This version of the Nang Phom Hom folktale is based on the paintings on the third-floor window shutters and doors of Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon stupa at Wat Nong Wang temple in Khon Kaen city. (The lead painter was Uthaitong Jantagon from Kalasin.) It’s much longer than the story as it’s normally told, but overall the plot is the same. And though I wrote it following the outline provided by these 88 paintings and the brief poem on the blue panels below them, it’s my own creation, combining elements from various Nang Phom Hom stories that I’ve read and heard over the years – in particular, the classic telling by Phra Dechawaro Pikhu in his book The Nang Phom Hom Legend: An Ancient Isan Folktale (นิทานนางผมหอม คำกลอนโบราณภาคอีสาน). Thanks to Suttawan Bewer and Prapaporn Sompacdee for helping me with the translation.
Because the story is told clockwise around the stupa, starting in the southwest corner, each pair of pictures here needs to be followed right to left.
“The Isan Folktale ‘Nang Phom Hom'”
“The story begins with this picture.”
Nakhon Sri Ratchathani was the greatest city in the land. The king, Phra Tiew Soi, lived in a fantastic palace and his delightful queen, Nang Man, was looked after by one thousand servants. His subjects had known nothing but happiness and prosperity since he took the throne and nobody dared attack the kingdom because its army was so large and strong. People from all around the world – Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, Indian, European, and many more – lived there. They could buy anything they would ever want or need, and there was always theater, music, and entertainment happening. It was as close to heaven as one could find on earth.
The king’s only child, the beautiful princess Nang Sida, was beloved by all. Her soul had been sent by Indra to the queen’s womb, answering the king and queen’s desperate prayer to have a child. Growing up she never lacked for anything and was nearly perfect in every way.
Soon after she came of age, Nang Sida was overcome with the desire to go walking in the forest, but her father forbid her. It was too dangerous, he said. There were tigers, elephants, snakes and many other sinister creatures. But her desire grew into an obsession – she lost her appetite, stopped sleeping soundly, and could no longer concentrate on anything else. Again she begged her parents to let her go, telling them that if she can’t, she will die. A risky walk in the forest was better than certain death in the palace her parents decided, so they reluctantly agreed. The king chose a team of soldiers, servants, and Sida’s friends to accompany and protect her. Nang Sida said she would return once she felt satisfied and promised to not be gone long.
She said good bye and walked out of the palace followed by her entourage. The scenery was beautiful and everyone was enjoying themselves. When they reached a river, Nang Sida and the other women swam and sang flirtatious songs about what kinds of husbands they wanted.
When they were done having fun in the river, they continued walking through the forest. At this time Indra happened to see Nang Sida and he came down from heaven in the form of a giant, scary pret (“hungry ghost”) and everyone who saw him ran away and hid. During the panic Indra took Nang Sida far away and left her behind. When the people came back they found that Nang Sida was gone. Sad and worried, they looked near and far, shouting her name loudly, but could not find her. As the day drew to a close, they had no choice but to return to the palace and tell the king and queen the terrible news. Everyone was worried that they would be punished, or even killed.
When the king and queen heard everything, they were heartbroken, not angry. They cried and hit themselves in despair. Although they feared the worst, nobody knew for sure that Nang Sida had been eaten by the ghost – she might still be in the forest, lost or hiding somewhere; or maybe a hunter found her and took her to safety. To find the truth about what happened to his daughter, the king sent for his astrologer. He did some calculations and determined that Nang Sida was still alive. The ghost had only hidden her in the forest, not harmed her, he said. He explained that the entire situation, including her craving to walk in the wilderness, was a result of karma from the past and the king had no need to worry. She was lost now, but would soon be home safe and sound.
After the ghost left her behind, Nang Sida walked around trying to find her companions. She was alone and very afraid and had no idea where to go. She walked aimlessly until after sunset and then fell asleep under a big tree in the cold wind. She suffered a lot and knew that her parents were very worried.
Early the next morning, Nang Sida continued walking, hoping to find her way home. She picked some fruits to eat, but found no water. The day turned very hot and she was exhausted and terribly thirsty. Eventually she found a wild buffalo’s footprint and sucked up the water it contained, but this was only enough to moisten her throat. Later she found an elephant footprint full of water and she was finally able to quench her thirst.
Re-energized, Nang Sida started walking again and climbed a tall hill hoping to see where she was. From the top she could see her city off in the distance and finally felt some relief. She headed towards home and on the way met some soldiers and servants who were out searching for her. They led her safely the rest of the way back home. The king and queen cried tears of joy because they’d not had full confidence in their astrologer’s prediction and feared that a tiger or elephant had killed her. There was a bai-sii su kwan ceremony to welcome her home and put her body’s spirits back in order and then everybody who had helped in the search was served a big meal. Finally, everyone went home and got some much needed rest.
Not long after returning home Nang Sida was shocked to find that she was pregnant, despite never having been with a man. She worried that her reputation would be ruined and her parents would feel ashamed. She wondered how this could happen and then remembered drinking water from the two footprints during her ordeal in the forest. This must be the cause, she assumed. When she told her parents the story they, and everybody else, believed her, because they knew that she never did bad things.
She gave birth to twin daughters, one named Nang Phom Hom, because of her beautiful smelling hair, and the other named Nang Lune. Nang Phom Hom was kind and generous, while Nang Lune was envious and mean.
Though their mother and her servants were fully devoted and took good care of them, life was sometimes difficult for Nang Phom Hom and Nang Lune because other children teased them about being the daughters of an elephant and did not want to play with them. They asked their mother to tell them about their father, but initially Nang Sida wouldn’t do it. The girls cried and begged her, so eventually she told them the truth about how she got pregnant. She told the girls not to worry about it, to just let it go. Even though they are different from the other kids, they have all the food, money, and toys they need and should not worry about their father.
They felt better knowing the real story, but they could not stop wondering who their father was. He must be the elephant king, they agreed. They often discussed going into the forest to find him, and once they had grown up a little more they decided to do it. Nang Sida cried when her daughters told her their plan, and she begged them not to go. The forest is difficult and dangerous, she told them, and reminded them about her experience with the ghost. But the girls had made up their mind and nothing could stop them. Nang Phom Hom and Nang Lune hugged and kissed their mother and then bowed down before her, expressing their love and promising to come back soon. Then they walked off into the forest.
The forest was thick and dark and the girls had no idea where they were going. They were very tired and a little scared, but there was no way they would give up. They walked all day, every day, and after journeying for a long time, they reached a vast bai-lan palm forest – and here they saw a majestic elephant. The girls were overjoyed and felt certain that this must be their father, so they started shouting to get his attention.
While Nang Phom Hom and Nang Lune were happy to see the elephant, he was not happy to see them. Humans are normally forbidden from entering the elephant realm and he considered killing them right away. But instead, he gruffly asked why they came here. Out of fear and respect the girls threw themselves on the ground in front of the elephant and said they had come to find their father. They told him the story about their mother getting lost in the forest and drinking water from footprints and said that this is why they believed the king of elephants was their father.
He was Chattan, the elephant king, he told them, and he did not believe their story. But there was one way they could prove it – if they could climb up to his back by walking on his tusks, then they were his daughters. But if they fell off, they were not, and he would kill them.
Neither girl had any doubt that they could do it. Nang Phom Hom went first. She was light on her feet and made it up with ease. But Nang Lune fell down all three times she tried and after the third attempt, Chattan stomped her to death mercilessly while Nang Phom Hom cried and screamed, begging him to stop.
Nang Phom Hom asked her father if he would take care of her in the forest. Chattan kissed her on the head with his trunk and said that of course he would take care of her daughter. He would bring her fruit and other foods from the forest every day and do anything else that she needed. He also told her that he was the leader of 100,000 elephants and he would order them all to do the same. He promised that she would be very safe and happy living with him. Then they travelled to his home.