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
Nature in the Service of the Literary Craft
It would be an overgeneralization 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),
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.
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
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
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
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.
round and round
when wind brings rain
the scent of wet grass
and the fragrance
of steaming earth
perfume the land
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 wal
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?
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
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
"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 its
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 forestscape 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 downtrodde
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
Nowarat Pongpaiboon. 1983a. Phu nao (Cold Mountain). In Nungsu
pleng khlui phiu (The whispering songs of the flute.) Bangkok: Pla
———-1983b. Ya tham nam wai (Don't ripple the water).Bangkok: Pla
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. Culture and Environment in Thailand. The Siam Society,1989.
This article was published in CULTURE AND ENVIRONMENT IN THAILAND by The Siam Society under royal patronage,1989.