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The Story of Manohra, The Bird Maiden:

A Modern Retelling of and Old Tale

Chamnongsri Rutnin

Illustration : LittleLark

The romantic story of Manohra has appealed to the imagination of the Thai people through countless generations.

To me, the beauty of this old tale is like a delicate tracery of silver and gold. In the love of Manohra and Prince Suthon is the meeting of the divine world of passionless perfection and the human world of desires and contradictions. This explains the interlacing of the cold, pure sheen of silver with the warm and changeable glow of gold in my vision of the story.

In most versions of the tale, Manohra is the youngest sister. However, when I came across, “Manohra Nibat” the idea of Manohra as the eldest appealed to me. How Prince Suthon recognized Manohra at the end of the story is my own invention. In all the traditional Prince Suthon is unable to identify Manohra from her sisters until the god Indra appeared as a fly and alighted on the real Manohra.

High among the singing winds and dreaming clouds stands a mountain named Krailas. Its peaks, shimmering and shining like the purest of silver, penetrate the heavens that lie beyond human reach. Giant trees bearing wondrous fruit and flowers forest its silvery slopes.

All the inhabitants of Mount Krailas are semi-divine. Among them is a race of beautiful ethereal beings known as kinnorn. the physical forms of these beings are human but with the perfection and grace of the divine. Kinnorn can fly through the air with magnificent bird-like wings and tails .

In days gone by, a kinnorn king had seven ravishing daughters, the eldest of whom was named Manohra. Unhappiness was unknown to these princesses. But, being young and playful, they were often bored by the perfection of their existence on the silvery mountain. To escape boredom, the seven sisters would don their wings and tails, and glided down to the foot of the mountain.

Their favourite place of play was a shady lake whose placid water was as cool and clear as dew on a winter dawn. Large trees shaded the lake, allowing only slivers of golden sunlight to slant through. Exotic birds, flit here and there, filling the air with songs of unimaginable sweetness.

The bird-maidens would leave their wings and tails by the lake while they bathed in the crystalline coolness of the water. They love to play among the lotus blooms that scanted the lake with soft fragrance. At such times, the forest would be filled with the music of their silvery voices and the sunshine of their golden laughter.

One day as they frolicked in the lake, Manohra’s creams pierced the soft morning air. Under the clear water, two great serpents coiled themselves tightly around her, holding her in monstrous bondage. The six younger princesses gathered around in helpless anguish.

“Go away!” came a rough shout as an ugly hunter appeared from his hiding place behind a large jamboln tree. “You can’t help your sister! Take your wings and fly back to your mountain, or I’ll send more serpents to catch you all.”

Not knowing how to help their sister, the six fearfully fled to their silver palace abandoning Manohra to her unknown fate.

“Don’t tremble so, kinnari* No harm will come to you,” the man said to Manohra after the serpents had released her at his command.

“Don’t take my wings and tail, kind hunter.” Manohra pleaded. “You can take all these fineries. There are no such gems in your world.”

“ No, kinnari, I am not letting you fly away, for you shall be my gift to Prince Suthon. Such a kind and valiant prince deserves a bride from the heavens.”

Deprived of wings, Manohra found herself earthbound—a captive of the human world. She was finally brought into the presence of Prince Suthon in his golden palace. The young prince was captivated by the unearthly perfection.

The marriage of Prince Suthon and Manohra was celebrated with much rejoicing throughout. The golden kingdom. The occasion was one of great joy to all. The hunter was rewarded with enormous riches. The courtiers and populace talked endlessly of their new princess from the heavens. The king and queen were full of pride in their son’s bride.

But the bride did not regain her wings and tail, for the queen had carefully locked them up in her room.

Manohra was willingly entrapped by the ecstatic happiness of earthly love. Gradually the divine perfection of her silvery world grew frail in her memory. Through her love for her husband and his people, she grew to feel that she belonged to the human world. She even forgot her wings and tail. The bird-woman felt no more need to fly. Poor Manohra, how ignorant she was of her new-found world!

In the palace, there was an evil man who was very powerful in the kingdom. He was the Chief Mystical Diviner of the Court. The kind and his advisors respected this man for they thought that he was wise, and trusted him for they believed in his vision. None of them knew that he had a malicious heart.

One day, Prince Suthon unknowingly offended him, and the evil man set his unforgiving heart on revenge. To rid the court of the prince at least for a while, he incited a neighbouring state to make war on the kingdom. This he did with the knowledge that it was Prince Suthon's duty to lead the army against the aggressors.

With Prince Suthon out of the way, the Chief Diviner of the Court soon found his chance for revenge. One night, the queen dreamt that her son’s finest garment was snatched from his body and vanished into the sky. The king summoned the Chief Diviner to interpret the dream. The crafty diviner could hardly hide his glee.

“Oh my king! I see the life of your son in deadly danger! I see a golden palace burning! I see our great kingdom consumed by fire!” he cried with pretended anguish.

“But… but what shall we do?” stammered the king and his couriers.

“We must be rid us of the alien element. The cause of the evil is the woman from the sky, sire… Manohra! Burn her as a sacrifice!

The king’s heart froze with fear. He ordered Manohra to be burnt in sacrificial fire. It fell to the queen to fetch Manohra.

Poor Manohra was cruelly disillusioned. The ethereal woman was foreign to human fickleness!

“Come Mother, do not weep for me ,” she said to the distressed queen who had come to her room.” Let me please you with the celestial dance that my sisters and I used to do on our mountain.”

The queen was spellbound by the unbelievable beauty of the dance. After a while Manohra stopped and said, "The dance is much more beautiful when I wear my wings and tail. May I put them on just for the last time, Mother?”

When the queen had brought the wings and tail, the kinnari donned them and danced her exquisite dance. Then, she flew out through the open window and up into the boundless sky.

“Goodbye, dear Mother,” the wind carried her voice to the surprised queen who had run to the window. “How wonderful it is to be in the sky again. I have almost forgotten how to fly.”

“And what shall I tell my son, Manohra?

“Tell him to marry a human woman and forget me. Tell him not to follow me. The distance between the human world and my silvery mountain is immeasurable … but, Mother, don’t forget to tell him that I love him.”

In triumph, Prince Suthon returned from his campaign. But when he learnt of Monohra’s flight, he left the golden palace on the impossible journey to her celestial mountain. Life, death, and Time meant nothing to him in his determination to find Manohra.

By the lake at the foot of the mountain, the prince met a holy man with whom Manohra had left a ring and a leaf. On the leaf, she had drawn a map showing the route to her father’s palace.

Days, months, and years passed unheeded as Prince Suthon overcame one obstacle after another. There were forests so thick that no mouse could slip through, and fields of tall grass with blades as sharp as razors. There were lakes of acid, groves of monstrous snakes and battle-fields of ferocious giants. Finally, he reached the domain of Manohra’s father by hiding himself in the feathers of giant phoenix that nested on the heavenly heights.

By a rippling silver lake, Prince Suthon saw sixteen maids coming down to fetch water. One by one, they filled their crystal jars and retraced their steps. From the distance, he overheard their conversation and knew that they were Manohra’s maids. As the last of the sixteen had filled her crystal jar and rested it on the ground, the prince made a wish,

“My love for Manohra is greater than this mountain. Let its weight, weigh down this maid’s crystal jar.”

“Oh, why is this thing so heavy today! It must have suddenly grown roots into the ground!” complained the kinnari. Then she saw Prince Suthon. “Please stranger, will you help me lift this?”

“Yes, maiden. But first tell me why are you all fetching so much water?”

“It is to wash away the smell of human beings from our king’s eldest daughter.”

“And why does the smell of human beings?”

“She was captured and taken to the human world. When she returned to Karilas, the king wouldn’t allow her to live in the palace not until she has washed for seven years, seven months, and seven days. Today is the last day and tonight she will live in the palace again. There will be a great celebration tonight. And now help me, stranger.”

Prince Suthon dropped Manohra’s ring into the crystal water jar and lifted the jar onto the maid’s shoulder.

As the water from the last crystal jar was being poured over Manohra, the ring fell and slipped onto her finger. Manohra’s heart danced with joy. She knew that her husband had come to the silvery mountain.

In the palace, the kinnorn king heard of Prince Suthon’s presence. Though impressed by the heroic persistence, he demanded further trials before he would return his daughter to the human prince.

First, Prince Suthon had to lift a huge silver block of an enormous weight, then the magic bow of the celestial Krailas. These tasks he accomplished in the presence of all the kinnorn.

Then came the final trial. If he failed, Manohra would be lost to him forever He and to identify Manohra from the kinnorn king’s seven daughters.

Manohra trembled inwardly. This was the supreme test of her husband’s love.

To the human prince, the seven princesses of the silvery mountain looked exactly alike in their heavenly perfection. Manohra, whichever one she was, gave not a sign to help her bewildered husband – not the slightest move, not a shadow of a smile, not even a gleam of recognition in her eyes. While the throng of celestial witnesses watched, Prince Suthon hesitated. Alas, his eyes were too coarse to see the difference between the seven ethereal sisters.

But love has its way of seeing. Slowly, the prince grew to feel—to sense and to inwardly perceive a difference. Wasn’t the radiance of one of the seven a shade more mute, a tinge more mellow than the brightness of sisters? …

And was there not an intangible sadness, too? …Yes, that one was different. She had known the joys and sorrows of earthly love. In her, there was a blend of the human and the divine.

“This, Sire, is my Manohra!”





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