We actually got the idea for the title of this post from an exhibition curated by Patricia Cheesman at the East-West Center Gallery in Honolulu, Hawaii titled Cosmic Creatures: Textiles from Northeast Lao Communities this last summer. We substituted Sam Neua, Sam Tai and Muang Vaen for Northeast Lao Communities, because these are the towns most associated with Northeastern Laos and the towns we are very familiar with and will be visiting on our June 2010 Laos tour.
If you're a regular follower of our blog then you probably are familiar with Patricia because we recently wrote a post recommending two books for our tour participants to read to gain a better understanding of the history, complexity and artistry of Lao textiles and one of them was Patricia Cheesman’s Lao-Tai Textiles: The Textiles of Xam Nuea and Muang Phuan. In the exhibition mentioned above Patricia writes in the handout that, “This exhibition gives us a glimpse into the heavens of the peoples of northeast Laos where serpents are powerful allies and can become human; birds can turn into elephants, serpents or boats, through an art-form created by women.”
We’ve isolated the diamond shape piece above from a tapestry-style textile woven in Sam Neua because we too are fascinated with these magical (cosmic) motifs. But what do they mean? Luckily, we've had the opportunity to guide Elli Findley, a professor at Trinity College through northern Laos the last three years as she has been researching the use of Tai Daeng (Red Tai) textiles in rituals such as weddings and funerals, and we asked her if she would provide insight into the possible meaning of the motifs used in this diamond shape piece.
She wrote us back saying, “This brightly colored diamond shape is called a "lantern" and is often found on such Lao-Tai textiles as shoulder cloths (phaa biang) and door curtains (phaa kang). Here it may come from a funeral panel. The central design is a saang hong (or siho) that represents a mythical being that is half elephant (see the trunk) and half bird (see the legs). In the center, the siho appears in a mirror-reversed design, and again on each side in two smaller versions.
The siho is pregnant with double-headed serpent or ngueak (naga) in its belly, and on its back is a candle house with a figure inside -- representing a boat taking someone to the other world. The figure is either a recently deceased member of the community or the shaman accompanying him as guide into the after life. Notice the five-fingered hands of the figure and the naga heads on either side of him. Rainbow patterns occur in the candles on top of the houseboat, in the “S” designs representing baby nagas, and in the hooks of the sihos’ hair. There is one story that says that such a design can occur on coffin covers of fathers who die before their children are grown and that the double headed naga in the siho’s belly represents the youths who must mature before the mourning process helped by this textile can be completed."
Elli writes that the siho is "pregnant with double-headed serpent or ngueak (naga) in its belly." Patricia Cheesman in the handout mentioned above writes about the naga (nak/ngeuak) that, “The serpent is the oldest symbol known to have been a totem of the ancestors of the Lao-Tai peoples and was shared by the Chinese in the Yangtze River basin over 6000 years ago. Whereas the Chinese told of the male serpent hunder god controlling rain, storm, earthquake, and flood, the Lao talked of their mother ngueak, a serpent goddess that had a human face and could turn into a human at will. She had the same powers over water, a crucial resource for growing rice and the source of life force and well-being of the people. The serpents guarded the treasures of the earth, living in caverns full of gems and crystal water and often ventured into the realm of humans, seducing and procreating with them. They are loved as ancestors of the Lao-Tai peoples in myths and legends. In the textiles these serpents are shown with colorful crests, bodies that curve into ‘w’, ‘v’ or ‘s’ shapes and appear to be spiraling in a criss-cross game or passing from one realm to another in procession. The crested serpent is the active, aroused form of the serpent mother.
In Buddhist iconography, there are serpents called nagas. The most famous naga protected the Buddha from floods at the Enlightenment. The naak, which is the Lao pronunciation of naga, is represented on temple steps and roofs as the link between the realm of the gods and humans, the profound and the mundane. They can also become human, protect and bring rain. The correlations between the Buddhist naak and the shamanic serpent mother ngueak are as entwined as their bodies on the textiles. The cosmic serpent is still the most popular motif on Lao textiles today and represents female energy, the power of nature, and the earth.”
Join us in June to visit Laos, "Land of the Naga!"