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Why Does the Gibbon say Phua?
A Thai Folk Tale

THE GIBBON IS the most agile of apes, swinging effortlessly through the high forest by its long powerful arms.Yet it is also the least human of the apes in appearance. Why then does it send its mournful cry "Phua, phua, phua" ringing through the great woods at sunset? For "Phua" is the Thai word for husband.

To find the answer we must reject explanations about territorial calls, glottal sacs and other zoological nonsense, and cast ourselves back in time to those mythic days when gods and men were united by a bond of magic. Not all men of course, for it was only the forest hermits who truly had learned to commune with the deities. Dwelling in the deep vastness of the jungle, surrounded and protected by the beasts of the forest and the mighty spirits of the trees, rocks and waters, the esoteric meditation and oneness with nature of these souls of solitude so freed their minds of human sin that they could cross the magical bridge with the immortals.

One day, a great king of that time wished his son, Jantakorop, to study with the wisest of these hermits, who dwelt in a forest in the north of the kingdom, so that he too might learn the magic of the gods. Calling his son to him he said "I am sending you to study with the great hermit that you may learn from him the ways of the gods. Yet," he said, "you must obey his every command lest you bring disaster upon yourself and those you love."

"I shall do as you demand, father." said the loyal son. And so it came to pass that Jantakorop left the palace mounted upon his panoplied elephant and accompanied by a retinue of servants upon the very day and at the very hour chosen as auspicious by the royal seer. On bended knee he accepted his father's blessing and heeded again his admonition against disobeying the hermit.

After a long and arduous journey the prince and his royal train came to the forest where the hermit lived. Jantakorop dismissed his servants and bade them return to his father's palace. He hobbled his elephant and allowed it to browse freely in the forest, and joined the hermit in his lonely hut deep in the magical jungle.

The hermit taught the prince to live his life according to the turning of the seasons. In the cool winter they searched the forest for leaves, roots, bark and berries with which to make medicines, potions and infusions. When the days became hot and dry, the hermit taught Jantakorop magical spells and incantations and about the power of the heavens and how the rising and falling of the stars and planets might determine the fate of men. When the rains fell, and they could no longer leave the hut because of the rising waters of the flood, the hermit then taught the prince to focus his mind and meditate. It is said that the hermit imparted a lifetime of wisdom to the young prince in only one year.

The long days and the loneliness would have tired the prince had the hermit lived alone. Yet the sage had once been married and his wife, before her untimely death, had borne him a daughter, Mora. His tragic loss had persuaded the hermit to adopt his life of solitude and he had taken the infant with him into the forest. Many years later Mora had grown into a beautiful and attentive young woman. When the prince was tired she danced and sang to entertain him. When he was thirsty she brought him water and when he was hungry she brought him the bounty of the forest, bananas, mangosteens, durian, each in their season.

Finally, after a year of study, the hermit announced that his teaching was complete, and that Jantakorop was now free to return to his father. The young prince found his elephant happily browsing in the forest and equipped it with his howdah and all the other accoutrements. When he was ready to take his leave, he spoke to the hermit and his daughter, saying "You have both been kind to me and I shall miss each of you greatly, but I must now return to my father's side. I am sure that he will richly reward you for all that you have done and you shall live your lives in great honour."

The hermit replied "I have shared my knowledge with you that you may in your time learn to rule wisely and well. This alone will be reward enough for my efforts. But," he said, "I have perceived your heart's desire and have placed it within this sealed clay urn that I now give you. You must not, however, open the urn before you see the sun's rays reflect from your palace roof or dire fate will befall you."

Thanking the hermit yet again, the prince mounted his elephant and set off on the long journey home. With each long lumbering step that his mount took, however, the burden of the urn increased, and its weight grew out of all proportion to its size until it became too heavy to bear. Jantakorop held it to the sun but could not see inside, he shook it but could hear nothing, he smelled it but it had no odour, he caressed it but could feel nothing. Eventually he could no longer support its growing mass or suppress his curiosity, and he broke the seal. In an instant the beautiful Mora appeared at his side, saying "My father knew that you had come to love me, and I you, and now we shall never be parted. You shall be my husband and I your wife and we shall live in happiness for ever."

Even as she spoke, a tiger burst roaring from a cane brake and the elephant reared in alarm, throwing off the howdah and hurling the lovers to the ground, before stampeding into the dark recesses of the forest in panic. Now the pair had no choice but to proceed on foot through the endless woods. Their food and water was gone with the elephant and they had to glean what they could from the unforgiving jungle. After many weeks, not knowing where they were, thirsty, hungry and haggard, they staggered through yet another thicket of thorns and burst into the sunshine. There in front of them was the great palace of Jantakorop's father, with the sun twinkling on the gilded roof, and then the prince remembered the hermit's warning not to open the urn.

Weak and trembling they stumbled towards the palace through the thinning glades of the forest's edge, when a swarthy bandit barred their passage. Ignoring the young and weakened prince, he grabbed the lovely Mora, intending to take her for his own and started to drag her back towards the forest. Infuriated, the prince could not bear to lose his bride-to-be and leapt upon the muscular brigand. As they fought it was soon clear that the powerful and cunning desperado would swiftly overpower Jantakorop, and the prince begged Mora to give him his sword. As she tried to do so the villain grabbed it from her and drove the point clear through the prince's heart.

"My prince, my love, you are taken from me." wailed the despairing Mora, as the robber dragged her away. Yet her words disturbed him, for he realised he had slain one of royal blood, and might be hunted down like a dog when news reached the palace. The inconsolable Mora was now weeping uncontrollably and wailing through her tears "My husband, my husband, my husband ." She had become a dead weight and the bandit gave up the struggle and abandoned her at the base of a great tree, still crying "Phua, Phua, Phua."

From above the gods looked down on this tragic scene, the abuse of celestial powers by mortals through weakness and greed. Never again would they share their knowledge, magic and power with earthly man, and they withdrew to a great distance. But before they left, they changed the innocent Mora, still calling "Phua" after her lost Jantakorop, into a gibbon.

So now, when you hear the gibbon's plaintive chorus to the westering sun, its wild, echoing "Phua, Phua, Phua" belling through the great trees, you will know it is a melancholy song, a tragic dirge to lost knowledge, a broken vow and the eternal mourning of Mora for her lost love.

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