Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Singing Ape of Thailand

Long ago when the stars were young and the gods shared their magic with mortal men, a young prince named Chantakorop was sent to study under a hermit in the jungle. Only hermits knew the magic of the gods. Life would have been tiresome and boring for the prince had it not been for the hermit’s daughter, Mora,1 who entertained him with her graceful dancing and brought him bananas, phutsa1 (a type of fruit), and slices of durian melon.

When Chantakorop’s studies were complete, he left to return to his palace and claim the throne. Before he set out on his journey, the hermit presented him with a clay urn. "Within this urn is a gift I hope you will treasure forever. It contains your heart’s greatest desire," said the hermit, "However, you may not open the urn until you reach your father’s palace. If you open it before you have reached the safety of your own kingdom, great misfortune will befall upon you." The prince vowed to obey the hermit’s words, and gratefully took the gift and held his high while the hermit bowed (according to Thai tradition, a prince’s head never bends lower than that of a common man). "Sawasdee (goodbye)," said the hermit, "Do not forget what I have told you; you have been forewarned."

Chantakorop bid his instructor farewell, and embarked on his voyage through the jungle. With each passing day the urn inexplicably grew heavier, and with each step the prince’s curiosity grew as well. Finally, he could wait no longer. He impatiently removed the lid from the urn, and, much to his surprise, Mora, the hermit’s lovely daughter, magically appeared before him.

Chantakorop and Mora were hastily married in the nearest village. Eager to present his bride to his father, the prince anxiously continued his journey toward the royal palace with his new wife. When they were near the outskirts of the kingdom, Chantakorop suddenly remembered the warning the hermit had given him when they had parted, and he realized he had broken his promise to the man. At that moment, a bandit appeared from the shadows and challenged the prince to a fight. Whoever emerged victorious would have Mora as his prize. They fought valiantly, but the prince soon grew weary. The bandit then immediately swung a powerful blow that sent the prince staggering to the ground. Chantakorop’s sword fell beyond his reach. "Mora!" he called, "Quickly, if you cherish my life, bring me my sword!"

Mora reached for the sword, but was momentarily distracted by the sight of the bold bandit and left the sword where it lay. The bandit then seized the weapon for himself and killed the prince in an instant. Shocked by the result of her inaction, Mora bent over the body of her beloved prince and cried, "Pua, pua, pua (husband, husband, husband)."

The bandit took the heartbroken woman away. Mora went willingly, but all she could do the entire time was sadly call out, "Pua, pua, pua." As sunset approached, the gods looked down from the heavens, and the hermit suddenly appeared before his daughter and the bandit. Ashamed at her betrayal, he turned her into a gibbon. From that day on, she has roamed the forest in search of her fallen husband, and the melancholy sound of the gibbon crying, "Pua, pua, pua" is her eternal song of remorse.

In reality, the song of the gibbon is described by scientific rather than colorful cultural explanations. A gibbon’s voice can be heard from up to a mile away, even against the panorama of background noises of the rainforest. According to Jeremy and Patricia Raemakers, the gibbons’ songs are "similar in character and purpose to those of birds."2 Many birds share the same monogamous social system, which consists of a "male-female pair and their dependent young." Songbirds sing to attract a mate, to reinforce the pair-bond if already mated, and to warn of other birds of the same sex. Gibbon songs seem to fit a similar pattern.
[Cultural vs. BiologicalExplanations for the Song of the Lar Gibbon
L. Hasadsri, Anthropology
In traditional Thai folklore, gibbons are thought to be the reincarnation of disappointed lovers. The source of their mournful songs is believed to be the spirit of a grieving princess calling out to her lost husband in a hopeless yet never-ending search for him. What originally fueled this famous belief is the fact that lar gibbons (Hylobates lar), inhabitants of the rain forests found throughout Thailand, can often be heard singing, from the treetops, "Pua, pua, pua," or a similar sounding series of whoops and wails. Pua is the Thai word (albeit somewhat vulgar) for husband. Thai legend has it that this is how the gibbon came to be.]

1. Toth, Marian. Tales from Thailand: Folklore, Culture, and History. 1971. Charles E. Tuttle Co. Tokyo, Japan. pp. 97-105
2 Raemakers, Jeremy and Patricia. The Singing Ape: A Journey Into the Jungles of Thailand. 1990. The Anarm Printing Group Co. Bangkok. Thailand. p. xiii - xviii
3 Richard, Alison. Primates in Nature. 1985. W.H. Freeman and Company. New York. P. 332-333, 354.
4 Carpenter, C. Ray. A Field Study in Siam of the Behavior and Social Relations of the Gibbon.1941. The John Hopkins Press. Baltimore, Maryland. p. 55


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