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Women and folktales project in Laos

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Women are important storytellers and bearers of cultural heritage in Laos. However, their voices are rarely heard outside their communities, due to their traditional homebound responsibilities and their lack of confidence in participating in public forums. At the same time, traditional folktales and legends are in danger of dying out, as an older generation passes on and young people prefer entertainment from television and the internet.

With this in mind, the Luang Prabang Film Festival and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre launched the Women and Folktales Project to empower ethnic minority women in Laos and document and disseminate traditional stories using film.

Funded by the US Embassy Vientiane, the project filmed seven women, from Hmong, Kmhmu, and Tai Lue villages around Luang Prabang Province, recounting 19 traditional folktales in their native languages. These films were translated into Lao and English, subtitled, and are now archived within the digital libraries of LPFF and the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre.

Three of these folktales, one from each ethnic group, were turned into animated shorts with the creative input of the storytellers. “The Dog and Her Three Daughters” (Hmong), “The Spider Man” (Kmhmu), and “What the Buffalo Told the Humans” (Tai Lue) are traditional, yet vibrant, cartoons that will be used by TAEC’s Education and Outreach Team in local primary schools and distributed to libraries and children’s organizations, exposing a whole new audience to the diverse cultural heritage of Laos.

All 21 films are now on TAEC’s YouTube page, and are grouped into films with English subtitles and films with Lao subtitles . Please enjoy and share within your networks!

(reported by Gabriel Kuperman, Founder & Director, Luang Prabang Film Festival www.lpfilmfest.org / www.facebook.com/lpfilmfest )

The Ramayana in Southeast Asia

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Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist.  British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana. New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814.  British Library,  Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814. British Library, Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life. In a series of articles on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog, curators Annabel Gallop, San San May and Jana Igunma explore how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia.
To read the articles, go directly to the Asian and African Studies blog.

Buddhist Archive of Photography, Luang Prabang, Laos

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The Buddhist archive of photography, Luang Prabang, Laos, is most certainly the largest online photobase documenting the recent history of Buddhism in Laos.

The digitisation of the original photographs found in Luang Prabang was supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme. Coming from more than 20 distinct monastery collections, this unique view from inside documents 120 years of monastic life and ritual, pilgrimage, monks’ portraits, history and social life. Important historic and political events of an agitated century in Laos at the same time appear as in a mirror: French colonialism, the Royal court, civil war, the Indochina and Vietnam wars, revolution and socialist rule. Quantity and quality of the material are as surprising as is the fact that it was produced in a city as isolated as Luang Prabang. It seems that there has been a particular inclination towards photography, which had been introduced very early by the French, was practised by the Royal court where young princes would learn about it, and take it with them when they were ordained as monks and became abbots of the various monasteries (there are 64 in town).

Work started in 2007 with Pilot Project EAP086, followed by Major Research Project EAP177 – since then 33,933 photographs have been discovered in 21 monasteries of Luang Prabang and have been digitised, identified and safely stored. Most of the original photographs (prints and negatives) are now stored in specially designed wooden archive cabinets at the Sala Thammiviharn, Vat Khili, Luang Prabang – an historic monastic building in one of the monasteries, now entirely used by the Archive. Some minor collections have been restituted to their respective owners.

Together with the 15,000 photographs treated in Major Research Project EAP177, the additional 18,933 photographs of this second project constitute the largest collection of historic photographs in Laos, and certainly the one that has been most thoroughly researched.

Digital copies of the material have been deposited at The National Library of Laos, Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Project, Vientiane Capital, Lao P.D.R. and the British Library, London, United Kingdom.

Read more about the Buddhist Archive of Photography…

View on the former Royal Palace, Luang Prabang

View on the former Royal Palace, Luang Prabang

Digital “resurrection” of lost Lao Ramayana murals

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A groundbreaking project with the aim to digitally replicate the lost Phralak-Phralam (Lao version of the Ramayana) murals at Vat Oub Mong in Vientiane has been under way for several years. The project is being carried out by the Digital Conservation Facility, Laos (DCFL); affiliated since 2003 with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Northern Illinois University. DCFL founder Alan Potkin has recently been developing interactive visualization and virtual reality technologies in ecological and cultural conservation for applications in impact assessment, heritage management, museological and site interpretive materials, public participation; and accessible institutional memory for corporations, government agencies, and NGOs.

The historical temple hall at Vat Oub Mong that contained the original murals had been demolished in the year 2000. However, prior to the demolition, photographs were taken of the murals which had been created in 1938. Thanks to this initiative and newly emerging technologies, digital replication of the lost cultural heritage is now possible.
But digital replication is not the only goal of the project – equally important is the replication at Vat Oub Mong (Vientiane) of the demolished Phralak-Phralam murals which was completed in 2011. In addition to this, the original 2,100-page palm leaf manuscript containing the Pralak-Pralam text in Lao tham script has been digitised and is currently being transliterated into modern Lao by the monks at Vat Oub Mong.
Alan Potkin gave talks about this project and its progress at several conferences in the recent years.

An abridged translation of the Phalak-Phralam text together with some photographs of the original murals from the demolished temple can be found on the homepage of the Center for SEA Studies at Northern Illinois University.

Latest news from the project can be found on the Theravada Buddhist Civilizations website.

An English translation of a Phralak-Phralam text found in a manuscript at the Royal Palace in Luang Prabang, together with photographs of the murals at Vat Oub Mong are in Sachchidanand Sahai’s book “Ramayana in Laos. A study in the Gvay Dvorahbi” (published in 1976 by B.R. Publishing corporation, Delhi).

“Auguste Pavie, the barefoot explorer” – Online exhibition and research

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Auguste Pavie (1847—1925) was the French explorer and diplomat, who is best known for his explorations of the Upper Mekong Valley and for playing a major role in bringing the kingdoms of Laos under French control.

Pavie went to Cochinchina (now part of southern Vietnam) as a sergeant in the marines in 1869 and subsequently worked in the Post and Telegraphic Department, directing construction of telegraph lines between Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and Bangkok in 1879 and another between Phnom Penh and Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in 1882. While working on the telegraph lines, he travelled throughout Siam, Cambodia, and Vietnam and gained an intimate knowledge of each country’s customs and languages. The French government hoped to gain control of the Lao states of the Mekong River Valley and accredited Pavie to the Siamese government as vice consul in Luang Prabang in 1886. During the next five years he travelled throughout northern Laos, winning for France the friendship of local rulers and chiefs and frustrating Siamese attempts to bring the region under control, which was beset by bands of Chinese freebooters (Ho or Haw). From 1891 to 1893 Pavie served as consul general in Bangkok and helped bring about the Franco-Siamese Conflict of 1893, subsequently resulting in all Lao states east of the Mekong River coming under French protectorate.

Before returning to France, Pavie conducted an expedition, defining Laos’ borders with China, and with Upper Burma, which the British had annexed in 1886. Pavie’s works include “Indochine 1879–1895″ (Paris, 1898–1919) and “À la conquête des coeurs” (1921).

An amazing online exhibition and collection of researches by the Archives nationales d’outre-mer in Aix-en-Provence is dedicated to the life and work of Auguste Pavie.

Lao Oral History Archive

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This project of the Center for Lao Studies in San Francisco is the first of its kind with the aim to document the untold stories of Lao refugees in the US through audio and video media and create an on-line archive of interviews, videos, and historical documents. Currently, there are almost no existing oral history projects and little academic research that focus on the ethnic Lao refugees in the US. By creating a Lao Oral History archive, CLS aims to raise awareness within the Lao-American community and the greater population of the history, culture, and contemporary realities of Lao refugees in the US as well as the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) Secret War in Laos in the 1960s and 70s. This project will disseminate the voices of underrepresented population, whose stories of immigration reflect unique moments in both Lao and American history, thereby building bridges between the past and present and between disparate cultures. The project started in 2009 and some first results are now available online through their homepage http://www.laostudies.org/loha .