|Lawa (Lua) : A Study from Palm-Leaf Manuscripts and Stone Inscriptions|
Rajabhat Institute of Chiangmai
|Lua or Lawa is one of the important ethnic
groups, which have been frequently mentioned
in palm-leaf manuscripts, and a few stone
inscriptions within the boundaries of northern
Thailand. In addition, there are other sources
that either mention or give evidence of the
Lua inhabiting this area. There are a number
of important folk tales that show the close
relationships between both the Lua and Tai
Yuan tribes in ancient times. Moreover, Tai
Yuan proverbs mention the Lua. The observance
of the Lua villagers making sacrifices to
the ancient Royal Lanna seals gives exciting
proof that the Lua were often ordered to
work as temple slaves. Finally scholars have
made visits to archeological Lua sites that
have physical features of their cities still
There are a number of different spellings that refer to the Lawa as mentioned in these ancient sources. They include Lua, Milukku, Tamilla , and La. Lua and Lawa are mostly mentioned in the town chronicle . Milukku is used in the Buddhist text referring to the relic, temple history or Lord Buddha. La and Tamilla were inscribed on the stone inscriptions.
This author is curious to know why different writers (who in most cases were monks) nearly always refer to the Lua as the receivers of Buddhism in ancient times. According to Phrachaoliaplok chronicle, or the Travels of Lord Buddha in Lanna , the Lord Buddha always left a souvenir in the form of a hair relic or footprint to the Lua tribe's people inhabiting Lanna. It appears that there was agreement among the writers that the Lua were the indigenous people of this area and that they have had a long and durable relationship with the Tai Yuan .
It is the purpose of this paper to discuss various aspects of the Lua as mentioned in historical sources so as to make it easy for non-readers of northern Thai to better understand the historical role of the Lua in ancient times. Furthermore, it may assist in future comparative studies between the Lua in Sipsongpanna, the Shan State, Laos and Central Thailand.
Lua around the Doi Tung Area
One area, which is important and relates to many of the legends about northern Thailand is in the area of Mae Sai in Chiangrai province around Doi Tung Mountain. According to the Doi Tung chronicle, which was written in the Tai Yuan script, it states that Doi Tung was inhabited with Tamilla (a Lua tribe) and there was a clever man called Phu Jao Lao Jok. He was their leader and a very skillful silversmith. Phu Jao Lao Jok was in possession of 500 hoes and 500 clients who rented them out. Phu Jao Lao Jok had exceptional knowledge of metallurgy. Today the Lua at Maesalieng in Mae Hong Son province and Chomthong , Maejaem and Hod in Chiangmai province are considered very skilled in metalwork. They often refer back to this ancestor with pride. The northern chronicle goes on to say that the 500 people used their hoes for farming in an area where a large market was established at the foot of the Doi Tung Mountain. Later, the chronicle goes on to say, King Achuttaraj of Yonok City, came and asked Phu Jao Lao Jok for 3,000 square wa of land, and in return paid him 1,000 units of gold. After the chedi was completed and the left shoulder relic of the Buddha enshrined, King Achuttaraj ordered that the 500 devote the rest of their lives as temple slaves in service of Doi Tung relic temple . The chronicle further declares that the Lua spread as far as the Lawa River (present day Mae Sai River) . The eldest son of Phu Jao Lao Jok ruled the Lua city of Wiang Sii Tuang , located in an area just north of Doi Tung . Many years later Wiang Sii Tuang became known as Muang Hiran Nakorn Ngernyang , which was where King Mengrai was born in 1239. This is one of the important Lua areas as mentioned in the northern chronicle, which is significant to understanding their role in Lanna as a whole.
Lua in the Area around Doi Suthep
The second important Lua group inhabited the area around the foot of Doi Suthep or in the area presently known as Chiangmai city, on the west bank of the Ping river. This area has a very generous supply of historical documentation and archeological evidence to support the Lua claim to fame in ancient times. In the past there were three important Lua settlements at different times in history. They were Chetaburi, Wiang Suan Dok, and Wiang Nopburi.
At the foot of Doi Suthep , close to the front entrance of Chiangmai University, evidence shows that a circular walled and dry-moat Lua city existed. It was originally called Chetaburi and later called Wiang Chet Lin . Archeologists claim that such circular-shaped cities represent the oldest kind of city in Thailand. Therefore we speculate that this city was the oldest of the three based on the shape of its rampart.
At the backside of Chiangmai University there is a square walled and dry-moat Lua city called Wiang Suan Dok . The chronicle mentions that this city was originally established as a result of the increased population of Wiang Chet Lin.
The third Lua settlement established Nopburi on the west bank of the Ping river in Chiangmai City. The chronicle's writer says that the Lua tribe received and accepted the five religious precepts of Buddhism . The tribe also received a pillar from Indra called "Sao Inthakhin " which continued to be important among the Tai Yuan who built Chiangmai over their city. The many Lua rituals associated around the city pillar were continued among the Tai Yuan . Today there is a pavilion housing the Sao Inthakhin pillar at Wat Chedi Luang where the folks of Chiangmai annually pay homage in similar fashion as the Lua in by gone days. Moreover the Muang Ngernyang Chiangsaen chronicle gives a similar account of Indra's pillar being erected at Muang Ngernyang (city on the Mae Sai river ) during the reign of King Lao Khieng , great grandson of Phu Jao Lao Jok.
Later Nopburi is mentioned as the city where King Mengrai built the new city called Chiangmai. The city was built directly over the Lua city. It was called Nopburi Sri Nakhorn Phing Chiangmai . The chronicle hints that all the kings of the Mangrai dynasty followed the tradition of paying respect to Indra's pillar except for the last one, King Mae Ku (1551-1557) who is credited for causing Chiangmai to be captured by the Burmese in 1557 .
Near to the end of the Burmese rule of Chiangmai (1776), Prince Kawila of Lampang established a fort city at Pasang in Lamphun where he erected Indra's pillar. Twenty years later, after defeating the Burmese, he re-populated and reconstructed the city of Chiangmai. He recovered Indra's pillar at Wat Inthakhin/Wat Sadue Muang and re-erected it at Wat Chedi Luang.
The Lua People of Doi Suthep
Pu Sae Yaa Sae and Suthep: Guardian Spirits and City Consultant
The most famous and by far the most visited temple is located on Doi Suthep Mountain in Chiangmai province. The name Suthep is a very ancient name referring to the Lua hermit who resided with his parents at the foot of Doi Suthep. His parents were Pu Sae and Yaa Sae and they were cannibals . One day Lord Buddha arrived in this area and convinced them to stop eating people. Afterwards Suthep became a monk for a short time and then he became a hermit and resided in a cave on Doi Suthep. The local people believe that any and all hermits who resided at this mountain were called Hermit Suthep . Throughout history his name is often mentioned as a consultant for rulers in the area. He is credited for constructing Hariphunchai City and giving advice for building several other cities.
Today the Chiangmai people consider Pu Sae Yaa Sae as important city spirits of Chiangmai. Their spirit house is located at the foot of the hill behind Chiangmai University. A buffalo is sacrificed each year for their spirits. In addition their spirits are called upon to bring rain and prosperity to Chiangmai.
People Clashing between Classes
Jamatheweewong Chronicle mentions the tragedy that developed between the Mon at Hariphunchai and the Lua at Doi Suthep. The principal participants in the story were Khun Luang Wilangka, the leader of the Lua tribe, and Queen Jamathewee, the first ruler of Hariphunchai. This story reveals the clashing between classes. The story stresses the inferior culture of the barbaric Lua people and the superior culture of the civilized Mon people. The plot of the story centers around Khun Luang Wilangkha's many attempts to win over Queen Jamathewee through strength and force. Several battles occurred and challenges that ended in defeat and the eventual death of Khun Luang Wilangkha. This folk tale continues to be famous among the people of Chiangmai and is often told by grandparents to their grandchildren especially at night prior to the cremation ritual. Today there is a spirit house of Khun Luang Wilangkha at a peak on Doi Suthep range. There is also a Lua village called Muang Kha at the foot of this peak which has a Khun Luang Wilangkha spirit house on the edge of the village. They claim to be descendents of him and honor his spirits with annual offerings to the spirit house.
Lua and Buddhism
Many stories about the founding of cities, the appearances of Lord Buddha, the receiving of relics, and the leaving of footprints have the Lua present and taking a part in the action. They may be present to ask for a hair relic, or to humbly receive the Dhamma, or witness a prediction made by the Lord Buddha. There are many of these stories that appear in chronicles and temple histories throughout northern Thailand. The Buddha's travels through the region is well document in the Phrachaoliaplok chronicle (The Travels of Lord Buddha).
In one of the local legends mentioned in this chronicle, the Lord Buddha arrived at a Lua pottery village along the Ping River in present day Lamphun. They gave the Buddha food and after eating he predicted the city of Phun Cha (meaning to eat). He gave a hair relic, which the tribe had enshrined in a chedi. Afterwards the Buddha traveled further down the Ping river and met a Lua working at a water wheel bringing water up into the irrigation ditch. He predicted that the area around this water wheel would be called Hod (meaning dry area). Afterward he left his footprint, which is called Phrabat Muang Hod.
In another interesting local legend, the Lord Buddha traveled to the area of the Wang river basin in what is today known as Lampang. The Buddha met a Lua tribesman called Ai Korn who was in the forest gathering jungle products (coconuts, eggplants , and bell tree nut). The Lua man gave four of each to the Buddha who in return entrusted him with a hair relic and made a prediction about the establishment of a Buddhist city in this area called Lakorn (perhaps Luakorn and later Nakorn, and today Lampang).
Another example can be found in a local legend about the Buddha journeying to the area of the Yom river basin, in what today we call Phrae. Here the Buddha met a Lua tribesman called Ai Com near a tree where he was sitting. They talked to each other about the betel nuts growing from this tree. Ai Com informed him that the betel nuts from this tree are poisonous and result in people going crazy. The Buddha responded by asking for one of the betel nut to try for himself. Afterwards nothing harmful happened. Ai Com was impressed and dutifully honored the Buddha. After explaining the Dhamma the Buddha presented him with a hair relic and predicted a Buddhist city called Phrae (meaning place to spread craziness).
In the area of present day Hod along the Ping River in Chiangmai province the Buddha stopped and rested here. While bathing in the Ping River he met a Lua tribesman who gave him some honey. He later predicted that this place will be called Tha Soi (Soi Pier). A little later he met a group of Lua merchants who were pushing a cart of mineral salt. They gave the Buddha some salt and food and the Buddha predicted that this place would be called Tha Sai (Salt Pier).
Aside from predictions, there are local legends with physical evidence in the form of a footprint. These are found at several locations throughout northern Thailand. The Buddha traveled and met a Lua who gave him some honey. In return the Buddha left his footprint on the cliff which today is called Phrabat Pha Dok Mai in Lee district, Lamphun province. Later he traveled further along the Ping River and met a Lua tribesman preparing rice and gave to the Buddha. He left his footprint and gave the name Phrabat Huay Khao Tom. (Lee district, Lamphun province)
Another important artifact associated with the Lua are the Royal Silver Foils and Seal of Queen Wisuttitewee , who served as the puppet ruler of Chiangmai during the early period of Burmese control in 1567. In addition there is a Seal of the Supreme Patriarch . At this time Queen Wisuttitewee presented two silver foils with the royal seal stamped on them to this Lua village. (40 cm. long and 6 cm. wide) Inscribed in Sukhothai script, there are instructions giving authority to three high ranking Chiangmai officials to present these royal items as orders to be followed in faithful service to the crown and temple to five Lua villages in present day Chomthong district, Chiangmai. The villages were appointed to take care and service Wat Raj Wisuttaram and serve as temple slaves exempt from other services of the government including military and forced labor.
Lua as Mentioned in Stone Inscriptions
Stone inscriptions have been a valuable source of information about the Lua and their relationship with merit making and the royal projects by different Lanna rulers.
Normally the king would commission the scribe to use a slab of sandstone and document important information about royal projects in the Sukhothai script. These records of history were placed at important temple so that the general public could easily view. The content included an astrological symbol at the top followed by the ruler who commanded the merit making project which was usually associated with the temple such as the renovation of the relic chedi, the building of halls, or the establishment of new temples. There were also the names of temple slave in the form of families and individuals. Another important item found on these stone inscriptions included the donation of land by the royal family to the temple. As far as the Lua are concerned there are four important stone inscriptions which mention the Lua as temple slaves. They are referred to as La and Milukku in these inscriptions.
Today there are Lua villages scattered throughout northern Thailand. Thailand has villages from Chiangrai to Tak provinces. Many of the Lua in northern Thailand have kept some of the ancient traditions of their ancestors. They have assimilated with Tai Yuan and Tai Yuan have assimilated with them. The examples that are most visible today are rituals associated with birth, death, marriage, housewarming , costumes, and animism. The biggest changes have occurred because of changes in life style as Thailand rapidly modernizes . Lua villages are more frequently associated with city people. They are educated in government schools and are exposed to reading and mass media. Many have successfully assimilated into Tai Yuan society. It's valuable to take a look at some of these rituals that are still alive today.
Birth of a child
This is an example of an area where the Lua and Tai Yuan (khon muang) follow similar customs. After the birth of a baby, it is placed in a basket and left at the top of the stairs in the house. Then someone shouts, this is the spirit of a human child. If you are not interested I will feed and take care of this human child. After one month a name is given to the baby and then the su khwan ceremony takes place where the child's souls are called , if in fact any of them have wondered away.
Here is another example of customs shared by both the Lua and Tai Yuan. The young male teenagers go courting in-groups to the young lady's house where they play traditional musical instruments. If the lady is interested they will get married and make sacrifice to ancestral spirits. Those of the same ancestors will not marry.
Even though there is a difference in the way the two ethic groups dispose of their dead, there are some similarities associated with the funeral ceremony. For instance, there is a lit candle at the head of the coffin while it is in the temple or at the house. Moreover both ethnic group carry a 3 tail banner at the head of the procession to the gravesite or crematorium. There is a food bag placed inside the coffin.
Lua and Tai Yuan both believe in spirits, such as ancestral , village, house, forest, water, orchard, paddy fields , irrigation, and weir spirits. There are special ceremonies performed and the giving of offerings as well as the building of spirit houses.