The Pillar

Lao culture is rich in folklore.  Various versions of this story can be found on the Internet.  This version was written in collaboration with my mother.

Saturday 4 November 2006

I stared at the altar as we listened to the sermon over the loud speakers.  I could barely make out the words over the drone of hundreds of conversations. The noise and morning heat were nearly lulling me to sleep.

Before me, the pillar was wrapped in white and orange cloth, surrounded by colorful strings of light, candles, lotus blossoms, and relics.  I kept thinking, It doesn’t look very remarkable.  But according to legend, buried beneath the pillar is a young woman named Si (pronounced See), her unborn child, and a horse that delivered them there.

Over a century ago, the woman lived in a secluded village, several miles from the capital city.  She and her husband were rice farmers, simple people who marked the passage of time by the flooding and drying of fields.  They were happily expecting their first child soon.

In Vientiane, a ceremony was underway to commemorate the positioning of the capital’s central pillar, or lák muang, at a temple called Wat Si Muang.  The pillar could not be erected without a human sacrifice, a tradition that lingered from the old phiist superstitions (belief in spirits).  The city officials sent word to all parts of the kingdom: who would volunteer to consecrate these grounds and become the guardian spirit of the temple?  They sent a horse to retrieve such a person.  Although it was considered a great honor, the horse always returned riderless.

Si and her husband were in the rice fields when they saw the strange horse appear in their village.  It knelt before the young woman.  Before her husband could stop her, Si mounted the horse, and it sprung away.

By all accounts, the lady Si was unaware of what she had done; it seemed she had been possessed.  The horse carried her for several hours through the countryside, until it finally reached Wat Si Muang.  Without warning, the steed pitched forward and they both tumbled into the hole that had been dug for the pillar.  There was a loud creak, followed by a crack, as the cloth cords holding the pillar aloft unraveled and snapped.  The heavy stone monolith slid into the gaping hole, trapping and killing horse and rider.

Yah-mae Si Muang, as the young woman came to be called, was a particularly powerful spirit because she was pregnant at the time of her death.  These guardian spirits, if forced into sacrifice, can be malevolent to trespassers.  In this case, the woman was considered a willing volunteer.  She is said to protect the temple grounds and is kind enough to grant wishes for the goodhearted and pious.

The first time we drove past the temple, my mom whispered to me, “Make a wish – if your heart is pure, it will come true.”  As a little girl, she would stop at Wat Si Muang on her way to school to wish for good marks on an exam (“even though I already knew I would do well”).  Today, the belief in Yah-Mae Si Muang and other tales is fading.

On auspicious days, if the traffic noise is not so bad, they say you can hear a horse galloping through the temple grounds.

The story usually ends here, with the ghost horse and the restless spirit of the young woman.

Several weeks into our trip, Mom took me to Yah-Mae Si Muang’s village.  The legend became real to me suddenly.  In the village, they have built a shrine to honor her.  There is a statue there, made by a man who never learned how to sculpt.  He had been suffering from malingering illnesses all his life and prayed for a miracle cure.  One night, he dreamed of a woman who told him to sculpt a statue of her.  He lamented that he neither knew how to sculpt nor what the good lady looked like.  But the dream was so powerful that he did as she asked.  Village elders who still remember Nang Si’s face believe the likeness is uncanny.  As for the sculptor, he was granted good health at last.


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