Once, many, many moons ago on the banks of the mighty Maekong river, there was a small kingdom ruled by a kind but anxious King called Phaya Kong Phan and his beautiful Queen, Seng Duan, who's name in English may be rendered as Madam Moonlight.
They had no children. As to why many had speculated, but none knew for sure, though naturally the blame fell on the sweet and radiant Queen. And for this, the light that shone from her was a shade cool and wistful.
Thus it was that one fine morning, when the King and his entourage were making their customary parade around the town, an old woman with six fingers on her left hand, called to His Majesty and he turned and saw in her arms the sweetest infant girl that one ever might see. The old woman claimed not to be the girl's grandmother nor even a relative, and where she had found the child, she would not tell.
Now the King was, of course, a great King, and as a great King it was supposed that he had known many mistresses and had entertained many amorous affairs, as was deemed suitable in those days of yore. Therefore it was immediately declared that the child was of his own issue, by a mother unknown.
The little girl was brought to the Palace where His Majesty attempted to persuade the Queen of the wisdom of adopting the infant. But she proved more difficult to convince than he had expected, seeming to see trouble where he could not.
She would not give in easily, but eventually, against her better nature, she relented: the sweetness of the child beguiling beyond her power to refuse.
But for Tao Baros at that moment, the most powerful voice was not reason, so when he found the house of an old woman lamp maker on the rising land to the west of the village, he was seized by an impulsion to buy her torches and one large lamp and set off up into the gathering darkness. The old woman willingly directed him how to climb Phu Pra Bat, and with shining eyes, wished him good luck.
By day it is no more than four hours walk up to the top, but by night in the rainy season, without experience and taking care for his steed, it took Tao Baros many hours to ride up those wet hills. Never the less, by midnight he had found one of the strange mushroom shaped rocks to lie under to escape the rain.
He did not rest for long for a short while later the rain eased. He attempted to remount his horse, but it refused to walk further, so there at that rock which has henceforth always been known as Khok Ma Baros or Baros' Stable, he tethered it and set out on foot.
He found Nang Usa's tower just before dawn and it was with its first rays that he first saw her face. And she saw his, and by their first touch they were united. Thus it was that when the Rishi Chantra called to rouse her, their union was already complete and, in the window high above the hermit, it was Tao Baros' face that first appeared.
The old man did not blink, he just looked, turned and wandered away.
So they called the little girl Nang Usa which means 'the first light of dawn'; a name suggested by a fortune teller most trusted by the King. And she grew up in the palace, bright and beautiful; a joy to all from the first moment each laid eyes upon her.
Time passed and this flower of a child opened to become a darling and daring adolescent. But the King, so proud of his daughter, became fearful: fearful of her flirtatiousness, fearful of the young men whose eyes followed her furtively around the palace wherever she went.
To protect Nang Usa, the King decided to send the young girl up to the high land above the flood plain of the mighty Maekong river, to a place they called Phu Pra Bat, or the hills of the footprint of Buddha. Here it was said that in ancient times the Lord Buddha himself had stepped; and where a large footprint had been found and celebrated as proof of his holy presence.
Now Phu Pra Bat is strange; an area of land raised from the plain as if pressed up by some ancient hand; torn along its western edge to become a cliff which descends sheer into the valley below. The plateau at its top is in some areas covered in trees and flowers and in others simply flat unbroken rock, and all around, as if placed by the same hallowed hand, are huge stones balanced on stones: giant rock mushrooms each large enough to shelter a whole family.
There is a sense of mystery here, a primeval force, which speaks, through ancient cave paintings and chiseled motifs, of those that lived
But by the afternoon of that fateful day two groups had arrived, each with different loyalties and interests. The first, were the courtiers, friends and servants of Tao Baros, who, in their search for him, had found their way to the hills, intent upon his welfare and safety.
They marshaled themselves around the rock henceforth known as Khok Ma Noi, or the Minor Stable and set out to locate and protect their liege.
The second, and not long after was Phaya Kong Phan and his court, alerted by the Rishi Chantra and intent upon the safety of the honour of Nang Usa. The two groups met in the clearing below Nang Usa's tower, the King's party arriving from the north and those loyal to Tao Baros from the south.
Then and there would a battle have ensued if it were not for the wise hermit who arriving from the east prayed for peace and pleaded that each side should take council before any damage was done.
Fearing that this battle would turn to war between neighbouring kingdoms, the King's councilors suggested a competition should be held to determine the fate of Nang Usa, a competition which would be fair, pay respect to both Buddhism and high art, and, of course, one which the King could be certain to win.
Thus it was proposed that whomsoever could build the finer temple in the course of half a night, before the rising of Mercury the morning star would decide her destiny …and the other would forfeit his head.
To guard her, provide for her and educate her, the King appointed the old mystic and hermit, the Rishi Chantra, a recluse who had lived in Phu Pra Bat for as long as anyone could remember. He was a sage who knew the use of every root, the bark of every tree, could predict the motion of every star and the habits of every insect and animal.
He first met Nang Usa at the base of the hills to where she had been brought by the royal entourage. After a short festive ceremony of food and drink, the King and his courtiers took their leave and left the young girl alone with the old man to follow him up an invisible winding trail that only Rishi Chantra knew.
On and up the sage trudged with Nang Usa following silently behind, past giant slippery grey boulders and under dripping trees.
Nang Usa issued no complaint nor showed any fatigue, and the old hermit, who had made this journey a thousand times before, moved his feet and hands in fluid anticipation of every twig, pebble and leaf along their path.
Eventually the trees thinned and in a clearing before them stood a vast natural stone tower: a rock jutting high into the air capped by another placed upon it as if it were a slanting roof.
Below the jagged upper rock was a little room that had been bricked up with stones leaving a window and small door. It was up there that the Rishi Chantra ordered Nang Usa to stay.
Nang Usa surveyed the eerie space and forbidding rock. We may surmise what she felt, but we may be sure she made no comment save perhaps a flick of her almond eyes at the old sage who would have seen and remembered. She climbed up to the little chamber, as the hermit watched, and once aloft she turned to look down, only to see him wander away.
The King's supporters were represented in vastly superior numbers, and it is hard to turn down a contest that appeals to high culture without seeming artless oneself. So realising he was doomed, Tao Baros was forced to accept.
At dusk two groups assembled. One of the King, his courtiers and citizens down in the valley below the cliff where the spirits were most favourable and wood and stone most plentiful. And the other in a little clearing behind the escarpment, where an overhanging rock, though crude, might help form the roof of a temple and thus make up for Tao Baros' desperate lack of men and equipment.
The King warmed to the task, his head filled with an immense creative vision. Merely winning was not his goal, for here tonight would rise a majestic emblem to his mighty victory, doubly resplendent for being that triumph in itself.
On the other hand in the little clearing, assisted by his friends, Tao Baros feverishly hacked at bits of stone with bare hands…keeping one eye on the sky for the first sign of the morning star which would herald the arrival of the judging councilors, and the ruin of his life.
Later with hands bleeding and face grim he could take no more, so downed his tools to trudge up to the cliff top to survey the King's progress far below. There he could see a great swirl of people toil, with grunts and moans for their great task yet to complete.
And it was here, high on the cliff edge as if by magic that a young girl appeared. She was as sweet and as beautiful almost as Nang Usa, and on her cheeks were tears. Not giving her name, she would only say that she was lady in waiting to the woman he loved, and when she raised her hands to wai he could see that they were strangely unmatched.
The small room high in her stone tower was dusty and damp. The floor, slanted and uneven, was rude and uncomfortable after the royal bedchamber she had known almost all her life. But she was thankful for the protection afforded by the height of the tower, as after dusk she could hear the tiny sounds of animals moving down below and sensed that the darkness was lit by a thousand invisible prowling eyes.
At the first light of dawn, the hermit called her, a low croaking call imbued with all the years that the old man had spent with nature. He led her down to a small stream below the tower, and there commanded her to bathe. Nang Usa looked at him uncertainly, but when she saw him turn to avert his eyes, she drew confidence and did as he bade.
Her ablutions complete, he lead her to a rocky platform next to his large stone cave and there prepared a meal for her made from the food of the forest. She helped him; doing as he directed; cutting up herbs and vegetables, slicing roots and berries and searing small pieces of meat upon the open fire. And as she worked he sang an ethereal high pitched song which told of the of the old hills, and the rocks and the plants and the sky.
Following their meal, her instruction began. At first she was amused, for the day was pleasantly cool and as she followed him through the forest, he would point out beautiful flowers and handsome trees. But frequently he saw beauty in things that for her possessed none; in trails of ants, ugly bugs and repulsive spiders. And he would never accept her disgust, but always insist that she moved closer and looked harder.
The day wore on until, just before the setting of the sun, he led her back to the tower; watched her intently as she climbed up to her room, and then, as before, without a word, turned and wandered away.
She looked up at the tall tree beside them perched at the highest point on the cliff, and then suggested to him, so very quietly, that on its highest branch there a lamp should be hung. Having cast her enigma, she smiled, turned and wandered away…and puzzled, Tao Baros watched her leave. But only a moment later, looking down as if from the sky at those labouring below, there exploded in his mind a dawn of realisation, which set him running… running with all his heart, towards his stable.
It only took moments to reach his horse at Khok Ma Baros, and to recover the large lamp, still unused, that he had purchased the night before. Then he raced back to where he had met the girl on the cliff and hurried to climb the tree and hang it from its upper most branch. He lit it and then descended to watch.
From down below he could hear distant noises and by the light of the moon he could dimly see people pointing. He saw more and more refrain from their work to join the little crowd come to look up from the valley below at his lamp. And on the still night air he could hear people shout, "The morning star! The morning star!"
Tao Baros knew that his advantage was small. True, Phya Kong Pan's temple was messily unfinished and having seen the star, the King's tired and harassed workers would be unlikely to help him now cheat to finish it. But somehow, Tao Baros had to ensure that his own creation, though not graceful, would at least look complete.
The judging councilors, who had spent their night sitting in a clearing at the far end of the cliff, there to best to survey the sky for the arrival of the true morning star, had not seen the lamp in the tree, nor the commotion that it had created. And thus it was that by the time they had espied the real rise of Mercury and came warning the contestants to desist from further labour, Tao Baros and his friends had standing before them a simple but tidy temple.
The course of the second day matched exactly that of the first, and the third, exactly that of the second, and every day that passed Nang Usa's chin sunk deeper and deeper into her hands as the animated old man, like a busy bee, droned on and on. And it was neither that she was afraid, nor that she hated the hermit, but as the days lengthened into weeks, so little by little inside her soul grew a vast aching void, which begged incessantly to be filled.
In order to fulfill the wishes of the King, the Rishi Chantra had arranged her life carefully, so that by day she was never out of his sight, and by night the fear of prowling animals kept her locked in her tower. There was no means of escape, and should there have been so, she had no notion of how to find her way home, nor, once there, how to explain herself to her father, the King.
Not that the King had abandoned her completely, for on festive days he would come up to hills to meet her with his noisy courtiers and piles of food. But never was she afforded a chance to be alone with him, when she could plead with him to return to the palace.
No fortress is impregnable, nor any prison secure, for the mind can pass through any wall, no matter how strong it might be: and a young girl's spirit is alive with desire, and old stone cannot think. Thus it was that Nang Usa would carry home to her cave, treasure concealed under her golden sarong, collected when the hermits eyes were distracted. Her treasure was simple: sticks and stones, leaves and dried grass, and what she would do with them, even she was not sure. But she knew her quest… a key to unlock her prison. All she had were pieces of the forest, and so it was out of them that she must fashion one.
The King was distraught. He had spent the intervening hours pleading with his courtiers, desperately trying to piece together the debris of his design and cursing himself for engaging upon such an ambitious plan. But all was to no avail. Try as he might, his hands were not the hands of artisans, and his arms were not the arms of labourers.
And at last the awful moment arrived when the judging councilors with nervous smiles came to pick their way through what might have been. But, however they tried, there was no way to deny who the winner was, and what the outcome must be.
The King, broken and friendless, was dragged before his new master and, as was now his right, Tao Baros chose from among his group he who would be executioner. And so, amid the wails of women and the beat of a drum, the King was beheaded.
Though Tao Baros' triumph appeared just, he doubted that it was secure for lurking among those he had conquered there were some that might quarrel with the manner of his victory. Therefore, packing swiftly, he hurried to embark on the journey home to his father's palace in Pako Wiang Ngua just a little to the east of the modern town of Nong Khai, there to tell the story of his conquest and to present his beautiful bride.
On his arrival, his father greeted him as a hero, and festivities lasted for many days celebrating both his victory and his marriage.
And what of Nang Usa? Was she not both in shock and mourning for her father and bewildered at her sudden marriage to an alien clan? We cannot know, but we may guess that she suffered it all in graceful equanimity
In the tower she would play with those pieces, twisting together the grass and sticks, attempting to write with the stones on the leaves. While outside her tower, the moonlight shone down bouncing off the stone floor of the clearing and up to the ceiling of her small room. Reflections of reflections; and in her mind's eye, as she sat there, Nang Usa could see her adopted mother, Seng Duan, reflecting on things that might have been, but that had never come to pass.
And by and by she found her key in the form of a little raft, crafted from her contraband, into which she placed a fragrant garland, shaped as a swan, to carry her cry for help to another corner of the world.
As always at the first light of dawn, the hermit roused her, with his croaking call. And as ever, he led her down to the small stream below the tower so that she may bathe. And after he had turned to avert his eyes, she took her little raft from under her sarong and let it free in the water.
It floated away and the hermit never saw. But the journey before the raft and its garland was long and hazardous: it could catch on stones or sink, break apart or become upset and so lose its precious message. At times it moved perilously fast, jumping over rocks and skating around eddies, and at others as if tempering itself against over exuberance, it would sit still for a while, turning slowly, regaining its balance.
Catastrophe almost came within the first few minutes of its journey when it got caught under some trailing grass on the north side of the stream. It was stuck there for nearly half the day, and the old hermit who had come to find worms in the bank that afternoon, was at one moment not even an arms reach away. But it somehow managed to keep itself concealed and a short late afternoon shower dislodged it and sent it on its way.
But after their marriage, as days turned to weeks and weeks into months what was to threaten that peace was another force, which no-one, not even Tao Baros, had foreseen.
For like a snake, beautifully garbed but with deadly bite, the wagging tongues of the noble girls, slithered about the court, probing for chinks in Nang Usa's armour, aiming for ways to do in this imposter who had out done them all.
The tittle tattle grew and grew and its venom brewed more toxic, until one day the most beautiful, cold and hateful of all her rivals came leading an old blind candle seller into the court. 'Here is a woman so good that she would make light for others, though she cannot see herself! And see what is in her hand! A lantern that her daughter found high in a tree which hangs over the cliff at Phu Pra Bat…Please, old woman, tell us the tale of this lantern!'
So the old woman told her story of how, a while back, only a few days after the triumph of Tao Baros, her daughter had been gathering wood at dawn in the valley below the cliff of Phu Pra Bat and had noticed a strange glimmer high in the trees just as night fell.
At first she thought it must be the morning star, but realising that it had been last visible less than a week before, she had concluded that it must be something else. Thus intrigued, she had made her way to the top of the cliff to find this lantern hanging from the highest branch of the tallest tree.
The story of the strange find passed quickly around the court, and none missed the implication that it cast against Tao Baros and Nang Usa. Where had the lantern come from and most importantly whose idea had it been to place it there? Eventually even Tao Baros' father, the King himself, was called to preside, and he in turn called forth the astrologers and soothsayers.
By midnight it had found itself floating on the 'Lam Tan' or wider stream at the foot of the hills which winds its way through copses and paddy fields towards the 'Lam Houi' which marked the end of Phaya Kong Phan's Kingdom. There was a nearly a nasty incident with an ugly boatman, but by day break it had reached the 'Lam Houi' river and was floating merrily along to its mouth where it joined the mighty Maekong.
Tao Baros (pronounced Barot) stood up to his waist in the muddy Maekong waters, holding a net that he hoped would trap fish brought down by the 'Lam Houi'. Fishing was not a normal activity for such a man, for he was the eldest prince of the Kingdom neighboring that of Phaya Kong Phan. But he enjoyed sport, and there had been rumours of sightings of Plaa Buk or giant catfish, sometimes many metres long, in this small tributary of the Maekong river.
Some tell the story that the little raft caught in Tao Baros' net, but this is not true, for he was well known to possess a keen presence of mind and the sharpest of sharp eyes and he would have noticed it well before it reached him. Nor would he have exclaimed upon seeing it, for as a child he had learnt that a thing cried for was frequently lost or stolen. He just waited for it to float towards him with his mind for the most part on the current.
They asked many questions and spoke many words, and concluded that Tao Baros must endure a penance to shake off bad spirits that may be following him. These ghosts, they said, came from the wild and must be returned to the wild and so Tao Baros must wander the forests for a year that they may leave him to follow more suitable souls. Only in this way could he avoid fatal bad luck.
So Tao Baros left for the wilderness, leaving Nang Usa alone to face the vixens in the court. Helpless and friendless she at last could endure no more and so hired a horse to return her to her tower in Phu Pra Bat where at least the Rishi Chantra would speak to her, feed her and care for her. But alone in her shelter she could find no solace, and fell ill from grief for her lost father and lost love. Her sickness became severe and the good Rishi could find no cure, and so, desperate to save her, he called Tao Baros from his forest retreat to come heal her heart.
On hearing of her malaise Tao Baros wasted no time. Abandoning his penance in the wilds, he summoned the fastest of horses to race to those ancient hills and her tower. But he arrived only to share her last moments before she died, and there in the mountains of Phu Pra Bat he buried her.
Just as he touched the raft, the net gave a mighty lurch forward, and Nang Usa's little craft slipped away, but the garland it contained remained clenched in his hand. The net was now tugging with tremendous force and three of Tao Baros' courtiers dived to help him. All of them realised what it must be, for only the Plaa Buk could match the strength of four strong men.
Landing that mighty fish to shore took a battle that lasted many desperate minutes, but presently the four of them sat breathless and elated and lying dead before them was that giant catfish, longer than the tallest of tall men and large enough to provide a banquet for the entire court.
Servants packed the catch away and the nobles mounted their steeds, and it was only then, once aloft and beyond his friends' notice, that Tao Baros reached inside his wet tunic to examine that other bounty that the river had brought that morning. And as he perused, it two things were immediately apparent to him. First that it must come from a woman, and second that it was a token of both her beauty and desire.
To Tao Baros, this garland was more than a fragrance, but a scent that he must follow until he found its source. He muttered a mundane excuse to his friends to avoid returning to court and alone set off upstream from whence the garland had come.
By dusk he reached a village at the foot of the hills of Phu Pra Bat, but in unfamiliar surroundings, and not knowing how to ascend, reason should dictate that he must pass the night there.
And with her gone, he too was consumed both in sorrow for her loss, and fear… for had he not broken his pledge to his father's astrologers? Mortally cursed... he too passed away, and the old Rishi buried him beside her.
As a hand with six fingers is hard to count on… so fate is a fickle mistress. And is she blind or does she have shining eyes? And isn't her great cousin Karma killed if his lantern of truth does not burn longer than even the stars above?
But in this Buddhist land no one ever dies. For their debt to Karma now paid, both were reborn, he as Indra, Lord of Heaven, and she as Indrani, his Queen. And in Heaven all is bliss, and within bliss there is no discontent. And, with no discontent, of this next life there is no story to tell.
Based on the Thai Traditional Tale
Author & Copyright: Julian Wright
Date: February 2003
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Nong Khai 43000