Sinxay and Lao literature thoughts

Sinxay and Lao literature thoughts

Most Lao and Isan citizens have never heard of Sinxay, much less read it. Those who have some familiarity with Sinxay are most likely older, and have heard Sinxay read or chanted out loud in the past.

Possible occasions where people might have heard Sinxay include:

  • During Buddhist festivals—the most important being Khao Phansa, which marks the beginning of the three-month Buddhist “Lent” period lasting from June–July to September–October. At this time, monks are expected to stay in their own temples to study the Buddha’s teachings and to meditate. During Khao Phansa, lay people can earn merit by making donations to their village temple and by listening to monks chanting Jātaka stories, such as Vetsantra and, in the past, Sinxay.
  • During funeral wakes—which might be held for several days, relatives and friends come to the home of the deceased to keep the family company, often staying all night. Unfortunately, with the advent of modernity, television, rather than monks chanting a Jātaka tale such as Sinxay more often provides the entertainment.
  • Village festivals—where there would be Morlam performances, including Sinxay.

During our research throughout the past five years, we’ve been told repeatedly that not enough monks know the story of Sinxay to be able to chant it during Khao Phansa, and that it’s easier and cheaper to keep funeral goers entertained with TV than it is finding someone who can chant Sinxay. Modernity and the technologies that come with it, such as TV, MP3 players, and smart phones, have proven to be a huge challenge to the preservation of cultural traditions in Laos and Isan. An exception is in Isan, where shadow puppet theatre groups, known officially as nang pramo thai, are still in demand to stage performances of Sinxay at funerals and weddings.


An article titled “Lao Literature during the Lane Xang Era”, highlights the importance once given to the recital of epic poems and Jātaka tales.

“Readers were usually monks who began by paying homage to the memory of the writer and the spirit of the manuscript and knew just the right intonation for every passage so as to convey joy or sadness, love or anger, pride or shame. The art of reciting epic poems, Jātaka tales and other texts from palm leaf manuscripts became known as an nangsu (literally ‘reading a book’), a term which is still used widely today in Laos to describe storytelling of all kinds. Chanting these poems was truly an art form held in high regard and monks would often compete with their fellow temple monks to see whose chanting was favored most by the lay audience. Nangsu in turn gave rise to the earliest varieties of the call-and-response folk song genre lam or khap (courtship morlam) in which the stories would be sung by a moh lam.”


In “Under Morlam’s SPELL,” an article in The Nation, Manta Klangboonkrong writes about the importance of morlam in Isan, beginning with khap,

“‘Courtship morlam’ usually has a male and female engaged in call-and-response repartee known as toey, accompanied by the lunging drone of the khaen, the endlessly versatile reed pipe.” And unlike in Laos, she explains, “Morlam is considered to be the heart and soul of the Isan people. This music and song tradition reveals the Isan identity and knowledge, teachings and beliefs inherited from ancient times . . . often about the Lord Buddha.” (Klangboonkrong, Manta. 24 October 2014. “UnderMorlam’s SPELL.” The Nation),

This would include Sinxay, who as a bodhisatta is considered to be the Buddha in one of his former lives.

In reviewing the titles of the ninety-four Sinxay digitized manuscripts discovered in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts, nineteen of them have “lam” in the title, with most just titled “Lam Sinxay.” Photo below shows the location of all digitized Sinxay manuscripts. Our thanks to David Wharton, director of the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts who created this Google Earth image with each pin representing the location of a digitized Sinxay manuscript. Map Data, Google Earth.


A majority of the manuscripts are undated, but those with dates were written in the 1920s and 1930s, showing that perhaps there was once a more vibrant morlam tradition that included Sinxay in Laos. The current decline of morlam in Laos, along with a de-emphasis placed on traditional Lao literature, is best explained in Peter Koret’s introduction to Outhine Bounyavong’s Mother’s Beloved: Stories from Laos. In his introduction, Koret acknowledges the negative effects of modernity and colonialism on Lao culture and literature,

“The state institutionalization of secular education in twentieth- century Southeast Asia has had a profound effect on traditional cultures throughout the region. Lao art forms, including literature, were marginalized as the power of their patron, the Buddhist temple, was reduced, and religious education was replaced by modern schools with a western-oriented curriculum. Traditionally, literature served the temple by teaching an individual to accept his place within Lao society and the greater Buddhist world. Lao education under the French was tailored to suit a different goal. Students who attended French schools in Laos were taught to se  themselves as colonial subjects in a world with France at its center . . . As traditional literature appeared to discourage rather than encourage modern educational objectives, it ceased to be taught. Elements of traditional Lao culture came to be viewed as remnants of an ‘undeveloped’ past whereas western civilization was admired as a model for emulation. During the colonial period, Lao students  educated at government schools were exposed to French literature in place of that of the Lao. Secular prose fiction, previously unheard of in Lao society, became fashionable among the upper class, replacing poetic epics in prominence.”

We can understand how Maha Sila, who published Sang Sinxay, could have felt extremely frustrated while working in this political and intellectual environment. Even though the printing of the golden cover edition of Sang Sinxay, a complete painstaking translation of the original poetic version, was a historic occasion, for the reasons previously stated its accessibility and importance to the ordinary Lao citizen was minimal, almost nonexistent. Additionally the golden-covered edition was published in 1969, at the height of the Secret War in Laos, only six years before the communist Pathet Lao took over and forced the king to abdicate his throne. Photo of the golden cover edition published by Maha Sila in 1969 is seen below.


It was a time of upheaval in Laos, which went through a regime change that deemphasized the importance of the arts that might have been associated with the old regime, especially literature. This must have been a trying time for Maha Sila, with few mentions of Sinxay. The most noticeable acknowledgment of Sinxay during this time of turmoil was by Kaysone Pomvihane, revolutionary leader of the Pathet Lao and prime minister of Lao PDR from 1975 to 1991, who urged the Lao youth to become the “Sinxay of the New Era.” The photo below shows the front gate of the Kaysone Pomvihane Memorial Museum with a Sinxay figure embedded in the gate with a statue of Kaysone in the background. Vientiane, Laos.


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