About Thao Hung Thao Cheuang

From Authors' Prefaces of Thao Hung Epic

by Douang Deuane Bounyavong and Maha Sila Viravong

Compiler's Preface to the 2000 Edition

The story of Thao Hung or Cheuang is a historical literary work which provides vivid information about the ancient society and has also become an excellent part of the literary heritage of Laos, because its poetry is quite different from any that I have ever studied before. This poem is correctly composed according to the Vijjumali versified rule of Pali prosody, which is why I named it "konvijiumali" (Vijjumali poem).

Apart from the version composed in verse, there is another prose version of the Thao Hung Epic which is directly translated word for word from the Pali text, but its context is a little different. The poetry version is, however, very melodious, and so it is considered a major work of Lao literature.

     The Discovery of the Thao Hung or Cheuang's Palm Leaf Manuscript

This major literary work was, for centuries, in feudal Siamese hands, and it was kept in the Bangkok Library, obscured from the public eye. In 1942 I found an original copy written on Baylane (palm leaves) in Lao script, in the literature section of the Bangkok Library. First, I had found a version written on rough paper in Thai script, in which was stated : "King Rama V of Siam, named Chulachomklao, ordered his secretary to copy out from palm leaves, Lao script into Thai script, the Thao Hung's story." Following this information, I tried to find the original copy of the Lao manuscript and when I found it and compared the Lao and Thai scripts line for line, I finally concluded that it was the same original copy. Of the two, the Lao manuscript is larger, covering about 300 palm leaves, and on the last leaf it is mentioned that "Sisunon of Vangban village wrote this Cheuang Kuang's story for the Lord Viceroy." So it seems that the Thais might have taken this palm leal manuscript from Xieng Khouang, where they fought against the Ho in 1876, during the reign of King Chulachomklao of Thailand.

Vangban village still exists in Xieng Khouang, under the name Banban or "Ban Village. Atter going through its contents, I decided that the Cheuang Story written on baylane was a precious work of Lao literature which was, due to circumstances, lost from Lane Xang soil. If it had not been discovered, it would certainly have remained in obscurity, and the people who speak the Lao language would have had no chance to enjoy their own literature. I therefore worked for one year to accomplish the transcription of the entire story of Thao Hung. Luckily, at that time I was an employee of the Bangkok Library, having, escaped arrest by the French in Vientiane for my involvement in the resistance movement, so I had enough time to copy it down and keep it in a safe place. Later on, I wanted this literature to be made widely available to the public, so I proposed this to Somdeth Maha Viravongs who was then the Sangha Prime Minister of Thailand.  Because he was also a Lao monk from the northeast of Thailand, he was very interested in Lao literature. So he immediately approved and agreed to publish it, and it was distributed on the occasion of the funeral ceremony of the four theras ( senior monks ) in Ubol Province, in 1943. It was, therefore, the first edition of Thao Hung, or Cheuang's Story, written in Thai script.

The Thai and Lao scripts are, however, contradictory on some points, particularly the first part dealing with Thao Hung's birth and his father's funeral ceremony. This was perhaps because some palm-leaves were torn and others broken. In addition, somebody else might have written in the missing parts, thus accounting for the discrepancies and contradictions between them. The fascicle published in Thai script does not mention Thao Hung cultivating rice in the field, because the revising committee cut it out, due to some contents in this part not being suitable for disclosure at that time.

But, in this publication, I kept the contents as they were and considered it wonderful and interesting that the Lao folk literature tells of customs in rice cultivating, hunting and fishing, while other stories do not. When there was a contradiction between the Thai and Lao scripts in the first part, it made me doubtful, so I had to search for another copy.  Many years had passed before, at last, I found one at the Library of the Ministry of Cults in Vientiane. It was written in the Dhamma script (sacred script) called Lam Cheuang or Phuen Thao Cheuang (Thao Cheuang's Legend), translated word for word from Pali in prose. It also consisted of eleven phuk fascicles, each of which had 24 palm leaves.  There is also a mention that "Venerable Buddhaghosacarya was the preacher of Thao Hung's story who would be born in the future, that is, in mini-era 480 or 1118 A.D., while the poem fascicle has no indication of the date it was composed. At the end of the Dhamma script fascicle, there was no mention of Thao Hung making war against Tumwang kingdom only his return from the kingdom of Pakan. Furthermore, it is mentioned at the conclusion that Thao Hung or Cheuang's story was derived from the story of Migapadavalanjana, the story of a man born from the footprint of a big wild animal. This story was included in Camadevi's story composed by the Venerable Bodhiramsi of Xiengmai in Pali language in approximately 1517 A.D., during the reign of king Tilok (or Bilok), the king of Chiangmai who ruled that kingdom contemporaneously with the reign of king Vijularaj of Xiengthong (Luang Phrabang). Venerable Bodhiramsi tells us that the Camadevi's story was originally written in Chiangmai dialect and in poetry, and that later on it was composed in Pali language with the addition of some Buddhist stories.

The Dhamma script fascicle that I found in the library of the Ministry of Cults might have been translated in Laos, because it is written in Lao and was probably composed at the same time as the story of Phra Keo (Emerald Buddha Image) and Phrabang by the Venerable Phra Aryavangso just a few years after the reign of King Vijularaj or Luang Phrabang. So this Cheuang translation was probably done by Phra Aryavangso too. The original characters' names here were written in their Pali forms, for instance, the name of Nang Meng was amended to Manggala kanya, and Nang Ngom to Manggu kanya, ('Manggu' means 'hunchback', although, in fact, Nang Ngom was not a hunchback at all). Nang Oua was amended to Urasadarattaga, while Nang Amkha became Anggacandanasobhita. Thao Hung was written as Yikularucirakumar ('rucira' in Pali means luminescence, beauty or brightness, and 'Yikula' means 'Thao Yi', because he was born in the month of Yi, or 'two, or second,' so he was sometimes called 'Yicheuang lun.' It, therefore, seems that the version written in Dhamma script originally derived from the poetic version just like the one I found in the Bangkok Library, but the translator adapted it to Buddhism so as to invest it with religious significance and thus broaden its appeal. Before that, people believed in animism, and drinking liquor in various ceremonies was a traditional part of Thaen worship in ancient times.

As to the problem of how the venerable Buddhaghosacarya could have foretold these events 480 years before Thao Hung's birth, it is impossible to answer. The translator might just have wanted to broaden the story's popular appeal by linking it to Buddhism.

Explanation of the Verse in the Thao Hung or Cheuang Epic

I found that the versification in the Thao Hung Epic is quite different from that of any other poetry in Lao literature that I have ever read. It is versified strictly according to the rules of Vijjumali prosody in Pali, which is why I named it Kon Vijjumali (Vijjumali poem ). Vijjumali means 'sky-line' or 'sky-lightning that occurs among the clouds'. The Thao Hung Epic is thus defined as a 'sky-lightning poem' because of its melodious versification using rhymes that 'flash' like lightning appearing amongst the clouds. For example :

A Lao 'sky-lightning poem'                       And its transliteration

ວ່າຈັກ ດັ້ນກີບຟ້າຍັງຝັ່ງ    ຈັກກະວານ Wa cak dan keep faa yang fang                     cakkawan
ຄືຄູ່ ຕົວຄາງຄາວຄັ່ງຕາຍ                ຕກໄມ້ Kue khuu tua khang khaow khang tai        tok mai
ຫນູຈັກ ສ່ງສະການໃຫ້ມາຫວນ      ເຫັນປີກ Nuu cak song sa kaan hai maa huan           hen piik
ນກເລ່າໄດ້ດູຫນ້າ                       ກໍ່ໃຊ່ເຮົາ Nok lao dai duu naa                                       ko xai hao
ຕກຄີກເບື້ອງຫົນຝ່າຍ                       ສະເທີນເຂີນ Tok khiik buang hon fai                                sa thoen khoen
ອາການເຂາດັ່ງເດີຍວ                       ຕູນີ້ Aa kaan khao dang deiw                              tuu nii
ຫວັງຈັກ ກຽວກົມຝັ້ນມາເກີນ           ການຫ່າງ Wang cak keiw kom fan maa koen              kaan haang
ຊັກຊ່ອງຊີ້ຖວາຍໄວ້                      ແວ່ນໃຈ Sak song sii thawai wai                                waen cai

The English Translation of the above is by Wajuppa Tossa

I wish to soar to the sky to find the universe.
I am like a dead bat fallen from a tree.
The mice won't come to the bat's funeral for they sight its wings;
The birds won't come either for the bat's face differs from them all.
The bat becomes a puzzling creature not belonging to any specie.
I feel just like the bat that is so perplexing;
I wish to be united with you but there is a barrier
That can be removed only with your approval.

NOTES: The above lines are from the Thao Hung Thao Cheuang text pp. 164-165.  In the original preface, the author did not provide the original Lao verse.  I inserted them as well as the English translation of the lines in the text to make it easier to understand.

Explanation:

i) The final word of the first line, which is a polite form, rhymes with a politeword in the third line (cakkawaan and songsakaan).

ii) The final word of the second line, where the stress falls on the second syllable,rhymes with a second-syllable-stressed word in the 4th line (mai and dai ).

iii) The final word of the third line, where the first syllable is stressed, rhymes with a correspondingly stressed word in the first line of the next four-line group (piik and khiik).

iv) The final word of the 4th line, which is a polite form, rhymes with a politeword in the second line of the next four-line group (hao and khao, khoen and koen, nii and sii).

Among the Vijjumali poems, there are many four-line stanzas which are versified according to Pali prosody, for instance:

A Lao 'sky-lightning poem'                       And its transliteration

ມາລາກອງກຶ່ງກ້ານ              ງາມຕູ maa laa kong king kaan       ngaamtuu
ດວງຫນື່ງແລຫລຶງດູ            ຊື່ນຊ້ອຍ duong nueng lae ling duu     suen soi
ຫອມຣົດທົ່ວຊົມພູ              ຖະຫນິດຍຶ່ງ    ເຣີຍມເອີຍ hom hod thoa som phu           tha nat ying hiam oey
ຂອບພະຄຸນເຈ້າຂ້ອຍ           ລື່ມລ້ຳສະເຫນໂຫ khob pha khun cao khoi       luen lam sa ne ho

This four-polite-line verse form is also found in the Chronicle of Khunbourom, presumed to be the first history of Lao legend, composed by Phra Maha Theplouang in 1520A.D., during the reign of KingVijularaj.  It is found in some parts of the Nang Tantai, or Tantra Story, too.  This verse form was very popular in the kingdoms of Siam and Lanna (Chiangmai) during the reign of King Naray, around 1630A.D., contemporaneously with the reign of King Souryavongsa of Vientiane.  It should be noted that the language used in the Thao Hung Epic is a Lao dialect of the north: e.g. the word Terng is used for Theng, and Len for Lin.    Besides, there is the word Yia, which is the same as the Lao Chiangmai word. At the end are used the words Kio, Kide:, Kida'.y, or Jam. The latter is a very old word that cannot be understood by common people nowadays. There are also Khmer words in this epic, such as:

Tu: from Khmer as Tru: means beautiful as in: Ka: konkaempa:n-joyjobtu: 
Khan = Khmer as Khal means vigilant, respect, (Thukki: pkambolathedma:khan)
Suan = Khmer as Srual means laugh (Siansuanphomsianhua humpa:k)
Phom = khmer as Prom means blow (Khaokophompi:keokomkonkom:sian)

Here we can also find some words used in current Thai language, such as :

Thun ( under) (Sensamcha:nna:chon yu:thun)
Kha:nkha:o (khikhu:to kha:nkha:o khanta:ytokmay)
Sabpan (quick) (Lak timhu: se: nsin sabpan)
Khamnab (pay respect) (Khaokodoy khamnab a: jya: panomva:y)
Ken (deer) (Hen h y sat mu:kua:ngfa:ken)

 

The word 'Khon' or 'Khnon' means, in ancient Thai law, "tax" or "market", or, as it used to be called,' a:ko khnon ta la: t'.  Muang Xiengban was a market centre wherethey levied a lot of tax, so it is mentioned:

 

"The distance way over Li was there gained all plenty of tax"

In addition to the language mentioned above, there are also Pali and Sanskrit, particularly Sanskrit. The traditions and ritual ceremonies mentioned in this epic deal with Phidam, Phithaen and the rite of inviting Thaens to the earth, where there is a balancing drink for destiny, and so on. There are also the gatherings in the caves, still practised nowadays by people in some villages of Xam Neua Province.

It is, therefore, probable that the Thao Hung Epic was written by a scholar from the north region, judging from the example of Vijjumali verse, a style abstracted from Saravilasini verse, which was very popular during the reign of King Vijularat of Xiengthong (Luang Phrabang).

The first part of the copy written in Dhamma script

It begins with the prayer to Lord Buddha: "Namo tassa bhagavato arahato samma sambuddhassa." And it is mentioned that Maha Buddhaghosacarya created and circulated the book called   'Vangsamalini', consistang of many stories of past and present. After this, he was going to preach stories of the future.

 

Thus it began: "Evam paccupannanidanam dassetva . . . Aham means: I, named Buddhaghosacarya, who have already preached about the present, am now going to preach about things to come. So you should all pay heed to my words."

In Culasakraj (mini-era) 480, the Year of Tao Set, Khun Chomtham was born of Lavacakkadevaraja. At that time there was also born, of Sucucirapabbacula Rajaname, Thao Hung, who ruled from the throne of Chayanakhone (present-day Chiangrai).

What tribe did Thao Hung belong to?

 

According to the Yonok Chronicle compiled by Phaya Prajakit-koracak, who collected historical data from the North Thai Annals, Thao Hung was also khown as Khun Cheuang, and was of Lanna (Laocok) stock, descended from King Lavacakkadevaraja, the founder of this dynasty in 638 A.D., exactly the same year as the foundation of Culasakraj, mini-era of King Anuruddha in Burma. Khun Cheuang was a son of Khun Chomtham, king of Pukam Yao ( Phayao Province (formerly under the jurisdiction of Xiengrai Province).  He was born in the Year of the Rabbit in mini-era 461 (1099 A.D.), but according to the Dhamma script, Thao Cheuang was born in 480.

I myself think that Thao Hung, or Chuang, belonged to the Khom or Mon race, which was the same tribe. This opinion is approved and supported by the following evidence:

- From 657 A.D., the Khom extended their power and territory to the north, as mentioned in Camadevi's Story, written by the venerable Bodhiramsi relating that in 661 A.D., the Khom king of Lavo (Lopburi) sent his daughter Nang Camadevi to become ruler of Haripunxay (Lamphun). Thao Mahantayot, Camadevi's son, ruled this kingdomuntil 740 A.D., while his younger brother, named Indravoraman, was the ruler of Khelang (Lampang) in the same period.

- In hilly areas around Phayao, the Thai archaeological excavation team discovered varieties of stone implements, such as mortar, pestle, roller, etc. These show characteristics of the Mon arts. The Thao Hung Epic clearly tells us that Thao Hung, and particularly his wife Nang Ngom, were of Khom race, as mentioned many time in the poem praising his wife's beauty:

"As if she had descended from the sky
Her beauty equalled Cheuang's;
Though surrounded by beautiful girls,
The Khom's daughter was the most beautiful of all."

"In this epic, Nang Ngom's mother is referred to as Nang Meng. The word 'Meng' means 'Mon'. In addition, there is a verse:

" . . . closely lay down with Nang Mon"

I therefore concluded that the words 'Meng' and 'Mon' are the same, while the words 'Khom', 'Khem', 'Khmer' and 'Khmen' are also the same. In addition, also found in this epic are the words, "Group of Khom Khem H. "  In the chapter dealing with Thao Kua, ruler of Pakan Kingdom, he sent Nay Math to seek help from Aiy Hath, chief of the hill tribe of Phulot, and Aiy Samma-heng, chief of the Phuthum, as his allies, and both men went to Thao Jum's side, because he was Thao Hung's uncle. This seems to indicate that Thao Jum was of the same ethnic stock. The hill and mountain people are of Mon-Khmer origin. Thus, Thao Hung and the people of Ngeun-yang were certainly at that time Mon or Khom, because those people considered themselves of the same race. The Charay, one of the mountain tribes, still worship Cheuang's spirit and consider Khun Cheuang to have been their former king.  A local story of Thao Hung or Cheuang, written in Dhamma script, mentioned that the story was abstracted from Migapadavalanjana, that is, the story of a man born from a deer's footprint, which is the same as Camadevi's Story, written by the venerable Bodhiramsi of Xiengmai in Pali. Venerable Bodhiramsi tells us that he wrote the story on the basis of a great epic which he transcribed into Pali from a local dialect. I therefore understand that Camadevi's and Thao Hung's stories are likely to be from the same origin, because it is mentioned in the former that Nang Camadevi, Phaya Muang Khom's daughter from Lavo, came to be the ruler of Muang Lamphun, and she was a widow with two sons, namely Thao Mahantayot, the elder, and Thao Indravoraman. Indravoraman played a very important role in the struggle against the Lua, the indigenous people. The same context is also found in Thao Hung's story, where Thao Hung's mother, Nang Chom, was also a widow with two sons.

The terms Chom and 'Chain' may mean the same, in which case Nang Chom (or Nang Chain) was not actually the name of a person, but merely indicative of a woman of the Chain race, which came from the same ethnic stock as Mon-Khmer.  It is. however, understood that Thao Hung's Story written in Dhamina script. although compiled on the basis of the poetry version, was not completed as the poem was. The Camadevi Story was also compiled on the basis of a great epic in local vernacular. It can be concluded that the great epic is the same as Thao Hung's story written by a Buddhist monk, so both stories were influenced by Buddhism.The history of Sipsong Panna (Xieng Houng ) and the Shans' history of Senvy, however, both claim Thao Cheuang as their king. In fact, it is not surprising, because everyone wants a brave man to be his hero. In other words, a group of weak people want to depend on a group of brave people, and that is why considered Thao Hung their king.  Regarding the date of compilation, that of Camadevis and Thao Hung's story is quite different.  This is not so important because both authors might have composed the stories at different times, and perhaps they collected the information and data in different periods; or perhaps they each wanted to claimtheir story as the older.  As to the problems of which race the author belonged to, how the story was conceived, and where it came from, al~ these problems are not so important. The most important point I want to make, is that Thao Hung or Cheuang's story is a masterpiece of Lao literature, because it was composed in the most melodious Lao poetry.

Vientiane, February 1986
Translated by: Sisaveuy Souvanny and Maha Sila Viravongs 
Edited by : Assistant - Professor Sommai Premchjt
Preface for the first edition of 1988.

 

Author's Preface to the 1991 Edition

The Thao Hung Epic is one of the masterpieces of Lao literature. There exist various versions, but the most complete and perfectly composed account is the one represented by 300 bundles of palm-leaf inscriptions found by Maha Sila Viravong in the Thai National Library in Bangkok in 1941. Maha Sila had transliterated this version into modern Lao language in 1942, and it was only in 1988 that the Ministry of Culture published the masterpiece in one volume.

According to scholarly studies, the Thao Hung Epic was written sometime between the mid 14th to mid-16th centuries by a royal poet of the Lane Xang Dynasty. It was composed with three perfect patterns of Lao verses of 20,000 lines. The subject of this masterpiece is the greatness of a courageous king whose influence was hard upon the Mekong banks and Mekong basins during the period of 10th through 12th centuries. This epic reflected the society of that dynasty in such various aspects as beliefs, traditions and rituals--such as spirit cults, wedding ceremonies, funerals and costumes, etc.--which one can trace in many regions of Laos to this very day.

Many centuries have passed, but one could say that the ways of life, tradition and ritual ceremonies about weddings and birth, death and funerals, largely remain as before. Some have been modified by religion, modernization and communication. Yet people still embrace many of the old customs, living productive lives as tillers of the soil as well as hunting, fishing and producing household utensils for themselves. Through history they have participated in wars, sons and husbands often abandoning families for battlefields.

The study of traditions and rites in the masterpiece of the Thao Hung Epic shows how Lao society existed, to include the people's intellect, behavior and ideology within the confines of that particular ancient period. This contemporary analysis will contribute new components to both Lao history and anthropological research. It will also help to establish the identity of Lao culture among this and future generations while at the same time appreciating and promoting it.

Compiler's Preface to the 1988 Edition

The story of Thao Hung or Cheuang is a historical literary work which provides vivid information about ancient society and has also become an exquisite part of the literary heritage of Laos because its poetry is quite different from any that I have ever studied before. This poem is correctly composed according to the Vijjumali versified rule of Pali prosody--the study of poetic meters and versification--which is why I named it 'Konvijjumaly' (Vijjumali poem).

Apart from the version composed in verse, there is yet another prose version of the Thao Hung Epic which is directly translated word for word from the Pali text, but its context is a little different. The poetry version is, however, very melodious, and so it is considered a major work of Lao literature.

It was written in the Dhamma script (sacred script) called Lam Cheuang or Phun Thao Cheuang (Thao Cheuang's story), translated word for word from Pali in prose. It also consisted of eleven volumes, each of which had 24 palm leaves. There is also mention that "Venerable Buddhaghosacarya" was the preacher of Thao Hung's story--that is, a monk who would be born in the future, in mini-era 480 or 1118 AD, but the volume of this poem has no inscription date showing when it was composed.

At the end of the Dhamma-script volume, there was no mention of Thao Hung making war against Tumvang, only his return from the Kingdom of Pakan. Furthermore, it is mentioned at the conclusion that the Thao Hung (or Cheuang's story) was derived from the story of Miggapadavalanjana, the story of a man born from the footprint of a big wild animal. This tale was included in Camadevi's story composed by the Venerable Bodhirangsy of Chiangmai in Pali language in approximately 1517 AD, during the reign of King Tilok (or Bilok), the king of Chiangmai who ruled that kingdom contemporaneously with the reign of King Vijularaj or Chiangthong (Luang Prabang). Venerable Bodhirangsy tells us that the Camadevi story was originally written in Chiangmai dialect and poetry, and that later on it was rewritten in Pali language with the addition of some Buddhist stories.

 

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