Phadaeng Nang Ai, Translated by Wajuppa Tossa

I came to Wajuppa Tossa’s translation of Phadaeng Nang Ai via Bryan Thao Worra’s Demonstra (discussed here, more info here–and it’s even discounted right now, and $7 is a steal!), where it’s mentioned in passing (in an appendix, I think).

What got me curious about it (after I looked it up) was the impression I got that it’s basically an epic about a love triangle involving humans and nagas. Not that Worra’s book was my introduction to nagas, of course. AD&D, Indian movies,  and travel in Southeast Asia had previously exposed me to various versions of nagas, from these:

Technically, a “Yuan-ti,” but I think it’s basically a male naga.

The naga in the AD&D Monster Manual. Unfortunately, my first naga ever.

… to this film that the inimitable Ritu Chaudhry showed me during my visit to India (which seems like ages ago, because it was…):

(I’d swear she actually turns into a giant snake at some point in the film, I think, but I can’t find that on Youtube.)

… to temple ornaments like this one, sighted during my visit to Laos in 2008–at least, I think it’s a naga:

This appears to be the sole surviving photo of my trip to Laos in the winter of 2008… (Sigh.) At least, I think it’s a naga.

However, if you’ve traveled in Laos, or anywhere else in contact with the Mekong River, you’ll probably have seen a lot more nagas that look like this creature, with some odd number of heads (often seven):


Well, depending on where we’re talking about, they’re seen as nature spirits, capricious creatures not to be messed with, vicious forces of national defense (as in Myanmar), or as devoted (if sometimes flawed) Buddhist practitioners. (For example, Worra’s appendix lists a number of nagas listening to Buddha’s sermons and so on.)

phadaeng_coverIf you’re thinking that there’s no way a love triangle involving two humans and one of these creatures could happen, you probably don’t know a crucial detail: nagas are shapeshifters that can assume a variety of forms, including the human one. (Also, I seem to recall that that the multiple heads are supposed to be symbolic, but don’t quote me on that.)

Now, why a naga would want to assume human form is beyond me, mind you. I mean, would you assume iguana or gecko form, if you could? I’m not sure I would. Well, maybe gecko, occasionally; gecko feet are amazing. But I would not be up for lounging around as an iguana occasionally. If I were a naga, I’m not sure I’d want to take the form of a hairless monkey, either…Except, I suppose, that hairless monkeys are relatively interesting, what with their having developed rudimentary technology and language and culture. Maybe nagas just found humans interesting?

But, well, anyway, Phadaeng Nang Ai isn’t really about a love triangle involving a naga. It involves a love triangle, or some sort of multifaceted love polygon (or, perhaps it’s a love tesseract or something? karma, dharma, and reincarnation sort of complexify things), but that’s not what the narrative is really about. Still, it’s worth adjusting your expectations and checking out a copy, if you can find one. (Maybe at the library? I don’t know whether I’ll be rereading my copy, to be honest, except for the stuff about Thai-Isaan verse, which is bizarre and fascinating, and which I’ll discuss a little below. If you do want to buy it, though, astonishingly, Barnes & Noble seems to have new copies of the hardback available; I got mine off Abebooks.)

What was I saying? Ah, yes: it’s not really about the conflict over love, not fundamentally anyway…

What it is actually about defies a lot of our expectations of narratives in the West: there’s a handsome king, and a beautiful princess… and the king gambles his (already fait accompli, in some sense) marriage to the princess on a massive rocket competition (similar to the tournament in the Mahabharata, with similar prizes… wives), plus there’s some historical drama between some nagas fighting over how food gets split up, and all kinds of wars waged by nagas on anyone who annoys them, and the whole thing ends with a giant cliffhanger to be resolved at the end of the present age–that is, in the year 5000 BE (Buddhist Era)–which even today is still centuries away despite this story being centuries old already.

Which is to say, the love story is kind of a plot coupon that opens the door to the big bright shiny spectacle, and the Buddhist sermons, and the insane violence of the nagas, and sexual innuendoes, and the fun of watching basically every screw up along the way in the big competition. (Which makes me think of Coen Brothers films, actually.)

I got a kick out of all that. Really, I’m all about that: the narratives that defy our expectations and smash apart what we take for granted in terms of typical narrative structure. Sometimes, that’s done by an author consciously, as a reaction against the dominance of a stifling paradigm that they want to transcend… but it can also simply be a feature of cultural difference: nobody in northern Thailand hundreds of years ago had been exposed to modern European novels, or American bestsellers, or pulp short stories, or the Hollywood blockbuster: they just came at narrative so differently because they were working, culturally, from a different set of first principles, that’s all.

Dr. Wajuppa Tossa. Click for image source.
Dr. Wajuppa Tossa. Click for image source.

The story’s pretty simply to sum up, though: Tossa manages a page-and a half summary in one of her appendices to the translation, and I found that it helped, actually, because the structure of the poem is such that things occasionally did get a bit confusing. The poem, by the way, only spans about sixty pages of translated/adapted verse: even though the print is relatively small, Tossa isn’t really referring to it as an “epic” in terms of size, so much as in terms of mode and scope–a fact discussed within the introductory material to the book. I like the idea that a relatively peripheral culture could produce a mini-epic, personally: it appeals to my own sensibility (shaped on the similarly peripheral Canadian prairie), I suppose.

In any case, what I found most interesting was the absolute insanity of the nagas. Much of the time, they behave like petulant kids, waging massive, earth-shattering wars of revenge over the smallest things. No, really. Here’s a cheap paraphrase of the dispute that leads to the first naga war discussed in the text:

“Hey, brother, here’s your half of today’s kill.”

(Wet, meaty thump. Beat… then hissing sounds distinctly audible.)

“What the hell is this? Come on, pal, we’re supposed to split our kills. Like, 50/50. And after all the kills I split with you…”

“Yeah… that is half my kill.”

“You expect me to believe that? Look at the hairs on that thing! Elephants are big, but their hairs are like a fraction as thick as these bristles. Whatever this meat came from must have been massive!”

“Dumbass, those are quills. Have you never seen a porcupine?

“Bullshit!!! Gaah! I’m so MAD! I declare war on you!”

“Are you serious? Gah! War!!!

Which is to say, naga behaviour in the old days seems to have been a lot like human behaviour on Facebook today: a constant cycle of poorly-considered outrage, often tied up in demonstrations of stupidity and ignorance.

Except that, unlike your average Facebook user, nagas are immensely powerful creatures, and when they fight, they smash the landscape apart. Ultimately, divinities from the heavens1 end up having to intervene… but unfortunately, this only happens after the worst of the war. During the battle, all kinds of creatures in the bush end up becoming energy-boosting snacks for the nagas, including dragons. (The fact that the dragons are mentioned in passing alongside, I think it was elephants and chickens, really says something about the power of nagas.) Anyway, by order of the devatas, they end up splitting up the land where they’d lived in harmony previously, one ruling 0991675975.02.LZZZZZZZthe south, and one ruling the Northeast… but obviously (of course), the wacky naga hijinks don’t stop there.

(Which reminds me: there’s a good reason why Bryan Thao Worra, in Demonstra, links the nagas to the Cthulhu Mythos: in some regions (I think in Cambodia, but I can’t recall now) the nagas are said to have come from the ocean–presumably the Pacific Ocean–where they had ruled a vast underwater kingdom at some point in the deep past. That untold story is suggestively fascinating: whether they battled with Cthulhu and the Deep Ones, or worked with them, or simply lived in the ruins without realizing it, until one day they stumbled upon this weird city in the depths… well, any way you slice it, there’s a killer epic poem in there somewhere, I’m sure of it… and I think the epic poetry form is probably the only way you could do a proper naga narrative from the nagas’ point of view, really.

There’s another naga war at the end of the poem, which also gets cut short by divine intervention, and the book ends with a massive cliffhanger: the fate of the noble princess will be decided at the end of the current age, when the Buddha reincarnates in the 5000th year of the Buddhist Age. No kidding: a massive cliffhanger, that. And worse, Nang Ai, the princess, is consigned to being the naga’s wife until the Buddha announces his decision.

The lesson here seems to be not to enrage the nagas. Well, that’s the lesson I take from it–other people think the poem is ultimately about the balance of humanity and nature, or about the logic of place-names in the traditional Isaan territory in Thailand, or about Buddhist morality… but for me, the take-home was, don’t mess with the nagas, or they will finish you.

A naga motif from one of the Angkorean temples in Cambodia we visited in 2012. The three-headed naga seems to be hanging out with an apsara: the temples at Angkor are full of both such figures.
A naga motif from one of the Angkorean temples in Cambodia we visited in 2012; the three-headed naga seems to be friends (?) with a dancing apsara. We saw plenty of both such figures at the temples at Angkor.

But also, that not every story has to fit into the explicable, familiar pattern to be interesting. I enjoyed Phadaeng Nang Ai enough to continue on with it, despite the really odd layout used throughout the poem. (For understandable reasons–it reflects the fundamental structure of traditional Isaan poetry–but it combined with the small font, it made a slightly less relaxed reading experience.)

More interesting still was the appendix dealing with the poetical form used in this epic, which is called khlong san. This is an extremely complex, highly repetitive form–more like a sestina than like a sonnet, for example–and the astonishing thing is that it’s out of the oral tradition. The verse as written down is actually full of the same kinds of clues to that orality as Homeric verse with its formulaic epithets: there are little comments about how the poet needs to pause and compose some more, and so on.

The structure of khlong san takes a little unpacking: it’s in couplets, with a crazy rhyme scheme between each couplet. Here’s the diagram provided by the translator (on page 92 of the book):


First, each line involves four chunks, visible in the diagram above. The middle two chunks, the most crucial, are called “ribs” and they contain the most important material in a given line; they’re not quite symmetrical, since the first of the two “rib sections” has three syllables, and the second has four, but they’re pretty close.

Meanwhile, the outer two chunks, called “limbs” are optional (which is why they’re bracketed)… which is oddly appropriate, considering that this poem is about nagas, snakelike beings that sometimes have limbs, and sometimes don’t, but don’t be mistaken: khlong san isn’t always about nagas. Anyway, these optional (hence bracketed above) sections are of different lengths too: the one that starts the line can have up to four syllables, and the chunk that ends the line may contain up to two syllables.

Here’s where it gets interesting: in Tossa’s translation, the end chunk is completely omitted, because they really consist of nothing but what he explains are just pretty-sounding nonsense words: presumably, vocalizations of lament, or onomatopoeia, or nonsense rhymes.

Now that you know all that, you should be able to puzzle out something of the rhyme scheme diagrammed above. Basically, it’s all about flexible internal rhyme within each line, along with some displaced rhyme linking up the end of the first line in a give couplet to the earlier part of the “ribs” in the second line.

Not an actual naga skeleton, but close enough. Click for source.
Not an actual naga skeleton, but close enough. Click for source.

Imagine trying to compose something like that orally, without a pen and paper. If I didn’t know better, I’d say one probably couldn’t, except that if people can play jazz spontaneously, and do freestyle rap on the spot, I guess probably medieval Isaan poets could do this spontaneously, or semi-spontaneously, as well. The linkage between lines is especially interesting, as I’ve seen similar kinds of tricks in troubadour lyrics, especially homophone rhymes (and English example would be “deer, dear”) that seem to link the end of one verse to the beginning of the next; the troubadours used them as a kind of aid to mental bookkeeping, serving as a bulwark against the kind of erosion that all texts in an oral culture undergo. (This kind of technique is discussed extensively in Amelia E. van Vleck’s fascinating Memory and Re-Creation in Troubadour Lyric, which is free to view online at the link.)

With the caveat that I cannot speak Isaan and have no idea how far off this is–I’ll try I’ll take a stab at writing a single couplet according to the structure laid out by Dr. Tossa in the text. I’ll even highlight the rhymes for you, using underlining (for internal rhyme) and italics (for rhyme between the lines)… not that you would do that in the actual poem, but since this is to try make the form clearer, I’ll go ahead and do it anyway:

The great black-eyed    naga sang:       his song rang loud       oh, woe, 
Splendolourous:         "Go, you must    not trust me, child..."  --ah, aw...

Is that close? I don’t know, but it’s following Tossa’s explanation of the poetical structure, and you know, I found it wasn’t that have to come up with a couplet–in fact, much easier than I expected–though I imagine sixty pages in this form would be something of a challenge. The  again, though it is supposedly very phoneme-rich, perhaps Isaan is like Italian or French–maybe it’s more loaded with natural rhymes that English, I dunno. But it’s an interesting form. I think maybe a more natural variation, in English verse, might use alliteration instead of rhyme, except it’d be much tougher to come up with something that works in the short syllable count. (I actually just tried a couplet for an example, but I didn’t get very far.)

Anyway, I don’t write so much poetry these days (though I do have one project to which I’m on the verge of returning, any day now) but this form is just compelling enough to make me feel the urge to try it, even if only for some shorter narrative piece. There’s this interesting balance of asymmetry and tight structure, of freedom and strict rhyme, which sticks in my mind.

Hm. Maybe some epic about nagas stumbling onto a black city in the depths, in the ancient times before they fled the ocean for land? There’s a certain harmony between the notion of the Deep Ones (and the contentedness that the unnamed narrator of The Shadow Over Inssmouth experiences when he accepts his true nature) and the shape-shifting, saurian nagas embracing Buddhism. (And really, if there’s one thing that could drive a naga to embrace Buddha’s teachings regarding the extinguishment of ego, it’d be an encounter with that city where Cthulhu lies sleeping and dreaming…)

Maybe I’ll give it a try, though the truth is that as a full-fledged, officially Lovecraftian poet and all, and someone who’s probably forgotten more about nagas than I’ll ever know, maybe Mr. Worra would do a better job… but if he cannot be goaded into such a project, maybe someday I’ll get around to it.

  1. The translator occasionally uses the term “angel” but they’re actually devatas sent by Indra: that is, the local version of devas.

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