Silkworm Books/Mekong Press based in Chiang Mai, for their editorial craftsmanship.
Reinhard Hohler, PhD candidate at Heidelberg University in Germany, still works on a thesis about “Syncretism of the Lisu in Northern Thailand” and can be contacted by e-mail: email@example.com