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Lanterns, love and legends

Naang (Lady) NoppamartThe histories of the Chinese and Thai people are inextricably linked through fact, fiction, myth and legend. Traditional festivals celebrated in both countries often overlap as tales of their origin can be remarkably similar. Of the many festivals held annually in each nation, the Mid-Autumn festival in China and Loy Krathong in Thailand are two of my favourites.

I believe that legends are simply mythspelt fairy stories, but being a child at heart I cannot resist them. Take the annual Thai Festival of Lights - Loy Krathong, which, according to legend originated in the 13th century or 212 years ago when Naang (Lady) Noppamart who later become one of concubines of Sukhothai’s King Rama Kamhaeng, introduced her husband to the practice of making small floats bearing lotus flowers and sending them down the nearby river. (Loy means to float and Krathong is a small, boat-shaped model made of banana leaves.) Impressed by this gentle ritual, the king made Loy Krathong an official ceremony.

That is the sub edited version of the story, but for those of you who enjoy your legends with meat and two vegetables-read on.

In ancient Sukhothai there lived a famous Brahmin who was known far and wide for his great wisdom. This noble priest was capable of forecasting the weather, telling horoscopes; was expert in the study of medicine, botany and theology; indeed, as a scholar of ancient practices he possessed a detailed knowledge of the growth and development of all religions in vogue at that time. He was an expert in the law, and knew the secrets of good governance, so much so that the king made use of his great wisdom and bestowed upon him the titles of Chief Physician, and Chief Judge.

This great sage had a daughter, Naang Noppamart, who was as wise as her father, and the most beautiful creature in the land. She was also skilled in poetry, music and art, and herself became the subject of many songs, so revered was she among the people. One day, the king heard minstrels sing of this wondrous young maiden, and he decided to seek her out and to make her his queen.

Although married to a Buddhist king, Noppamart remained true to her Brahmin faith, and towards the end of the year she indulged in the Brahminical custom of preparing offerings to present to the genii of the river, in order to obtain pardon and absolution for her sins. This she did by creating a small, boat-like structure from banana leaves, known as a “krathong”(pronounced gra-tong). She loaded this with paddy husks to stabilize it and keep it afloat, and wove a deck from plantain leaves upon which she placed betel nuts, rice and scented flowers. She then placed scented incense sticks in the krathong but before she could light them, her husband the king appeared and asked her to explain the origins of this strange little craft.

Noppamart told her husband that it was part of her faith to honour the river spirits by floating her krathong on the water. Delighted by her art, but afraid that his Buddhist subjects might misunderstand his actions; he proceeded to launch the krathong himself, dedicating it to Lord Buddha. The king made it clear that whatever merit he earned from this act should go to the spirit of the river, for whom the krathong had originally been made by his wife. Noppamart, while delighted by her husband’s understanding, had nevertheless no krathong to dedicate solely to the Brahmin spirit of the river. Gathering some leaves and binding them together in the shape of a box, she then borrowed joss sticks from the king’s subjects who were standing on the river bank, and after lighting the tapers, sent this hastily constructed krathong in pursuit of that launched by the king.

When the sovereign saw this, he praised his wife before the vast crowds by the river, who then rushed to follow her example. Soon the water was aglow with the twinkling lights of thousands of krathongs and the air was filled with joy and laughter.

So happy was the king that he ordered this ceremony to take place each year in honour of his wise and beautiful wife. Down the years the ceremony ceased to be a royal occasion, and instead was passed on to the public. When the full moon of the twelfth lunar month (sometime from early to late November) appears on the 12 of November this year, Loy Krathong is celebrated for 3 day’s i.e. 11, 12 & 13 th November throughout Thailand, and indeed by Thais living in all parts of the world. The ceremony in Chiang Mai is known as Yi Peng, and apart from following all the traditions of Loi Krathong, includes the launching of tubular lanterns into the night sky. This, to my mind, is Thailand’s most beautiful festival, and one that tourists would benefit from planning their visit to coincide with.

The moon is already on the rise as we leave home and head for the banks of the Ping River in downtown Chiang Mai. Passing each village on the way we see hundreds of tubular lanterns floating skyward like so many illuminated hot air balloons. The lanterns glow yellow against the night sky, and rising gently reach amazing heights before being lost to view. I make a mental note to ask the next Thai Airways pilot I meet to describe a landing at Chiang Mai International during the night of Yi Peng, or Loy Krathong. We reach the banks of the Ping to find crowds of young women lighting tapers and sending their krathongs out into the slow moving current. The surface of the water is ablaze with thousands of tiny lights as an armada of krathongs heads downstream.

A common belief that has gained popularity down the centuries is that by launching a krathong, each lady is ridding herself of any sins she has committed or bad luck she has suffered during the previous year, and the little craft is carrying her hopes and prayers for better fortune for the twelve months to come. Many place locks of hair, nail clippings and sometimes coins in their krathongs, along with the more usual joss sticks, fruit and flowers. And while the River Ping is where it all happens in Chiang Mai, any water course will serve the purpose. I have seen Thai ladies launch their krathongs into the waters of the Andaman Sea off the island of Phuket, into the South China Sea off the island of Lamma, into the many canals (klongs) of Bangkok, and even into duck ponds in Isaan.

Young ladies will wear their best dresses for this occasion in the tradition set by the beautiful Naang Noppamart.

To celebrate the contribution to Thai culture by this multi-talented young lady, Naang Noppamart Beauty Contests are staged throughout the kingdom during Loy Krathong, and believe me, there is no shortage of beautiful ladies in Thailand.

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