On December 15th, 2021, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the Thai folk dance Nora as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list includes two more Thai entries, traditional Thai massage and Khon, a masked-dance drama developed in Central Thailand sometimes before the1600s.
Typically only seen in small village gatherings in the kingdom’s South, the Nora is a complex dance drama accompanied by a chorus and droning, repetitive music, usually recited in regional dialects as a way to covey moral messages and reinforce social bonds. Lively and acrobatic, performances include prayers, dance scenes, obscene verbal humor, folk comedy, and sometimes even magic rituals – which may be a reference to the roots of the genre as a kind of shamanistic healing or possession ritual.
The name Nora is a shortened form of Manora, the heroine of an ancient Buddhist tale about a supernatural half-bird and half-human princess who lives in the Himalayas. One day a hunter sees her bathing, and is so struck by her beauty that he steals her wings and tail, then takes her to a prince who falls hopelessly in love. The prince, however, has to go to war, and an evil minister convinces him that Manora must be burned in order to save his life. Manora is placed on a pyre, but when the flames reach her toes she regains her wings and flies back to her heavenly kingdom. The prince undergoes a series of trials, and eventually rejoins her.
The story derives from the Jataka Tales, a Buddhist scripture describing the previous lives of the Buddha, thought it has been modified to include all sorts of local legends. It is so complex that it requires many evenings to be completed, usually three.
The dance is generally composed of 12 positions and 17 movements characterized by angular movements, very open leg positions, a way of moving by sliding the feet instead of walking, and extremely expressive finger movements emphasized by long detachable fingernails decorated with beads. Dancers wear bright costumes made of beads, crowns and headdresses, ornate scarves, bird-like wings tied around the waist, and swan tails that give them a bird-like appearance, while the band plays cymbals, small knobbed gongs, wooden sticks, a reed instrument, and drums.
The tale is also known in Central Thailand, where it developed into a classical dance-drama performed in the theater which is sometimes referred to as ‘modern Nora’ – as opposed to the more ritualistic ‘ancient Nora’ which is danced at village gatherings. Popular forms have also evolved, such as Nora karaoke and rock Nora.
The origins of the dance are unclear, since the southern, ancient Nora is stylistically different from the other forms of dance-drama which developed in Central Thailand. What seems certain is that it arrived more than 500 years ago from India or Sri Lanka, from where Theravada Buddhism entered the Thai peninsula, since many of the acrobatic poses are identical to the Karanas of classical Indian dance. Other influences come from traditional Malay dance-dramas like the Mak-Yong, Jikey, and Mek Mulung, though these concentrate on heavily romanticized stories of heroes and the royalty.
Whatever its origin, the Nora is a unique theatre tradition which embodies the complex syncretic belief system of the region, with ritual elements reflecting local animism, a central plot derived from Buddhist lore, movements related to the Indian Hindu tradition, and music that has a strong Malay-Indian flavor.
“A Jane of all Trades, Simonetta spent her life travelling the world while studying its history. Seven years ago she moved to Chiang Mai to write a book, A love Affair with the Unknown, which is now in the last stages of the editing process. She also keeps an interesting facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/simonettagattoauthor , filled with articles about a variety of historical facts.