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Nature in the Service of Literature

Chamnongsri Rutnin Hanchanlash

The plenitude of flora, fauna and water has always been inherent in the Thai environment. There is a perennial presence of fruit, flowers and foliage, and no noticeable absence of birds or fish in any season. The year-round greenness and warmth of the tropical climate has accustomed the Thai to the richness of the natural environment, which is consequently

taken for granted.

This luxuriance and predictability breeds an attitude of familiarity with nature which has a multifaceted influence on the Thai writer's approach to nature. In classical literature, nature is abundantly employed, but scarcely for its own sake. The present change from plenty to threatening scarcity has effected certain changes of attitude in writers, but these changes are more evident in subject matter than in approach.

Of all the natural elements, water manifests the essence of change and unpredictability. For the Thai, it is an unpredictability that lies within limits of reasonable expectation. There are floods and droughts, monsoons and a dry season, months of high water, and months when the water level is very low; but even then, the low period is a prelude to the coming of the

first new rains. The consciousness of Thai writers and their handling of water deserves special interest beyond the scope of this paper.

While the natural environment would seem to be permanent, the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and the universal cycle of change are ever-present in the depths of Thai consciousness. This apparent contradiction of fact and philosophy results in a rarity of literary expression of purely aesthetic wonderment and ecstasy concerning nature. The role of

the natural environment, especially in Thai classical works, thus differs widely from that of nature in the poetry of the English Romantics. The role of nature in classical Thai literature is one of service to literary craft, creativity and expression. It must be remembered that, unlike modern Thai works, the classics belong to an age untouched by the ideas of Western


There is a duality in writers which relates to the duality in Thai behaviour toward the natural environment in general. The Thai express respect and gratitude for nature in their vocabulary: rivers are mae nam (mother water); Mae Phra Phosop (mother spirit of grain) is an expression

related to rice. Yet, they take much from nature while giving little in return. This is not due to insensitivity but rather to a familiarity as natural as that of child and mother.

Contemporary writers have developed an interesting synthesis of the ingrained and the newly acquired consciousnesses. They are primarily concerned with the plights of man and society; the environment is no longer taken for granted, since it has become clear that the plight of man stems from that of nature. But we have as yet very few writers who, like contemporary Poet Angkarn Kalyanapongse (1986, 22), challenge man with

Who would dare trade skies and oceans?

Wondrous creation is this world of ours.

These corporeal parts shall be laid

Betwixt earth and sky in the final hours.

We are not owners of clouds or air,

Or the heavens or any elements of earth.

Man has made neither moon nor sun

Nor a single atom in a grain of sand.

In making my statement on the role of nature in Thai literature, a partial exception must be made with regard to the four elements--and water in particular. This paper will deal with water strictly in the context of nature in the service of Thai literature'.

For this study, references to the text of Lilit Phra Lor, which is an early emotive-imaginative work in Thai literature, will be used as an example of a classical work. The choice is made because Lilit Phra Lor is exclusively Thai in origin- the legend can be traced to ancient Northern Thailand--and is regarded as a gem of classical Thai literature. It is written in poetry.

Short stories from Khunthong, You Will Return at Dawn by Ussiri Dhammachote and poems from The Whispering Songs of the Flute by Nowarat Pongpaiboon will be used as examples of notable Thai mainstream works

Nature in the Service of the Literary Craft

It would be an over generalization to say that familiarity with the natural environment and basic Buddhist consciousness allow the Thai people to value nature more for its usefulness than for its intrinsic value. Like all generalizations, this statement contains an element of risk because there are always significant exceptions. However, it is necessary within this paper's


At this point, it must be made clear that this interest in usefulness does not equate with insensitivity to the beauties of nature.

Rather, it implies that nature provides unlimited raw material and inspiration for the art of crafting. It is a Thai tradition to improve upon nature with craft. Admiration of craftsmanship overshadows that of nature.

Thus, flowers are artistically arranged into imaginative forms; garlands are intricately fashioned for specific purposes; fruits are carved into flowers, animals, other kinds of fruit, or even miniature replicas of themselves. By the same token, names of flowers, animals, and plants serve the craft of writing in such classical poetic conventions as chom dong (admiring the forests) chom swan (admiring the gardens), chom nok (admiring the birds), chom pla

(admiring the fish), and long song (bathing by royal characters in ponds, lakes or rivers).

Representing very clearly the utilization of nature, these conventions belong in classical works, all of which are written in verse forms. Names of birds, flowers, plants and animals are used for their musical qualities and imagery in the composition of puns and alliterative plays on words, and for associations between sound and image. Poets string unlikely coincidences of nature together, frequently ignoring seasonal realities. This is not a far cry from the craft of exotic garlands and intricate floral arrangements.

A short transliterated excerpt from Lilit Phra Lor ((1914] 1971, 25) illustrates these techniques:

siang nori sarika satawa duwao

kaektao klao klingklaong nok iang ong ku kiang

This excerpt contains the names of seven birds (in roman type), describing the sounds and sights of birds as heard and seen by two attendants of the twin princesses on their journey through a forest. The names lend themselves to prosody that demands a set pattern of intonation, rhythm and internal rhymes, plus alliteration.

Puns and alliteration often reach the level of verbal acrobatics, though never at the cost of gracefulness. It is Thai nature to handle their crafts with loving care.

lang ling lod mai lang ling

lae luk ling long ching luk mai

ling lom lai lom ting ling lot ni na

lae luk ling lang lai lod lieo lang ling

Lang ling means some monkeys', and is the name of a vine; luk ling means young monkeys', while luk mai is fruit; ling lom is a small animal, while lom means wind (op. cit., 72). (The complexity of this verse is such that I shall omit needlessly lengthy explanation.)

The innate pride that man takes in his art often appears in chom dong episodes. In classical works, the beauty of the natural' is not infrequently admired for its man-made order and intricacy; in Lilit Phra Lor (ibid., 24), as the princesses' attendants travel from the forested mountains:

They look back and see

Tall trees growing as neatly

As great spired palaces.

The classical poets have left masterly touches of imagery in human characters through the use of comparison with nature. It is the human element that matters. When the two princesses hear of the extraordinary beauty of Phra Lor (ibid., 7),

They recline

As supine and listless as golden vines.

It is worth noting that the vines are not ordinary green vines; befitting The beauty of the princesses, the vines are 'golden'. It is also worth noting that the poet is sensitive to the linear beauty and movement of nature.

The classical conventions of stringing together names of plants, flowers and animals for poetic effect are no longer in use, but modem poets still draw on the senses, movement and expectancy of nature to give their verse subtlety and beauty.

Contemporary poet Nowarat Pongpaiboon (1983a, 17) creates his own gentle nature* poems from such material, and in return he enriches nature with the beauty of his own compassionate vision.

Cold mountain

always swaddled in white

so tenderly cradled

to keep out the cold

one hand holds the moon

one hand moves a star

draw a white piece of flannel

to shade the flame of the sun

cold sea

also mantled in white

rocking loving lullabies

to keep loneliness away

wait just a while

the sun hasn't lit his torch

bear a bit with the cold

soon it will be dawn

Nowarat is one of the few who 'give' in return for what they 'take.' His familiarity with nature in this poem is filled with tenderness.

Nature in the Service of the Literary Imagination

Associations. The association of natural surroundings with inner thoughts is universal. Thai poets of the past created a literary genre known as nirat, long poems in which a character, or the poet himself, laments his lot when he travels away from home or his beloved. The mood is one of nostalgia, and nature plays a prominent role as a reminder of his past, or of people he has left behind. In Lilit Phra Lor (op. cit., 67), a description of Phra Lor's emotions during his journey to Muang Song is a precursor of the nirat. Here one sees how nature is the essential ingredient in the nostalgic mood:

Fragrance of wildflowers

Fills the air and my senses

With memories of your perfume.

Two birds perch in a pair,

Feeding beak to beak,

As loving as my sweet love.

In the fragrance of flowers and the sight of birds, nature provides material for all the senses, and the poet uses it to evoke the sensuality of his beloved.

In Lilit Phra Lor, passion that leads to a tragic end differs entirely from the profound love between Phra Lor and his mother, the depth and scope of which remains unrivaled in any other Thai literary masterpiece. To me, it is significant that while flowers and birds remind Phra Lor of the wife he left behind, water of the River Kalong stirs thoughts of the love between mother and son. Indeed, the richest verses depict Phra Lor on the bank of the River Kalong. Similar in concept but different in method is the association seen in When the Wind Brings Rain, a short story from Ussiri Dhammachote's collection, Khunthong, You Will Return at Dawn (198la.

37). The story of a boy dying from a snake bite begins with

Our cart is crossing over a stream. I know from the whispering of the water. It is soft and dreamy like my mother's song when she sings me to sleep. I hear it now . . . drifting, drifting from. ... I wonder where . . .

When the wind brings rain

the wood's fragrance

sweetens the streams

where bright flowers dream

along with leaves

of dark, deep green..

"Are you singing. Mother?" My eyelids are so heavy that I have to force them open to ask. Mother shakes her head and holds me even closer to her. The eyelids close with a will of their own. Tired. ... I have no strength. it is like being in a dream. With my eyes closed, I can see my village shining in the big valley--my village with the meadows and the irrigation canals, with the whirlwheels of the wooden water pumps moving in the wind.

Whirlwheels whirling

round and round

when wind brings rain

the scent of wet grass

and the fragrance

of steaming earth

perfume the land

_our home

I know Mother's song. I know it by heart. …

Here we see the whispering of the water recalling memories of the mother's song, heralding the closeness of her presence.

We see the close familiarity with nature. The song itself is filled with nature's sensuousness. Like a stream, images of nature lead the song to its destination in the last line.*our home". The human factor always has final importance.

Like Nowarat, Ussiri gives to nature by expressing his sensitivity of its values.

Stylization. The Thai have a tendency to improve upon nature through imagination as well as through craft. Stylization, which invests the mundane with magic, can be seen in architectural adornment, art motifs, and Thai classical dances and their costumery. In poetry, the depiction of Phra Lor is the stylization of a man to the extent that his beauty transcends visual possibility. Similarly, the cock that Phu Chao sends to lure Phra Lor is nature in stylized form. The description of its extraordinary beauty bright colors and the gem-like shine of its feathers is a poetic masterpiece. The cock is chosen by Phu Chao above all other forest fowl and endowed with magic. On a deeper level it is a symbol of vanity and temptations of the senses. In modern literature, however, one very rarely finds well stylization of nature. Technology and science have dealt traumatic blowst dreams of perfect beauty.

Symbols. The use of nature as a source of metaphors is universal, but there is a time-honored and uniquely Thai convention built entirely upon the imaginative use of symbols. Known as bot atsachan or bot sangwar, it is an ingenious way of describing love-making in imaginative, exciting and versatile ways without being explicit. Floods, rain, waves, wind, storms, fire, trees, flowers, bees and other natural elements and, infrequently, man made objects such as boats and kites, are freely used as symbols. Lilit Phra Lor is so rich in such imagery and symbolic expression that the act of crossing the River Kalong has come to symbolize an irreversible decision. The two princesses in the narrative symbolize the irresistible lure of the exotic and the unknown, and the magic cock represents sensual temptation. Lilit Phra Lor (op. cit., 137) offers numerous examples:

Bathing in the waters of heaven

ears no comparison to bathing

In my beloved's lake.

In her lake of pleasure

The fish frolics and leaps,

Touching the opening lotus.

The banks of the crystal lake

Spread, exquisite and unmarred.

With mounds fairer than heaven's hills.

The following passage (ibid., 139) creates a climactic mood:

Thunderous skies shook to the heavens.

Earth shuddered as though ready to burst.

Tumultuous waves churned and foamed.

Trees swayed and trembled in tremendous storm.

Here, participation of the elements is all important in endowing the act with grandeur.The element of water is almost always present in bot atsachan. Although frequently employed in classical works, this literary convention is not found in modern literature.

Throughout The Whispering Songs of the Flute, Nowarat Pongpaiboon (1983b, 40) draws symbolic imagery from nature to convey his philosophy and thoughts. Here, water symbolizes the perceptual mind:

Don't ripple the water

I want to see its infinite clarity

seeing deep to the moving depths

as deep as the depths of the mind

as deep as the end of the skies

or deeper than my eyes

on the gleam of sun-sparkling bamboo leaves

the whispering flute spins soft sweet songs

Little insect, do not fidget

don't ripple the water

breeze, don't ruffle the surface

let me drink the depth of thought

who is disturbing the water?

my mind, do you quiver?

clarity disperses

how life ripples like water

Emotions, Life and Destiny. Emotions are expressed with controlled intensity through ingenious touches that relate to the natural environment, especially water. When Phra Lor (op. cit, 43) leaves his kingdom on his doomed quest, his mother weeps until

Tears stream like running brooks,

Flow upon flow,

Until her heart is parched and dry.

And, as for the populace (ibid., 60),

The kingdom grows as cold as water

At the flows of tears.

To the Thai, water conveys a cool sense of relief from heat and exhaustion. The fact that its connotations are usually positive probably intensifies its few negative connotations in Lilit

Phra Lor and the stories of Ussiri. In Ussiri's Morning in Early Monsoon (1981b, 75), a young

woman holding her baby waits for the return of her bandit husband. A policeman who has come to arrest him sits beside her with a rifle resting across his knees.

It had been raining ceaselessly … persistently, and as the rain-swollen water brimmed over the edge of the pond in front of the hut, Buarum thought of the return of her mate with a trembling heart. Her heart ... she could feel it trembling. It trembled like the ripples of light on the surface of water that was ruffled by the falling rain.

And then again,

She sank back into her own thoughts while she watched the fragile, windblown threads of rain swaying out there in the lonely space between the sky and the fields.

In Thai literature, as in the literatures of other countries, nature is often used to describe and symbolize human life and destiny. In Lilit Phra Lor (op. cit., 81-82) the River Kalong flows fast and strong, rather like the hero's voluntary moves toward his own end. It divides his homeland from the hostile kingdom of the twin princesses. In effect, it foretells fate, knowledge of which is in his own heart.

May the fast flowing water

Of this swift river named Kalong

Circle, should my life be lost

To flow free, should I be free to return.

At his words the water swirls,

Tinged with the redness of blood.

His heart grows heavy with sorrow.

As though weighted with a hundred trees.

In Ussiris It Is Time to Leave This Khlong (1981c, 25), the dirty urban canal somehow takes the heroine into its life. Here we see once again that it is the human element that gives the water its "life." At this point, one sees the contemporary writer's consciousness of pollution of the natural environment. It is a good sign that he neither condemns nor preaches: rather, he incorporates pollution sensitively into the emotions of his Character.

The night air reeked of the smell of dirty water and spread an invisible blanket of unhealthy dankness over all things. City lights seeped dimly under the bridge and made the black water gleam in the darkness.. .

The rhythmic dipping of a paddle in the water had a desolate sound. The boat that was passing downstream was paddled by a woman, with a man sitting in the front end. Short poles held up a low roof in the middle of the boat. There were curtains hanging from the roof.

"Still awake, auntie?" the young woman called from the boat.

"Yes," she said and watched the boat pass from the area of the dim light into the darkness of one of the deep bays that the current had eaten into the banks of the khlong. . .

Sound of paddle strokes was part of the essence of this khlong life. People came from other places and met here despite its filth and pollution. Lives that floated on it and existed along it seemed polluted, useless and incomplete….

The cigarette butt that her son threw into the water sizzled and went out. She watched it drift slowly out of sight, like the debris and refuse that the dark water carried past her hut every day and night. Discarded, unwanted things floated by on the khlong whose nightly sound of paddles rhythmically dipping in the water. . . .

Ussiri also feels the inherence of destiny in nature. The following passage is from Nightfall on the Waterway (1981d, 97).

The child's body was horribly bloated and, in the pallor of the fugitive moonbeam, had taken on a nauseating tinge of green. It was hard to imagine what this little girl had been like in the freshness of life, what bright innocence must have been hers before she became this festering corpse in the course of the sad, inevitable process that would finally make her one with the ever-moving current of this khlong.

After a man takes a gold chain from the putrefying body of the child.

The corpse, freed by a push from the paddle, was drifting slowly downstream, further and further away, in silent finality.

Though water serves the writer in conveying his sense of destiny and it finality, it also illustrates a point that I have already made in this paper: that the role of water and (other natural elements) in Thai literature is deeper and broader than that of mere service to literature. Nevertheless, this 'service' represents the limits of the scope of this paper.

Mysticism. Thai literature is rich with mysticism, and so is Lilit Phra Lor. Nature and the elements are employed with masterly touches of surrealism to evoke the dark and the mystical. With the movement of whole forests of tall trees, wind and air, Phu Chao sends waves upon

magical waves to charm Phra Lor. Phu Chao's forest spirits invade the spiritual territories of Phra Lor's kingdom to subdue resistance to his magical spell over Phra Lor (op. cit., 42), as follows:

Forest spirits create fire Smoke chokes the

skies Mighty spells and magic Subdue

spirits of the city They cry news to the

wind Who stirs storms in the skies And

blows with terrible speed To the kingdom's

guardian spirits The sky turns deadly yellow

Air grows murky with smoke Lightening splits

thunderous skies The city's heart writhes

in panic As though its breast would burst.

The foreboding of the River Kalong is an unforgettable passage of mysticism. When the two attendants of the princesses enter the domain of Phu Chao (ibid., 20-21), the bright smiling forest scape turns fearfully ominous--a masterpiece of the poetic surreal.

They see streams swamps Bogs and pools

Host of crocodiles by the banks Their heads

half submerged in water Water elephants pierce

men's reflections with their tusks Mermaids

drag men under the water Their victims roll

their eyes Wide and round with fear Strangled

by the mermaids' hair.

Modern Thai literature inherits the ancient legacy of the mystic in nature. But no examples of the mystic per se are to be found in the contemporary poems and short stories cited in this paper. Rather, these selections reflect Nowarat's philosophical impressions and Ussiri's concern for the plight of the down trodden.

This article was published in CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT IN THAILAND by The Siam Society under royal patronage,1989.


Thai literature, especially in its classical forms, shows both familiarity and objectivity in the Thai attitude toward nature. This attitude has its origins in the plenitude of nature and the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and cyclic change. Thai writers use nature as both means and material for their craft, and for purposes specific to their works. In the classical literary conventions of admiring nature (i.e., wilderness, gardens, and birds), in symbolic descriptions of love-making, and in the poetic genre of nirat, nature is abundantly used to lend musicality to sound, design to imagery, and associations to symbols. The natural elements, especially

water, frequently portray powerful emotions and mysticism, but nature is rarely glorified for its own sake. Thus man and his emotions and destiny are the prime subject matter, and nature is its medium.

In the present change from nature's plenty to scarcity, and in the resulting hardship, the ingrained familiarity with nature has undergone a new synthesis. A product of this synthesis is an awakening to the worth of nature, but not so much to nature's intrinsic aesthetic and spiritual values as to nature's importance to the survival of man and society.

Modern writers still use the natural environment for their literary purposes and craft, but they 'give back' what they take from nature. Writers like Ussiri Dhammachote touch our conscience with the hardship of those whose lives are deprived by scarcity and pollution. Poet Nowarat

Pongpaiboon conveys to us the glory and subtleties of nature through his use of nature as a vernacular for his thoughts. Poet-artist Ankarn Kalayanapongse fills us with wonder at the greatness of nature. Judging from the works of these writers, there are optimistic prospects for the role of modern literature in the modern perception of nature.



Angkar Kalyanapongse. 1986. Panida Thanakawi (Poet's Pledge). Bangkok: Carat Books House.

Anonymous. (1914) 1971. Lilit Phra Lor. Bangkok:Department of Fine Arts.

Nowarat Pongpaiboon. 1983a. Phu nao (Cold Mountain). In Nungsu pleng khlui phiu

(The whispering songs of the flute.) Bangkok: Pla Taphian Press.

———-1983b. Ya tham nam wai (Don't ripple the water).Bangkok: Pla Thaphien Press.

Ussiri Dhammachote. 1981a. Mua lom fon phan ma (When the wind brings down rain).

Bangkok: Chao Phraya Press.

———1981b. Chao wan ton rudu fon (Morning in early monsoon). Bangkok: Chao Phraya Press

———1981c. Thung khra cha ni klai pai chak lam khlong sai nan (It is time to leave this

khlong). Bangkok: ChaoPhraya Press.

———1981d. Bon thong nam mua yam kham (Nightfall on the waterway). Bangkok: Chao

Phraya Press.


From: The siam society under royal patronage. Culture and Environment in Thailand. The Siam Society,1989.

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