Dialogue  July-September,  2011, Volume 13 No.1


The Literature of Lava (Laos)

Acharya Raghuvira

In her long history India has had many friends, disciples and admirers. They form a continuous chain across our land and sea frontiers.

India is reputed to be deficient in historical sense. This reputation may or may not be true in other respects, but it is clear that we have no records in India of our foreign relations during the last 2000 years. We have no references to the existence of any such records at any period of our history or in regard to any country of the world.

Our educational system has innumerable deficiencies.  Our educators, know something about the lack of facility for industrial training but they have no concept of how deficient our entire system is in regard to our foreign relations during the centuries of, our existence. Neither have our research men paid sufficient attention.             

We, at the International Academy of Indian Culture, are for the first time trying to look into the languages, literatures and records of many countries of Asia. This peep gives a glorious view and promises rich results for investigators.

Today, we shall confine ourselves with a small nation in the heart of the Indo-Chinese peninsula, namely Laos. It would be interesting for our people to know that the people of Laos, spell their country’s name as Lava.1 This name forcibly reminds one of Lavapurī (Lobpuri) and Ayodhyā in neighbouring Thailand. There is no reason why the External Affairs Ministry of India, the newspapers and literary men, should not use the correct name in the correct spelling Lava.

The written documents of the Lava people are on palm-leaves, just as in ‘India.” They have the same format as in India.

Lava language is connected with the languages of Thai, Burma and the Ahoms of Assam.

The beginning of Lava script is in 1283 A.D. when king Rama Kamhęng of Sukhodaya created the writing, This script marks the common origin of Thai and Lava alphabets. The earliest Lava literature is replete with words of Sanskrit and Pa1i origin. No dictionary has so far been prepared which completely registers the ancient Lava language.

Sanskrit and Pali grammar, lexicography and prosody have influenced Lava language and literature. The Classical period of Lava literature was in its full splendour from 1547 to 1571 under the rule of  Jayajyestha (or in local pronunciation Phra Jayajettha).

Another name which is to be mentioned in connection with the Classical period of Lava history and literature is King Sūrya-vamśa who ruled from 1637 upto 1694.2 

Lithic Records

They appear from the 13th century onwards. The most important script is known as the Tham (=Dharma). It is a script used in inscriptions, poetry and romance, administrative records and correspondence.

The eras are as follows :

         (a)   The small Śaka era which began in 638 A.D.

        (b)   The great Śaka era which began in 78 A.D .

         (c)   The Buddha Śaka era which began in 544- B.C..3 

1283 is the year of the introduction of Pali scriptures from Ceylon into the Kingdom of Sukhodaya. From this moment Sanskrit was replaced by Pali.

Among the inscriptions I may mention the inscription of Dan Sai. It is dated 1482 Śaka, Pūr`nimā of the month of Ā``dha, 2103 years after the Nirvā`na of Buddha. It mentions two kings―His Majesty Dharmaka Rāja who ruled in Chandanapurī Śrī Śatanāganahuta mahānagara ratna, and His Majesty Parama-Mahācakravartīśvara who ruled in Śrī  Ayodhyā mahā-tilaka-bhava-nagara-ratna. 

The two kings invited virtuous monks from Candanapurī and Ayodhyā. The great mandarin from the city of Candanapurī was Sam_rddhi Maitrī and from the city of Ayodhyā, Vimala Satyabhakta. The two kings promised to unite their families, the Sūrya-va<a and the Abhaya-var<mśa upto the end of the kalpa.4                         


“With the introduction of Indian civilization the people of Lava found a rich treasure.5 The Classical Lava verses follow the metrics of Indian prosody. The metre is regulated by the number of syllables and their quantity. There is a caesura and division into four quarters or two hemistichs. In fact, the true Classical Lava poetry is formed of .translations of Indian poems. Even Lava folklore is peopled by the Indian pantheon.6 The Lava people sing of the beauty and charm of nature and of love and its attractions. They sing when they go to the forest to cut wood, to pluck flowers, to gather roots, bamboo shoots and vegetables:

“In passing through the forest I came across swarms of birds which sing and dance, seated two by two they flirt and play.”7 Girls and boys, singly and in groups, follow each other exchanging verses and songs. There is a contrast among young girls as against married women with children in their arms. These songs are often accompanied by a musical instrument known as k’en. Often there is an opera between two persons, one man and another woman.”

The Molam is an important genre of literature. It evokes the marvels of paradise, the powers of Indra, the cruelty of Yama, the atrocities of hell, and on the other hand the beauties of full moon, the enchantment of woods and seasons.


9Popular stories and romances are generally very long, comprising 400 to about 800 palm-leaves. Their length does not allow them a harmonic and perfect structure. Love is their principal theme. Personages are painted with diverse colours. The hero is generally a brave prince, a charming boy, favoured by virtues, often a bodhisattva, noble and brave, who fights evil and triumphs. The powerful Indra intervenes in the course of combats in order to help the hero. There is coquetry of the divine kinnarīs, the beautiful dancers of heaven. There is the violence and voracity of yaksas, the great monsters of the universe who possess the magic power of travelling through air, of assuming any form at will, and of fighting with enchanted armies. The yak`sas are the redoubtable enemies of the hero. Then one comes across the kind-hearted _r]sis or magician hermits, who communicate to the hero the occult science of flying through space and of fighting victoriously with armies of marvellous valour. The heroine, who is a loving beauty of great fidelity, proves her affection.l0

Among the prose romances we might mention Champa si ton and Buddhasena. The first of these is the story of four princes named Campā. They are the sons of the King of Pańcāla and his queen Padmā. They are murdered by queen Angī and from their ashes spring four Campā trees. They are resuscitated by hermit Agni-cak`su who gives them four names following the colours of Campā flowers―Sita Kumāra (the White Prince), Pīta Kumāra (the Yellow Prince), Suvarna Kumāra (the Golden Prince) and Vajra Nanda Kumāra (the Diamond Prince). The last one had cut one of his fingers and the hermit had replaced it by a diamond one. The hermit had given him instructions in magic and in the art of flying through space. He had armed him with charmed weapons. The princes undertook numerous adventures, terminating in the conquest of the three empires of the yaksas, after which they went to Pańcāla. Padmā was reinstated as queen and Angī was reduced to the post of a guard.

Buddhasena is the history of a prince of that name, belonging to the city of Indraprastha Nagara situated in Kambuja country. Buddhasena was married to the daughter of a yak`si`. After their death the prince and his wife were transformed into two hills which now face Luang Prabang.11

We possess an important collection of Lava stories. The majority of them are derived from Pańcatantra, In fact Pańcatantra stories are widely diffused throughout the Indo-Chinese peninsula.

The stories may be divided into three categories: (1) Pańcatantra stories, (2) judicial stories, (3) comic stories.       

The Lava Pańcatantra consists of five works, termed Pakon (=Prakara`na). Their names are as follows: (1) Nanda Prakara`na (Nanda is the name of a bull) (2) Ma`n`dūka Prakarana (3) Piśāca Prakara`na (4) Śakuna Prakara`na (5) Sa`ngha Prakara`na (which is. in the form of a gloss to the text of Vinaya).

The narrator of the stories is a queen called Tantai Mahādevī, a name which corresponds to Nang Tantrai of the Thai version, and Dyah Tantri of the Javanese version of Pańcatantra. Tantai, Tantrai are alterations of the Sanskrit tantravāya ‘the weaver of tales’.

There also exists another collection of stories entitled Mulla Tantai resembling the Kambuja work Koen Kantray which is a sacred book of laws. These are judicial stories. Kantraya is probably the Sanskrit karttri ‘spinner’.12

Lava Words of Indian origin

Hereunder we give a few:   .

Pissanukam, the celestial architect Viśvakarman, Nang Th’orani=Devī Dhara`nī  ‘the Earth’, Nang Mekhala==Devī Mekhalā, Ma`ni-Mekhalā, the goddess of the ocean. P’raya Nak =Nāgarāja. These are serpents who live in rivers and can take human form.

P’rom=Brahmā, rusi=`R`shi, Si Ayudhya=Thailand, Hansa=Pegu, Setthi=śre_s_thī ‘a merchant prince’, Kumara=Kumāra ‘Prince’, sut=sūtra.

Buddhist Literature

The Lava people have a very rich literature, canonical and extracanonical.  

Canonical literature is represented by the Tripi_taka. Besides the texts, there are glosses (nissaya), commentaries, sub-commentaries (a_thakathās, _tikās). Many of these have been introduced into Lava country from Burma.

The Jātaka stories constitute the central kernel of all Buddhist literature of Lava. These stories have been translated into Lava language.

Extra-canonical Literature

In this literature gods occupy a special position. Among them, Indra is supreme. In a way, he is a kind of Providence. He is the protector of pious people. He favours the good and punishes the wicked. There are numerous books which are consecrated to this King of Gods, such as a History of Indra, Questions of Indra, etc.

Then there are stories concerned with Bodhisattva Maitreya.

Among the histories of saints. OTIE: might mention Ānanda, Upagupta, Maudgalyāyana .and many others. The story of Jambupati is of particular interest on account of the quality of its composition. It deals with Jambupati, the king of Uttarapańcāla, the most powerful severeign of Jambudvīpa, having one hundred and eleven vassal kings under him. The work is also of great importance for the study of iconography of Buddhist statuary.

Then there are histories of the relics of Buddha, of his teeth, of his hair, of small pieces of his bones, of his foot-prints, and of other objects and utensils, of the Bodhi tree in Ceylon, of stūpas in different parts of Burma, Siam and Lava. And lastly, on the miraculous re-union of all the relics of Buddha at the foot of the sacred Bodhi tree.

Saddavimala is a manual of yogācāra. It embraces morals, anatomy, physiology, embryology, and grammar. The inclusion of grammar is justified as being the means for attaining a transcendental knowledge of the contents of sound among human beings and in the universe.

Grammar, Prosody and Lexicography

Grammar, prosody and lexicons may be considered as supplements of canonical literature.

Kaccāyana is the major text in [Tammar. It is known under the title of Sut Sadda. It has eight chapters: (a) sandhi, (b) nāma (c) kāraka (d) samāsa (e) taddhita (f) ākhyāta (g) k_rt (h) u`nādi.

These texts have been introduced into the Lava country in the 14th centuries from the Pegu region of Burma. Most of them were by Burmese and Ceylonese authors.

Subodhāla<nkāra is a book on rhetorics composed by Sa<ngharak]sita of Ceylon in the 12th century.

Vuttodaya was also composed by Sa>ngharak]sita. It has numerous commentaries.

Among lexicons one might mention a Pali-Lava lexicon whose first part alone is available. Its title is Akkharasap, the Pali original being Abhidhānapra dīpikā  


Ratthasattha (Rā]s_traśāstra) or Kotmay lao is the principal source of ancient customs such as marriage, divorce, succession, slavery, etc.    

Horāśāstra deals with horoscopes, astrology and divination. It gives indications concerning favourable and unfavourable moments for accomplishing such acts as journeys, construction of houses, marriages, etc.

There are many books concerning nīti-śāstra or the art of government. The name of the most famous book is Rājasavani. It is a gloss on stanzas collected from Sanskrit sources. It has three chapters: (a) rājā (b) rāja-kārya, (c) rāja-k_rtya. It deals with five rājadharmas, four upāyas, seven rājagu`nas, town-planning, art of war, and numerous other items such as painting, cooking, medicine, slavery and fortifications.

There are special treatises dealing with diverse matters such as Lak]sana-śāstra, Cintāma`ni, Śrīratnajyoti, Paropakāraśāstra, Naralak]sana, etc.

Nītiśāstra also contains subhāsitas. There are many separate works consisting of subhāsitas: (a) P’in sam say, (b) K’am son, (c) Pu son lan, (d) Lan son pu.

At the end we might draw the attention of our readers to the very significant fact that the vast Lava literature of the past five centuries has’ not yet found its devotees who would publish, translate and evaluate each and every item that forms this literature. There are only a few notices by French scholars and archaeologists. The bulk of the literature still remains unknown.


There are two articles with the same title : The Literature of Laos. The additional material from the second version is reproduced in he following pages. Its placement in the body of the main text is indicated by superior figures.

1. It is interesting to note that the name as originally written in the script of the people is Lava and not Laos. Lava -country is Muong Lava. We should start the use of the correct name, Lava.

2. During this period came the Dutch-traveller van Wusthoff in 1641. At this epoch, Lava was a mighty centre of intellectual and religious activities. It has been remarked by everyone who studies Lava culture that the diversity, richness and the characteristics of Lava culture and literature are essentially Indian. They follow the same ideals and often the same technique.

3. The names used in the Lava language are as follows: (a) Culla-śaka-rāj (pronounced as rat; culla=small) (b) Mahā-śaka-rāj (c) Buddha-śaka-rāj.

Lava and Thai epigraphic records are not so rich as of the Khmer people of Kambuja. It would be more correct to use the term Kambuja in all Indian despatches instead of Cambodia.

4.  Another inscription from Vata Vixun in Luang Prabang is inscribed in Tham characters of the Burmese type and is dated 1835. It records the creation of a Buddhist library with 2823 manuscripts. It records the constitution of a Committee presided over by Rājavanśa for elaborating the sacred books of the Tripitaka into Tham characters.

5. Poetry precedes prose and epics precede lyrics. Before the introduction of Hinduism and Buddhism the people were under the regime of animism, cult of spirits, forces” of nature and worship of ancestors.    

6. Religious songs of bhiksus developed upto the 19th century. They inspired large number of stories which became popular in verse and prose. Besides, there were other poems of. Indian inspiration: didactic, satirical and fables. What we have said about poetry applies to songs as well.

7. They sing when they go to the field. They sing when they come back. They sing at every occasion.

8. Their dances, gestures and movements recall Indian origins. The subjects are taken from Hindu and Buddhist stories, jātakas, historical and legendary episodes as well as Indian fables. They supply interminable topics of gallantry and tenderness.

9. Stories are used for diversion and for popularization of higher values of life. They are based on Buddhist scriptures and are inscribed in Tham characters. The manuscripts containing stories generally belong to the 19th century. One of the popular stories is the Four Champakas. It is a Lava version of the Campa-rāja-jātaka. There is another version in verse.

10. The above may be taken to be the general outline of love romances. The Lava literature is in this respect on the same footing as the literature of Kambuja, Thailand and Burma, all inspired and peopled by Hindu and Buddhist thought and content which are altered, modified and enriched by the imagination, temperament and genius of the society for whose entertainment and edification they have been composed.

11. We might mention here one very important romance in verse named Kalaket.  Kalaket is the story of a King of Vārā`nasī named Surivong who possessed a marvellous horse named Manikap which could speak the language of men and traverse freely through air. The king’s ally was Garuda who had given him a prodigious bow. His second ally King of Yak]sas. He had been reigning for several years and still he had no child. Astrologers predicted that he would have a pious and powerful son. Upon the request of the queen the King of Gods, namely Indra, sent Devaputra and his four wives on to the earth. In the course of their descent to earth, they were separated by wind. The Devaputra was born to the queen as Kalaket.


The classical Lava theatre has an Indian origin and has been imported from Khmer in the 14th century. It was mainly developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. .Its beginning was marked by the creation of a ballet. It. was organised at the Royal Court and a grand orchestra was created to accompany it. It consisted of xylophones, gongs arranged in a circle, trumpets and tambourines, big and small violins, mandolins and wind instruments. They accompanied the mimic dancers and the pantomime ballet. The costumes were rich and varied. There were masks and diadems. Gestures and movements remind one of Indian choreography. The scenes represented in general the episodes of the Ramayana.

A little later there was a chanter to accompany the dancers. Afterwards the actors themselves began to talk and sing while they gesticulated and danced, and ultimately we come into the presence of veritable scenes of opera.

Lava theatre is intimately connected with her literature, poetry romance and history.

12  Cantrai, Cantai, Canti are also used to denote the narrator of stories. Mulla Tantai is Sanskrit Mūla-tantra.                       

Judicial Stories. These are used’ as commentaries on different of the Code of Law.      

Comic Stories. In general they have an ancient tinge about them. One of the best known works of this genre is Ay Cet Hei. It is in verse. It is based on elements which are grotesque and miraculous. Another work ‘which may be mentioned is Hua Lan Bua Het “the horse poisoned by mushrooms”.

Legends and Histories

The principal historical and legendary works are the following:

(1) Nit’ an (funku) Khun Bôrôm. Khun Bôrôn is the son of Indra who was sent from heaven to found the kingdom of Lan Xang. The events come to end in 1572.

(2) P’ôngsavadan (oa'kkonku) Muong Lao.

(3) P’ôngsavadan Kasat Vieng-Can is a chronicle of the kings .of Vientiane. It comes to end in 1901.

(4) P’un P’ra Bang is a history of P’ra Bang.

(5) P’un P’ra Kęo is a history of the emerald statue of P’ra Kęo.

(6) Nit’ an P’raya Cüong Lun is a chronicle of the western principality of Lava during the last three quarters of the l 2th  century.

(7) Uranganidana is a heterogeneous text comprising predictions of Buddha, of his different births and miracles, and of kings of Lava in the 16th century.

13There is another collection of fifty Jātaka stories named Ha sip Xat or Pannāsa Jātaka. In Burmese, it is known as Zimme Pannāsa.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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