Mythology and Legends: A Dialectical Approach
In Chapter 1 of this article we provided a brief discussion about the origin and importance of mythology and legends and also issues pertaining historicity arising from some of these myths. Many writers tend to pit myths and history at two antithetically extreme ends. Many historians also, for whatever reasons, assumed an innate obligation to remove all traces of myths from history when, ironically, there are as many historical falsities as there are historical values in myths.
Let us take the Xia Dynasty (2200 – 1760 BC) for example. Prior to the discovery of radiocarbon dating, the Xia Dynasty was dismissed as a Chinese fairy tale which now turned out to be a historical fact. On the contrary, it is not difficult to find many agenda-laden godly investitures that gradually turned a historical figure into some supernatural beings which, in their book “Myths: A New Symposium”, Schrempp and Hansen described it as borrowing the tropes of myths to elevate the authority and verisimilitude of the subject matter. It is also not difficult to understand the latter proposition given the fact that even history per se does not contain absolute truth but, at most, probable truth. Absolute truth must result in absolute certainty that is free from subjective interpretation and must unswervingly endure the test of time, for example, death. It makes no difference whether you are rich or poor, pretty or ugly, educated or illiterate, your ultimate destiny is death, an end-result that is absolutely certain and unchangeable.
Therefore, even with regards to critical history, other than death, no one will ever know the truth but for personal experiences. In an article published in the Journal of History and Theory, Heehs concluded that it may not be possible to categorically separate history and myths “because the two interpenetrate”. As Theravada Buddhists, we neither propagate superstition nor atheism but the middle-path reflected in Lord Buddha’s teaching. We adhere to the fundamental tenets of Theravada Buddhism, especially that of intelligence which underlies our dialectical approach that we invoked to allow our readers to draw their own conclusion based on competing information.
The Story Continues
Phlai Kaeo returned to Suphanburi as a novice of Wat Pa Lelai. His handsome appearance has won the hearts of many young girls who were seen waiting to see him during his morning ritual of “tak but” or alms round. They will fill his alms bowl with so much food. Similarly, Nang Phim Philalai also did the same.
One day, at the Wat Pa Lelai Temple, there was a sermon sponsored by Nang Phim Philalai which Phlai Kaeo was instructed by the abbot to deliver. That was when the three childhood friends met together again. Strongly attracted to the young handsome novice and unable to restrain her affection, Nang Phim Philalai removed her shoulder cloth (sabai) and offered it to the novice. Khun Chang who was all along attracted to Nang Phim Philalai quickly removed his headdress (Pkama) and placed it on top of her shoulder cloth and openly asked the novice to give them the blessing that the two will come together as a couple. Nang Phim Philalai was deeply offended by Khun Chang’s unsolicited advancement.
Khun Chang felt the threat of Phlai Kaeo’s presence and he also sensed Nang Phim Philalai’s affection towards the latter. Therefore, Khun Chang pestered his mother Nang Thepthong to go forth and ask Nang Sri Prachan for him to marry Nang Phim Philalai. Khun Chang even brought along with him the “sin sot” or dowry which was usually negotiated after a woman’s parents had agreed to the marriage proposal. However, Nang Phim Philalai vehemently objected that proposal.
Subsequently, Phlai Kaeo disrobed as a novice and married Nang Phim Philalai. The couple were drown in love and could not bear to be separated from each another. Despite Nang Phim Philalai’s marriage to Phlai Kaeo, Khun Chang has not given up on her and has been thinking about how to win her over. Coincidentally, at this time, Somdej Phra Panwasa received news that Mueang Chiang Thong, a small tributary of Ayutthaya Kingdom, generally believed to be in current north-eastern part of Chiang Rai province or the current Chiang Khong town, has defected and switched allegiance to Chiang Mai instead. Infuriated, Somdej Phra Panwasa contemplated sending an army to punish Mueang Chiang Thong.
Where exactly was Muaeng Chiang Thong?
A number of Thai scholars and historians have disputed the location of Mueang Chiang Thong as being in Chiang Rai and argued that it should instead be in present day’s Doi Chom Thong district in southern Chiang Mai. In fact, this argument sounded more logical when we were to look into the number of wars Khun Phaen has fought with Chiang Mai. If Mueang Chiang Thong was located in Chiang Rai then Khun Phaen could have avoided the main forces of the Chiang Mai army by marching his troop from Suphanburi through Nakhon Sawan, Mueang Kamphaengphet, Mueang Rahaeng, Mueang Thoen to Phayao and entering Chiang Rai.
However, it was said that Khuan Phaen fought numerous wars with Chiang Mai but without directly attacking Chiang Mai. This again aligns with historical records because albeit in constant war with Chiang Mai, the Ayutthaya Kingdom has never conquered Chiang Mai (1259 – 1892). Chiang Mai only became part of Siam (now the Kingdom of Thailand) in 1893. Therefore, if Muaeng Chiang Thong was indeed in current Doi Chom Thong district in Chiang Mai, then Khun Phaen’s army constant encounter with the Chiang Mai army on his way to Mueang Chiang Thong will be justified because from Mueang Thoen he had to cut through Lamphun and march his troop down the Ping River to reach Doi Chom Thong district in the southern part of Chiang Mai.
However, it is not the endeavour of this article to delve into the historical location of Muaeng Chiang Thong but suffice to provide a skeletal background for our readers’ imagination.
Khun Chang Hatched His First Plot
When Somdej Phra Panwasa was briefed about Mueang Chiang Thong’s defection and the strength of Chiang Mai’s army, he deeply regretted having executed Khun Kraipon and procrastinated as to who he should send to lead his army against the enemy. Immediately, Khun Chang seized the opportunity and told Somdej Phra Panwasa about Khun Kraipon’s son, Phlai Kaeo. Khun Chang depicted exaggerated stories about Phlai Kaew’s invulnerability in the hope that Phlai Kaeo will be summoned to service which will then separate him from Nang Phim Philalai and preferably get killed in war. Indeed, Somdej Phra Panwasa summoned Phlai Kaeo to the service and appointed him as Commander of the Royal Army to punish Mueang Chiang Thong.
A Dream Fulfilled
It was Phlai Kaeo’s dream to be an army commander like his father Khun Kraipon. Therefore, despite being newly-wed, he took his mother Nang Thongprasri and his wife Nang Phim Philalai and set out to Ayutthaya where Somdej Phra Panwasa officially appointed him the Commander of the Royal Army, presented him with a sword and armour. He was also raised to the title Khun Phaen.
A Vow and the Bodhi Tree Ritual
As Khun Phaen began raising his army and preparing to set out for war, Nang Phim Philalai became depressed and worried. One morning, Khun Phaen prepared offerings to a Bodhi tree outside their house and summoned the angels of forest and asked that if he should die in war, let that Bodhi tree die too but otherwise the Bodhi tree shall grow strong. He then turned and told his wife Nang Phim Philalai that the Bodhi tree will let her know about his life and death and, thus, she has nothing more to worry about.
A Long Journey of War
Khun Phaen marched his army through Nakhon Sawan, Mueang Kamphaengphet, Mueang Rahaeng (presently the Tak district in western Thailand) and Mueang Thoen (currently Lampang province) to Mueang Chiang Thong. Many battles were fought between Khun Phaen’s army and the Chiang Mai’s troops as he pushed his way towards Muaeng Chiang Thong.
It was said that Khun Phaen has not lost a single battle which won him the title of Undefeatable Warlord. Many stories have infused the battles with alchemy and wizardry but we are not going to repeat them here but suffice to mentioned herein that, amongst other things, it was said that Khun Phaen was able to win every battle because of an ancient Thai “Khong Kraphan” sorcery and his ability to summon warrior spirits to help boost fearlessness among his soldiers. That was also why mountains of enemy’s bodies paved his path to Muaeng Chiang Thong.
Khun Chang’s Second Plot
There are at least two different versions of story as to what happened whilst Khun Phaen was away from home. Since we had introduced the Bodhi tree ritual above, we shall continue with the Bodhi tree version here. However, to satisfy our readers’ curiosity, we will also provide a brief account of the other version later on.
Ever since Khun Phaen went to war, Nang Phim Philaiai missed her husband so much that she gradually became seriously ill with high fever. Medicine and herbs did not do her any good. On the verge of death, her family brought her to consult the abbot of Wat Pa Lelai. The old abbot performed an ancient Thai ritual known as “sedeokhrok” signifying a cycle from sickness to death and then rebirth whereby she was given a new name Nang Wanthong by the abbot. In other words, Nang Phim Philalai has died and Nang Wanthong was born.
Note: This traditional Thai ritual is not an exorcism ritual as it is frequently misunderstood. It is a complicated ritual that cheats death and changes an individual’s destiny which may be for the better or worse depending on the individual’s subsequent behaviour and acts after the ritual as well as the expertise of the master who performed the ritual. It could have dire consequences as depicted (albeit erroneously) in the horror movie “The Coffin”, starring Hong Kong movie star cum singer Karen Mok, if it is not performed properly by versed monks.
Her fever began to subside after the ritual and Nang Wanthong gradually recovered. During that period, Khun Chang has visited her frequently and asked to take care of her. His offer was rejected by Nang Wanthong. However, Khun Chang somehow came to know about the Bodhi tree ritual and he instructed one of his loyal servant to scatter poisonous herbs around the tree daily until the tree dies.
It did not take too long for Khun Chang to kill the Bodhi tree and Nang Wanthong was overwhelmed by the sudden death of the Bodhi tree which she related it to the death of Khun Phaen. Khun Chang then went to see Nang Wanthong’s mother, Nang Sri Prachan, and asked her to make her daughter available to him or risk her being declared a widow under the law.
The version of the Legend of Khun Phaen that does not contain the Bodhi tree ritual instead stated that Khun Chang brought an urn of bones and tricked Nang Wanthong and Nang Sri Prachan into believing that Khun Phaen was dead.
It has to be noted that, unlike depicted in many contemporary made movies, in ancient societies, whether in Asia or Europe, women were considered chattels under the law. They are owned by their parents and husbands before and after marriage respectively. During the Ayutthaya era, a woman’s parents have full right to decide what they wanted to do with their daughter. Therefore, upon the “death” of Khun Phaen, Nang Wanthong was reverted as chattel of her mother whereby, seeing Khun Chang was rich and serving the King, Nang Sri Prachan forced Nang Wanthong to marry Khun Chang.
Khun Phaen Married Princess of Chiang Thaong
Khun Phaen and his troops stepped over piles of enemy’s bodies on their way to Muaeng Chiang Thong. However, when they reached Muaeng Chiang Thong they somehow refrained from all killing. The army of Muaeng Chiang Thong did not put up a fight instead prince Saen Khamman ordered the opening of city gate and ushered in Khun Phaen and his troops.
Khun Phaen was received with honour by the prince of Muaeng Chiang Thong and he also came to know that it was not the intention of Muaeng Chiang Thong to switch allegiance to Chiang Mai but for Chiang Mai’s army threatening to invade Mueang Chiang Thong. The prince and his wife Nang Sri Ngenmuang were grateful that Khun Phaen had shown understanding for their predicament and had not used force against them or the villagers. They presented to him their beautiful daughter Nang Lao Thong as an assurance of their allegiance to the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
Khun Phaen and Nang Lao Thong got married in Mueang Chiang Thong. He stayed there for a short period to allow his soldiers to recuperate before he reorganised his troops and marched his way jubilantly back to Ayutthaya. On his return journey , Khun Phaen and his troops did not meet any resistance or ambush from the Chiang Mai forces.
What drama will unfold with Khun Phaen bringing his beautiful new wife Nang Lao Thong back to Suphanburi and what will be Khun Phaen’s reaction to find his wife Nang Phim Philalai married to Khun Chang?