Nagas in Isaan
As the end of the rains retreat is approaching, I thought there is still enough time to organise a trip to Nong Khai district in Isaan if Naga fireballs happen to fire up your imagination and curiosity. When I was around two years ago, I opted for the festival in Luang Prabang on the same day – definitely no fireballs there, “just” thousands of krathongs and thirty-odd huge bamboo dragonboats, plus the best festival atmosphere I have ever witnessed, including the days of preparation in temple grounds and streets, meritmaking, chanting, and tens of thousands of candles everywhere. So I cannot give you an eyewitness’s account of the fireballs, just clippings from articles on websites….
According to Isaan legends, the underwater kingdoms of the Naga extend to all the world’s rivers, lakes, and seas. In addition to being the keeper of the force of life stored in the waters, the Naga is also guardian of corals, shells and pearls and thus carries one in its head. The early settlers of the Mekong River basin believed that the King of the Nagas is the God of an underwater kingdom called “Muang Badan” who watches over the people living in the Mekong basin. According to ancient folklore, the underwater city of Muang Badan stretches beyond the Mekong itself and covers the entire area beneath Nong Khai province, with its the capital city located near present-day Kaeng Aa-Hong, the deepest point in the Mekong River.
This ancient belief in the communities bordering the Mekong River is very much alive, and the eternal bond between Isaan people and the mythical Naga is present in the fabric of the local culture, traditions and way of life. The tradition of floating illuminated boats on the Mekong River is one such act of worshipping the King of Nagas.
Not just a legend….
On a more scientific note – on September 28, 1996, US military personnel captured a huge freshwater creature that was said to be a “Phaya Naga”. The creature was sent to the United States for research, but it died a month later. It was the longest freshwater fish ever found on earth – 23 feet long. Its natural habitat is believed to be deep below the surface of the Mekong River. The features of the Phaya Naga resemble the elements that have been depicted in the sculptures in front of the temples in both Thailand and Laos. According to various account, the creature had “7 skin colours and light green blood”.
I haven’t found a photo of this particular “naga”, but apparently American military has been very much into wildlife in the Mekong…. It’s been difficult to find reliable information on the species, but this photo is from the army archives.
(Click on this link for the photo – it is quite big, originally two separate files that had to be “stuck together”, it did not make sense sqeezing them into the space right here, so I uploaded the file into my personal blog. Worth checking out!)
“The elongated body of the Naga is symbolic of the rainbow that links the human and divine worlds.”
Well, that wasn’t quite my first thought on seeing it…. anyway….
Known as the “Bang Fai Phaya Naga”, the King of Naga fire-balls is a natural phenomenon that generally takes place on the full moon night of the 11th lunar month, the last night of the Buddhist Lent, which falls on October 17 this year.
The fireballs emerge from the water of the Mekong river. They are the size of goose eggs, and float up to 50-300 metres before they vanish. The total number of fireballs varies with each location. On some occasions, there are as few as 22, on other nights, hundreds or thousands. Some rise in straight lines at an angle, others are perpendicular to the surface of the Mekong River.
According to Isaan folk belief, caverns along the banks in this section of the Mekong River are in fact gateways leading from the underground Naga world to our world. It is also believed that prompted by the festivities of the illuminated boats and the fireworks launched in an act of worship to celebrate the end of the Buddhist Lent, the mythical Nagas emerge via these gateways to join in on the celebrations to commemorate the home-coming of Lord Buddha in his historical life. These beliefs are renewed by the fact that greenish fireballs have been spotted around Kaeng Aa-hong, the deepest point in the Mekong River, and by the existence of the deep underwater caves that line the shores.
Lord Buddha rose to the Heavens to offer sermons to his mother during the rains retreat. On the final day of the Buddhist Lent, he returned to Earth. For the descent, there are three stairways from heaven – made of crystal, silver and gold respectively. As the story goes, the King of Naga fireballs rise into the night sky to form the steps of the stairs by which the Lord Buddha descends from heaven.
A comprehensive article on the TAT site about the festival: