Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Legend( s) of Queen Chamadevi


Queen Chamadevi is historically a somewhat shad­owy figure. Believed to have been a 6th or 7th C. Mon princess of Lopburi, sent to found and rule the city of Haripunchai (modern-day Lamphun), she is credited with bringing the benefits of civilisation - Buddhism among them - to the North. But if the history is fragmentary, the leg­ends that have accreted and are still current about her in this part of the North are fully-fleshed and highly-coloured - sensational, even.

What the Northern chronicles, and especially the kon song whose familiars are often associated with the queen, tell us, is that as a baby she was found by a hermit in a giant lotus, and having been parented, protected and tutored by him, was sent to Lopburi where the king completed her education, and married her to one of his sons. She then returned with a full entourage up the Chao Praya and Ping rivers to the city her hermit 'father' had established magically for her. Interestingly, she failed to bring her husband with her, but gave birth to male twins shortly after her arrival, thus securing the succession. This was just as well, the legends tell us, because fellow but rather more primitive Mons in the region were not entirely welcoming. In particular, the leader of the Mon-Lua apparently based around Doi Suthep, one Khun Luang Viranka, was affronted when she refused - or at least strategically put off - his offer of marriage. For a while, Chamadevi kept him at bay with one excuse and another, but eventually, threatened by military force, she compromised. If he could throw his spear from Doi Suthep into her walled city, she would surrender her hand, she told him. Quite a chal­lenge, you might think, given that the distance, Doi Suthep to Haripunchai, is some 15 miles, but this is legend, and accordingly with his first throw the 'barbarian' chieftain landed his spear just outside the walls of the city. Alarmed that he might suceed with his next, Queen Chamadevi sent a present to Viranka, a hat that had been fashioned from an undergarment of the Queen and menstrually soiled by her. The simple fellow, flattered and pleased by what he took to be a compliment, put the hat on - with predictable results. The hero's sec­ond throw landed the spear not far from his feet, Viranka then realising that royally deceived and enchanted, he had completely lost his virile power. Out of disappointment and despair, the legends tell us, Viranka sent his last throw directly upwards, the spear falling to pierce the chest and kill the hero. Nevertheless, Khun Luang Viranka continues to be among the major spirits respected by Chiang Mai's people in some of their most important ceremonies. On the other hand, Queen Chamadevi survived, prospered and saw her area of rule extended. And she continues to be not only respected in local ceremonies, but to make appearances from time to time to mOdern-day followers, among other things ensuring that her history is told the way she wants it. But that in itself would be another story.

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