In 2013, Sujit Wongthes wrote a series of articles in his regular column in Matichon Weekly on sepha, KCKP, and recitation. The series seems in part to have been provoked by us, but it is also a return to topics on which he has written three books and on which he has new information. The series, which began on 24 May 2013, and ended on 8 November, included 25 full-page articles.
Below is a summary of Sujit’s new arguments, omitting stuff which is reaffirming old material.
The word sepha may have come from Sanskrit sewa meaning service, probably via Bengalis who pronounce the word with a harder consonant similar to sepha. In various appearances of the word in the Three Seals Law, it means a servant or service of some kind. As a component of judicial titles, it refers to the phu prap or sentencers, who were probably given this name by the judges who were Brahmans. The term sepha dontri in the king’s daily timetable in the Palace Law means “music servants,” referring to the noble ladies who entertained and lullabied the king at night.
Khap is a word meaning recitation found in old Lao/Lanna communities from the Mekong to the Salween. These communities had a tradition of accompanying recitation with rhythm by banging sticks of bamboo known as krap. From around 950 CE, people moved from the Mekong area (around Luang Prabang) moved down the Nan and Yom Rivers into the Chaophraya Plain, especially the western part, the Thajin and Maeklong basins, which at that era were Suwannaphum or Dvaravati, including Suphanburi, the site of KCKP.
In the late 14th century, the Suphan ruler took over Ayutthaya, and these same Mekong-origin Lao became the principal population of the capital of Siam. The culture of recitation, and krap thus moved to the center of Siamese culture.
The original Khun Phaen story is a hero tale from this same people and same tradition. Phaen is a sound-alike of Thaen, or Phu Phya Thaen, the creator-god of old Tai-Lao tradition. In the early Ayutthaya text, the Ongkan chaeng nam, Khun Phaen is used as the name of Brahma, the Indian world-creating god. The use of the name Khun Phaen in this story is not coincidental but a deliberate use of sacred symbolism.
The name of Khun Phaen’s sword, Fa fuen, appears in the 1392 inscription found in Wat Mahathat Sukhothai about a peace pact between Sukhothai and Nan. The inscription calls on the gods and spirits of both places to witness the pact and punish anyone who breaks it. Pu fa fuen appears in the list of Nan guardian spirits. Fa means sky or god and is a component of words for ruler (chaofa, lord of the sky). Fuen means to revive or recreate or bring back. So Fa fuen is the sword that the god restores as a holy weapon.
In the Khun Phaen story which appears in the Testimony of the Inhabitants of the Old Capital, a text taken down from Ayutthaya prisoners taken to Burma in 1767, Khun Phaen in old age presents this sword to the king who renames it as phrasaeng prap satru (enemy queller) and pairs it as a regalia sword with another called phraหฟืเ khan chaisร (saber of victory). This latter weapon appears in the Wat Si Chum inscription, presented to King Fa Mueang of Sukhothai by the king of Sothapura (Angkor). Thus these two regalia weapons are thus symbols of Lao and Thai power respectively.
This hero story was known by the Ayutthaya nobles in 1767, and may be rather old. But on its own, it has limited appeal as entertainment because there is no female character, no villain, no love story, no drama. Khun Chang and Wanthong were probably added later, but there is no evidence when.
The name Phra Phan(wa)sa appears in the Northern Chronicles as an early ruler of Nakhon Chaisi so may be another relic of this Mekong-Lao-to-Suwannaphum tradition.
Khap was practiced at Ayutthaya, as is known from the mention in La Loubère’s account from 1685. But La Loubère does not state what was being chanted. Most probably it was the challenge-response form of group singing known as phleng. In these improvised performances, pairs or groups of men and women exchange repartee, often including stories and tales as part of the entertainment, particularly the Phrarotmeri story (Rathasena).
Phleng singing had a particular pattern or sequence: honoring teachers; challenge by the men; response by the women; leading to flirtation or courting; asking for the hand, in which the man suggests they should elope; rivalry, in which a second man appears, leading to competition; argument, in which the man has a second wife, leading to a raging argument; and finally parting, in which the woman says farewell to her house and possession, and the man takes her to enjoy the forest. This sequence became the template for the story of KCKP.
Until the early Bangkok era, the tradition of recitation was to tell only parts of stories, and to dress only the exciting bits of these up with khap chanting. Possibly KCKP developed in this way in late Ayutthaya but there is no direct evidence. No manuscripts have been found of sepha whereas several survived in other literary forms, suggesting that sepha was probably not written down.
In this late Ayutthaya era, the form was called sepha khap, meaning chanting with a certain rhythm. It developed into khap sepha only in early Bangkok, especially the Second Reign, when the krap were changed from bamboo to hard wood, and music was associated with sepha, not played simultaneously as accompaniment (which happened only in the Fourth or Fifth Reigns), but interspersed. The adoption of hard wood krap may have come from China or India with growing trade.
Sujit seems to be reacting in part to an article which we wrote in the literary magazine An (Read), where we noted a growing tendency in textbooks and commentary to state that KCKP was completely recreated in the Bangkok era (see the post on “Alfred Lord and KCKP”). We wondered why (and on what evidence) these accounts go far beyond the version of Prince Damrong in ascribing authorship of KCKP to the court and denying its origins in popular tradition.
Sujit has long opposed the attempts of the Thai literary establishment to push the origins of various literary and historical texts back into the past in order to endow them with the status of age. Maybe he mistook our article for something similar. Not the case.
Sujit and we are arguing past one another. He is interested in form, particularly the nature of performance, and he focuses on the analysis of key words (sepha, khap, dontri, etc). We are interested in content, the story, and we focus on the plot and the style of storytelling.
In this series of article, Sujit is arguing that the particular form of khap sepha crystallizes only in the Bangkok Second Reign. We have no problem with that at all. However, we argue that the content of KCKP developed earlier in popular tradition, and was not changed by the Bangkok court as much as often believed. Sujit’s argument that the plot of KCKP is based on a template found in popular counterpart singing is compatible with our view on the likely evolution of the story from a historical event: when such an event is evolved into a piece of entertainment, it takes on forms that are deep in the culture and readily familiar.
These two arguments are quite compatible.
Sujit’s new series is fascinating. His analysis of the changing meaning of words such as khap, dontri, sepha, mahori is fascinating and we listen with eager ears. His new history of the cultural origins of the KCKP story is absolutely ingenious.
But the series is also frustrating, partly because of the lack of sources. The idea that the framing of the KCKP story arose out of a pattern in phleng singing is intriguing, but where is the evidence. The idea that the Khun Phaen story is an old hero myth is ingenious, but the Thaen=Phaen identity stretches the imagination. What Sujit means by the transition from sepha khap to khap sepha is not at all clear.
Still, as with so much of what Sujit writes, the details are not the point. He is so good at the big picture of Thai cultural history because he knows so much and has such a wonderful imagination. Ignore him at your peril.