Early Lao Literature

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As in neighbouring countries, the earliest literature to emerge in what is now the Lao PDR served to perpetuate the various proverbs, myths, legends and cosmology associated with particular ethnic groups. Today several of Laos' ethnic minority groups still preserve a rich tradition of epic stories, performed by village elders who are charged with keeping the ancient art alive.

Late in the first millennium BCE, Buddhist monks began to appropriate the ancient storytelling techniques for the purpose of spreading their faith, giving rise to the development of the jataka, tales of the Bodhisattva (previous incarnations of the Buddha) which were later added to the tripitaka canonical texts of Theravada Buddhism.

Compiled at various dates in several countries and totalling 547 stories in the oldest and most complete collection, the jataka were intended to teach the virtues of self-sacrifice, honesty and morality to the common person. The last and longest, known as the Vessantara (in which the future Buddha in the form of Prince Vessantara perfects renunciation), was later to become Phra Vet, the most popular of all the jataka stories in Laos.

From the 8th century onwards, Buddhist practices introduced into the region by early Mon rulers were slowly adopted by the incoming Tai and syncretised with animist practices. By the start of the Lane Xang era (14th century) Buddhist wats had begun to emerge as important centres of learning in which sacred texts in Pali were copied onto palm leaves for study and recitation.