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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.