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Tai Dam Origin Myth

 

Introduction.  On the following pages, we present a text and translation of Kwam Toe Muang  /kwam2 to4 mfuaN4/, the Tai Dam Origin Myth, their original cosmology or understanding of the ordering of the universe.  The word Kwam (Siamese "Khwaam") means 'story or history'; Toe means 'to tell'; Muang means 'country, kingdom, world.'  This creation myth comes out of an ancient oral tradition in which the story was passed down by memory from one generation to the next.   It is recited when Black Tai gather to say farewell to a family member who has just died.  It is believed that the recitation will guide the kwan or 'soul substance' of the deceased back to their ancestors who reside in the Muang Fa or Land of the Heavens, along with the Thaen "Lords of the Heavens", who inhabit their own special territories in that realm in the sky.  Social class distinctions of the Tai Dam are replicated in the afterlife, separating nobles from commoners.  It is the duty of the eldest son-in-law, who has already established his own separate household, to recite the Kwam Toe Muang at the funeral riteIt is he who directs the dead to their final destination.  There are local variants of the myth, but the general outlines of each are the same.

The telling of this story begins by depicting the original state of the creation of the cosmos as one where the Earth /din1/ and the Heavens or Skies /faa6/ were joined by a chord that held both so close together that daily activities like pounding rice were impeded.*   The sky was so low that the upward-pointing horns of the buffalo got entangled whenever it tried to walk.  To bring an end to this intolerable state, an ancestral pair, the first grandparents, Pu Kong Fa, "Bent-Over Grandfather of the Sky," and Ya Kong Din "Bent-Over Grandmother of the Earth" cut the connecting chord, permitting freedom of movement and activity in a single, dramatic instrumental act, a kind of iconic declaration that humans do have some control over the environment.  The sky then floated well above the earth so that the Thaen could see far and wide.   There were rice fields, but there were no irrigation canals; there were petty states but no rulers to govern them.  People fought and killed each other off.  A devastating drought came, turning the sky bright orange and the sun black.  All plants and animals died. Once again the ancestral Grandfather and Grandmother interceded, this time engaging in elaborate magical rituals with rare birds, snakes, vegetation and twigs, causing the skies to darken and then to blaze forth with so much lightening that the sky was brightly lit up even during the middle of the night.  Rains fell incessantly, completely covering the mountains.  No dry land could be seen for three months.   All the animal life on earth had died, with the exception of a single duck  - and a lone chicken, who rode on the duck's back.  Once the waters receded, the chicken, out of gratitude, sat on the newly-laid eggs of the duck until they hatched. In the heavens, four gourds as big as a house were readied and placed on the receding waters.   In them were placed 550 clans of Tai, 330 clans of hill peoples, 330 varieties of rice, 310 kinds of fishes, and every kind of animal, bird and serpent was stocked as well.   In addition, there were books to read for pleasure; books for shamans, astrologers, and fortune tellers; and books detailing customs, festivals, and laws.  After three months, the waters had receded, and the gourds settled on dry land in different Muang: Vietnam, Laos, China.  The animals were released first from the gourds; the people then followed, knowing it was safe once the animals had found their way over the land.   Over time, people multiplied and moved to establish new petty states (muang) and villages (ban).  Society was governed by wise rulers, shamans, priests and police who established and upheld customs and laws, traditions and ceremonies.  They kept the rivers clean and the kingdom peaceful, and so will their descendents.  The Tai Dam story of the creation ends with the following declaration:

pen1 sam1-niang4 kwam4 vaw6.....It is our distinct language which is
haw3 haa?5 saat5 tay4....................the root and fiber of the Tai Dam nation.
cang5 day3 dan1 koung6................Our fame, like a loud drum,
toung1 faen2 din1 meuang4 lum5....will resound all over the world.

* According to Sumitr Pitiphat (1980:35), the Tai Dam believe that the connecting chord's original location was the region of the Tat Pi Fai Waterfall in Muang La or Sonla.  This is is also the point to which the dead are directed so that they can ascend to the Heavens to rejoin their ancestors.  For more details on Tai Dam beliefs, see Sumitr's excellent article, "Black Tai Religion and Beliefs," Journal of the Siam Society 68.1 (Jan. 1980), pp 29-38.
  An opposing view has been offered by Cam Bach (personal e-mail communication from France 6/7/04) claiming that the exact location or Tai Dam origins is Muang Lo or Ngia-Lo, now called Vanchan, whose location is at  www.vietnamhotelmap.com/map/yenbai.jpg .  (See also http://hannover.park.org/Thailand/MoreAboutAsia/vninfo/geo/ybai.html.)  Cam Bach says that the word tat means ‘cliff’ in Tai Dam and that the entire expression nam tok tat means ‘waterfall’ or literally, ‘water falling from a cliff’.  In my translation of a version of the Tai Dam Origin Myth (Anthropological Linguistics, 1981, pp. 183-202), there is reference to the location where the primal gourd hit the earth with the world’s first inhabitants who survived the land-engulfing flood : line 106 - dang2 long1 maa4 hout5 laan2 (daan2) kew6 ?euang3, which I translated as ‘Then they came down to where there were rocks moving like the teeth of a cow.’  The rocks pictured in this line could well refer to the rocks of a waterfall, that is a  nam tok tat.  On line 130 of the myth, the name of the place is given:  tok2 lou4 luang1(duang1) lum5 faa6, or ‘They reached/came down at Meuang Lou’.  In IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), the name of the meuang or ‘kingdom’ would be transcribed as /lO/  rhyming with the English word “law”, not /lo/ or /la/.   Cam Bach further claims that  /pi fai/ or /fi fai/ means ‘splashing’ in Tai Dam.   

 

 

 

 

Contents

 

 

Origin Myth (in Tai Dam Language)

 

 

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Origin Myth (Translation)

 

 

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Last Modified: 06/07/04