After coming to Malaysia, I have been amazed by how widespread the popularity of Ramayan is in Southeast Asia. First, I found out that many stories of wayang kulit, or shadow puppetry, borrow heavily from the Ramayan. Then, I came across this article recently, detailing how Muslim artists in Indonesia consider the Ramayana a part of Javanese culture. In Cambodia, scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharta are etched on the walls of Angkor Wat.
Therefore, it should have come as no surprise that Phralak Phralam – the Laos version of Ramayana – is staged every alternate night at the Royal Palace Museum theatre, the most popular tourist destination, in Luang Prabang, Laos. But surprised I was!
Phralak Phralam is actually Phra Lak – Lakshman – and Phra lam – Ram, a musical depicting the abduction of Nang Sida (Sita) by evil Thotsakan (Ravan) of Longkha (Lanka) and her rescue by Phralak and Phralam, with the help of Hanuman and his army of monkeys. Sounds familiar?
Well, there’s also Ongkhot (Angad?) and Jatayu, as well as lesser known characters (whose names have probably been distorted beyond recognition) – Phragna Khout, Somphouphanh, and an eagle named Sampathy (Jatayu’s elder brother).
The performance itself was highly unique and engaging – with all the male characters wearing beautifully carved and painted masks, and all characters wearing gold-embroidered costumes. I especially enjoyed Hanuman’s performance – who is shown in this particular iteration with a touch of whimsy and mischief. The show is less drama and more of a musical, with dialogues rendered as a song in a woman’s voice, or with dramatic music.
Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8T5hMF-85s
The Phralak Phralam website helpfully mentions:
The Lao Ramayana differs from the original Indian version of the Ramayana. The Ramayana reached Laos late, around the sixteenth century, brought by Buddhist missions. The original Indian epic adapted to the geography, names of figures and regional languages. Consequently, all the story in the Lao Ramayana is situated in the valley of the Mekong, the grand royal city is called Chanthabouri Si Sattanak, while Lanka remains an island far from the heart of the kingdom, inaccessible and dangerous.
Particularly mesmerizing were the fluid movements of all the protagonists, especially of the women in the Nang Keo dance, and the live folk music accompanying the show. I managed to get a closer look at the traditional instruments and noticed that many of them were lovingly painted with pretty motifs. I also feel that Thai influences were evident, especially with the spires on the headsets, but would love it if someone familiar with the topic could confirm my hunch!
The website says that this version was choreographed in 2003, and that the Phralak Phralam was earlier performed in various Luang Prabang palaces, usually during the Lao new year called Pimai. I would highly recommend watching this video for the theatre’s history and painstaking preparation of the beautiful masks.
Since the actors were all wearing masks, I initially felt that their work must be easier, as they didn’t have to manage their expressions, only their movements. But as I looked closely, I could feel them emoting with all their being, and the effort was evident when their masks came off. They were literally embodying the characters they were playing, and the masks made no difference as such. There were also teenagers and preteens playing the monkeys in Hanuman’s army and they were a joy to watch, remembering to scratch themselves occasionally and bringing fun and a light touch to the show. Loved it!
The Phralak Phralam adaptation of Ramayana is pretty close to the actual one. But I have noticed that stories, especially old ones, have a life of their own. They travel, mutate and adapt to the local context, revealing the ingenuity of all those they come in contact with.
Wonder what I’m talking about? Well, fancy this: One day, Sita was pining for some mushrooms. Yes, you read that right. Mushrooms! So she asks Hanuman to get some for her from Lanka. This is a story I heard at Garavek – a theatre involving a traditional storyteller and an old musician playing the khem (wind instrument made of bamboo). It apparently explains how Mount Phousi (a favourite sunset point) in Luang Prabang was named after Sita.
So, with some coaxing, Hanuman flies from Luang Prabang to Lanka for Sita’s mushrooms, but when he gets back, Sita says she wanted another variety. So he flies back again, and gets another type of mushrooms, but Sita refuses these ones too. This happens many times, till Hanuman gets fed up and asks Sita, ‘What is the name of this type of mushroom that you crave?’ Sita, apparently, cannot answer this question, because the variety she wants is called ‘monkey’s ear’ and she knows this will upset Hanuman.
Finally, Hanuman uproots a mountain from Lanka and brings it back to Luang Prabang, leaving Sita free to choose whichever mushrooms she wants. And this is how Mount Phousi got its name!
Imagine Hanuman flying a mountain from Lanka to Luang Prabang so that Sita can eat mushrooms. I can’t stop laughing! At the same time, I am amazed at the creativity of storytellers in the sixteenth and later centuries, as this tale must have been passed on from generation to generation. It’s interesting that Ramrajya is anywhere (India, Laos, Thailand), but Lanka is only one! Kind of a human habit to believe the good in ourselves, but evil to be far away.
I have many more such amazing stories about Luang Prabang, so watch this space for more!