Thao Hung Epic
by Douang Deuane Bounyavong and Maha Sila Viravong
Author's Preface to the 1991 Edition
The Thao Hung Epic is one of the masterpieces of Lao literature. There exist various versions, but the most complete and perfectly composed account is the one represented by 300 bundles of palm-leaf inscriptions found by Maha Sila Viravong in the Thai National Library in Bangkok in 1941. Maha Sila had transliterated this version into modern Lao language in 1942, and it was only in 1988 that the Ministry of Culture published the masterpiece in one volume.
According to scholarly studies, the Thao Hung Epic was written sometime between the mid-14th to mid-16th centuries by a royal poet of the Lane Xang Dynasty. It was composed with three perfect patterns of Lao verses of 20,000 lines. The subject of this masterpiece is the greatness of a courageous king whose influence was hard upon the Mekong banks and Mekong basins during the period of 10th through 12th centuries. This epic reflected the society of that dynasty in such various aspects as beliefs, traditions and rituals--such as spirit cults, wedding ceremonies, funerals and costumes, etc.--which one can trace in many regions of Laos to this very day.
Many centuries have passed, but one could say that the ways of life, tradition and ritual ceremonies about weddings and birth, death and funerals, largely remain as before. Some have been modified by religion, modernization and communication. Yet people still embrace many of the old customs, living productive lives as tillers of the soil as well as hunting, fishing and producing household utensils for themselves. Through history they have participated in wars, sons and husbands often abandoning families for battlefields.
The study of traditions and rites in the masterpiece of the Thao Hung Epic shows how Lao society existed, to include the people's intellect, behavior and ideology within the confines of that particular ancient period. This contemporary analysis will contribute new components to both Lao history and anthropological research. It will also help to establish the identity of Lao culture among this and future generations while at the same time appreciating and promoting it.
Compiler's Preface to the 1988 Edition
The story of Thao Hung or Cheuang is a historical literary work which provides vivid information about ancient society and has also become an exquisite part of the literary heritage of Laos because its poetry is quite different from any that I have ever studied before. This poem is correctly composed according to the Vijjumali versified rule of Pali prosody--the study of poetic meters and versification--which is why I named it 'Konvijjumaly' (Vijjumali poem).
Apart from the version composed in verse, there is yet another prose version of the Thao Hung Epic which is directly translated word for word from the Pali text, but its context is a little different. The poetry version is, however, very melodious, and so it is considered a major work of Lao literature.
It was written in the Dhamma script (sacred script) called Lam Cheuang or Phun Thao Cheuang (Thao Cheuang's story), translated word for word from Pali in prose. It also consisted of eleven volumes, each of which had 24 palm leaves. There is also mention that "Venerable Buddhaghosacarya" was the preacher of Thao Hung's story--that is, a monk who would be born in the future, in mini-era 480 or 1118 AD, but the volume of this poem has no inscription date showing when it was composed.
At the end of the Dhamma-script volume, there was no mention of Thao Hung making war against Tumvang, only his return from the Kingdom of Pakan. Furthermore, it is mentioned at the conclusion that the Thao Hung (or Cheuang's story) was derived from the story of Miggapadavalanjana, the story of a man born from the footprint of a big wild animal. This tale was included in Camadevi's story composed by the Venerable Bodhirangsy of Chiangmai in Pali language in approximately 1517 AD, during the reign of King Tilok (or Bilok), the king of Chiangmai who ruled that kingdom contemporaneously with the reign of King Vijularaj or Chiangthong (Luang Prabang). Venerable Bodhirangsy tells us that the Camadevi story was originally written in Chiangmai dialect and poetry, and that later on it was rewritten in Pali language with the addition of some Buddhist stories.
A Brief Summary of THAO HUNG's Story
Thao Hung, or Cheuang, was a son of Khunchomtham, ruler of the Suantan or Nakhong Kingdom (now Chiangrai, Thailand). When he was three years of age, the Phangdam tribe presented him with a sword and a couple of silver gongs, and later on he was offered a white elephant named Changpheuakphankham (white golden elephant). Khunchomtham died when Thao Hung was in his teens, and his mother, together with the people of Suantan Kingdom, crowned Thao Cheuang, Thao Hung's elder brother, a prince of Muong Suantan, and Thao Hung was his viceroy.
Thao Hung trained his elephant in the arts of warfare and sometimes rode it to faraway places. One day he met Nang Ngom, daughter of Nang Meng, who was a ruling princess of the Kingdom of Chiang Kheua (Nang Meng was Thao Hung's mother's sister). Thao Hung fell in love with Nang Ngom, so he requested his elders to arrange a marriage with her; but the latter's mother demanded too big a bride-price, thus creating an obstacle to the love between them. [From this point with charm and intrigue, the Lao epic slowly evolves from plot to plot.]