Sinhalese Influence on Laos: From its Beginning to Consolidation – Part I – Sources


Sri Lanka and Laos

Hema Goonatilake PhD (Lond)

Visiting Professor, Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Sri Lanka, New Series, Vol. LIII, 2008.

Sri Lanka, till the arrival of the Europeans, has been very possibly the major influence of a high culture in the whole South East Asian region. The earlier Hindu influences which led to such descriptions as “The Indianized States of Southeast Asia’1 are now being increasingly recognised as an over-statement. South Asian influences outside the royal court and among the common people actually occurred largely through Sinhalese contacts (Hall, 1981, p. 22)”.

Although Sinhalese influence on Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand has been covered to a great extent, the impact of Sinhalese culture on Laos has been largely neglected. Thus, Sirisena, in his pioneering overview, Sri Lanka and South-east Asia: Political, Religious and Cultural Relations from A.D. c. 1000 to c. 1500, says, “For the present purpose, such countries as Vietnam, Laos and the Philippines, which had little or no contact with Sri Lanka at this period, are not included in the name South-east Asia”. This paper attempts to cover the gap as Laos from its very formation, had close ties with the Sinhalese.

This paper is divided into four parts. In Part I, I give my sources. In Part II, I give the broad background, within which Sinhalese influenced the South-east Asian region, the influence on Laos occurring within this broad context. Part III describes the case of Laos and Part IV, the key Buddha images from Sri Lanka which found a home in Laos.

Part I: Sources

The material on the history of Laos is largely drawn from the Chronicles of Lao, Nithan Khun Borom, (translated in Auguste Pavie’s Mission Pavie, Etudes diverses II pp.1-77) and Phongsawadan, (utilised in Paul Le Boulanger’s Histoire du Laos Francais, pp. 41-51). The Phongsavadan Lao written in Lao language, has been compiled from different versions of Laotian chronicles by the 20th century historian Maha Sila Viravong (translated into English as The History of Laos).

According to these different chronicles of Laos, the origin of Laos begins with a semi-mythical king Khun Borom who ruled the Kingdom of Nanchao (modern Yunan province of China). He sent out his seven sons to rule over several parts of his territory; his eldest son Khun Lo being sent to the region of present day Luang Prabang, the former capital of Laos.

The recorded history of Laos, as a state, however, begins with the founding in 1353 of the Kingdom of Lan Sang, as it was then called by Fa Ngum, its founding king. Although the chronicle material is mixed with legend and ancient lore, historical records of neighbouring countries confirm the historicity of the major events during this period. For example, the inscription of the Sumnakutaparvata (named after Samantakuta of Sri Lanka) of Sukhodaya (modern Sukhothai) in Siam belonging to the reign of Luthai (1347-1368 CE), describes the boundaries of Fa Ngum’s kingdom, and refers to Fa Ngum as Chao Brana Fa Ngom (Coedes, 1961, p. 129)

In addition to the above sources, I have been able to get new evidence on Sri Lanka-Lao relations. First is, the text of the ‘Wat Keo inscription’ of Luang Prabang, dated 1602, a brief description of which is made by Finot (1917, pp. 169-171) and second, the chronicle, The Story of Prabang, written in old Lao Language during the reign of King Sai Setthathirat of the Lao kingdom in the 16th century (referred to hereafter as the Prabang Chronicle).2 This chronicle like other chronicles in Southeast Asia is written in the tradition of Vamsakatha. The tradition of writing of Vamsakatha originated with the writing of the Mahavamsa of Sri Lanka, and was introduced to the South-east Asian region by Sri Lankan monks (Prince Damrong, 1919, I, pp. 1-66).

1 The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, G. Coedes, East-West Center, Honolulu, 1967.

2 This short text of 14 pages of old Lao language, replete with Pali words was translated by the present author with the assistance of a Lao scholar, Kim Van.

Sinhalese Influence on Laos: From its Beginning to Consolidation – Part II – The regional context


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Hema Goonatilak