Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Recommended Reading: The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga

In 2009, Mekong River Press published The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga by Mayoury and Pheuiphanh Ngaosrivathana. It goes for approximately $25. 

The Ngaosrivathanas make the compelling argument that although the nagas, ngu and ngeuak adorn Buddhist temples throughout Southeast Asia, our collective memories are losing the rich lore attached to these creatures. The Ngaosrivathanas recorded the oral traditions and turned to a 14th century palm-leaf chronicle called the Urangkhathat to preserve and engage our community in greater scholarship on the nagas.

They focus primarily on the naga or nak traditions of Luang Prabang and Vientiane. There is less material covering the naga in southern Laos,because until 1975 the naga were not recorded as having participated in the formation of a muang the way they are for Luang Prabang and Vientiane. This text does not focus on the adjacent territories or Thailand. 

The Ngaosrivathanas take time to highlight the linguistic differences between several key words that are commonly confused, such as luaang, which went through several different meanings over time but now refers to a mythical creature like a crocodile with horns and a beard. The nak, on the other hand, are serpentine creatures with a crest like a duck.There are approximately 1,024 species of nak according to one inventory.

In addition to a great range of photographs and illustrations, The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga also includes maps and highlights 52 sacred locations within the contemporary borders of Laos, with special sections noting the dwelling spaces of the 15 nak of Luang Prabang, and the 9 nak and 6 deities of Vientiane, as well as a number of nak lords.

I should note that it may catch some people by surprise that the majority of photographs do not document the artistic depictions of nak for temple balustrades. Rather, the authors spend more time documenting the stupas connected with nak, various rituals, and imagery people might not immediately connect to these beings. It's an interesting editorial choice.

The Enduring Sacred Landscape of the Naga is refreshingly very well-written with clear organization and citations. It's not for beginning readers, but it is one of the most comprehensive guides to the role of the nak in Laos and their attributed interaction with the Lao throughout history that anyone could ask for. If you're interested in the nak, this is an absolutely essential text.

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