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nirat

A special form for travel verse?  Marvelous!  As a traveler and aspiring poet, those were my first thoughts when I read about the nirat (or nirāt, นิราศ) a significant form in classical Thai poetry.  But, before I could get any crazy ideas about using an English variation in my own work, I discovered how complex, and how married to the Thai language, the nirat form was.  Still, it’s interesting in its own right and offers a great deal of insight into Thai literary history and culture.

A Brief Overview

It’s not entirely accurate to describe the nirat as a form or genre for travel verse.  The form has evolved over time, and at its core contains an element of longing.  Arnika Fuhrmann, in an essay regarding 20th century poet Angkhan Kalayanaphong, notes that the word nirat can mean “separation,” “to leave,” or “to be separated from,” and is derived from the Sanskrit nir + āśā, meaning “without hope” or “without desire.”  She also quotes Manas Chitakasem, who expands the definition — “to be without something which is clearly desired.”*

In South-East Asia: Languages and Literatures: A Select Guide,** nirat are defined as “long, reflective and lyrical poems written in khlong verse form” in which “the poet, who is usually on a journey or in exile, expresses his longing for his beloved and how the scenery and incidents encountered on his journey remind him of the happy times when he was with his love.”

Khlong Thawathotsamat or Poem On Twelve Months, attributed to the 15th century and thought to be the oldest nirat poem, describes twelve months through which the poet longs for his beloved:

The sixth month arrives with heavenly rains.
I think of your beautiful blossoms, my love.
This month we used to share our love and happiness.
Till your soft navel felt the pains.

(Excerpted from the Fuhrmann article, translated by Manas Chitakasem)

Here, the emphasis is on longing and separation.  The poem does not mention any geographical place names, and as such may not immediately be thought of as travel verse.  Yet there is a journey — a temporal one.  There is also an awareness of the poet’s physical surroundings, even if he is not undertaking a spacial journey, as he ties the elements of the seasons to the body of his lover, and to the memories they shared.

Fuhrmann points out that this linking of the landscape and beloved’s body is typical in the nirat of the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767),*** and is accomplished through, among other things, punning.  She also indicates that the meter, rhymes, and punning in the language work together to mimic the journey’s movement.  The movement and the puns create a constant connection between the landscape and the beloved.  Unfortunately, I can’t yet appreciate this rhythm or punning in the excerpts I’ve read in English (often a difficulty when reading in translation).  But from “I think of your beautiful blossoms, my love,” I certainly get the sense of, as Fuhrmann describes it, the “gendered geocultural landscape” that’s common to the nirat of this era.

In addition to a sense of longing and a connection to the landscape, nirat often contain a strong element of cultural identity.  As the narrator compares what he sees on his journey with his homeland, he forms subjective opinions about the “other”.  (To me, this is one of the greatest challenges of all travel literature — to describe what one experiences with a fair awareness and treatment of self and other.)  As an example of this cultural identity, Fuhrmann quotes poet Sunthorn Phu (1786-1855) and his 1807 work Nirat Mueang Klaeng (also romanized as Nirat Muang Klaeng, Poem of the Middle Country) :

The women of the city, even slaves,
Are many times better than these women.
Oh, once having left the city there is no more beauty.
The more I think about it, the worse I feel and miss the city.

(Translated from the original text into German by Harald Hundius, excerpted from Fuhrmann’s article)

Sunthorn Phu certainly favors his home city in this passage.  Also, note that the sense of longing here is for the city, rather than an absent lover.

Nirat began to resemble what we might call a travelogue by the end of the 19th century.  Olivier Evrard and Prasit Leepreecha, in an article on the anthropology of domestic tourism in the Chiang Mai area,**** reference the work of Thai historian Thongchai Winichakul that shows that the emphasis of the nirat shifted toward the landscape being visited rather than the longing for what was left behind — “the ‘going to’ rather than the ‘leaving from.'”  They argue, in the context of tourism, that the tendency toward longing and melancholy in classical nirat is replaced by nostalgia.  In this model, the landscape (travel destination) symbolizes what the tourist feels has been lost.  Tourists visit pastoral landscapes and reminisce about an old lifestyle that no longer exists, rather than lamenting a separation from a loved one left at home.  It’s interesting to note that in classical nirat, the journey that causes the separation from the beloved is often involuntary.  Tourism, on the other hand, is willingly undertaken.

Today, nirat and nirat-influenced poetry is still being written.  Fuhrmann states:

In contemporary nirat the themes of separation, longing, and identity remain prominent, and movement still plays an important role, but the body disappears as a central referent.  Nirat now frequently become journeys in history, travels in collective memory, and ways of reflecting on the past.

On a final note, the nirat poet’s journey ordinarily encompasses more than a simple displacement of time and/or space.  The journey can be a psychological one as well, as the narrator reflects on his relationship with the beloved.  And as with all literature, the reader is also taken along with him.

In the next post, we’ll go over the khlong (khlōng) form typically used in nirat poetry.

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*Fuhrmann’s article is “The Dream of a Contemporary Ayuthaya: Angkhan Kalayanaphong’s Poetics of Dissent, Aesthetic Nationalism, and Thai Literary Modernity,”   published in Oriens Extremus, volume 48 (2009), 271-290.  The article by Manas Chitakasen she cites is “The Emergence and Development of the Nirat Genre in Thai Poetry,” Journal of the Siam Society 60, no. 2 (1972): 135-168, 138.

**Eds. Patricia Herbert and Anthony Crothers Milner.  Published by University of Hawaii Press, 1989.  ISBN 978-0824812676.

***Thai literature is typically divided into four epochs, based on the location of the capital city:

1. Sukhothai Period (circa 1238-1377)
2. Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767)
3. Thon Buri Period (1767-1782)
4. Rattanakosin Period (1782-present, literature after 1932 is considered “modern”)

****Evrard and Leepreecha’s article is “Monks, Monarchs and Mountain Folks : Domestic Tourism and Internal Colonialism in Northern Thailand,” published in Critique of Anthropology, volume 29 (2009) 300-323.  The Tongchai Winichakul article they cite is “The Others Within: Travel and Ethno-spatial Differentiation of Siamese Subjects 1885–1910’, in Andrew Turton (ed.) Civility and Savagery: Social Identity in the Tai States, pp. 38–62.