I want to share with you an experience I had just recently that made me so afraid and uncomfortable that I was sick to my stomach. I was invited to see Menora, the traditional dance of Southern Thailand with some youth from another Dtambon. I was happy to go because I really wanted to see it. What I didn’t realize was the culture and beliefs that Menora is deeply rooted in.
The only way I can describe what I was seeing, it is that they appeared to be possessed- that there was something inside of them just wanting to come out. I was taking pictures of these people in beautiful Menora outfits and the next thing I know someone is telling me to move over… I had no idea what was happening. I turned around and there was a man coming towards me with lit candles, his eyes looked angry yet empty at the same time. He handed his candles off to a woman and then he proceeded to climb up a pole to the roof. There he flailed his body around and screamed. As I looked back, more people were coming, all dressed in white…some carried lit candles only to put them out with their mouths, some were hunched over and barely able to walk, some crawled, some screamed, some danced beautifully to the sound of the music with tears streaming down their faces, others were grabbing at their heads as if the music was too loud and they couldn’t take it anymore. They danced, their way onto the stage where the story would begin. I’m pretty sure anyone who looked at me could see the pure terror, confusion, and uncertainty on my face.
I was uncomfortable and afraid because I had never seen people move in the same way that these people were moving. I was also afraid because I had no idea what was happening. Initially I wanted to help them, then I wanted to run and hide. Even with having no idea what to expect, I wasn’t expecting to see what I did, nor was I mentally prepared. I thought I was going to see a dance…that’s what everyone was telling me, let me tell you, I saw much more than just a dance. I saw a story, a way of life.
Having said that, I did some research and here’s what I found, mostly related to the perfomance…
Menora is a Siamese traditional theater or a dance drama. It stems from Buddhism and Hinduism. Menora combines the elements of storytelling, singing, acting, and also medical rituals. The roles in the drama are the following: Pak Mat Tok Nora, the king, a princess, the queen, peran (a joker), marshi (a monk) and Ibu Bota (a monster).Traditionally it is split into three parts, the Stage opening, breaking story, and stage closing.
Stage opening is described as a ceremony that takes place the first day of the performance. It is carried out to ensure that the whole performance runs smoothly and that there aren’t any disturbances from the evil spirit. Its purpose is to coax and worship the spirit in order to ensure the performance runs smoothly and that the audience and players are protected from any sinful act during the performance. Typically incense will be burnt and magic spells will be uttered to worship the spirit. After stage opening is over, the breaking story will occur. There are twelve steps in the menora performance.
- Showing respect towards the teacher (Wai Krue)
- Dancing and singing without music except for kerek (ching)
- Drum and Rebana
- A monkey in search of lice
- Crocodile flipping its tail
- Elephant grazing the grass
- Bird bathing by the shore
- Bird ready to catch the fish
- Deer walking in the forest
- Deer running
- Monkey handing on the branch of a tree
- Moving worm
All of these steps are performed in a gentle and attractive dance.
During stage closing, Tok Menora will sing a song three times to signal the final song. In the past, during stage closing, the cast takes off seven pieces of the stage roof in order to let Mesi Mala out through the open roof and return to its original place. Nowadays, only dancing and singing take place.
I was at the event to watch stage opening and a few of the steps. The part that I was most uncertain about and afraid of was stage opening, the ceremony to coax and worship the spirit so that the show moved smoothly. While this isn’t a complete or very detailed description, it helped me to understand what was going on! I hope over time, to learn more and better understand about the Menora!