Folktales

About the Legend of Nang Phom Hom, “The Fragrant-Haired Lady”

The Isan-Lao folktale of Nang Phom Hom (นางผมหอม) is about a girl whose father is the king of elephants and who is later turned into a monkey by a ghost before she and her family are finally able to live happily ever after. As with most ancient folktales there are many versions told across the region with the same overall plot, but different details.

The story is well known. It has been shown on TV, told in books, and is a popular production for theater groups, especially mor lam musical troupes. And, of course, there’s a line of “Nang Phom Hom” hair care products.

Nang Phom Hom story painting at Wat Nong Wang

Although it’s not one of the “formal” ones found in the Pali Canon, some people consider the Nang Phom Hom legend to be a Jataka tale, meaning that it’s a story about one of the many pre-enlightenment lifetimes of the Bodhisatta, the being who eventually became the current Buddha. The prince, Tarangsit, is the Bodhisatta in the story. Nang Phom Hom is an earlier birth of the Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara and their son Sila and daughter Chada are earlier births respectively of Rahula, the Buddha’s son, and Uppalavanna, one of the Buddha’s top female disciples.

Several stupas and caves in Thailand and Laos claim an association with Nang Phom Hom. Probably the most famous of these is Tham Erawan cave, high up a mountain on the border of Loei and Nong Bua Lamphu provinces. Locals believe this was Nang Phom Hom’s home while she lived in the elephant realm. The Nang Phom Hom poem at Wat Nong Wang in Khon Kaen city says the story happened in Phu Luang District, Loei province.

Tham Erawan cave mountain
Tham Erawan mountain.

There’s also a Central Thai folktale with the same name but a different plot. One day after bathing in a river, some of her hair floated downstream and was found by a king who fell instantly in love. He sent someone to find who the woman was and discovered that she was already engaged to a friend of his. So, the two men decided to play field hockey and the winner would get to marry her. Not pleased with this situation, Nang Phom Hom hung herself and when the two men heard about it they drown themselves. The Khmer-era Prang Nang Phom Hom in Amphoe Lam Sonthi, Lopburi province, is claimed to be her final resting place.

I’ve written two versions of the Nang Phom Hom story: a long version as told in the paintings at Khon Kaen’s Wat Nong Wang temple and a shorter standard version.

 

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