As in neighbouring countries, the earliest literature to emerge in what is now the Lao PDR served to perpetuate the various proverbs, myths, legends and cosmology associated with particular ethnic groups. Today several of Laos’ ethnic minority groups still preserve a rich tradition of epic stories, performed by village elders who are charged with keeping the ancient art alive.
Late in the first millennium BCE, Buddhist monks began to appropriate the ancient storytelling techniques for the purpose of spreading their faith, giving rise to the development of the jataka, tales of the Bodhisattva (previous incarnations of the Buddha) which were later added to the tripitaka canonical texts of Theravada Buddhism.
Compiled at various dates in several countries and totalling 547 stories in the oldest and most complete collection, the jataka were intended to teach the virtues of self-sacrifice, honesty and morality to the common person. The last and longest, known as the Vessantara (in which the future Buddha in the form of Prince Vessantara perfects renunciation), was later to become Phra Vet, the most popular of all the jataka stories in Laos.
From the 8th century onwards, Buddhist practices introduced into the region by early Mon rulers were slowly adopted by the incoming Tai and syncretised with animist practices. By the start of the Lane Xang era (14th century) Buddhist wats had begun to emerge as important centres of learning in which sacred texts in Pali were copied onto palm leaves for study and recitation.
Lao literature during the Lane Xang era
The earliest recorded history of the Lao dates from the period immediately following the establishment of the kingdom of Lane Xang in the late 14th century, but the development of an indigenous Lao literary tradition is usually attributed to the reigns of three illustrious kings of the 16th century – Wisunarath (1500-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571).
The reigns of these kings were marked by a noteworthy flowering of literary scholarship in Lane Xang, including the development of a special script known as tham for the writing of religious texts.
Soon after his accession to the throne, King Wisunarath commissioned the Tamnan Khun Burom (Legend of Khun Burom), a compilation drawn from various existing chronicles designed to legitimise the royal dynasty of Fa Ngum by tracing it back to the eponymous mythical Tai ancestor.
During the reigns of Photisarath and Sai Setthathirat I, close political and cultural ties were forged with Lanna (Chiang Mai), a kingdom with its own thriving literary heritage, and under Lanna’s influence there appeared a Lao version of the panchatantra moral fables and an important collection of 50 jataka tales, 27 of which are unique to Laos.
The Lao version of the Ramayana epic, known as the Pharak Pharam, is also believed to have been created during this period to serve as source material for courtly performance.
Restoring order in the 17th century after a 70-year period of instability, King Suriyavongsa (1638-1690) presided over a second and final golden age of cultural development in Lane Xang, which saw the commissioning of a new court chronicle known as Phongsavadan Lane Xang (Chronicle of Lane Xang, 1656). This period also saw the appearance of the greatest poems of Lao literature, including Champasiton, Kalaket, Nang Taeng On, Nang Phom Hom, Sithone and Manora, Linthong and Sinxay.
At this time too, the epic poem Thao Hung Thao Cheuang – found widely amongst the oral traditions of the Tai and Mon-Khmer speaking peoples – evolved into an important work of Lao literature.
Composed in the style of the jataka tales, these early poetic works are generally afforded a sacred status as they are believed to be translations or adaptations of much older, devotional texts. With the single exception of the scholar called Pangkham, who is believed to have written the 6,000-verse epic Sang Sinxay, the names of their authors remain unknown.
Throughout this period all literature was poetic in form, following a complex series of rules elaborated during the 1940s by eminent scholars Maha Sila Viravongs and Nhouy Abhay. The works themselves were designed to be read out loud on special occasions such as religious festivals, with a view to instilling in the listener the importance of virtues such as honesty and integrity. The reader was usually a monk who began by paying homage to the memory of the writer and the spirit of the manuscript and knew just the right intonation for every passage so as to convey joy or sadness, love or anger, pride or shame. The art of reciting epic poems, jataka tales and other texts from palm leaf manuscripts became known as an nangsu (literally ‘reading a book’), a term which is still used widely today in Laos to describe storytelling of all kinds. An nangsu in turn gave rise to the earliest varieties of the call-and-response folk song genre lam or khap in which the stories would be sung by a moh lam.