We don’t often check our Amazon book page, but I checked the other day and saw there was a new review by Dr. Lia Genovese. Dr. Genovese has been working hard on getting the Plain of Jars sites in Xiang Khouang Province classified as a World Heritage site. Laos already has two, the town of Luang Prabang and Wat Phu, an old Khmer Hindu ruin near the southern border with Cambodia. If Dr. Genovese has her way, it won’t be long before the Plain of Jars is the third World Heritage site in Laos. If you’re interested in learning more about Plain of Jars check out Dr. Genovese’s paper, Plain of Jars: Mysterious and Imperiled. Not only is it well-written, it has amazing historical photographs that I’ve seen nowhere else. The link is here
Here are two photos I’ve taken of the jars
Her review of Sinxay is below. Thank you Dr. Genovese!
Sinxay: A great Lao epic tale where love and the dharma conquer anger, greed and ignorance
on September 19, 2016
Much has been written about Sinxay, the tale of the eponymous Lao hero written in the seventeenth century, when northeast Thailand (present-day Isan province) was part of the powerful Lao Kingdom of Lan Xang.
This modern-day retelling, by Peter Whittlesey and Baythong Sayouvin Whittlesey, is lavishly illustrated. The illustrations cover murals from temples in Laos and Thailand. Numerous murals have been retouched, redrawn or creatively redrawn to great effect, as explained in the Reader’s Guide section.
It is the murals from temples in Khon Kaen, in Thailand’s Isan province, a former Lao territory, that are particularly captivating, because they testify to the town’s embodiment of this enduring Lao myth. In 2005, officials at Khon Kaen Municipality, under the leadership of past mayor Peerapol Pattanapeeradej, chose Sinxay as the new symbol of the city. A forced separation between the cultures of Laos and Thailand may be historically debatable, due to the shared histories that for centuries have bound these two countries together.
The story revolves around a royal family headed by King Phanya Kousarat, whose several consorts give birth to a total of nine sons. Six of these sons turned out to be fully human, albeit duplicitous cowards, while the other three sons were banished from the royal palace on account of their non-human appearance. The three brothers with supernatural qualities – Sinxay, Siho and Sangthong – are characters that children everywhere are sure to call their own favourite heroes. Sinxay, small in stature but mighty with his God-given bow, arrows and sword; Siho, a lasasee, embodying wisdom in his elephantine half and threatening strength in his leonine half; Sangthong, a conch shell, is Sinxay’s twin brother born to Queen Loun.
King Kousarat pains for Soumountha, his beloved sister abducted years earlier by Nyak Koumphan, king of the ogres. Treachery ensues when the six dishonest brothers try to take credit after Sinxay successfully rescues Soumountha from Koumphan’s clutches. There is very little in the way of recognition from Soumountha, who has come to love her abductor and resists attempts at being reunited with her human family at Muang Pengchan, ruled by her brother King Phanya Kousarat. The indissoluble bond between Soumountha and Koumphan mirrors the love and affection that have guided the decade-long efforts of Peter and Baythong Whittlesey in bringing this retelling to life, a much-needed contribution to Western knowledge and understanding of Lao culture, literature, religion and myths.
Sinxay is a Bodhisattva, an awakened warrior endowed with great strength of character in the service of others. Just like the lotus emerges from muddy water as the floral symbol of Buddhism, there is salvation in sight for the nyaks, the powerful and cruel ogres who eventually embrace the dharma taught by Sinxay. The lotus flower is the human being that rises above his past and present misdeeds to attain enlightenment, similarly to the nyaks crossing the saphanthong bridge, representing a new beginning filled with a new alliance, friendship, love, understanding and the dharma.
The retelling is arranged over 37 chapters, recounting the story from the birth of Sinxay to the pacification between the two muangs inhabited by humans and ogres respectively, connected by the saphanthong bridge. The story evolves further with four essays discussing Sinxay as a Jātaka tale, Sang Sinxay as a masterpiece of Lao literature, the renaissance of Sinxay in Isan and on localising Sinxay in Laos.
Parallels have been drawn with the Ramayana, another great Southeast Asian myth. This Lao epic tale could also represent the futility of war. Great and bloody battles are fought, with loss of life in the millions, but ultimately the ogres’ anger, greed and ignorance, which had poisoned their thinking for so long, dissipate with the construction of the saphanthong bridge, a visual construct for the truce between two warring factions and the independent third party that is able to bring the two sides to the negotiating table.
The authors of this retelling have added onto the translation a second “ending”, being the version known in Isan. This is another effort at making this great tale accessible to a wide audience, also through the Reader’s Guide, which provides helpful details on scenes translated from the original Sang Sinxay, the six stages in the hero’s journey, a discussion of magic and supernatural abilities embodied by Sinxay and explanations for including redrawn mural details as illustrations.
The narrative is engaging and easy-flowing. It is a credit to the authors of this retelling that the book is accessible to adults and children alike, a rare occurrence in modern literature, often characterised by a marked divide between works for the grown-ups and literature for the young.
In September 2016, Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Laos, acknowledged that “In literature, like the epic of Sinxay, we see the values that define the people of Laos such as compassion, resilience and hope.” A great endorsement and a crowning glory for all the past and present scholars involved in making this great Lao tale known to a wider audience.