The original belief of the Lao people was animism, which was later influenced by Indian culture. Hinduism / Brahmanism came next, followed by the Buddhism.
Buddhism has played a dominant role in the history of Laos and now informs almost every activity of Lao life. Today about 65% of the Lao people are Hinayana (Theravada) Buddhists, though animism continues to co-exist with Buddhism.
It is difficult to have an exact idea of the period of beginning of cultural contact between India and Laos due to absence of historical records. It is generally accepted that Hindu and Buddhist practices came to Laos in the early centuries of the Common Era, even though local tradition would situate the advent of Buddhism in Laos to before Christ.
According to local tradition, a Buddhist shrine (That) was built in Laos during Emperor Asoka’s time about the middle of the third century Before Common Era (BCE).
The Ourangkharittan chronicle mentions that That Luang of Vientiane was earlier built by a Buddhist monk Phra Chao Chanthaburi Pasithisak to house a Buddhist relic brought from Rajgir in India.
Not surprisingly, both Hinduism and Buddhism quickly became official religions throughout Southeast Asia, with Sanskrit often serving as the principal court language. The main symbols of Indian culture in Laos are Buddhism and Ramayana.
The attraction of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia was as much political as spiritual. For one, Southeast Asian states were chiefdoms with temporary rulers and uncertain lines of succession. While Hinduism and Buddhism came to Southeast Asia in peaceful ways, once they had arrived, they fed aspirations for universal kingship among Southeast Asian rulers. This meant emulating King Asoka of India’s Maurya dynasty, who had come to be regarded as a chakravartin, or a universal ruler, and a role model in Southeast Asia. Hinduism and Buddhism brought along an elaborate system of beliefs and rituals with which Southeast Asian rulers could claim divine legitimacy before their subjects, for example by identifying with Vishnu, Shiva, or Buddha, and build larger, more organized polities or even empires.
As a result, a more organized and durable political order was grafted onto Southeast Asia’s loose pre-existing political fabric, although some elements of the latter persisted. This turned Southeast Asia into a region of what scholars would call mandalas (a Sanskrit world meaning ‘sacred circle’). In daily life too, rituals, customs and public ceremonies, traces of Hindu influence may be discerned. The form of greeting to learned persons and religions teachers is by joining hands at the level of heart, which is very much akin to Pranam.
While the national language ‘Lao’ is monosyllable based, it is deeply influenced by Pali and Sanskrit as they are the language of numerous Buddhist texts and scriptures. Both have hence made deep inroads into the scripts, languages and literature of Laos. Many inscriptions in these languages have been found in Laos. Pali scriptures from Sri Lanka were introduced in the 13th century; from then on, Pali supplanted Sanskrit.
The various Lao scripts, both the ‘Akson Lao’ in current use and the older Tai Noi script, as also the Tua Tham script used for religious manuscripts, have all descended from the Pallava script, which itself traces its genealogy back to the Brahmi script. Incidentally the word Akson comes from the Sanskrit word Akshar, which meanns alphabet! There is also a very considerable body of words readily identifiable as having a Sanskrit/Pali etymology, both in the religious and philosophical realms as also in the secular: Kumara (kumara), Pativat (prativad), Prom (Brahma), Mittaphab (friendship), Santiphab (peace), Pathet (Pradesh), Pranam (Pranam), Rusi (Rishi), Santi (Shanti), Sri (Sri), Sut (Sutra), Setthi (Sresthi), Youvatnari (Yuvanari), Sabha (Sabha), Champa (Campa), Nang Mekhala (Mani Mekhala), etc. Vivaaha also means wedding in Lao, as in many Indian languages that come from Sanskrit!
The Ramayana is very popular in Laos too, as elsewhere in South East Asia, and an important feature of Lao culture. The Lao have adapted the stories of Ramayana as if it had happened in Laos. Names, titles and geographical settings were given a local colour, reflecting the environment and culture of Laos. For instance, here Lord Hanuman is not quite what Indian readers would expect. The stories of Ramayana are painted or engraved on the walls of Buddhist Vats and Viharas all across the country.
The Panchatantra stories written by Vishnu Sarma of Orissa became very popular in Laos. It was translated into Lao by Phra Samgharaja Vixula Mahavihrarathipai in 1507 A.D. of Vat Vixula Mahavihan. A good number of Lao stories have been derived from the Pancatantra. The Lao Panchatantra consists of five Pakon (Prakarana): Nanda, Manduka, Pisaca, Sakuna and Samghe. The narrator of the stories was queen Tantai Mahadevi, which was the Sanskrit alteration of Tantravaya or weaver of tales.
The collection of stories called Mulla Tantai (mula-tantra) were used as commentaries of law. Molam literature had been inspired by beauty of nature, prowess of Indra and wonders of paradise. Sirimangala’s Mangalasutta, another Lao text was well known in Burma and was mentioned in Sasanavamsa. The popular Lao Poem Sin Xay had its origin in Panasajataka. The Jatakas like Dadhivahana, Janakakumara. Vessantara, Vidhurapandita, Vimalaraja, etc. were translated into Lao and became very popular.
The Lao historical literature is replete with Indian characters. The Nitan Khun Borom depicting events up to 1571 A.D. mentioned that the son of Indra was sent from heaven to establish the kingdom of Lan Xang. Another Lao chronicle Nitan Praya Cuong Lun was about the history of the Lao kingdom. The Life of the Buddha and sixteenth century Lao kings formed the subject matter of Uranganidana.
The cultural connect with India can also be seen from the numerous inscriptions found in Laos. On the top of Phou Lokhon hill, a Sanskrit inscription mentions the erection of Siva Linga by King Mahendravarman. Another inscription of second half of fifth century compares the Kig Sri-Devenika with Yudhisthira, India, Dhananjay and also with Indradyunna.
The name Indradyunna suggest Devanika’s acquaintance with Orissa. Eulogizing the merits of Kurukshetra, the inscription records that the King planned to establish a new Kurukshetra in Laos as the former was a mahatirtha (a great place for pilgrimage). It is evident that Devanika was familiar with Sanskrit literature and ritualistic texts. The Stele inscription of Jayavarman I at Vat Phu temple containing the Bhadresvara Siva mentions that the hill was named as Linga parvata. An inscription dated 835 A.D. refers to Sresthapura as a holy place because it was associated with Siva worship. The eleventh century inscription of Jayavarman VI records that the mother of king’s court Pandit Tilaka has been compared with Goddess Saraswati because of her learning.
In art and architecture, the impact of various Indian styles quite visible. The concept is Indian, but in the choice of pattern and other details, indigenous touch is given. Southeast Asians did not merely copy Indian culture and architecture but gave it a distinct local flavour. The largest Hindu and Buddhist temples anywhere in the world are both are in Southeast Asia. The earliest material evidence of ancient Hindu influence can be dated to about the 6th century. The two main types of Lao monuments were Wat/Vat (monastery, temple, Pagoda) and That (Dhatu, edifice for putting relics). The Vat Phou Hill, in Champasak Province in Southern Laos, was then called Linga-parvata. Here, originally a temple of Bhadresvara Siva existed. In that temple a linga was installed. Later on, the temple was turned into a Buddhist shrine with a monastery attached to it. Orissan style is one of several Indian types that contributed to development of art and architecture in Laos. The different types of Buddhist icons found in Laos were in conformity with Indian canons. The Buddha figures in Laos, irrespective of their material, show certain Indian traits. The hair on the head are treated in small curls with a protuberance. Above this protuberance is a flame-like bouquet of hair. This feature is widespread the images of the Buddha found in Laos, as also the urna (dot between the eyes) on the forehead. They point to Gandhara influence, as these are features of Gandhara Buddha images. Artists represented Buddha in Bhumisparsha and Abhay mudra. Indra on Airavata and Vishnu on Garuda were specimens of Hindu religious art of Vat Phu temple. An image of Laxmi standing on a lotus over the dome is from Vat Pra temple. The statues of Parvati on the door of Wat Aram, images of Garuda and Naga of Wat Pa Rouck, figure of aquatic animals at That Luang and representation of dvarapala at the entrance of various shrines prove strong Indian influence.
Architecture of That Luang has close affinity with medieval temples of Orisaa. The pillars of Wat Phra Keo show the influence of Orissan style. Wat Pa rouk and Wat Ban Tan display close affinity with Indian styles. Another noteworthy feature of Lao architecture is the presence of Hindu and Buddhist icons in the same monument. Wat Pra contains images of Goddess Laxmi as well as Lord Buddha. The above mentioned Wat Phu is the best example of Indo-Khmer influence.
A very important symbol of high civilizational significance in relation to India is the Vat Phou, an ancient Khmer Shiva (Bhadreswara) temple, older than Cambodia’s Angkor Vat. It is at the base of Phou Khao mountain in Champassak. In many cultures, mountains are regarded as sacred space because they are often considered to be natural temples. Because of the natural linga on top of Phou Khao mountain, the mountain as well as the water from the spring originating on it were considered sacred. There was a temple on the site as early as the 5th century, but its current structures date from the 11th to the 13th centuries. The various structures of the Wat Phou are built on several terraces, aligned on an East-West axis from the Mekong river bank towards the mountain. The site later became a centre of Theravada Buddhist worship, which it remains today. In ancient Khmer times the mountain was named Lingaparvata, which translates to “Linga Mountain”, because of the pillar like stone formation on top that resembles a linga, the representation of the Hindu God Shiva.
From the base of the mountain, a processional walkway ascends to the main shrine/sanctuary where a lingam dedicated to Lord Shiva was bathed in water from a mountain spring. Water from the spring which emerges from the cliff about 60 m south west of the sanctuary was channelled along stone aqueducts into the rear chamber, continuously bathing the lingam. The east side has three doorways: from south to north, their pediments show Krishna defeating the naga Kaliya; Indra riding Airavata; and Vishnu riding Garuda. The east wall bears dvarapalas and devatas. Entrances to the south and north have inner and outer lintels, including one to the south of Krishna ripping Kamsa apart. Near the main sanctuary there is also a rock with a carving of the Hindu Trimurti or Trinity of the three Gods, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Indeed, the entire Champasak cultural landscape, including the Vat Phou Temple complex, was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km.
Archaeological remains at Vat Phou bear testimony to the diffusion of Indian culture and art across South East Asia. The unique layout of Khmer architecture found at Vat Phou gained it the UNESCO World Heritage label in 2001 and makes a visit to it a must for any visitor interested in the art, religion and culture of Laos.
The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is restoring Vat Phou under a multi-year project.
Pha That Luang (Great Stupa): According to legend, That Luang was first established in the third BCE, when five Lao monks who had been studying in India returned home bearing the breastbone of the Buddha, and a stupa was duly built over the sacred relic. It was rebuilt in the 13th century as a Khmer temple, which fell into ruin. In the mid-16th century, King Setthathirat relocated his capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and ordered the construction of Pha That Luang in 1566. The structure of the Stupa has suffered damage and plunder during periods of turmoil in Lao history. The current structure is 44 metres in height. The encircling walls are roughly 85 metres long on each side and contain a large number of Lao and Khmer sculptures. That Luang is generally regarded as the most important Buddhist monument of Laos and a national symbol.
Source: Lao News Agency