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Monday, October 27, 2014

Day Trip to Malacca

We made a day trip to Historic Malacca early in October ('we' meaning Charmaine Augustin, Lee Yulie, Catherine and yours truly). Malacca's fame rest on the fact that it used to be the hub for the spice trade in centuries past. The spice trade was so lucrative and Malacca's position so strategic that the Portuguese, under the helm of Alfonso De Albuquerque, seized control of the port city in 1511. Portuguese conquest brought the Malacca Sultanate to an end. The last Sultan of Malacca, Sultan Mahmud, fled to Johor. He made several attempts to retake Malacca but to no avail.

A tricycle bedecked in pink may be the best way to see the town!
The Portuguese built a near-impregnable fort called A Famosa to protect their conquest. However, the city was taken over by the Dutch a century later and by the British in the next century. By the time the British took control of Malacca, it was no longer a major port city - that role had been taken by Penang and later still, Singapore. Malacca was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, together with Georgetown in Penang, on 7 July 2008 due to it being 'the most complete surviving historic city centered on the Straits of Malacca.'

A Famosa is the most famous remnant of Portuguese rule in Malacca.
(Picture taken from the Internet.)
As for the journey to Malacca - it was a bright and sunny day and everyone was in a cheerful mood, despite losing our way at least three times... Catherine (a retired nurse) kept us entertained with ghost stories from her nursing days. The one which stayed in my mind was that of a woman who was desperate for a child but tragically passed away when she was giving birth... apparently her ghost would appear and ask to hold her child in her arms...

Yulie, Charmaine and Catherine
When we finally reached Malacca, we immediately made a beeline for a restaurant called Nancy's Kitchen. Charmaine had already decided that this was the place that we would have lunch in based on the fact that Denise Keller (a host of MTV Asia) had stated in that famous documentary  entitled Passage to Malaysia that Nancy's Kitchen served the most authentic Nyonya food in Malacca. Nyonya food is a fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine; developed in Malacca as the city had a Chinese community dating back all the way to the 15th Century.

Bukit Cina (Chinese Hill), an ancient graveyard in Malacca
bears testimony to the fact that the Baba- Nyonya community
has been living here for many centuries.
Image taken from the Internet

Admiral Zeng He (Admiral Cheng Ho in these parts), the famous emissary of  Emperor Yong Le of the Ming Dynasty brought a boatload of people on his Treasure Ships from China to Malacca on his many voyages... Legend has it that the intrepid Admiral also brought a Chinese princess called Hang Li Po to be the wife of Sultan Mansor Shah of Malacca. Legend has it, Princess Hang Li Po was accompanied by a retinue of 500 ladies-in-waiting, maids and attendants.

Yulie's friends joined us for lunch...

Oh back to the food - Charmaine ordered soup, Nyonya Chicken Curry, Egg Foo Yong, Otak-Otak, kang kong belacan and lobak - a kind of sausage made from minced chicken/pork and vegetables such as carrot and radish. Was it everything we were hoping for? Honestly, I was underwhelmed... it was delicious enough, especially the chicken curry and the lobak, but hardly worthy of the title of 'most authentic Nyonya cuisine' as claimed by Keller. Charmaine decided that was the last time we were going to listen to MTV hosts for food and restaurant advice... even if their mother was a native of Malacca.

The Geographer Cafe is a popular spot for tourists.
It is better known for drinks rather than food.

For dessert, we adjourned to another restaurant called Jonker 88 - based on the advice of a blogger. Jonker Street is the most famous street in Malacca, where all the historic shophouses are located. We all had cendol - a classic Malaysian dessert made of finely shaved ice, coconut milk, Gula Malacca (brown palm sugar) and cendol - green noodles flavoured with pandan leaves. The ones served here also had red beans added and you could also get a topping of durian ice cream...

Bowls of cendol from 88 Jonker Street
Disappointed again mainly due to the fact that the cendol was frozen solid. Cendol is supposed to be soft, with the consistency of pasta or mochi... Charmaine decided that we should always follow our own instincts and not rely on the recommendations of a blogger. Charmaine and Yulie are fastidious foodies and they own a company called Passion Doux (Sweet Passion) which specialises in high end gourmet food. One of the reasons for visiting Malacca was to source for gourmet quality local food.

This young woman made better cendol than 88 Jonker!
I was quite taken by the sights and sounds of the city, inspite of the fact that many of the shops, including the Baba-Nyonya Heritage House - was closed.

Street musician playing a traditional lute

Entrance to the Hokkien Clan House?

Detail of  a mother tiger and  her cub on a plaster cast on the side wall.
The opposite wall had a dragon which had been defaced.

One of the most impressive shops we visited was Jonker Gallery, the interior was extraordinary with carved and gilded wood decorations everywhere. Unfortunately they did not allow photography inside. I managed to snap one anyway...

Impressive interior of Jonker Gallery, which sold mainly T-shirts...

Our last stop was at Puri Padi, one of Yulie's favourite shop in Malacca. The entrance was enchanting - very Balinese in style with decorative stone gateway and water feature wall with goldfish swimming in a crystal clear pool beneath...
Yulie's favourite shop is Balinese style Puri Padi.

Beautiful water feature adds to the allure of  Puri Padi.
We left Malacca before sunset, perhaps with mixed feelings. The fact that many of the shops and even the Baba-Nyonya heritage museum was closed on a Thursday was disappointing. The other drawback were the dearth of local handicrafts in the shops. The realisation dawned that perhaps tourist destinations from Malacca to Miami were probably full of Made-in-China trinkets. This was a sobering thought. Still there is plenty in Malacca to keep you occupied - just make sure you visit during the weekends when the town actually comes to life!

Catherine and Charmaine take a brief respite from the heat...

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The greatest love songs ever...

I pay homage to the greatest love songs ever (pardon me if you disagree): quirky, romantic, joyful, moving and even heart rending... Of course, this gives me the chance to create my own playlist and hopefully music companies won't pull the plug on me... (no copyright infringement intended as this is a strictly non- profit making blog and I'm sixpence none the richer...)

Starting with:
The newbies (after 1990)

No 11: If I lose myself by One Republic

After Queen, I didn't have a favourite rock band, until I discovered One Republic...

                                               No 10: Dreams by The Cranberries

Starting the countdown with The Cranberries, an Irish rock band, formed in Limerick, in 1990. Their lead singer, Dolores O' Riordan, has one of the most extraordinary voices. Dreams was released in 1992. Unfortunately, their music videos tend to be somewhat strange (sometimes bordering on bizarre ) and do little justice to their songs. This particular video is quite appealing apart from the band members falling in space...

                                                       No 9: Take On Me by a-ha

 Norwegian group, a-ha came up with this stunning video as a showcase for their even more stunning song. Take On Me was released in 1999 and became a worldwide hit for the group. It is also one of the most popular videos on Youtube, scoring a staggering 93 million hits (and counting)...

                                             No 8: Kiss Me by Sixpence None the Richer

Sixpence is an American Pop/Rock band which first formed in New Braunsfel, Texas. Kiss Me was released in 1997 and propelled the band to stardom. The lead vocalist is Leigh Nash.

                                                  No 7: Kiss from a Rose by Seal

Kiss From A Rose was first released in 1994, as a track on Seal's second album, Seal II. It was re-released in 1995 and incorporated into the soundtrack of the Batman Forever movie. The movie exposure propelled the song (and Seal) into international stardom. The song won the Song of the Year award at the Grammy's in 1996. Seal is originally from Nigeria.

I love the Old English feel of the music and the reference to fairy tales in the lyrics.

                                                      No 6: What Is Love by EXO


Can't ignore the huge inroads made by K-Pop in the last decade. What Is Love by EXO is next. Released in 2012, it showcases EXO's lead vocalists. The twelve-member group (yes twelve) comprises of  two groups - EXO-K sings in Korean while EXO-M sings in Mandarin. This video demonstrates the vocal pyrotechnics of D.O. and Baekhyun, lead vocalists of EXO-K. The traditional sound of the music, combined with the bluesy singing makes this a stunning debut song for EXO.


Unlike groups like The Cranberries and Sixpence, EXO did not form spontaneously out of a mutual love for music - members were selected through a massive talent hunt and careful screening process by Korea's music giant, S.M. Entertainment (S.M. stands for Star Museum). S.M.'s stable includes the super groups, Super Junior (gained international fame after releasing Sorry, Sorry) and Girls Generation. The young men (and women) who were lucky enough to be selected will undergo months of rigorous training until they are ready to debut as a group. Success, fame and fortune is almost guaranteed as companies such as S.M. Entertainment leave nothing to chance.

K-Pop fans tend to be extremely possessive of their idols; when news broke out that Baekhyun of EXO was dating Taeyeon, lead singer of Girls Generation, it caused an uproar. Female fans were outraged by Taeyeon's boldness and for a while she was almost an outcast.

More recently, Jessica, one of the most popular members of Girls Generation, has been dropped from the group. It was alleged that  she placed her personal interest ahead that of the group and tried to use the group's popularity as a platform to launch her fashion career. She has her own fashion line, called Blanc.

EXO itself is down to eleven members as one of its members, Kris of EXO-M, has filed a lawsuit against S.M. Entertainment to nullify his contract. Life as a K-Pop star can be harsh.

                                                       No 5: Starlight by Muse

                                            No 4: The Reason by Hoobastank

I love this song, but the video is ridiculous!

                                                  No 3: Linger by The Cranberries

Another song by The Cranberries - released after Dreams. Apparently, this was the one of the first songs written by Dolores O' Riordan when she auditioned for the band in 1990.

                                                    No 2: My Immortal by Evanescence

No 1: Foolish Games by Jewel

This sensitive, beautiful and heart wrenching song by Jewel could be the ultimate love song for this age...

The Oldies (before 1990)

                                         No 8: Early One Morning by Nana Mouskouri

                          No 5: Aku Sudah Jatuh Cinta (I have fallen in love) by Norshila Amin

The joy of falling in love is reflected in this wonderful song. The youthful and exuberant mood is beautifully captured by Norshila Amin. The tall and willowy singer reached her heyday in the late 80s and early 90s but disappeared from the public eye soon after.There may be better known Malaysian singers and more popular songs, but for me, this song is like a splash of cool water on a hot sweltering day. The upbeat but traditional sounding music is composed by A Ali and the lyrics are by Juwie.

                                      No 4: Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers

When you think of a love song without doubt, Unchained Melody, will come to mind. Not surprising really, as this great song by the Righteous Brothers, must be the quintessential love song. Released in 1965, the song enjoyed a revival when it was used in the soundtrack of the movie, Ghost, in 1990. Who can forget the love scene between Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore?

                                     No 3: Tsugaru Kaiko Fuyugeshiki by Sayuri Ishikawa

I've just discovered the diva of Japanese folksongs or enka, Sayuri Ishikawa, who originates from Kumamoto, Japan. The title of this moving song means, Tsugaru covered in snow/Snow falling over Tsugaru. It was released in 1977 and is Sayuri Ishikawa's signature song. The lyrics were written by Yu Aku while the music was composed by Takashi Miki. This video has French sub-titles...

                                                      Amagi Goe (the path over Amagi)

Sayuri Ishikawa shows her remarkable vocal prowess in the song, Amagi Goe. Written by Osamu Yoshioka and composed by Gen Tetsuya, the song is about forbidden love and secret trysts on Amagi.

                                       No 2: Both Sides Now by Judy Collins

                                                     Both Sides Now by Joni Mitchell

All great love songs are poetry and so is this great song by folk singer, Joni Mitchell. The song was written by Mitchell in 1967, but the first recording of the song was by Judy Collins in the same year. It became an international hit and I remember listening to the Judy Collins version of the song as a young teenager in the 70s.. Both Sides Now won the Grammy Award in 1969 for Best Traditional Folk recording. Joni Mitchell released her own version of the song in 1969.

According to fan comments on Youtube, the Judy Collins version best exemplifies the spirit of the 60s - a time of radical change but also of idealism and free expression. The Joni Mitchell version is slower in tempo and less free spirited but perhaps more heartfelt.

                       No 1: The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack

A 1957 song written by Ewan MacColl, a British folk singer, for Peggy Seeger, who later became his wife. Roberta Flack recorded it in 1972 and it became a worldwide hit for her. The song is most closely associated with her although almost every singer of note has covered it. The greatest love song ever written, surely...

I also love the version by Daniel Schuhmacher:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Horcruxes in Fairy Tales

JK Rowlings invented the word (horcrux first made an appearance in the 5th book - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) but the concept is ancient; hiding in plain sight in folklore and fairy tales. In fact, there is a horcrux in Swan Lake...

A screen grab from The Swan Princess, which is based on Swan Lake

After The Black Swan, it seems natural to take a closer look at Swan Lake. The ballet by Tchaikovsky, is said to be based on Russian folktales, although the names of the major characters are German or French. The story begins with Prince Siegfried celebrating his coming of age by going on a hunt with his companions. He came across an enchantingly beautiful lake where swans are a swimming...

The prince asks his companions to leave him alone and as night falls he witnesses the swans transform into young maidens. The prince falls in love with the most beautiful of them all, Odette, the Swan Queen. Odette tells him, her story: she and all the other maidens are under the thrall of a sorcerer named Von Rothbart. They are cursed to spend the day in the form of swans, only changing into maidens after nightfall. Siegfried and Odette dance the night away until sunrise... The sorcerer appears on the scene and summons Odette to him. Odette is compelled to obey and changes into a swan as do all the other maidens... Odette manages to tell Siegfried that the only way to break the spell is to declare his love for her...

Odette and Prince Derek are reunited.
The Swan Princess has a happy ending, unlike Swan Lake

At his coming-of-age ball, Siegfried sees Von Rothbart with someone who is the spitting image of Odette - she is of course the Black Swan, Odile. They dance and Siegfried declares his love for her. But he sees the real Odette running away, realises that he made a terrible mistake and pursues her. But it is too late for him to break the curse. Odette forgives him but she can no longer live as a slave of Von Rothbart and decides to take her own life. In some versions of the story, she is killed accidentally. Her death not only frees her from the spell but destroys Von Rothbart. His death in turn breaks the spell on all the other maidens.

Why does Odette's death kill Von Rothbart? If you've read the Harry Potter books you will probably realise that Odette must be a horcrux for Von Rothbart, just as Harry Potter was for Lord Voldemort. Is Voldemort based on Von Rothbart? Hmm... never mind. Why would Von Rothbart chose a fragile vessel such as Odette as a horcrux? It must have been accidental but he knew that she carried his soul, otherwise he would not have been so maniacally possessive of the poor girl.

The seven horcruxes of Lord Voldemort: Tom Riddle's diary, Marvolo Gaunt's ring,
Salazar Sytherin's locket, Helga Hufflepuff's Cup, Rowena Ravenclaw's diadem,
Harry Potter and Nagini. 
In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort created six horcruxes intentionally and one unintentionally i.e. Harry Potter. It's possible that he did not know that Harry Potter carried a fragment of his soul. The transfer happened when Voldemort attacked baby Harry Potter with the Avada Kedavre curse. According to author JK Rowlings, this is an ancient spell in Aramaic meaning 'let the thing be destroyed.' But the curse was deflected and struck Voldemort himself. Perhaps his splintered soul decided to take refuge in the nearest living person i.e. Harry Potter in order to survive...

The Avada Kedavre curse can be used to create and also destroy a horcrux. The most important horcrux was of course Nagini, who incidentally was a shape-shifting naga, not just a serpent.

Moving on to Swan Lake again.

So which Russian folktale is Swan Lake based on? The experts may not agree but I think its the Frog Princess. Not the Disney version but the original Russian folktale, Tsarevna Lyagushka.

In this story, Princess Vassilisa enjoys a perfectly beautiful Spring day but she makes a comment which tempts fate. A powerful wind appears out of nowhere and she is swept away into a strange garden where she is confronted by a sorcerer called Kaschey the Deathless. Kaschey offers her all the wealth in the world and asks for her hand in marriage but Vassilisa laughs at him and calls him old and ugly. Kaschey summons his enchanted mirror and forces Vassilisa to look into it and she turns into an ugly frog. The only way to break the spell is for a someone to fall in love with her. Vassilisa is condemned to live in the swamp...

Prince Ivan's arrow lands in the swamp and the frog princess finds it. To keep his promise to his father, Prince Ivan must marry the frog. Even after the marriage, he never sees Vassilisa in human form. This could be a residual effect of the spell cast by Kaschey, because he falls asleep the moment Vassilisa transforms into a woman at nightfall.

Vassilisa is captured by Kaschey, but the fearless princess is not impressed
either by him or his garden, where everything is made of gold.
Image is from an old  and very fabulous Russian animated TV series.
But the interesting part is that Kaschey, like Von Rothbart and Voldemort, is deathless. Fortunately for the prince, Vassilisa is not a horcrux, which is probably why she was allowed to live alone in a swamp in the first place. When he finally sees Vassilisa as a woman at a ball, he falls in love with her but makes the mistake of burning her frog skin... Vassilisa is swept away by Kaschey again.

Vassilisa has magic of her own - she is collecting fireflies
to weave a carpet made from a moon beam. Moving image from giphy.gif 
Unlike Von Rothbart, Kaschey is diabolically clever. In the story, Ivan is told that Kaschey's life is 'at the point of a needle which is inside an egg, which is inside a duck, which is inside a hare which is inside a stone box located on top of an ancient oak tree." The only way to kill Kaschey is to break the tip of this needle... Fascinating!

Are there more fairy tales with horcruxes?  The most obvious one is Snow White. Is it the poisoned apple or the raven or perhaps even Snow White herself ? No, it's the magic mirror of course. But whose horcrux? Why the Evil Queen's of course.

Copyright belongs to Disney.
Did the queen know that the mirror contained a fragment of her soul? Most probably not, otherwise she would never have destroyed it and herself in the process. It was created unintentionally, probably when she spent so much time looking into, and talking to the mirror. The demon in the mirror may have stolen part of her soul. Such a potent magical artefact should not be trifled with and the queen may have fallen under its spell without realising it.

The fearsome all-knowing mirror which is always compelled to tell the truth.

Reverting again to Harry Potter, the Mirror of  Erised was supposed to have the ability to cast a spell on unsuspecting people who gazed too long into it... After all, there is an ancient superstition that looking too long into a mirror will result in your soul being trapped in the mirror... as in the case of the urban legend of Bloody Mary in the United States.

The concept of a horcrux definitely originated from the East. In fact, almost all the 'deathless' villains have horcruxes - the secret of their invincibility. There are a few references in the 1001 Nights/Arabian Nights. In Folktales from India, by  AK Ramanujan, there is a story from Kashmir called The Ogress Queen. A shapeshifting rakshashi took the form of a beautiful woman and married a king. The rakshashi successfully managed to get rid of the king's seven other wives by framing them as blood thirsty rakshashis (the king must not have been very bright as he was married to his seven wives far longer than he was to the real rakshashi...) Their fate was grim - they were cast into a salt mine. Anyway, the son of the youngest wife survived and tried to kill the rakshashi but to no avail. Finally he found out that her soul was hidden in a bird (a starling) which is kept in a cage hidden deep in the forest...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Khatak: The Black Swan

The fourth dance to be featured in the series is Khatak from India (the first dance to be featured was Ulek Mayang from Malaysia on 8/16/13). Khatak is one of the eight dance forms, acknowledged as Indian Classical Dance. It is supposed to originate from the nomadic bards of ancient Northern India. According to an article in Wikipedia the word Khatak is derived from the Sanskrit word 'khata,' which means 'story'. Classical Indian Khatak is normally performed by women.

Kathak exponent Manisha Gulyani. Pix taken from Wikipedia
But there is another form of dance also known as Katthak, which is a martial arts dance usually performed by men while carrying a shining sword and a red handkerchief... This dance is said to originate from the Khattak tribe among the Pashtuns; found in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In fact, according to an article in Wikipedia, the dance may have been brought to these countries by the army of Alexander the Great, from Bactria, Greece. While the dance may have died out in Greece, it has evolved and survived among the Pashtuns and other tribes. Looking at the picture below, even the costumes show some Greek influence.

Photo by Mazhar Faiz, taken during the Sarhad Cultural Festival in Haripur

I don't know if Khatak is derived from Khattak or if there are any connections between the two dance forms... In any case, the two dance forms were popular during the time of the Moghuls.

I was lucky to attend a performance of Khatak in Zagreb, by a group from India. The invitation came from the Embassy of India to Zagreb. It was however a modernised version of the dance, based on the Hollywood movie, The Black Swan, which starred Natalie Portman.

The dancer playing the White Swan slowly comes under the spell of the Black Swan

The dancer goes into a trance...

The White Swan is now the Black Swan

The movie is set in the high-strung world of the New York City Ballet. A beautiful and talented young dancer lands the role of Princess Odette, the White Swan, in the dance drama, Swan Lake. However, she becomes possessed by the Black Swan, Odile, and undergoes a strange transformation...

Are there similarities with Manohra? Perhaps. But Odette is under a curse while Manohra belongs to the race of Kinnara.

Strange predatory birds also come into the picture

All the dancers are now black swans...

The Khatak performance I witnessed involved quick, rhythmic footwork, dramatic poses and rapid spins. In some ways it reminded me of Spanish Flamenco and Irish line dance... The performance was lively and energetic but I felt the costumes could have done with some embellishment. After all, this is an Indian dance, where one expects nothing short of opulence...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Manohra: The Tale of the Kinnari

The marvelous Bunditpatanasilpa Institute's Dance Troupe from the Ministry of Culture of Thailand also put up a performance of Manohra on that night; only a vignette however as the full dance drama would take hours.

Manohra is a traditional dance drama popular in southern Thailand and northern Malaysia, but the folktale is also known in Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar (Burma). In Malaysia, the dance is performed only in the east coast states of Kelantan and Terengganu but is gradually fading away, unfortunately. The title, Manohra, refers to the name of the main character, the youngest of seven Kinnari princesses.

Manohra, like all her sisters, is a chimera - a bird-human hybrid. A male of the race is known as a Kinnara or Kinnon in Thailand. The Kinnara is the archetypical lover, a celestial musician and dancer. The character of the Kinnara is illuminated in this passage from the Mahabharata (taken from Wikipedia):

       We are everlasting lover and beloved. We never separate.We are eternally husband and wife, never do
       we become mother and father. No offspring is seen in our lap. We are lover and beloved, ever
       embracing. In between us we do not permit any third creature demanding affection. Our life is a life of
       perpetual pleasure...        

Not surprisingly, the Kinnara is a symbol of enduring romantic love in Burmese culture. Although these lines are from the Mahabharata, the story of Manohra is not found there.

The Kinnari is depicted as having the torso of a woman and the lower half of a swan or a long-legged secretarybird in traditional Thai art and sculpture. In Burma, both Kinnara and Kinnari are depicted as humans with wings and fabulous tail feathers. There is no iconography of her in Malaysia, as far as I know. However, in my retelling of the story of Manohra in Eight Jewels of the Phoenix, she is basically a woman until she puts on her magical 'forest clothes' and is able to fly. This depiction of her is consistent with folklore as well as the dance. A Kinnari is not only able to fly, she can cross the boundary from this world to another mythical world called the Himaphan forest; the home of all the Kinnaris and Kinnaras.

In Thai culture, a Kinnari represents feminine beauty, grace and accomplishments, especially in dance, song and poetry.

A brief summary of the story: Every night of the full moon, Manohra and her sisters make it a ritual of visiting a beautiful pool in a secluded forest. One night, a hunter called Buntarik spots the seven Kinari sisters taking a bath and captures one of them. Manohra is taken to the Royal Court and offered as a gift to the crown prince, Phra Suthon. The hunter is of course well rewarded by the prince for such a fabulous gift. While she is in captivity, the palace handmaidens hide her magical forest clothes to prevent her from escaping.

Manohra's beauty and her grace as a dancer wins the love of the prince and he announces that he intends to marry her. This incurs the wrath of the royal priest and minister to the king, Brahmin Purohit. But the minister has to bide his time until a neighbouring kingdom (probably the Khmer Empire) declares war and Phra Suthon has to go to battle.When he is away, the king has a prophetic dream. Brahmin Purohit, the minister, warns him that the dream is a portend of great misfortune and the only way to avert it is to sacrifice Manohra by fire... In order to save Manohra, the handmaidens return to her her forest clothes and the Kinnari flies away to safety.  When Phra Suthon returns from war and finds Manohra gone, he is distraught and sets out to find her...

The story of Manohra is thought to be based on Indian folklore and the Jataka Tales, with plot twists added by ancient Thai-Malay culture. It could be the origin of stories such as Swan Lake. In India, Manohra is Manohara, Phra Suthon is Prince Sudhana and the Himaphan Forest is the Himavanta Forest. But the folklore and dance of Manohra achieved it's fullest expression in Southeast Asia and is relatively unknown in India.

 Different variations of this story of seven bird maidens (usually cranes in Japan, Korea and China) or sometimes seven fairies, taking a bath in a forest pool and the youngest one being captured by a hunter or a fisherman occur in folktales from Japan and Korea all the way to the Philippines and Borneo. However, the version of the story in these countries are simple folktales - the man steals the crane maiden's magical cloak and keeps her captive on Earth.

Kinnari and Kinnara in flight. The depiction, according to
Burmese tradition, is by Aung Min Min

The story of Manohra on the other hand is high drama - it has a captive princess who can fly, a valiant prince, a war, a scheming priest and court intrigues, a perilous quest and an enchanted forest... For more information, refer to my previous post Adapting Asian Folktales for Children's and YA Literature 5/31/13 .

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Khon: Hanuman in Pursuit of Supanna Matcha

I had the privilege of attending a Thai Cultural Performance, by the Bunditpatanasilpa Institute's Dance Troupe from Thailand. Invitations came from the Thai Embassy in Budapest. There were several dances, but I was most impressed by the Khon performance. Khon is a form of Classical Thai dance drama, originating from the Ayutthaya period of Thai history, dating from the 14th to 18th Century.  The dance drama is based exclusively on the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Traditionally all the roles were played by men wearing masks to the accompaniment of a piphat ensemble, and Ramakien could only be staged for the Royal Court. But today, female dancers perform the roles of female characters and basically anyone with an interest can attend a Khon performance.

Supanna Matcha peers anxiously to make sure she is not being followed by Hanuman
The episode of Khon staged that night was The Pursuit of Supanna Matcha.

Hanuman is comical
I'm assuming that you are more or less familiar with the Ramayana/Ramakien. The summary: Rama, Prince of Ayodhya, has been exiled for 14 years in the forest, at the instigation of his step-mother who wanted her own sons to inherit the throne of Ayodhya.(N.B. Ayodhya was in India, whereas the Ayutthaya Kingdom was based in Thailand).  Rama was accompanied by his wife, Sita, and his brother Lakshman in exile. While Rama and Lakshman were out hunting, Sita was abducted by the demon king, Tosakanth (Ravana) who carried her all the way to his island kingdom of Lanka. Hanuman, the monkey king, offered to help Rama rescue Sita from Tosakanth. It should be noted that Hanuman is not really a monkey but a vanara, a race of humanoid forest dwellers who could shape shift.

When they come across the sea which separated them from Lanka, Rama ordered the monkey/vanara army to build a bridge all the way to Lanka. A clever vanara called Nala came up with a design for the bridge. The bridge was well underway, when Rama encountered an unexpected adversary - the golden mermaid.

Supanna Matcha, the mermaid offspring of Tosakanth, who was also the Queen of all the Fishes, ordered her subjects to dismantle the land bridge built by Hanuman and his army. When Rama learnt of this, he sent Hanuman into the depths of the ocean in pursuit of Supanna Matcha, in an attempt to subdue her. Eventually, the bridge was completed and Rama named it Nala Setu or Nala's Bridge.

The performance was both engrossing as well as amusing. However, although she is supposed to be an antagonist, I can't help feeling sorry for the elegant and graceful mermaid, being pursued by the boisterous and clownish Hanuman.

The movements were energetic and mesmerising and the costumes drop-dead gorgeous and authentic to the last ring, anklets and bracelets worn by the dancers.

The sneaky Hanuman sneaks up on Supanna Matcha
Supanna Matcha pushes away Hanuman
An epic struggle ensues between Hanuman and Supanna Matcha

All's well that ends well? Notice the details of their fabulous costumes

This episode of the Ramakien is especially interesting because it refers to a real phenomenon, the Nala Setu; now more commonly known as the Rama Setu, a chain of coral reefs and limestone shoals which connects the Indian subcontinent to the island of Sri Lanka. Apparently, until 1480, one can actually walk across the Palk Strait from India to Sri Lanka - a distance of about 40 km! However, a cyclone in that year destroyed some of the shoals and shifted the sand...

The Setu Ram connects India to Sri Lanka

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The True Originals

The Originals I'm referring to is a spinoff from the TV series, The Vampire Diaries. It's about three siblings - Elijah, Niklaus and Rebekah Mikaelson - who are supposed to be the original vampires i.e. the first vampires in existance. Although the series is interesting enough, their origin story is ridiculous (i.e. it sucks). They were the children of a wealthy landowner called Mikael, in an Eastern European village which had been devastated by the plague. The TV scene of that episode showed what looked like an Iron Age settlement caught in the grips of an ice age. When his first born child died, Mikael moved to the New World with his family and they settled next to a village of werewolves...Anyway, once his children reached adulthood; Mikael decided to make sure that his children never die. So he asked his wife, Esther, who was a witch, to cast a spell to turn them into immortals... using the essence of the white oak tree and energy from the sun... but the spell had its dark side so they turned into vampires instead... and the sun and the white oak became their nemesis... ahem well never mind.

The Originals official poster...

What I really don't like are their names... Elijah, Rebekah, Niklaus Mikaelson are not names one would expect from Iron Age Eastern Europeans for one thing... Still the series plot lines, set in New Orleans, are interesting enough. However, Niklaus' (Joseph Morgan) spoilt brat character and his tendency to dagger his siblings is infuriating; even more irritating is his constant tirade about being abandoned and betrayed... what can you expect when you're a paranoid serial killer? Rebekah's (Claire Holt) tendency to give in to her former boyfriend Marcel (Charles Michael Davis) is also annoying; she is after all an Original and should be able to stand up to him. If it wasn't for the cool and unruffled Elijah (Daniel Gillies), I don't think I would watch this series. Sophie Deveraux (Daniella Pineda) the witch is quite likeable although the producers seem to prefer Davina (Danielle Campbell). Davina is a bit of a brat too but not quite on the scale of Niklaus...

In this series, the witches and the werewolves are at the mercy of the vampires, particularly Niklaus, who is half werewolf himself. Apparently, Mikael was not his real father (Klaus was fathered by a werewolf) and he was tortured by Mikael. This may have made him slightly unhinged and created a deep resentment against his other siblings, who failed to protect him. His mother, Esther the witch, placed the Hybrid Curse on Niklaus to prevent him from actually turning into a werewolf... although I wouldn't call it a curse, more of a binding spell. This is a good thing, because vampire-werewolf Niklaus could annihilate all the vampires plus werewolves, not to mention humans, in New Orleans.

However, if one considers the fact that a spell by a witch created the Originals, shouldn't the witches be able to control them and even unmake the spell? Why are the witches (with the exception of Davina) so weak and unable to stand up to the vampires? OK so there was a totally whacky plot line where 12 young witches had to be sacrificed and then brought back to life to restore balance but Davina panicked, escaped and went into hiding so the other witches could not be brought back to life and restore order... in fact Davina took all their power. The idea is of course nonsense and it seems the writers conveniently overlooked 11 young women who are in limbo...

When it comes to character names, True Blood does a much better job. Sookie Stackhouse is annoyingly quirky but at least, Eric Northman had a plausible Viking name and his maker, Godric, had an ancient Anglo-Saxon name...

What does Mythology say about the origin of the vampire?

I believe that the origin of the vampire can be traced to the story of Raktabija (Rakta = blood, bija = seed). According to Hindu myths, in the beginning of the world, there was a great battle between the Devas and the Asuras for supremacy. One particular Asura called Raktabija was impossible to destroy because he could regenerate himself (in modern terms, clone himself), whenever his blood spilled on the earth - a single drop of  his blood coming in touch with the ground was enough to regenerate Raktabija. In fury, Durga (one of the Devas) created Kali or Chamunda (the Black One) to help her destroy Raktabija. Kali was born as a skeletal being, probably a child of literally skin and bones. Whenever Durga struck Raktabija, Kali would lick all the spilled blood to prevent them from coming into contact with the earth.  Raktabija was finally vanquished by Durga and Kali,  one supposes when he was drained of every drop of blood. After this battle, Kali emerged as a full-grown woman, an unstoppable and bloodthirsty goddess in her own right. Did Raktabija's blood create a Vampire Queen in the form of Kali?

Who were the first vampires in recorded history?

Raja Bersiong/The Fanged King

One of the ancient chandis unearthed in the Bujang Valley

As far as I know, the oldest story of a vampire ever recorded is from Malaysia. More precisely, the story originates from the state of Kedah. The Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (Chronicles of Merong Mahawangsa) records the story of a king called Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria, known in Malay folklore as Raja Bersiong or the Fanged King. He is supposed to be the fifth or seventh king in the Kedah Dynasty (which is said to be founded in the 5th Century AD). Raja Perita Deria would have lived between somewhere between 700-900 AD. He is also mentioned in Thai/Siam records as Phra Ong Maha Yatidahara and is/was undoubtedly a real person. He probably lived in the Bujang Valley, now a sprawling historical complex covering 224 sq km near the town of Merbok, Kedah. About 50 ancient temples or candi/chandi , showing Hindu/Buddhists influence have been unearthed at the site dating back to the 5th - 13th Century AD. This timeline coincides with that of Langkasuka, one of the earliest Malay kingdoms to evolve in the region. The timeline also overlaps with Sri Vijaya Empire, a thallosocracy which ruled over the entire Southest Asian archipelago from the 8th Century to the 13th Century AD.

Steps leading up a chandi in the Bujang Valley
What legend says about Raja Ong Maha Perita Deria is as follows: One day Raja Perita Deria returned to his palace from an exhausting hunt and demanded that his cook prepare his favourite dish immediately: gulai bayam (bayam is a vegetable related to spinach and often made into a gulai - spicy broth with coconut milk). Apparently, the cook accidently cut his/her hand in the kitchen and spilled his/her own blood into the gulai bayam. As there was no time to prepare another dish, he/she was forced to serve the tainted dish to the king. However, the king loved the gulai bayam and realised that it was different from the dishes he had been served before. On pain of death, he forced the cook to tell him what was the additional ingredient in the gulai bayam. The cook confessed that he had tainted the food with his own blood. Instead of being outraged, Raja Perita Deria instructed him to add human blood to his food everyday! From then onwards, helpless prisoners were bled so that the king could enjoy his gulai bayam. Eventually, Raja Perita Deria even grew a pair of fangs and came to be known among his people as Raja Bersiong (Raja - king/prince, siong - fang).

Raja Bersiong - a play staged by the Petronas Philharmonic Theatre
The story of Raja Bersiong leads me to speculate that the Fanged King was perhaps suffering from porphyria? Porphyria is a rare genetic disorder of the blood where heme, an important component of hemoglobin is not synthesized properly. Porphyria can take various forms, and produce different symptoms, the most common being extreme light sensitivity - people with porphyria try to avoid sunlight. They also experience severe pain, muscle cramps, seizures, mental disturbances (psychosis) and personality changes. In some cases, porphyrine is deposited in the teeth, which stains the teeth of sufferers red-brown and even makes it glow!

Is it possible that in the case of Raja Bersiong, the blood contaminated food served to him on that fateful day averted an acute attack brought about by the long exposure to sunlight during the hunt?

From the point of view of folklore, the story of Raja Bersiong is surprising mainly because of the fact that he is a man. In Malay folklore, the different forms of vampires such as the pontianak or the langsuir are almost invariably female. Clearly, Raja Bersiong is neither pontianak nor langsuir; in fact he fits the Western profile of the vampire perfectly and yet his story is written in an ancient text before any form of Western influence reached the archipelago. As the Bujang Valley had strong Hindu influence, perhaps he was a vetala - a vampire from Hindu folklore.

But who or what are the vetala/vetal/betal? According to Hindu folklore, a person who dies and is not cremated/buried with the necessary rites will turn into a vetal. A demon/spirit will take possession of the body and re-animate or ressurect it. The vetala however are not mindless zombies; they posses wit, intelligence and acute insight into human nature. Vetalas are also not bound by the laws of nature, which makes them very powerful. In Hindu folklore, the vetala are the rulers of the demon world i.e. all other demons, including the pisacha are subservient to them. In Joss Whedon's TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a somewhat similar explanation was given for vampires - a body taken possesion by a demon; except that it also required blood from another vampire to turn a dying person into a vampire.

 The Vampire of Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle is featured in the Harry Potter films as the Hogwarts School of Magic. 
The foreboding Alnwick Castle is supposed to be haunted by a vampire. The earliest parts of the castle were built by Yves de Vescy, when he became Baron of Alnwick in 1096. During this time, there were tales of a former lord of the estate, who is said to live in the passages underneath the castle and who preyed on people at night.

A vampire resurfaces in Alnwick a hundred years later. The 12th Century chronicler, William of Newburgh, collected a number of supernatural accounts in his book, The History of English Affairs. Among them was the story of a man who came to be known as the Alnwick Castle Vampire.  As the word vampire only entered the English language in the 18th Century, the term revenant was used then.  Revenants refered to souls who return from the dead, either as visible ghosts or as reanimated corpses.

The incident concerned a man, originally from York, who served the lord of Alnwick Castle. This man, who was described as sinful and wicked, married a young woman from the village of Alnwick. The man from York, who was himself a philanderer, suspected that his wife was unfaithful to him. So one day, he hid among the rafters in the roof above her bed to spy on her. When a young man from the village came to visit his wife, the man lost his balance and fell to the floor. As his injuries were fatal, a priest was summoned. But the man refused to repent for his sins and cursed his wife and the village before he died the next day. He was nevertheless given a proper burial in the local church cemetary.

After the burial, a strange man was seen wandering around the village at night, followed by howling dogs. At the same time, an unnamed disease broke out in the village and people started dying, one after the other. The plague was blamed on the man from York, who had returned as a revenant. Led by the priest, a number of young men from the village dug up the body and were shocked to see that it was engorged with blood. When struck with a spade, a stream of blood gushed out of the body. The body was dragged out of the village and burnt in a bonfire. The plague which afflicted Alnwick village ended soon after.