Chapter 2 : Myths
Creation Myth: Where the Lao People Came From
Lao history may not have been known to scholars outside of Laos until "the 14th century when King Fa Ngum, with Khmer backing, succeeded in uniting Laos and much of the present-day north-eastern Thailand into Lan Xang, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants."1 Yet, the Lao people themselves have always known the history of Lao people since the beginning of time in their myth of the "Great Gourd from Heaven." This myth does not only tell where the Lao people came from, but it also tells of Lao cosmology. It consists of the world of Thaen, the world of human beings, and the world of celestial beings called devata. Thaen is the great god in heaven who is the creator of all, the earth and its inhabitants. Thaen also sends down Khun Bulom, the first king of the humans. The first myth to be presented tells of how the first king, Khun Bulom (Lord Bulom) was born to earth, how the earth was troubled because of the gigantic gourd, and how Khun Bulom requested help from heaven, and how the earth was populated with humans, animals, plants, jewels, and other things. The story of Khun Bulom himself could be part of a myth of origin of the Lao people, yet it can also be an example of heroic narratives or folk epics as well as an example of a historical chronicle. As almost all Lao people know the name of Lord Bulom and consider him their hero, Lord Bulom story will be presented under the heading "Lao Folk Epics." The second myth is similar to the first, with a few detailed variations. The story called Khua Khao Kad, (The Giant Creeper) tells of how the earth faces great problems with the growth of the vine or creeper, how the Greatest god, Thaen, sent the first couple of commoners down to earth to get rid of the creeper, how the couple sacrified their lives to do so, and how humans must hold an annual ritual to express their gratitude and greatfulness to the couple. Three versions of the same story are presented here. Prior to the existence of Khua Khao Kad, is the myth of Phya Khankhaak, the Toad King. 2 This myth tells of how human beings revolt and fight against Thaen, the great god, as he refuses to send rain to earth. After the victory of Phya Khankhaak, the Toad King, human beings could travel to heaven to learn magical knowledge. Later, they misuse the magic and kill each other until a great pile of corpses grew to be a giant creeper that blocks the sun and troubles the humans. In Phya Khankhaak, the Toad King myth, the Toad King himself shoots up an arrow to destroy the creeper, sacrificing his own life to do so. Lao Phuan3 is an important group of people in Laos, thus it is appropriate to present here a myth of origin by the Lao Phuan called The Four Marvelous Brothers. The Mekong River is important to the livelihood of the Lao, Thai, and other peoples living along the river. It is well-known that it is the river of 2600 miles flowing from Tsinghai (China), South and Southeast Asia down to the China sea in South Vietnam. The Lao people has a myth to explain its origin as a part of a Thai/Lao folk epic in verse, Phadaeng Nang Ai in the episodes 9-13. The prose version of the story of the origin of the Mekong is the last myth to be presented here.
Long long ago the earth was covered with dense forest, and one enormous creeper grew out of the forest and stretched right up to the sky. It had only one gourd hanging from it, and this gourd was very, very big.
The gods in heaven had a meeting, and decided that the earth should be inhabited, so one of the gods was sent down with his followers. His name was Khoun Bulom, and he had two wives, Yommala and Akkai.
There were no men or animals on earth at this time, just gods and some spirits. But the earth was very dark, because of the huge gourd that blocked out the light from the sun. Khoun Bulom sent a messenger to the Great God of heaven asking for help. The Great God, Pra In, ordered some other gods to come down to the earth to cut away the creeper and to make holes in the gourd too. As soon as they cut away the huge creeper, sunlight shone all over the earth, and it became a very bright, very pleasant place indeed.
But making holes in the gourd was very difficult task. At first the god used a pointed iron bar that they first heated in the fire. And once they made the hole many human beings started to crawl out from the centre of the gourd. But the hole was quite small and the human beings found it difficult to squeeze through. The gods saw this so they made another hole, this time with an axe. This axe made a big clean hole in the side of the gourd, and it was not difficult for them to get out. They were whiter than those who came out first, because the first human beings had to push their way out through the tiny, dark, sooty hole that the iron bar had burnt in the side of the gourd. But all of them came from the same place. Those who came first were the big brothers and sisters, and those who came next were the younger brothers and sisters; they were very closely related. The colour of their skin was not a problem for them at all.
These first human beings are the ancestors of all humanity. From that place they spread out all over the world. They adapted themselves to the various climates and natural environments in different places. But the important thing is that they came out from the same place and were the same human beings, and they truly loved one another as brothers and sisters.
When all human beings had come out, the gods pierced another hole in the gourd and many animals came out--elephants, horses, cows and so on, and after them many things came out for the human beings to use to make life beautiful. Jewels of all kinds, gold and silver.
Lao people have handed this story down from generation to generation, and it shows how every tribe is as worthy of honour and as significant as all the others, because we're all brothers and sisters and come from the same place.
Phya Thaen sent one of his sons named Khun Bulom to be born on the human world. Khun Bulom gathered all the people and led them to establish a city in a land called "Na Noi Oy Nu" (the present day Laos). The king ruled the city for a long time but the people were poor. So, they begged Phya Thaen for help.
Phya Thaen looked over the city with his divine eyes and saw the giant creeper called Khua Khao Kad whose vine was huge and long. It crept up from earth to heaven. The branches and leaves of the creeper were so huge that they blocked the sunlight which in turn prevented the people from having good crops from their agriculture. Besides, the vine became paths for the ghosts to come to the human world.
Seeing this, Phya Thaen sent an old married couple called Pu Mod and Ya Ngam to the human world. The couple led the people to make a living for a long time, but everyone was still as poor as ever. The people came to gather for consultation and unanimously agreed that "the cause of all the poverty and hardship came from the giant creeper. We must have it cut."
Actually, the cutting of the giant creeper is very complicated and the cutter would be killed after having cut the vine. Pu Mod and Ya Ngam realized that they had been sent to earth by Phya Thaen to help the people. Thus, they felt ready to sacrifice their lives for the well-being of everyone on earth.
Before attempting to cut the vine, the couple gave their last word: "After we are dead, if you have meat, you must send some to me with the crow. If you have fish, you must send some to me with the vulture." Then, the old couple began cutting the vine days and nights until they lost all their energy. . . .
Now to express their gratitude and to thank Pu Mod and Ya Ngam, the people make merit and dedicate it to the old couple every year.
Historically, "Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe" were called Pu Sangkasa and Ya Sangkasi or Phikohn. King FaNgum nominated this elderly couple to be the ghost of Xiangthong Captial, Lanxang Kingdom, six years before Buddhism arrived in Laos in 1353.
Based on Muang Thaeng (Thaen) history and Laichao or the Laichao (presumably in South China) that Maha Ouphalad Onkeo governed in 1835, it is believed that Pu Nhoe and Ya Nhoe were sent to earth by God. They arrived on the earth to fulfill the request of Putalok and Putalao who wished them to cut down the giant creeper whose vine reached the heaven. Its leaves blocked the sunlight and darkened the earth. This giant creeper called Khua Khao Kad grew at the Nong Ula close to the village Tasaengsammuen where Putalok and his 29 children and Putalao and his 20 children lived. Then Khun Burom named the village the capital of Nachao; the capital was renamed Laichew or Laichao in 1272.
After the French conquered Vietnam in 1885, Muang Thaeng's name was changed to Dien Bienphu. The Words Sibsong Chutai or Sibsong Chaotai refer to 12 areas, but according to Laichao history; it was called Sibsong Phuhai.
Pu Nhoe agreed to cut the creeper, even though he himself would die. He told the people to remember his sacrifice, by calling his name "Nhoe" all the time. Thus, the word "Nhoe" appears at the end of most sentences or phrases in Lao. For example, ma nhoe (come here), non nhoe (go to sleep), kin nhoe (please eat), and so on.
Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe became important to most royal rites in Luang Phrabang. For example in the coronation ceremony, Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe would be the first to pour the holy water on the king for blessings. In the royal cremation, Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe would lead the ceremony. In the Lao New Year's celebration, Pu NhoeYa Nhoe joyfully danced. Even now in the New Year's celebration, manikins of Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe lead the procession, dancing. Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe have become significant parts in all important ceremonies.
The first time PuNhoe YaNhoe featured in the New Year's dance was during the reign of King Sakkalin in Wat Xiengthong. Later, other temples like Wat Kang and Watmanolom adopted the dance. During King Visoune's reign, the dance was performed on the first day of the New Year's ceremony at Wat Visoune. The last day of the ceremony, the dance was performed in Wat Phrakaew. Later, the final dance was performed at Wat That and at Wat That consecutively and to these days the final dance of Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe has been performed at Wat That.
Besides being featured in the New Year's celebration, there is a worship ceremony for Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe on the eight day of the sixth lunar month. In all ceremonies or celebrations, a figure of a lion always appears dancing behind the manikins of the couple. It is believed that once Pu Nhoe Ya Nhoe caught the lion in the Himavanta Forest. They raised the lion as their own adopted son, who also became their guard, as it was the strongest and most powerful animal. People in Luang Prabang like to name their children using the word "sing (lion)" as part of the names. That is why, we hear of the word "sing" in many things and places. People may be named Singkham (golden lion) or Singkeo (precious lion). One of the towns in Sipsongphanmali Region was called Muang Sing (City of the Lion). The powerful voice of the king is called "Singhanaht (like a lion roar)." The royal window is called "singhabanchon (the lion window)" and the royal bed is called "singhad" (bed of the lion).
Once upon a time, there was a childless old couple who lived near the river bank at the foot of a high mountain. The couple had been poor ever since they had been married. The couple wished to have children to help them work and to continue their lineage. Other families near them enjoyed having children around. Those with children could travel here and there easily. For this poor old couple, they could not enjoy such pleasure. Even when they got exhausted, they could not afford to stop working. They had to work to earn their living.
The poor couple consulted with each other one day: "We should go to ask for blessings from the devata guarding the high mountain. Perhaps we may have a meritorious child who is diligent and may be a great help to us in farming. He can look after us when we get sick or take care of our properties after we have passed on. Then, we can be like others in our village."
Thus, the couple prepared flowers, candles, and incense sticks to go ask for a child as their wish. The two raised their joined hands in a prayer position and together they spoke: "Sathu, sathu, we are so poor and suffering. May the great devata bestow a great blessing on us. May we be granted a child of our own."
On the way home, an unusual incident occurred. It so frightened them that they both turned pale. When they looked up in the sky, they saw a giant dragon blowing multicolored rays of fire down onto a bush right in front of them.
The old couple thought, "There must be something magical happening there." After the dragon disappeared in the clouds, they rushed to look at the bush. They saw a golden pumpkin, a silver squash, and black and white grains, shining like diamonds and jewels. They carefully wrapped those things in a phakhawma, the all purpose cloth, and returned home.
Once home, the couple did not know where to properly put those things. "How about putting them in a corner of the hut?" asked the husband. "Oh, no, they might get soiled," said the wife. "How about putting them in a jar?" asked the wife. "Oh, no, they might be too stuffy, " said the husband. Then, the husband had an idea. "I will weave a bamboo cradle and hang it in the middle of the room. What do you think, Wife?" The wife agreed, "That's a good idea. We could put our children in the cradle and rock them back and forth." The husband then began weaving the cradle. Once it was done, he hung the cradle in the middle of the room, and said to his wife, "Now we must take very good care of our children." And so they did; they loved their "children" as much as their own eyes.
Days and nights went by, the golden pumpkin, the silver squash, the rice grain, and the sesame seed grew unusually large and heavy. The old couple could no long lift them. The wife could only rock the cradle back and forth, taking a very good care of them as if they were their own children.
Ever since they have been in possession of the four things, the old man became stronger and more diligent. He went to work on his farm more regularly. Each day the old man would clear the entire mountain for farming without feeling tired. Each day he would plant his crops without the least fatigue. Each day, the old man would see more and more of the lush squashes, pumpkins, sesame seeds, and rice grains. He could not believe his own eyes, and each day he would say in awe, "Wow, look at all those crops. I can't possibly do all that by myself! That is the work of a hundred strong men."
The old man came to tell his wife about what he saw. Both of them became amazed and puzzled. That night the couple had a plan. They went to bed earlier than usual so that they could wake up at night to watch their "children." Late at night, as the couple were hiding and watching the cradle, they became astounded and speechless. They saw four handsome young lads hatching out of the golden pumpkin, the silver squash, the rice grain, and the sesame seed, carrying farming tools in their hands. The four young men then left the hut. The couple hurried to hide the shells of the golden pumpkin, the silver squash, the rice grain, and the sesame seed before tracing the four young men's track. They wondered what they would be doing in the middle of the night. Once they reached the farm, they saw the four young men digging the earth, making vegetable beds, and planting something at great speed. It seemed as if they were using magic.
As the dawn was approaching and the roosters began to crow, the four hurriedly walked home. Once home, they could not find their shells. They began searching for them, but in vain. Then, they began to discuss and reason. The old couple came out of hiding and said to them, "My sons, don't feel upset about this. You can live keeping your human forms and continue living with us. We love you so much." The four young men replied, "Dear Father, Dear Mother, if you so love us, please allow us to live in our shells until the proper time has come. We shall turn into complete human beings on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month." The old couple listened in awe. "On that day, you must prepare a tray of flowers, candles, and incense sticks to present to the shells to pay homage to them on our behalf. Once we are out of the shells, we could continue doing the same thing on the same day each year. Then, the shells will become magic and good for healing all kinds of sickness." After so saying, the four young lads said goodbye and returned to live inside their shells again.
On the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month, the old couple followed the young men's instructions. And the young men continued living and taking care of the couple happily until they reached the age of eighteen. Then, the sons begged their mother to carry a golden pumpkin, a silver squash, some rice, and sesame seeds to offer as gifts to the kings of four cities and ask for hands in marriage of the daughters of those kings. When the king of each city glanced at the golden pumpkin, the silver squash, the rice, and the sesame seeds, they became delighted and were more than happy to grant the old woman's request. The sons then became royal son-in-laws. Each son inherited the part of the kingdom together with subjects to be under his care. The golden pumpkin prince became Phya Muang Lum or king of the lowland whose protectorate covered lands along the Ngiew River. The silver squash prince became Phya Muang Fa, king of the great high mountains. The black sesame seed prince became Phya Muang Thoeng, king of the highlands which are Phu Xuang, Phu Saed, and Phu Daedka. The fourth prince became Phya Sipsong Hou Muang, king of the twelve areas.
Since the four brothers went to rule the four cities, the shells of the golden pumpkins, the silver squash, the rice grains, and sesame seeds became mines of gold, silver, gems, and jewels spreading all over the lands. Thus, their subjects who were commoners could use those precious things for their ornaments.
When farming season came, the kings came to help their people work in the fields and farms. Everyone was helping each other year in and year out until it became a custom for the people to lend helping hands in farming. Thus, each city became prosperous with graneries filled with rice, ponds filled with fish, farms filled with pumpkins, squashes, sesame plants, and rice of all kinds and colrs, the black rice, the red rice, the brown rice.
As time went by, the four kings led their people to build their cities to be prosperous with contented subjects. The old couple alternately went to visit their sons' families and grandchildren. They led the people in the rite of paying homage to the shells of the pumpkins, squashes, rice, and sesame seeds after the harvest was done on the full moon day in the twelfth lunar month.
Since then, Lao people from some areas will hold a merit making ceremony after harvest each year. They believe that by having such a ceremony, the spirit of their deceased ancestors and relatives will receive the merit and would be contented and peaceful. The offering units in these ceremonies often include pumpkins, squashes, sesame seed bags, sticky rice and sesame seeds, sesame rice chips, rice grains, cooked rice, and popped-rice. When people fall ill, they would use dried shells of pumpkins, squashes, rice grains, and sesame seeds to mix with other ingredients to make medicine for healing, as told by the four brothers in the myth.
The source of the Mekong,
one of the largest rivers in the world, is Kuva Lake, commonly known as Nong Kasae
Segnan. Many years before the Buddhist Era, Nong Kasae was so vast that nobody could
walk around it. It was located on the Tibetan slope which is now Chinese territory,
but during that time it was the property of the Kingdom of Laos. Not far away in
Tibet is the source of another of the world's great rivers. The Yangtze Kiang, believed by
some to be the "Nan" river, referred to below. The lake was surrounded by
a deep forest where tall evergreen trees hid many kinds of wild animals. The lake, covered
with abundant aquatic plants, including different varieties of the lotus, was the home of
fish, crabs, birds, snakes and dragons. It was the playground of king dragons. Lao
people always say that the Mekong originated from Nong Kasae and that the water from the
Mekong and from the Nan River cannot mix in the same bottle, for the bottle will crack or
even burst. The story behind that goes like this:
One day in the third month,
King Souvanranark and his soldiers went out to hunt along the lake. He was making a
determined effort to find big game such as deer, rhinoceros, elephants or buffaloes, but
they did not have any luck. He could not find anything. Finally he managed to
get a porcupine. He and his people returned to the palace and began to skin and cut
up the animal. Then the king divided the meat into equal parts. Souvan had his men
take Soutto's share to him. Seeing that the skin and the spines of the animal were
beautiful, the king sent some of them along, too. When King Soutto looked at the
amount of meat in comparison with the spines, he though that his friend was unfair.
"How could he possibly do that to me?" he thought. "Only this much meat
from the biggest animal in the world? I can't believe it," he said. He refused
to accept the gift and told his friend's soldiers to return the gift. He also told
them to ask their king to come to see him personally. But before leaving, King
Souvan's soldiers pled, "Your Majesty, this is the meat of a porcupine.
Although its spines are much larger than elephant hair, its body itself is much smaller
than an elephant. That is why we could bring only this much meat."
1. Koret, Peter, "Laos" in Traveller's Literary Companion to South-east Asia, edited by Alastair Dingwall, Brighton, UK: In Print Publishing, 1994, p. 121.
2. Phya Khankhaak, the Toad King: A Translation of an Isan Fertility Myth in Verse, translated by Wajuppa Tossa, original transcription by Phra Ariyanuwat Khemajari, Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1996. The original Isan version of the myth is almost identical to the Lao version published by the Ministry of Education in Vientiane, Laos in 1970. The differences are the introductory section by the scribe and the ending of the story. See also "Notes on the Translation of Phya Khankhaak" pp. 14-23. Click here for summaries of Phya Khankhaak, the Toad King.
3. Lao Phuan and Xiangkhwang Region
From Administrative Map of Laos PDR, Vientiane: The National Geographic Department, 1999.
Lao Phuan is a lowland Lao ethnic group, living in Xiangkhwang region. From the above map, the Lao Phuan live in the yellow portion in the middle of other important regions like Vientiane, Special Region Xaisomboun, Luang Phrabang, and Huophan. Xiangkhwang has been recognized as an important military site for it is situated on the highest mountain in Laos. All political factions tried to seize this region to gain the upperhand in battle. Thus, the region itself repeatedly became a battlefield. During the revolutionary war, over two millions bombs were dropped in the region. The city of Xiangkhwang itself was almost completely destroyed. Many of the people immigrated to other regions. After the war was over in 1973, the Xiangkhwang people returned to settle in the region again. Xiangkhwang has been well-known for its unusually cool weather with diversity of plants and hot springs as well as its historic site called Thong Haihin (the Plains of Jars). It is believed that these giantic jars belonged to Thao Cheuang, the Lao epic hero.
The Lao Phuan people have suffered the consequences of wars. They had to migrate to other regions several times since the early eighteenth century. Because of the political turmoils, the Lao Phuan people sometimes had to pay tax to two kingdoms, the Vientiane and the Annamese kingdoms. Many of them were relocated and settled in Siam in Sisattanalai, Saraburi, Ban Chiang (Udonthani).
The Lao Phuan people are skilled in silk production with various designs especially the matmitilai (ikat designs) with refined thin silk thread and delicately complex designs.
The Lao Phuan of Xiangkhwang are friendly and generous hosts as their famous saying goes: one must not let the guests or visitors leave his/her home without a gift in hand. They are also known for their gifts of singing and composing love poems called phaya keowkan.
The information above is summarized and translated from Doungdeuane (Viravongs) Bounyavong, Watchananukom pakob huup (Lao Pictorial Dictionary), Vientiane: K. S. Kanphim, 1998, pp. 38-42.
4. "The Great Gourd of Heaven" is told by Somvavanh Phanmatha in The Great Gourd Of Heaven : A Selection of the Folk-tales and Stories of Laos. Collected by Roisin O Boyle and Thavisack Phanmathanh, Vientiane: Vannasin Magazine, The Ministry of Information and Culture, 1992, pp. 1-3.
5. Souban Louanglad, Khua Khao Kad, The Giant Creeper, Vientiane: Long phim haeng lad (The Government Printing Press), 1993. This story is retold by Souban Louanglad who adapted the story told by Pathoumthong published in Vannasin Magazine in January 1980 . This version is translated into English by Wajuppa Tossa.
6. Thanongsak Vongsackda, "PhouNheu and NhaNheu, Grand-parents of Luang Phrabang" Muong Lao, April 1999, pp. 18-9. This story is much the same as the Khua Khao Kad, the Giant Creeper, but the names of the old couple are different and that this story is told and the ritual to thank the old couple is practiced in Luang Phrabang. The story is published in English. I edited the English translation, changing the spelling to conform to the Library of Congress's transliteration. PhouNheu NhaNheu becomes PuNhoe YaNhoe. Other versions of the same stories could be found in the following:
"Grandfather Sangasa and Grandmother Sangasy" in Legends of the Lao, a Compilation of Legends and other Folklore of the Lao People, by Xay Kaignavongsa and Hugh Fincher, [United States] : Geodata Systems, 1993, p. 5.
"Grandfather Gneu and Grandfather Gneu" in Stories from Laos: Folktales and Cultures of the Lao, Hmong, Khammu, and Iu-Mien, translated and edited by Rosalie Giacchino-Baker from Ecoles Sans Frontieres, CA: Pacific Asia Press, 1995, pp. 5-13.
7. Kongdeuane Nettavongs, The Four Marvelous Brothers, Vientaine: Longphim haeng lat (The Government Printing Press), 2000. The story is in Lao, but the author provides a summary in English at the back of the book. The English version, translated by Wajuppa Tossa, presented here is a complete translation from the Lao version.
8. Xay Kaignavongsa and Hugh Fincher, Legends of the Lao: A Compilation of Legends and other Folklore of the Lao People, [U.S.A.]: Geodata Systems, 1993, pp. 23-26.
In the Creation of the Mekong River story from Phadaeng Nang Ai mentioned in the text, the king dragons are the Naga Kings. The names of the two naga are Suttho Naga King and Suwan Naga King.