Festive Isan in full colour

Engaging analysis of a Buddhist tale captures Thailand's irrepressible popular culture

This book reproduces a beautiful festive scroll from Thailand's Northeast that is now in Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum.

The story of Prince Vessantara, or Phra Wetsandon, is at the heart of popular Buddhism in Southeast Asia. It recounts the previous life in which the Buddha-to-be achieved the perfection of giving or generosity, thus allowing him to be born as the Buddha.

The story unfolds in three acts. In the first, the prince-bodhisattva gives away all his possessions, including the kingdom's lucky white elephant, and is banished by his angry subjects to the forest with his wife and two children.

In the second, a devious and ugly Brahman, a symbol of ultimate greed, takes away the children and mistreats them. In the third, Indra rescues the family, the Brahman gets his comeuppance, and the royal family is invited to return and rule.

Buddhist Storytelling In Thailand And Laos: The Vessantara Jataka Scroll At The Asian Civilisations Museum Leedom Lefferts and Sandra Cate Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore ISBN 978-981-07-2478-8. Available outside Singapore now through Select Books www.selectbooks.com.sg

This story is told in chants, enacted in dramas, and depicted in temple murals across the region, but among the lowland Lao, including those in Thailand's Isan region, it has been adapted in a very distinctive way.

The story is painted on to a long scroll of white cloth (the book's example is 31m long). At the climax of a three-day festival, the Bun Phra Wet, the scroll is paraded to the forest and back to the village in a re-enactment of the final act of the story.

This particular scroll arrived in Singapore in 1996 through the mediation of an art dealer who had become fascinated with the textiles of Isan.

The first part of the book reproduces the scroll across 16 spreads with an English text of the story at the foot, and an appendix provides a translation of the text on the scroll (by Wajuppa Tossa) along with notes on points of cultural significance. While the festival replays the third act of the story, the scroll itself dwells more on the second, the comic over-the-top tale of the greedy Brahman who represents the polar opposite of the generous prince and Buddha-to-be.

Leedom Lefferts and Sandra Cate are anthropologists who specialise in the everyday popular culture in the region. In the second part of the book, they describe and analyse the Bun Phra Wet festival which they have witnessed many times in Isan and Laos, and in the third they investigate the production of such scrolls.

This one was painted in 1959-60 by Sopha Pangchat, an artist and local intellectual in rural Ubon Ratchathani who also painted temple murals and made funeral caskets. The authors also show us examples of scrolls in many other styles, and recount how the production is becoming "industrialised" in a handful of specialised workshops. The history of this ritual is still largely unknown. The style and storytelling on the scrolls are clearly similar to those in temple murals and there is a chicken-and-egg controversy about which came first. Until the late 19th century, the Vessantara story was supremely popular throughout the Thai-Lao area, but authorities in Siam switched focus away to the Buddha's life story.

Lefferts and Cate argue that the story's continued prominence in Isan is part of the region's defiant identity. The festival in its current form may not be very old.

Lefferts and Cate note that the dramatisation of the third act of the story reflects the experience and emotions of the Isan villagers who nowadays migrate away to work and are reunited at festival times.

The ending may also have a new twist. Before inviting the prince to return, the villagers extract a promise that he will rule justly and well. Some of the authors' respondents called this "democracy".

The highlight of the book is the scroll itself. The story is told in great detail so it works as a graphic novel, not just a reminder of a familiar tale. The background is a stylised depiction of the Isan landscape with its fauna and flora, both real and mythical. The colours convey the energy and joy that mark the festival. This book is a splendid addition to a body of works on Thailand's irrepressible popular culture.

About the author

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Writer: Chris Baker
Position: Freelance Writer