An Homage to Acharn Manivong Khattiyarat

Manivong Khattiyarat, commonly known as “Acharn Manivong” (“Master Manivong”), is one of the most important Lao artists of his time. He exemplifies the Lao tradition of the nak ork beb—the creative person who provides others with an artistic model and vision. For his entire career, he has directed his talents to the nourishment of Luang Prabang’s artistic heritage, which he has described as a unique mélange of traditions from neighboring countries, such as Thailand, Cambodia, and China, characterized by its simplicity and vigor. His work in the fields of design, drawing, and mask-making has immeasurably enriched this heritage.

Born in Ban Sithan (now Ban That Luang), Luang Prabang in 1929, Acharn Manivong is from a family of many artists and intellectuals. His father was Chao Khattiyavong, a younger brother of Chao Maha Oupahat Bounkhong, father of Prince Phetsarath Rattanavongsa (1890–1959). An official interpreter, Chao Khattiyavong, who did not use any family name, according to the custom of the time, spoke several languages, including French, English, and German, and traveled frequently, particularly to Hanoi. In 1955, Acharn Manivong married Nang Kenchansy (nickname, Phou). They had 12 children—nine boys and three girls—of whom one died at a young age. Most of the children inherited from their father a love of the arts: two of the boys are architects and draftsmen, another was a professor at the Luang Prabang Fine Arts School, and one of the girls helped her father make masks for the Phra Lak Phra Lam performance.

Acharn Manivong has created designs for numerous buildings in Luang Prabang, including structures for Vat Xieng Thong, Vat That Luang, Vat Vixun, Vat Phone Pao, and the former royal palace, as well as for buildings in other cities in Laos. He regards his greatest work to be the sculpted narrative program for the Funerary Carriage House (1963–75) located on the grounds of Vat Xieng Thong, which was built to house the funerary urn and carriage of King Sisavangvong (1885–1959). Decorating the exterior walls and the window shutters of the structure, this narrative program portrays the Phra Lak Phra Lam and is designed to be read in a counterclockwise direction, perhaps in harmony with funerary ritual, which calls for a counterclockwise circumambulation of the funerary monument. Acharn Manivong has observed that with his design, he sought to be faithful to tradition while incorporating new forms and ideas. For this project, he worked under the supervision of Phya Sing and collaborated with Phya Thit Tanh, a master woodcarver, and Thit Bounthan, who made the glass mosaics for the structure. His many other achievements in the field of design include the catafalque for the funeral procession of Phra Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera, who died on July 7, 2007. This work is discussed in the essay by Francis Engelmann included in this section of this publication.

Acharn Manivong’s skills as a designer are equaled by his skills as a draftsman. He has created an impressive corpus of drawings that are distinguished by their mastery of perspective, precision of line, and delicacy of color. These drawings include plans, elevations, and detail drawings of architectural projects, both realized and unrealized; furniture and embroidery patterns; sketches for the Phra Lak Phra Lam performance; and drawings of more unusual subjects, such as a rendering of a howdah, a canopied seat placed on the back of an elephant to transport a person of high status. Collectively, these drawings are irreplaceable documents of Luang Prabang’s material culture—especially of its Buddhist architectural heritage. In this regard, two of his most important projects include a series of exquisitely detailed drawings of the sculpted doors of the main monasteries of Luang Prabang, which he began in the late 1970s, and a series of drawings he prepared for the construction of the Ho Phra Bang, the chapel for the sacred Phra Bang, which reflect his incomparable knowledge of Luang Prabang’s architectural traditions. He began the latter project in 1978, at the request of Phoumi Vongvichit (1909–1994), who later served as Acting President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.

In addition to his accomplishments in design and drawing, Acharn Manivong has excelled in the art of mask-making—particularly, masks for the Phra Lak Phra Lam performance. The most important epic in the Lao literary tradition, the Phra Lak Phra Lam is a sacred text that is a Lao version of the Ramayana, the great Sanskrit epic composed by the Indian poet Valmiki in ancient times. Enormously popular, it is performed as uplifting entertainment for the public and portrayed in temple paintings and sculptures. It not only propagates the values of Theravada Buddhism, but also demonstrates the triumph of a political dynasty that embodies these values.

The Phra Lak Phra Lam begins with the foundation of the city of Indraprastha by a brahma couple, who descend from heaven and establish a dynasty. One line rules from Indraprastha; the other, from Vientiane. Thotsakan (Ravana, in the Ramayana), the heir to the kingdom of Indraprastha, abducts Canda, the daughter of his uncle, the king of the kingdom of Vientiane—an act that upsets the moral and social order. To avenge the king, the god Indra directs two devaputtas to be born as his sons: a bodhisattva named Phra Lam (Rama, in the Ramayana) and his brother Phra Lak (Laksmana, in the Ramayana). Phra Lam and Phra Lak journey through the Mekong River Valley to Indraprastha to recover Canda. Eventually, Thotsakan surrenders to Phra Lam and marries Canda after formally negotiating for her hand and paying the bride-price, as Lao custom dictated. With the moral and social order restored, Thotsakan is accepted as Phra Lam’s brother-in-law. The second part of the epic, set in the island kingdom of Lanka, focuses on Thotsakan’s abduction of Nang Sida (Sita, in the Ramayana) from Phra Lam. The beautiful daughter of Thotsakan, she was one of Phra Lam’s 12 wives.

Assisted by one of his daughters, Acharn Manivong created a series of Phra Lak Phra Lam masks in 2006. Mask-making is an art shaped by long-established conventions. Only certain roles require the use of a mask; and the facial expression, color, and crown for each of these roles are set by tradition. The masks are created by applying layers of papier mâché, made from traditional mulberry paper and glue, onto a mold. Then the masks are lacquered, painted, and gilded. The most elaborate masks tend to be for demons, such as Phra Sahatsadesa, the elder companion of the fierce Thotsakan; he is portrayed with a snarling mouth, two tusk-like teeth, furrowed brow, and a three-tiered headdress. By contrast, the masks for gods—such as Phra Phom (Brahma) and Phra Narai (Vishnu), whose avatar is reborn as Phra Lam—are more refined. Acharn Manivong’s designs for these masks reflect his intimate rapport with the performative tradition of the Phra Lak Phra Lam, as well as his delicate craftsmanship.

After she arrived in Luang Prabang, France Morin met Acharn Manivong and learned of his collection of his drawings. Not only had these drawings never been seen by the public, but they were deteriorating. With his cooperation, The Quiet in the Land arranged for the conservation of 20 of the drawings. These works, along with five of the afore-mentioned masks he created, were included in an exhibition organized by The Quiet in the Land, which was presented at the Luang Prabang National Museum from October 2006 to July 2007. In a ceremony held on the museum grounds on August 17, 2007, the drawings were officially accessioned into the museum’s permanent collection, where they will be preserved and made available for exhibition and study. The ceremony was attended by Acharn Manivong and his family; Sisavath Nhilatchay, Director of the Luang Prabang Fine Arts Museum; Bounkhong Khutthao, then Deputy Director of the Department of Information and Culture; France Morin and Francis Engelmann of The Quiet in the Land; and several dignitaries, among others.


Information for this text was gathered from a series of interviews and conversations between Acharn Manivong and Boreth Ly, France Morin, Vanpheng Keopannha, and Patrice Bleton in August 2005, and Francis Engelmann and Nithakhong Somsanith in September 2006 and July 2009.