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The Art of Manora: an Ancient Tale of Feminine Power Preserved in South-East Asian Theatre

  • Poh Sim Plowright


When is a widely-known fairy tale more than a story? Poh Sim Plowright recently went to South Thailand and North Malaysia to examine the relevance of the ‘birdwoman’ folk tale to the lives of the villagers1 in those two regions. Here the local people still participate in a ritual dramatization of a story which for them represents a crucial renewal of life in their yearly calendar – a celebration of the roots of feminine magical power which goes back to the ancient historical south-east Asian practice by which a victorious ruler would carry back as booty to his kingdom the wives and dancers of the vanquished. Since most of the members of these royal harems were mediums gifted with special powers of healing and communicating with spirits, they were seen as valuable additions to a ruler's aura of divinity – and consequently to his terrestrial power. More importantly, the theatrical art form known as Manora, which enshrines the ‘birdwoman’ tale, is said to have been founded by two royal female trance mediums, regarded as primal healers and guardians of a life-renewing elixir: thus, each performance also serves as a shamanic and healing ritual. The performances here described by Poh Sim Plowright also have links with drama in China and Japan, and at the end of her article she explores the powerful connection with W. B. Yeats's celebrated ‘birdwoman’ play, At the Hawk's Well, which features a ‘Hawk’ Woman guarding a ‘well of miraculous water’ against male intrusion. Poh Sim Plowright is Director of the Centre for the Study of Noh Drama and Lecturer in Oriental Drama at Royal Holloway College, University of London.



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Notes and References

1. All performing arts are considered by Islamic purists and the orthodox as haram or ‘forbidden’. They do not wish to see any kind of human representation, even if it is highly stylized. So the wayang kulit or ‘shadow puppet theatre’ comes under heavy censorship, despite the fact that it was the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Al-Arabi, who saw the panggung (puppet stage) as a mini-cosmos, the lamp as the sun, and the puppeteer as God. Many orthodox Malayan Muslims regard this as a heresy, and the shadow puppet theatre as something sinful. Other traditional performing arts are similarly mistrusted. Ironically, even though the Manora theatrical art form originated in old Malaya, it has never been totally accepted by the Malays because of its supposedly strong Buddhist base. See Yousof, Ghulam Sarwar, Panggung Semar: Aspects of Traditional Malay Theatre (Petaling Jaya: Tempo Publishing, 1992), p. 175, 183.

2. Manora was the earliest form of drama known in Siam, and it was believed to have developed in the twelfth century from village performances connected with Buddhist animistic practice in the old Malay kingdom of Patani (just south of Nakhon Sri Thammarat), which is now part of Thailand. In 1909 the British ceded Nakhon and Patani to Thailand under the Treaty of Bangkok. See The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre, ed. Brandon, James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 234.

3. Cf. the role of these two princesses as healers with that of the Japanese legendary Princess Joruri, who is regarded as the mythical founder of the seventeenth-century bunraku puppet theatre initially known as ningyo (doll) joruri (narrative recitations). The story of the romance between the Princess Joruri and the Genji general Yoshitsune was well known. Her lover was taken ill during one of his military expeditions, and she flew to his bedside and miraculously restored him to health.

4. See The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre, op. cit., p. 23–6.

5. For a fuller account of the Mesi Mala myth, see Panggung Semar, op. cit., p. 165–8.

6. It is believed that the drum is made out of the wood of the World Tree which provides communication between earth and sky. Through his drumming, the shaman is able to project himself into the vicinity of the World Tree and can fly to the sky. See Eliade, Mircea, Shamanism (New York: Arkana Press, 1989), p. 168.

7. The ‘clown’ figure is frequently associated with divinity and healing, not only in Manora but other related Malay dance dramas: for example, in the Malay female court dance, Mak Yong, women who have been healed by bomoh (witch doctor) clowns in turn become the healers in the community. See The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre, op. cit., p. 195.

8. Ginsburg, Henry, ‘The Manora Dance Drama: an Introduction’, journal of the Siam Society, LX, Part 2 (07 1972), p. 174.

9. The strategic position of Melaka (now spelt ‘Malacca’), at the narrowest part of the Straits of Malacca, made it the most prosperous trading port in south-east Asia in the fifteenth century. The port was named after the Melaka tree, under which the first refugee king – Raja Iskandar Shah – rested on arrival. Kingships in Malaya did not begin with the Melaka dynasty, since the Malay states of Kedah and Patani were known as early as the sixth century. See Karim, Wazir Jahan, Women and Culture: Between Malay Adat and Islam (San Francisco; Oxford: Westview Press, 1992), p. 34–8.

10. See Winstedt, Richard, ‘Indian Influence in the Malay World’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Parts 3–4 (1944), p. 188: 'Not many decades ago Perak's Muslim Sultan was still waited upon like a Hindu god, by virgins bare to the waist’.

11. Cf. the legendary history and folklore of China, which abound not only in examples of magical flight but specific instances of linking sovereignty with female divinity. See Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, op. cit., p. 448–9.

12. See the section entitled ‘Shamanic Affinities’, in Hatto, A. T., ‘The Swan Maiden: a Folk-Tale of North Eurasian Origin?’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, XXIV (1961), p. 341.

13. Ibid., p. 334.

14. Ibid., p. 327.

15. Ibid., p. 333, 343. (The ‘foreign’ wife was frequently associated with sorcery in archaic societies.)

16. Many folk stories were known as jataka, and the term exemplified causal connection which, according to Buddhist philosophy, forms the structure of things: every event in the present is to be explained by facts going farther and farther back in the past. See New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology (Twickenham: Hamlyn, 1959), p. 355.

17. See Jaini, Padmanabh S., ‘The Story of Sudhana and Manohara: an Analysis of the Texts of the Borobudur Reliefs’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, XXIX (1966), p. 535.

18. See Hatto, ‘The Swan Maiden’, op. cit., p. 327.

19. Nasruddin, Mohammad Ghouse, The Malay Dance (Kuala Lumpur, 1995), p. 2.

20. For a fuller account of the lives of Tun Kudu and Tun Fatimah, see Haindan, H., Tun Kudu (Kuala Lumpur: Pustaka Antara, 1967); Tun Fatimah: Sri Kandi Melaka (Kuala Lumpur: Syarikat Buku Uni-Text, 1977).

21. The Valkyries in Teutonic mythology were not only able to transform themselves into swan-maidens but played crucial roles in controlling the destinies of warriors. See New Larousse Encyclopaedia of Mythology, op. cit., p. 278.

22. See the article on chastity belts by Chee, Kee Hua, The Star, 29 03 1997, p. 2. This was written in conjunction with the world's first full-scale exhibition on this subject, entitled ‘Infidelity: Violation of Family Values’, held at the Muzium Negara, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Cf. the ancient western concept of mundium, central to early Germanic marriage, which expressed a man's dominion over his wife to the extent that should she compromise his mundium, she could be smothered in dung (Lex Burgundronum, 34.1). See Hall, Edwin, The Arnoffini Betrothal (California: University of California Press, 1994), p. 1516.

23. For a full history of the practice of footbinding, see Levy, Howard S., The Complete History of the Curious Erotic Custom of Footbinding in China (New York: Prometheus Books, 1991).

24. The following, from Campbell, Joseph, Primitive Mythology: the Masks of God (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), p. 315, is pertinent: ‘There can be no doubt that in the very earliest age of human history, the magical force and wonder of the female was no less a marvel than the universe itself; and this gave to woman a prodigious power, which has been one of the chief concerns of the masculine part of the population to break, control, and employ to its own ends. It is, in fact, most remarkable how many primitive hunting races have the legend of a still more primitive age than their own, in which women were the sole possessors of the magical art’.

25. Women and Culture, op. cit., p. 66–7. This translation has been ascribed to Sir Andrew Caldwell, former British Resident of Negri Sembilan in Malaya.

26. Ibid., p. 141–3.

27. Though, understandably, any form of tampering with the vagina is a delicate subject, several of those I interviewed in North Malaysia and South Thailand maintained that they had a friend or relative who had undergone surgery to tighten her vagina. There is a prevalent belief that the vagina is associated with female sorcery. See Fortune, R. F., Sorcerers of Dobu (London, 1932), p. 150 ff., and p. 296, for support of this belief.

28. Wazir Jahan Karim, Women and Culture, p. 68. Verses from the Qur'an are often appended to charms and spells in the form of opening or closing statements. The following spell for ‘capturing’ a person's soul begins: Bismillahi ‘al-rahtnani’ I-rahimi (‘In the name of God, the Merciful and Compassionate’).

29. See the author's article on ‘The Birdwoman and the Puppet King’, New Theatre Quarterly, XIII, No. 50 (May 1997). As in China, where there are twenty-four splendid ‘birdwoman’ figures in the famous Kai Yuan Temple in the Fujian province representing the twenty-four divisions of the solar year in the traditional Chinese calendar, the ‘birdwoman’ in southern Thailand is seen as the ‘presider’ over time, but in a lunar year which comprises twelve months. So the number twelve is significantly repeated throughout the Manora art: there are twelve steps, twelve stories; twelve songs; twelve parts of the ‘birdwoman’ costume; and twelve compulsory articles which the hunter takes with him on his journey. Eliade, Mircea writes, in The Myth of the Eternal Return (London; New York: Arkana Press, 1989 ), p. 52, that ‘a periodic regeneration of time presupposes, in more or less explicit form, a new Creation – that is, a repetition of the Cosmogonic act’.

30. See an English translation of this unexpurgated scene (with all the spring flowers and their symbolism intact) in Riley, Jo, The Chinese Theatre and the Actor in Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p. 239–41.

31. See Karim, Women and Culture, p. 211.

32. The dance patterns were either circular or in a figure-of-eight, which is a variation of the circle design: apart from being aesthetically pleasing, the circle symbolizes harmony and continuation while the number eight is associated with shamanism – for example, the eight-legged horse connected with the shamaness/guardian spirit of the Buryat tribe. See Mircea Eliade, Shamanism, op. cit., p. 469.

33. The same stick is used as an instrument of healing.

34. See Jeffrey's, Ian introduction to La France: Images of Woman and Ideas of a Nation, 1789–1989 (Uxbridge: Hillingdon Press, 1986), p. 71. Jeffrey refers to the great historian and narrator of France, Jules Michelet, who associated woman with water and nature. So ‘the spying on Cézanne's group of female bathers entailed an act of violence, a breaking into the cycle of Nature’.

35. A full account of this episode can be found in World Mythology, ed. Willis, Roy (London: Simon and Schuster, 1993), p. 71.

36. Chang Ee, the wife of the archer Shen Yi, stole the elixir from her husband, and, while he watched helpless, flew to the moon, which became identified with the immortal fluid. Note the reversal of the theft motif in this Chinese story, where it is the female who steals the elixir from the male. Ibid., p. 95.

37. The traditional Chinese version of the swan-maiden story (dated circa eighth century) was translated by Waley, Arthur, in Ballads and Stories from Tun-huang (London: Allen and Unwin, 1960), p. 149–55.

38. This introduction can be found in Pound, Ezra and Fenollosa, Ernest, The Classic Noh Theatre of Japan (New York: New Directions, 1959), p. 151–63. References to Hagoromo and Nishikigi are on p. 159, p. 161, and p. 159–60 respectively.

39. The Noh play Yoro, which features a spring of miraculous healing water, has been considered a more likely model than Hagoromo for At the Hawk's Well. See Taylor, Richard, ‘Assimilation and Accomplishment: Noh Drama and an Unpublished Source for At the Hawk's Well’, in Yeats and the Theatre, ed. O'Driscoll, Robert and Lorna, Reynolds (Yeats Study Series, Canada, 1975), p. 137–8. A close scrutiny of the context of Yoro emphasizes the deep differences between the two plays and, furthermore, Yeats himself made no such connection in his famous essay. It should also be noted that Hagoromo is a play strongly associated with the famous Umewaka family, responsible for the transmission of the great Noh art to Yeats through Fenollosa and Pound. In 1970 the Japanese Ministry of Education made a film of a particularly memorable Umewaka performance of Hagoromo.

40. In Nishikigi the ghost of a woman who rejected her suitor in life is still carrying a piece of cloth called hosonuno, which is woven from birds' feathers.

41. See Foster, Roy, W. B. Yeats: a Life. The Apprentice Mage, 1865–1914 (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 453–91.

42. In 1949 a Noh play entitled Takahime or The Hawk Princess was composed by Mario Yokomichi as a complement to Yeats's Noh-inspired At the Hawk's Well, and this is regarded proudly by the Japanese as closer to the genuine Noh form than Yeats's ‘imitation’.

43. On 17 October 1996, with financial assistance from two Japanese foundations, two productions were organized on the Noh stage at Royal Holloway, with Umewaka Naohiko, the great-grandson of Umewaka Minoru (who introduced the Noh to Yeats), playing the double roles of the Angel in Hagoromo and the Hawk-Woman in At the Hawk's Well. This was the first time that such a juxtaposition had been made, and it was appreciated as an apt hymn to the Irish-Japanese connection. But, despite the underlining of strong mediumistic resonances in both plays through the distribution of sprigs of rosemary (a sacred herb) to every spectator, the burning of incense, and other devices, audience involvement in the productions was warm but academic.


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