Nagas, Sinxay and Laos

There’s so much that can be said about nagas and we’ll put together two galleries, one of naga guardian figures, whether appearing at the front of sacred entrances to sims, or as rooftop decorations, and another gallery of naga textile motifs.

While naga are plentiful in Thailand, one could say that the Lao have a stronger identification with naga, while the Thai have a stronger identification with the khut, or as they are known in Thailand, garuda. It probably doesn’t make the Lao happy that almost all statuary and paintings showing both together, show the garuda in a position of power subduing the mighty naga. This in fact can be traced back to the Mahabharata and a feud that began then between the cousins.  In Laos there are relatively few representations of the khut and the khut are non-existent as textile motifs, while the naga motif is the most popular motif woven by Lao weavers.

While there are physically few khut manifestations in Laos, Phanya Khut, together with Phanya Nak, are well known in most rural Lao villages. We found this out as we describe in our introduction:

The next morning, we awoke to roosters crowing, the sounds of a fire being readied to heat water to steam sticky rice4 for the morning’s meal, and the beating of a drum that seemed to be moving toward us.We quickly got up and Bai’s mother told us that some of the elders in the village, including the local spiritual leader (jom) and the storytellerwere leading a procession through the village to a spirit house located on the grounds of the nearby wat.

 

We hurriedly descended the stairs and sawa boisterous group of men and women passing by the house, beating a drum and gong. They were carrying a homemade palanquin with two stones sitting on top of a pink pillow adorned with cut flowers on the side. (See illustration below) We joined the procession, which grew in number as it wound its way through the village. When the procession entered the village temple grounds, it stopped in front of a simple, wooden spirit house that had been recently built just for the Boun Gong Khao festival. The palanquin was set down and the two stones were respectfully placed inside the altar, while the jom chanted and made offerings of the flowers and of a locally distilled rice whiskey, called lao lao. The village spirit, phi ban—represented by flowers and candles set on a plate—had already been brought from its altar in the nearby forest in a similar way.

 

After the ceremony was over, we were curious about what we had witnessed, and we asked the jom if he could explain the significance of the two small stones. He told us they represented Phanya Khut and Phanya Nak, a king of the khut and a king of the naga. The village elders had invited them to this celebration, along with the village spirit, so they wouldn’t feel left out. They believed their presence would bestow good luck on the village,

Naga - 1

Naga is the Pali spelling for this mythical serpent beast, and in Laos is interchangeable with the Lao word, nak. In our retelling of Sinxay we too use the words interchangeably. The kings of both the naga and khut we refer to as Phanya Nak and Phanya Khut respectively, while individual naga are referred to as naga. The naga and khut both serve and protect Sinxay and his two brothers, Siho and Sangthong when they grew up in their forest palace. But all naga are not good, and Sinxay is forced to fight naga in the kingdom of Nyak Koumphan when Nak Valloonarat, the naga king who had married Sidachan, the daughter of Soumountha and Koumphan, refused to give her up to Sinxay after loosing three games of chess. Sinxay didn’t really want to fight these lowly reptiles as he saw them, and finally summoned the khut who quickly forced them to surrender. Scenes like this have been taken out of abridged versions of Sinxay in Laos for obvious reasons, but this is what is portrayed in Sang Sinxay.

I think it’s interesting that the first challenge that arises for Sinxay, Siho, Sangthong and their six brothers, is the battle with the Giant Snake. I wonder why Pangkham, or whoever the author was, chose this first adversary to be a giant snake, rather than a naga? In most illustrations the Giant Snake looks like a naga, but technically he’s not. This scene is where the “rubber hits the road,” and where Sinxay discovers his six brothers are in fact extreme cowards, Maybe the Giant Snake was chosen to be a snake to emphasize the cowardice of the six brothers who shouldn’t have been so scared of such a lowly reptile. Who knows?

Below are photos of a variety of naga taken in Laos over a number of years.