Next time on the Suvarnabhumi Airport road, you might like to look again at the statues of golden bird-people with hands in wai (namaste). They are images of ‘kinnaree’, the half-human, half-avian mythical creatures excelling in song and dance who live in the celestial forest of ‘Himmapan’. I know we know that it’s ‘kinnari’ and ‘Himavan’ and way up, that’s ‘Kailash’, known in Thai as ‘Krailot’. If you’re wondering why kinnarees are flying through my head it’s because some of our shared past and ideas seem quite incredible to my Indian ear and eye today and in that spirit I’d like to share one of Thailand’s favourite stories. Oh, all right, let’s say it’s because it’s Valentine’s Day on the 14th (how about smileys in print)?
It’s the story of the Kinnaree Manohra from the Suthon Jataka that comes from a bigger collection called the Pannasa Jataka that has echoes and resonances in the Kathasaritsagara by Somadeva, the ‘The Sea of Stories’ as some might call it. I wish could tell it with all the atmospherics, but net-net Manohra was a beautiful bird princess with detachable wings who went bathing in a pond and got kidnapped by a stranger as the ideal bride for good and clever Prince Suthon (meaning ‘Good Arrow’). So next Suthon has to go to war and tells his friend to guard Manohra carefully and he’ll make him court counsellor when he returns. But the old court counsellor overhears and plots doom.
When Manohra’s father-in-law, the king, has a bad dream and wants it explained, the counsellor tells him it portends terrible things but sacrificing the bird-woman will avert all that.
Instead the king (Adityavan) and queen (Shantadevi) help Manohra fly back to her father. On the way she leaves a ruby ring with an old hermit for when her husband will come looking for her. Sure enough, the prince comes by and fortified by the ring, a monkey mascot and the magic mantras the hermit teaches him, including being able to understand bird language, he flies to Himmapan on the wings of an eagle and sends the ring to his lost lady through a maid. She is a princess, remember, so she sends him nice clothes to meet her father in. After passing a triple-test of strength and skill to make it legal, he takes her home to live happily ever after: perfect for a dance-drama?
Renuka Narayanan writes on religion and culture email@example.com