With less than half a year away from the end of Year of the Snake, Lao community organizers should begin to decide for themselves how they want to celebrate the arrival of Year of the Horse in April.
2014, or 2557 will specifically be the Year of the Wood Horse, and horses aren't the first thing you connect to Laos in most cases, but they do play a part in both the mythic and historic sense of our country. Tragically, our sense of the equestrian has largely slipped away from most Lao in the US almost to the point of abstraction. Most people will tell you they think of Lao riding buffaloes, donkeys and if you're lucky, elephants. Once in a while you find someone post up a video of horse riding in Laos. But not often.
Let's face it, horses in Laos don't capture the imagination the way it did for Genghis Khan and the Mongols. I might suggest we turn our eyes to the legend of the flying steed Manikab for hints of how to do this in style.
Lao myths have a legendary flying horse by the name of Manikab, or Manikap, or ມະນີກາບ, who appears in numerous epics including Phra Lak Phra Lam, and Kalaket, and is certainly available to appear in new tales of the Lao if we so chose.
Within Lao myth, Manikab appears typically as a gift from the god, Phra In, or the Lao parallel to Indra. He is usually referred to with honorifics such as splendid, marvelous, or wondrous. He plays a role in a number of key scenes. It is Manikab Phra Lam rides into the many epic battles against the Nyak and armies of darkness.
The roots of the Manikab do not appear strictly influenced by the Greek myths but more by other Asian myths, particularly Hinduism. The key myth is Uchchaisravas, the seven-headed "horse" who is part of the class of divine mounts, a vahana who primarily serves gods and demi-gods. When the gods of Hindu legend were churning the cosmos into being from the great ocean of 'milk' Uchchaihshravas was one of the treasures who came forth.
Lao legends prefer Manikab to be a flying steed. It may be possible that it was further influenced by the legends of the Qilin or Ki-Rin from Chinese and Japanese mythology. The character of the Qilin might be one many Lao could relate to. It is typically a gentle being whose step doesn't even trample a blade of grass, and it can walk on water without making a ripple. It doesn't eat flesh and never walks or harms any living thing. The Qilin only punishes the wicked and only appears where there is a wise and benevolent leader. The Qilin are thought to be a protective symbol of prosperity and long life, and in the mythology serve as the pets of the gods.The Chinese have a dance in the style of the Qilin characterized by high energy movements, particularly with the head mimicking that of a divine horse.
For the Lao culture, the Fon Manikab might take a similar approach, but hopefully not simply the 'horse dance,' although I'm sure we'll see plenty of that during the New Years around the country.Let's raise our expectations for the new year!