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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 .


Julia Dutta said...

Tutu, this exceptional write with pictures reminds me very much of the northeast India culture. Indeed, the Khasis of Shillong seem to come from this culture. Besides, these folk takes resemble Manipuri folk tales, even the dance is graceful and colourful as it exists there. What a wonderful write.
Love :)

tutudutta said...

Thank you so much for the insight, Julia and the compliments too. I never knew that the story of Manohra could have originated from northeast India, Manipuri no less...

Unknown said...

Wonderful! It fills me with melancholy to learn that this celebration of story is fading. Is there nothing in the world sacred?

Hui Min said...

An informative article and an enjoyable read :)

tutudutta said...

Thank you, Hui Min. Appreciate the time you took to read the post! Thank you also, Robert Hartley. As I mentioned before, this art form is alive and well in Thailand!