Among the epics of Southeast Asia, the Ramayana has traveled the farthest with variations in many nations. The Lao variation is known as Phra Lak Phra Lam. Many English translations are somewhat difficult for casual readers to engage with: Current translations include significant changes of character roles, names, etc. Lao culture treats the main story of the Ramayana as a Jataka, a previous life of the Buddha, adapted to focus on elements and themes more interesting to Lao people of the time.
What follows is a quick run-down collecting key notes on the major Nyak featured in Phra Lak Phra Lam who are for the most part, the antagonists of the epic. Nyak have roots in the Indian legends of the Rakshasa, and in Laos are typically shape-shifting, carnivorous giants with a preference for treachery, perversity, and human flesh. The epics of Sin Xay and Kalaket also feature Nyak.
Typically, most Nyak are represented with fearsome side tusks, ugly eyes with curling, awkward brows and terrible weapons. When possible the known Lao names have been used for these specific Nyak, but in other cases, the Thai or Hindu names have been used. Further research will need to be done to identify the specifically Lao interpretations of many of these characters, but these preliminary notes are provided in an effort to help fellow Lao writers get a sense of who’s involved in this story and how.
Hapkhanasouane, King of Lanka, alternatively Hapmanasouane, ຮາບມະນາສວນ or Thotsakane. A devotee of Phra Isouane, he was also reputedly a great scholar and a master of stringed instruments. He is also depicted as the author of a book on astrology and a book on medicine. Hapkhanasouane also possessed a thorough knowledge of paranormal skills and politics. He possessed the nectar of immortality, stored inside his belly, thanks to a divine gift from Phra In. He cannot be killed by celestial or magical creatures, but in his arrogance, he neglected to arrange protection for himself from humans. He has six brothers and two sisters.
Known Generals of Hapkhanasouane: Khoun Sieo Ha, Panya Muong Chanh, Panya Muong Khoua, Panya Muong Kang, and Panya Muong Say. Further research is needed to identify their significance and personalities within the stories.
Nang Chantha, also known as Mandodari, the beautiful and faithful first wife of Hapkhanasouane. She traditionally has three sons: Atikaya, Indrajit, and Akshayakumara, but in Phra Lak Phra Lam, this seems switched around. By the end of the epic, the Vanon generals are said to treat her badly, either disturbing a sacrifice or destroying her chastity, which was the last protection for Hapkhanasouane’s life. Another variation says Hanoumane tricks her into revealing the location of the magic arrow that can kill her husband. She curses Hanoumane after the final battle for his treachery, promising that just as she must live with everything having been taken away from her, the same shall happen to him. Some sources suggest she is the mother of Nang Sida.
Nang Soudtho, a Nagini, second wife of Hapkhanasouane, also known as Dhanyamalini. She had been transformed into the shape of Nang Sida, but it was not enough to curb Hapkhanasouane’s lust for the true Nang Sida. She gives birth to nine sons in nine months for Hapkhanasouane.
Thao Phik Phi, younger brother of Hapkhanasouane, who becomes the King of Lanka following the defeat of Lanka. Also known as Vibhishana, he is given Nang Chantha, the widow of his bother Hapkhanasouane as a wife. He, with Thao Inthasi, wanted peace and joined the army of Phra Lam.
Thao Inthasi, younger brother of Hapkhanasouane who also wanted peace.
Thao Seta Kouman, son of Hapkhanasouane and Nang Chantha, who sided with Thao Phik Phi and Thao Inthasi, the Nyak “doves” compared to the Nyak “hawks” who were open to peace with Phra Lak and Phra Lam during the battle for Lanka.
Thut, or Dushan, twin brother of the Nyak Khara, cousin of Hapkhanasouane. Slain by Phra Lam along with Khara and Trisharas.
Kabandha, once a celestial musician named Vishvavasu or Danu, he was cursed for his arrogance to assume the form of a Nyak by Phra In, known as the Headless Torso. He was massive as a mountain, dark as a black cloud, with pointed hairs all over his body, he had no head or neck or ears, just a massive mouth on his stomach, one yellow eye and two long arms. He occupied his time scaring leusi forest hermits in the woods. After his battle with Phra Lam and Phra Lak, he is dismembered and cremated, and reverts back to his original form. In gratitude for being released from the curse, he directs them to the mountain where the exiled Vanon king Phalichanh is hiding, and to seek an alliance with the Vanon to recover Nang Sida.
Khon, or Khara, younger cousin of Hapkhanasouane, who loved to eat humans and wage war. He had an army of 14,000. Killed by Phra Lam in the same battle with Khara’s twin brother Dushana while they were attacking Phra Lam after the Nyakinee Surpanakha’s humiliation of having her ears and nose cut off by Phra Lak. The three-headed Nyak Trisharas was also slain in this particular battle, and was also said to be Khara’s brother although this would complicate the family lineage. Khara ruled the Danda kingdom, which was situated between Lanka to the north and bordered the Kosala kingdom of Phra Lam. Phra Lam later also killed Khara’s son Makaraksha.
Kumbhakarna, slumbering younger brother of Hapkhanasouane, enormously ravenous when he awoke later in the battle to fight the Vanon monkey armies loyal to Phra Lam. Because of a divine blessing/curse he had been afflicted with a deep sleep. He woke up only after one thousand elephants walked over him. He was considered so pious, intelligent and unchallenged warrior in battle that Phra In, the king of gods, was worried and jealous of him and his strength. He had two sons, Kumbha and Nikumbha who were killed by Phra Lam, later.
Kumbhini – Sister of Lord Ravana and the wife of the demon Madhu, King of Mathura, she was the mother of Lavanasura (an Asura who was killed by Shatrughna, the youngest brother of Lord Ram). She was renowned for her beauty and later retired to the sea for penance.
Maricha was a cowardly Nyak who was the son of Tataka and the brother of Subahu who had been harassing leusi forest ascetics. When Subahu and the other Nyak were being slain by Phra Lam’s mighty bow, Maricha fled to the ocean rather than face him. Maricha tried once more in Dandakranya to avenge his brother and fallen companions, but Phra Lam shot three arrows at once, killing Maricha’s companions and narrowly missing Maricha, who again fled in fear, and became a Leusi who wore tree bark and lived in the wilderness out of fear of encountering Phra Lam again. When the Nyakinee Surpanakha is humiliated by Phra Lak and Phra Lam, she convinces Hapkhanasouane to kidnap Nang Sida. Hapkhanasouane orders a reluctant Maricha to disguise himself as a golden deer to distract the heroes while he kidnapped Nang Sida. Maricha prophesies his death, the fall of Lanka, the Nyak and Hapkhanasouane if they carry out the plan, but is threatened with death, and reluctantly obeys Hapkhanasouane. Phra Lam kills an exhausted Maricha in the forest.
Nontok, or Bhasmasur, the Nyak of Noukhantone, who could kill with a point of his finger.
Subahu, with his mother, the Nyakinee Tataka, delighted in harassing the leusi forest ascetics such as disrupting the hermits’ meditations with showers of flesh and blood from the sky and dousing their sacrificial fires. Subahu and the Nyak Maricha were slain by Phra Lam and Phra Lak who’d been sent by their father to help the leusi.
Sammanakkha or Surpanakha, a shape-shifting Nyakinee sister of Hapkhanasouane who tries to seduce Phra Lam away from his wife Nang Sida. When she is spurned, she attempts to kill Nang Sida, but is stopped when Phra Lak catches her, and then cuts off her nose and ears in front of Phra Lam and Nang Sida. She goes to her brother imploring him for revenge. Technically not a part of some versions of Phra Lak Phra Lam. She is the granddaughter of Tataka, and she and her half-sister Kumbini are supposed to have perished at sea a few years later after the end of the battle for Lanka. Some suggest she was not actually interested in Phra Lam, but was using the incident as a pretense to avenge the murder of her husband Jihva by her brother Hapkhanasouane, because only Phra Lam could defeat him. Jihva had been assigned to protect Lanka by covering it with his tongue, but was apparently killed in an accident.
Tataka/Taraka was once a beautiful queen married to an Asura king named Sunda, who had two sons, Maricha and Subahu, who would play key roles in the start of Phra Lak Phra Lam. Seeking revenge on a sage who cursed her husband to death, she underestimated the sage’s mystic powers and she and her family were transformed into Nyak. As a Nyakinee, Tataka was cursed with a particularly ravenous hunger for humans. She devoured anyone who dared to set foot in her forest. Now angry at all leusi, she and her sons and their fellow Nyak rained blood and flesh on the meditating forest hermits at any opportunity, until Phaya Thattaratha, the father of Phra Lak and Phra Lam, were approached for help. Phra Lam initially did not want to kill her and only maimed her by cutting off her hands, but she used her Nyak powers to change shape and stubbornly insisted on attacking everyone again. The forest hermits advised Phra Lam that as a prince, he had a duty to fulfill that override his reluctance to kill a woman. He shot Tataka in the heart, and ended her menace.
NINE SONS OF HAPKHANASOUANE
The nine (in some sources, seven) sons of Nang Soudtho (Danyamalini) and Hapkhanasouane who refused the offers of peace with Phra Lam over the return of Nang Sida. These sons were incapable of being injured by guns, poisonous arrows or venomous snake bites and could be healed by touching or licking a particular part of their mother.
Akshayakumara. The youngest son of Hapkhanasouane. When Hanoumane destroyed Ashoka Vatika, a territory of Lanka, Akshaykakumara, a young Nyak boy of 16 flew off to battle Hanoumane, firing various weapons at him. Although Hanoumane respected the bravery and skills of the Nyak prince, he was left with no choice but to kill him.
Atikaya. A younger brother of Indrachit, he angered Phra Isouane, who attempted to slay Atikya with a divine trident. But Atikaya caught it in mid-air and humbled himself before Phra Isouane in apology. Phra Isouane blessed Atikaya with the secrets of divine weapons, especially archery. He was eventually slain by Phra Lak firing a supremely powerful arrow obtained from the gods. With his three-headed brother Trishira, he was believed to be incarnations of the Nyak Madhu and Kaitabha who were slain during the creation of the world for stealing the sacred Veda texts and attempting to hide them deep at the bottom of the of the primeval ocean.
Devanataka, the Destroyer of Gods is killed by Hanuman during a battle. In a previous life, had been killed by an avatar of Ganesha who gored him with a tusk. It is uncertain if he is older or younger than Indrachit.
Intharachit, the ultimate warrior. Alternatively, Indrajit, Meghanada, Shakrajit, Ravani, Vasavajit, Varidanada and Ghananada. Married to Sulochana, virtuous nakini and daughter of Phaya Nak. Fired the legendary Nakabat arrows that rained Nak upon enemy armies. Legends suggest that a blessing from Phra Isouane ensured he would not die on land but in the air, and if his severed head were to touch the ground, it would bring down great destruction. Killed by Phra Lam.
Maiyarap, or Ahiravan, Nyak brother to Hapkhanasouane, who at one point kidnaps Phra Lak and Phra Lam and takes them to his realm in the underworld, preparing to sacrifice them. But he is stopped and slain by Hanoumane. The only way to vanquish Maiyarap was by blowing out five different candles located in five different directions, all at the same time.
Prahasta the younger brother of Indrachit. Led the army of his father Hapkhanasouane in his bid to reign over the Three Worlds. Known for his “extended hands.” He slew many Vanon heroes of Phalichanh’s army, until the Vanon Nila threw a rock at Prahasta that broke his neck.
Narantaka, the Destroyer of Men. Led an army of 720 million Nyak until the Vanon Angada kills him. . It is uncertain if he is older or younger than Indrachit.
Trisian, or Trishira, three-headed Nyak beheaded in the battle for Lanka by Hanoumane. One of the nine sons of Hapkhanasouane. With his brother Atikaya, he was believed to be incarnations of the Nyak Madhu and Kaitabha who were slain during the creation of the world for stealing the sacred Veda texts and attempting to hide them deep at the bottom of the of the primeval ocean.