Lao Tradition

Nang Sangkaan

When I wrote Happy Lao New Year 2008 I vaguely remembered the story as to why or how King Kabinlaphom head got cut off. I heard this story about 4 or 5 years ago during a Lao New Year celebration hosted by a Lao Association in our area and we had Tuk Badt, and this is the story that the monk preached during Pra Taid or sermon (the same monk that explained the sand stupas to me.) I found the story at Seasite Laos that tells the story of Nang Sangkaan.

(Photo by Savannakhet at Flickr)

There is a story told in Laos to explain why Lao people pour water on each other on the New Year in the fifth lunar month. The story is called Nang Sangkaan.

Once a rich man had a son, Thao Thammapaala, who was a most intelligent and wise man. Once he had learned all kinds of knowledge, he established his own school. He taught his pupils and other people until he became well-known all over the land.

At that time, Thao Mahaphom, also called Kabinlaphom, descended to ask Thao Thammapaala a riddle with the condition that if Thammapaala could solve the riddle, Kabinlaphom would behead himself in acceptance of Thammapaala’s wisdom. But if Thammapaala could not solve the riddle, his head would be cut off.

The riddle was:

“Where does the human grace dwell in the morning, noon, and evening?”

Thammapaala could not solve the riddle right away. So, he asked for an extension of seven days to ponder the riddle. His request was granted. But after three days, he still could not solve the riddle. He became so ashamed of himself that he fled from his own home and wandered aimlessly in the forest for many days. He became so exhausted that he had to take a rest under a palm tree on the top of which was a nest of two eagles, a husband and a wife. Thammapaala overheard the conversation between the two birds (Note from Ginger: from what the monk said, he was so smart that he understood the bird’s language.)

The female eagle asked, “What are we going to have for lunch tomorrow?”

The male eagle replied, “We are going to have Thammapaala’s corpse for lunch. He will be killed because he cannot solve Kabinlaphom’s riddle.”

The female eagle asked again, “What is the riddle?”

The male eagle replied, “Where does the human grace dwell in the morning, noon, and evening? The answer is quite simple. In the morning, human grace dwells in the face. Thus, to be propitious, we must wash our face after we wake up. At noon, human grace dwells in the chest. Thus, to be propitious, we must rub our chest with water [Edit: meaning perfume] at noon. In the evening, human grace dwells in the feet. Thus, to be propitious, we must wash our feet before we go to bed.” After hearing the conversation, Thao Thammapaala hurriedly got up and rushed home.

In the morning, Kabinlaphom came to see Thammapaala. Once Thammapaala could solve the riddle, Kabinlaphom kept his promise. But before he behead himself, he called his seven daughters to see him. He then gave them instructions:

“I will cut off my head to pay homage to Thammapaala for his profound wisdom. But if my head falls on the earth, it will cause hellish fire. If it is thrown in the air, there will be no rain. If it is thrown in the sea, the sea will go dry. So, you must bring a tray to receive my head and then place the tray in a small hall called mondob (or Lao people call it hophii–the ghost’s hall). This hall is in a cave called Khanthumaalii in Kailash mountain.” So, all was done according to his instructions. When the aniversary of his death arrived, each year one of his seven daughters would go to recover her father’s head and wash and clean it. Then, they would go in a procession around Mount Sumeru. When that was done they would bring the tray to keep in the same place.

*****

Maha Sila Viravongs further explains that the above celebration is not Buddhist, but Brahmanism. Later, Lao people changed the tradition, but kept the idea of carrying the Buddha image and respected persons in the procession and pouring water on them.

In the New Year’s festival, Lao people also build miniature mountains made of sand. This is to remember the above story. The sand mountains represent Mount Sumeru in the story. Later, it has become a tradition of Lao people to bring sand to build the miniature mountains on the temple ground and leave them there. Later, the temple could make use of the sand for construction or to cover up weeds.

Related posts:

Happy Lao New Year 2008

Songkran Festival and Happy Lao New Year

5 thoughts on “Nang Sangkaan”

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