LAO FOLKLORE AND LEGENDS, NAGAS
KNOW MORE ABOUT LAOS: LAO FOLKLORE AND LEGENDS, NAGAS
Vientiane has much to offer its visitors, with a wealth of folklore and legends a part of daily life in this spiritual country. Tales are passed down through the generations as people tell their grandchildren the same stories that they heard from their own grandparents. Most people believe in spirits, in ghosts and in other creatures which look after us at different times in our lives. One of these is said to be a multi-headed, water-loving serpent, which gave birth to the people of Laos. Many believe that these Nagas watch over the Lao people and they are both respected and feared, in equal measure. This is especially true of fishermen and people who embark on any venture near water, who will make offerings to appease these fierce creatures and ensure their protection.
There is one particularly powerful Naga with seven heads that protects Vientiane. It lives under the city and can summon an army of Nagas to fight against invaders. When the invaders attacked the city, they were terrified of this Naga and sent spies ahead to find out more. They reported back that there was a single entrance through which it came and went. If that could be plugged, then the Naga wouldn’t be able to defend the town. So they built a stupa to fill this opening. This stupa called the Black Stupa, or That Dam, still stands in the city centre today.
In the 1820s, the Naga wasn’t strong enough to protect the city and invaders were able to destroy Vientiane and plunder much of its gold. To make sure this will never happen again, it is now believed to have joined forces with other spirits and together they will be strong enough to keep the city safe.
According to legend, the Nagas once stood over the Buddha during a storm, and they yearn to be with him once more. They mostly live in the Mekong and once a year, at the end of Buddhist Lent, they breathe flaming balls of pinkish gas up through the river and into the sky as they call to the Buddha to return to them. These balls form quite an amazing spectacle, rising into the night sky a little outside Vientiane. This occurs around the time of the October full moon.
Nagas are strongly interwoven into the Buddhist culture of Laos. Watch out for them the next time you visit a temple here, maybe coiled around the plinths at the doorway, watching over their people, or standing over the Buddha, protecting him from storms. Or woven into the sinhs, the Lao skirts, that mare part of the national dress of Laos.
There are other powerful spirits here and they too can be on your side or against you. These can be good or bad and much of life is entwined with making offerings to the spirits that dwell both within, us and in the world around us. As you travel around the city, you may notice that spirit houses are common for most homes and the spirits are appeased with daily offerings, to ensure good luck and protection. In the next issue, we’ll discover more.