>> Thursday, January 20, 2011
The story of Pantai Norasingh* (พันท้ายนรสิงห์), according to the chronicles of Ayutthaya, is one of courage and loyalty. It's the kind of story taught in school and told by your grandparents and parents to encourage you to be faithful in carrying out your duty and to take the consequences -- however dire -- when you fail to do so. It's romantic. It's inspiring. It's a story that breaks and strengthens your heart at the same time.
Is it a true story? Well, there's no reason to doubt the existence of the historical person, especially since physical evidence of the memorial created in our hero's honor still stands to this day. Several places around the area where the fateful incident occurred have also been named after him and his wife. And since no historical records exist outside the Ayutthayan chronicles, we have no choice other than going by those records.
But has the story been romanticized? Embellished, perhaps? There's no way to tell. Cross-examination of the different chronicles, according to my history professor, seems to support the historicity of the records. However, since the story of Pantai Norasingh has for the most part been popularized by a 1950 movie by the same name**, it's very likely that much of what has been passed on orally since then is more from the movie than the actual historical records.
The gist of the story is that King Sanpetch XIII, better known as "King Tiger" (or, as some prefer, "The Tiger King"***), whose short reign lasted from 1703 to 1708 BCE, wished to travel by The Ekachai Barge to a town in what's presently known as Samut Sakhon province. Pantai Norasingh was given the duty of steering the rear of the royal barge. Unfortunately, the river was extremely winding and narrow resulting in Pantai Norasingh inadvertently causing the front end of the royal barge to ram into a large tree and break off. It was, according to the chronicles, purely an accident which couldn't have been avoided under the circumstances.
Alas, the Ayutthayan royal decrees clearly stipulated that such a mistake would result in decapitation of the perpetrator.
Reportedly, King Tiger mercifully granted the royal pardon to Pantai Norasingh. The king even offered to have a clay statue of our protagonist made so that the statue could be ceremoniously decapitated to symbolize the punishment leaving the actual person unharmed. But Pantai Norasingh would have none of that. Making one exception would lead to people paying no respect to the sacredness of the royal decrees, he argued. Even though his mistake was not made out of disobedience or disrespect, it was a mistake nonetheless, and the punishment for such mistakes was clearly spelled out in the law.
Asking for his family to be taken care of after his death, Pantai Norasingh requested the royal permission to be beheaded. His request was eventually granted. A shrine was erected in his memory and the piece of the boat that broke off was placed there. (The shrine has gone through several renovations since then; its current appearance looks like this.) And the story of the heroic, law-abiding Pantai Norasingh has been told from generation to generation ever since.
The 1950 movie Pantai Norasingh has given us one of the most heart-achingly beautiful love songs, Nam-Ta Sang Tai (น้ำตาแสงไต้, roughly translated, "Tears in the Candlelight****." My maternal grandmother, whose voice was just as exquisite as her face, used to lull me to sleep with this song all the time. Needless to say, I can't listen to it without feeling a lump in my throat.
The song is from the scene where Pantai Norasingh says his good-bye to Sri-Nuan, his wife, before departing for his duty. Neither one of them knows at the time that this will prove to be his last duty call, his last departure. But the movie made it seem like the two are in some level aware of what fate has in store for them. Sri-Nuan asks him to stay, but, of course, we're talking the wife's tearful plea against the king's command.
The lyrics to Tears in the Candlelight are in archaic Thai from the 1950s which have been archaized even further to fit into the 17th century setting. It's the kind of poetic language that is not found in contemporary love songs. It's beautiful and picturesque. It's hauntingly sad. It's the kind of tenderness that makes your heart sigh. It seems the lyricist has pretty much exhausted all the tender phrases in the thesaurus in this short song.
The song describes how the man's heart is torn apart by the tears on the cheeks of his beautiful beloved that look like beads of diamond in the candlelight. And though he doesn't wish to leave her side, he must. (My sorry little summary does no justice to the exquisite lyrics.)
Man, why don't they write love songs like this any more?
*Not his given name; just the title and the place whence he came, i.e. a town called Norasingh, located near Pa Mok city in Ang Thong province.
**Shown at Chalerm Thai Theater, Bangkok.
***Historians differ on how he got the title. It was either he was born in the year of tiger, or he was known for his no-nonsense, fierce, tiger-like personality while serving in the reign of his father, King Narai, a contemporary of Louis XIV of France.
****Strictly speaking, it's not a candle but, Tai (ไต้), a roll of oil-soaked cloth that is burnt for the purpose of providing light in ancient Siam.