Manorah - The Traditional Thai Dance

6 Jun 2022

Please enjoy this beautiful movie about the Thai traditional dance of Manorah, starring our lovely and talented friend ‎KaewKlao Kaewbunjong.

Manorah, or as it is known in Southern Thai, "Nora" (Menorah), has been famed for centuries and continues to be so today. The literary meaning of manohra is “Minds Guider.”

The Manora is a dance performance meant to call on the ancestral spirits who possess the dancer and, through this medium, can communicate with the onlookers. In the climax of the vow fulfillment ceremony, the ancestral spirits of the dead transcend to the medium’s bodies and possess them. 

Possessed, the living can communicate with the loved, lost ones and receive the wisdom and advice they have to give from the other realm. This belief creates a bridge between the living and their ancestors. 

Pi ta Yai translates into something like spirits of the grand-grandparents or ancestral spirits. It refers to the “good” ancestors who stay in the heavenly realms, not yet reborn. They protect the living and watch over them and can provide assistance to the “good” people or punish the “bad.” 

Good and evil are also considered when a person is given over to the heavenly realm. If this person has not been the right person, he or she will only end up as a “hungry ghost” and not a guide for the living. 



Manorah’s Spiritual Roots and History

Hundreds of years ago, in Southern Thailand, people lived in unison with nature and animals and believed in the power of spirits - especially ancestor spirits. These beliefs still exist today.

Old spirits beliefs remain steadfast among the south Thai’s along with Theravada Buddhism, Christianity, and Islamism. It even seems to have undergone resuscitation in recent years. Maybe it is a longing for the secret and sacred in contrast to the Buddhist awakening and the Christian and Islamic stiffness. 

One could argue that the aesthetics of the performance are what have contributed to its current revitalization. Alas, there can be different explanations, but since we also are experiencing a new interest in the areas of ancient knowledge within the western world in the last years, it is interesting to be aware of the development and the new paths it may form for us in the future.

Author Van de Port (2006) argues that the growth in spiritual beliefs reflects social, political, and economic changes in Thailand in the media age, and religious practices of participation in spirit cults respond creatively to the social transformation of everyday life. Media are constitutive of the religious imagination about spirits and render the metaphysical realm to which it refers. Thus, the recording of the Manora via video technology contributes to the commodification of the tradition  as a necessary condition to its current boom and its prominent place in the public sphere.

The traditional and very much still on-going Manora vow ceremony is an excellent example that the old beliefs still exist among Southeast Asians, who take no regard for widespread, modern world-religions.


Stories About the Origin of Manohra

There are many stories about the origin of this dance.

There is one story about a young prince, Prasuthon. He had traveled for seven years, seven months, seven days to find his lover “Manohra,” which is half-bird half-human. The dance is named after her. 

There is another myth that is very popular in the south. It is the story about the princess “Nuan Tong Samli”, the daughter of lord Pattalung. She saw angels dancing in her dream, and then she adapted it to create the Manohra dance.

Yet another one can be derived from the name. The word Nora in Manora reflects the dance’s Buddhist-Indian Jakata origin. It depicts a folk story, containing the creation of a myth about the “Lady of White Blood”, a princess who is put on a bamboo raft in the ocean from the palace for being incestuously ( pregnant by what??) pregnant while doing Nora dance training with her brother. She is saved by a peasant couple and gives birth to a son, Si Sata. To survive and make a living she teaches him how to dance Manora. She donates gold that she found in the forest to the Ta Kura temple where it is used to model a Buddha figure.




The Manora Vow Ceremony in Southern Thailand

A vow ceremony can be performed differently according to motive. It can be a yearly appreciation of a Manora deity, such as Khun Si Sata, the first teacher in a grand temple ceremony, or it can take form as a very private ceremony only for invited family members. 

The cycle of a full vow ceremony is called Nora Rungkru and lasts for three whole days and takes place on a make-shift stage that will be constructed only for the duration of the ceremony and dismantled right after. Nora Rongkru means “Manora-stage-teacher”. In this long vow ceremony, the Nairong invites Nora as well as the Non-Nora ancestor’s spirits to descend from the heavenly realm to witness the ceremony and to join the stage.

The dances performed by the possessed spirit mediums are also called Vow-dances. 

Some of the most spectacular ceremonies are in temples where the great Nora ancestors are supposed to stay - or in temples associated with the Manora’s mythological figures. However, while the Manora has always had a close association to Theravada Buddhist temples, and while Buddhist ordination used to be a condition for the graduation of the Nairong Manora, the Manora has no religious limitation. 


The Manora Master and the Nora Rongku Ritual (Private)

The Manora Master, is called the Nairong Manora, and is a bird-winged shaman and dancer, who uses the skilful dance and verse to call the Manora ancestors. The grand Manora ancestors are the first teachers of the art. 

The Nairong then embodies the wisdom and knowledge from the first teachers. He possesses supernatural powers from the great ancestors and he will use them for miraculous healings or exorcising black magic. 

A private Manora ceremony, called a Nora Rongkru ritual, is conducted by a family who desires to obtain the advice of their ancestors. The Nora Rongkru ritual will be prepared months or even years in advance. The head of the family will set a date in the period from May to September with the Nairong. 

During the ritual, the Nairong Manora will call to the ancestor spirits and control the harmful spirits who may enter through the backdoor. He will gain knowledge of the motivation of the family who conduct the Nora Rongkru and be informed about the situation of the host and about all the ancestors and deities present. This way he can contact the deities during the performance by name. 

The host family will place photographs of their ancestors on the shrine in the house and prepare offerings, food and drinks for all the visitors in the three days, together with building the temporary ritual stage on a lawn near the house. The stage serves as a ceremonial space as well as a performing area for the Manora. The spirit shrine will be on a small elevated platform on the right side of the stage. It represents a high house where only the Manora ancestral spirits reside, the shrine for the host family’s ancestral spirits is in the main house.

During the ritual, a white sacred string will link the Shrine by the stage to the Shrine in the host family’s house. The Shrine serves as the link between the Godlike realm of the Manora spirits and the host family’s ancestors. 

Music plays a significant role together with the costume of the Manora dancer. The costume bears unique features with a golden crown, the silver wing ornament, the bird-like tail and the long, bent fingernail extensions. The crown is considered sacred, only those who have gone through a Krobsoed initiation ritual are allowed to wear it. 

Designated family members of a household, will light candles and shake their bodies. Possessed by their ancestors’ spirits, they will begin to dance like professional dancers on the stage under the guidance of the bird-winged Manora dancers who please the ancestor’s spirits by singing Manora verses. 

The audience comments on the sketches of the Manora troupe and gets into an active communication with the dancers, whereby punches and jokes are exchanged after a good dose of alcohol consumption. 

A female head of the household can appear as a medium and embody the powerful spirit of the domain. She will appear ecstatic and with a candle in her hand move to the Shrine in the house and pay her respect to the deities in the house and return to the stage and climb the ladder up to the Shrine by the stage to venerate the great teachers, before returning to the core family where the spirit meet the family members, beginning with the oldest grandfather and proceeding by declining age though to the daughter. In great emotional warmth, she will hug and embrace the family members and tears will be shed because they have not seen their loved ones for a long time. The spirit will be joking and laughing with the family members and the community. The ancestors are inquired about the status of the family and provide valuable advice. It is often that the medium appears to nearly lose consciousness and to be fully exhausted after a ritual, to fall into a coma, to reawaken later as themselves. 

The Nora Rongkru is performed in the intimate surroundings of a private house and is attended only by invited family members, relatives and good friends. In this way, it is kept as an intimate family affair. 


The Ceremony to Honour Khun Si Sata (Public)

The ceremony for the veneration of the first Manora teacher, Khun Si Sata is another matter. The grand ritual in Wat Takae is a public spectacle which attracts thousands of people from all parts of the south to honour Khun Si Sata. 

The Nairong Manora who has the privilege to perform the grand ceremony is regarded as a direct successor of Si Sata and has to be among the greatest living Manora teachers in Southern Thailand. During the grand Nora Rungkru ceremony at Wat Takae, the successor of the first Manora teacher is crowned and accepted as a teacher of the grand Manora.

The Manora teacher derives his power from the spirit of the first teacher, Si Sata, whose spirit is present and who observes the performance with keen interest. 

Si Sata is represented with a statue that sits like a Buddha in a small hall that has been constructed for that purpose. The pilgrims offer flowers and food to the spirit. The participants request a boon and respond by dancing with the ‘hunters mask’ in the temple. 

The hunter is one who wants to catch the bird-winged maiden and is one of the important figures in the performance of the creation epos and one of the narrators – together with the Nairong. 

The hunter's mask has become a popular item for vow dancers. Dozens of people come in large families to party, mingle with the crowds and visit the many market stalls, selling Buddhist amulets, Manora music and other items, food and drinks. 

Entrance to the stage is restricted by the authority of the Manora teacher. Nevertheless, people come and go to the stage and it seems the stage becomes a very fluid space. A hundred onlookers are allowed to stay close to the stage in the hot sun to observe the spectacle and comment on it.

The music is extremely loud and loudspeakers blast across the temple terrain. 

After the performance of the Manora dancers, the stage fills up with dancers and people who wear the manora ancestral mask of the hunter. Old women, who used to visit the Nora Ringkru regularly for decades, join and begin spontaneously to dance. Spirit mediums in white clothes join the scene and become possessed by the great Manora ancestor’s spirits. The stage is constantly filled with possessed spirit mediums and dancers, until Nairong calls the dancers from the stage to make space for the ritual. 

After a break, the Nairong grants waiting families the opportunity to enter the stage and to present their babies and children. The magical treatment by the Nairong was a viable alternative to difficult medical treatments and has been performed for centuries. An illness is caused by malevolent spirits. According to legend, Si Sata healed this illness by washing his feet in the sea water and putting them on their wounds. 

The parents brought their babies to the stage and put them on a soft pillow. In the dance the Nairong bathed his bare foot in a bowl of sacred water and betel leaves. He has written a mantra in old Khmer on his big toe and puts it into a flame. The music will intensify when the Nairong moves his foot and touches the face of the child firmly with his bare foot. 

This festival gathers Manohra dancers from everywhere in the south. They play live music using local musical instruments and perform in dancing the Manorah stories, such as fighting with the crocodile.

The climax of the Wat Takae ceremony is the crowning initiation ceremony. The Nairong put a crown on the head of his assistant, thereby transmitting the power and knowledge of the Manora tradition to him. The so-crowned assistant is now able to find his own Manora group and perform with it. The public performance in Qat Takae attracts hundreds of participants and onlookers who hope to benefit from the presence of Si Sata’s spirit and his power to heal. 

In this great Manora ceremony, entertainment, performance, art form, ancestral tradition and spirit possessions and supernatural beliefs, all intermingle. The Muslim woman who came from far, easy recognizable because of her uniform, came to heal her baby regardless of her new convicting in Islam. This is a good example of how the old traditions coexist with a world religion. Indicating a landscape with religious flexibility and openness.
Source: Manora ancestral beings, possession and cosmix rejuvenation in Southern Thailand.
Source: Modern Adaptations of the Multi-Religious Manora Ancestral Vow Ceremony by Alexander Horstmann.​





In Conclusion 

Historically it seems reasonable to assume that this dance was influenced from the Indian dance and released to the south of Thailand during a journey of committees who brought  Buddha’s relics to Nakhon Sri Thammarat  pagoda.

At start the dance was called “Chatri” but than it changed and merged with the myth of “Pra su thon – manohra”. The southerners believe that the manohra dance is good for untying bad luck, bringing good luck and curing health problems. 

The Mahnorah dance choreography used to be delivered in families from generation to generation. The manorah dancers believe that the Manohra old generation dancers still protect them for peaceful lives. 

Manohra dance is profoundly related with southern beliefs. It is usually performed at many important festivals. In the south Manohra performance can still be seen every year, especially in Taa kae sub-district of Pattalung Province, this big event called “Nora rong kruu”.  
The purpose of the event is to give respect to Manohra teachers. It is set for 3 days and 3 nights.

มโนราห์ หรือที่ชาวปักษ์ใต้เรียกว่าโนรา  เป็นมหรสพที่ได้ความความนิยมทั้งในอดีตและปัจจุบัน  โดยส่วนตัวข้าพเจ้าเชื่อว่าได้รับอิทธิพลมาจากการแสดงของอินเดียและถ่ายทอดสู่ภาคใต้ของประเทศไทยผ่านเส้นทางการอันเชิญพระบรมสารีริกธาตุสู่บริเวณบรมธาตุเจดีย์ในจังหวัดนครศรีธรรมราช  แต่มีตำนานที่เป็นที่ได้รับการนิยมทางภาคใต้ว่าถือกำเนินโดยนางนวลทองสำลี  บุตรีของเจ้าเมืองพัทลุงที่ได้ฝันถึงการร่ายรำของเทวดา.

มโนราห์ เดิมทีถูกเรียกว่าการแสดงชาตรี  แต่ภายหลังได้หยิบยกเรื่อง พระสุธน-มโนราห์มาแสดงบ่อยครึ่ง  โดยมีเรื่องราวเกี่ยวกับการตามหาอมนุษย์ครึ่งนกครึ่งคนโดยใช้เวลา 7ปี7เดือน7วันของเจ้าชายหนุ่ม   และมีการนำชื่อมโนราห์มาตั้งเป็นชื่อคณะการแสดงละคร  จึงเป็นชื่อที่เรียกติดปากมาตั้งแต่นั้น  และความหมายตามคำศัพท์แล้วมโนราห์ยังหมาย ถึง ผู้นำพาจิตใจ.

การแสดงมโนราห์มีความเชื่องโยงอย่างแน่นแฟ้นกับพิธีกรรมความเชื่อของชาวปักษ์ใต้  มักมีการแสดงมโนราห์ในงานเทศกาลงานสำคัญต่างๆ  และนอกจากนั้นยังมีการรำมโนราห์แก้ไขโชคร้าย  เสริมดวงชะตา  และรักษาโรค  การรำมโนราห์มักมีการถ่ายทอดกันในครอบครัวและสืบต่อกันจากรุ่นสู่รุ่น  และในหมู่ผู้แสดงโนราห์ยังเชื่อว่าบรรพบุรุษมโนราห์จะคุ้มครองรักษาให้พวกเขามีชีวิตที่สงบสุข.

การแสดงมโนราห์อย่างเต็มรูปแบบนั้นยังมีให้เห็นอยู่ทุกปี  โดยเฉพาะในอำเภอท่าแค  จังหวัดพัทลุง  โดยการแสดงจะมีติดต่อกันเป็นเวลา3วัน3คืน  มีการจัดเตรียมพื้นที่เพื่อต้อนรับมโนราห์จากที่ต่างๆที่จะเดินทางมาอย่างล้นหลาม  และมีการใช้ดนตรีสดจากเครื่องดนตรีพื้นเมองภาคใต้เป็นเสียงประกอบ  มีการแสดงเรื่องราวที่น่าประทับใจ เช่น การต่อสู้กับจระเข้  การร้องเพลงต่อบท  การรำท่าปฐม  ซึ่งเรื่องราวเหล่านี้เป็นสิ่งที่น่าสนใจที่ข้าพเจ้าจะศึกษาต่อไป.