The Twelve Sisters

The legend of The Twelve Sisters or The Twelve Ladies, known as Nang Sip Song (นางสิบสอง) or as Phra Rot Meri (พระรถเมรี) in Thai a Southeast Asian folktale, and also an apocryphal Jātaka Tale, the Rathasena Jātaka of the Paññāsa Jātaka collection. It is one of the stories of the previous lives of Buddha in which Rathasena, the son of one of the twelve women, is the bodhisattva.[1]

The story of the Twelve Sisters is part of the folk tradition of certain countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand, Cambodia and Laos and the folktales derived from it come in different versions, often under different titles depending from the country. This legend was also brought to Malaysia by the Malaysian Siamese where it became popular among the Malaysian Chinese community.[2]

It is a long story about the life of twelve sisters abandoned by their parents and adopted by an ogress (Lao Sundara; Khmer: Santhomea; Thai: Santhumala) disguised as a beautiful lady. The conclusion is the sad love story about the only surviving son of the twelve sisters, Rathasena (Thai: Phra Rotthasen พระรถเสน; Khmer: Rithisen or Puthisen; Lao: Putthasen) with Manora (Thai: Meri เมรี; Lao: Kankari;[a] Khmer: Kong Rei), the adopted daughter of ogress Sundara. At the end both died together upon the long and lonely shore of a lake.

A long time ago, there was a rich merchant and his beautiful wife who lived happily in a big house. Despite their good fortune, the couple didn't have any children. One day, they went together to a shrine and made an offering of twelve banana hands to a tree spirit. Not long thereafter the wife became pregnant and the rich man wished with all his might that the child would be a boy, but his wife gave birth to a girl. His wife, however, conceived again and again. She became pregnant twelve times and each time she had a daughter. By that time his business started to go wrong for him since the ships that took his goods to sell in another country were robbed several times. Finally the rich merchant ended up borrowing a lot of money from his friends trying to fix his business problems. Yet, no matter what he did, his family kept getting poorer.

The former rich man found it hard having so many mouths to feed. So he made a plan to abandon his daughters in the forest. He hid this plan from his wife but his youngest daughter named Phao heard about it. When their father left them alone in the deep forest, the twelve girls were able to find their way back home thanks to their younger sister who had left marks in the path. But their father tried again and this time they were not able to find their way back home. They spent days walking deeper and deeper into the forest and became very hungry. Their father had given them twelve packets of rice, but when they opened them they found out that eleven of them were filled with sand and only one had rice in it. They shared that little rice and ate it crying, lamenting their misfortune. Wandering aimlessly the twelve girls came to a lake, where they tried to catch fish to satiate their hunger. Each of the sisters succeeded in catching a fish and eleven of them playfully poked the eyes of their fish with sharp twigs, except for the youngest one who poked only one eye.

Finally they arrived to the yaksha kingdom, where an ogress named Santhumala saw the exhausted and emaciated girls resting under a tree and decided to adopt them. The ogress transformed herself into a human being, a pleasant-looking woman, and brought the twelve sisters to her home. For many years she treated them as her own daughters and under her care the twelve girls grew up into beautiful young women.

One day, while Santhumala was away hunting, the twelve sisters met an old man who told them that Santhumala was not a human, but an ogress who liked to eat young women like them. So they fled from the ogre kingdom and wandered for days until they arrived to a clear river where they took a bath to refresh themselves. The local king saw the twelve ladies playing in the water and fell in love with them. So he brought them to his palace and married the twelve sisters.

When Santhumala came back to her home and found that the girls were gone, she flew into a rage. She quickly found out where they were and transformed herself into a very beautiful young woman, more beautiful than any of the twelve sisters; then she went to the city of the king and asked to meet him. The king was spellbound by Santhumala's beauty and swiftly married her, promoting her to the rank of first queen. Jealous of the king's favoritism, the Twelve Sisters were not kind to the new queen. Although they were polite to her in front of the king, they were often mean to her in private. To take her revenge from the Twelve Sisters, Santhumala, the favorite queen, feigned sickness and the king became worried. She told the king that the cause of her disease was the ill-treatment of the twelve other wives and the only thing that would heal her would be a medicine distilled from the eyes of the Twelve Sisters.

The king was so infatuated with Santhumala that he assented. Under his orders eleven of his wives had both of their eyes gouged out, but the youngest one had only one eye removed. Following this the Twelve Sisters were banished to a deep dark cave from where there was no way out. Then the king instructed his servants not to bring any food and not to help the Twelve Sisters in any way.

All the twelve sisters were pregnant and they all successively gave birth to babies but all died. Since the women were being starved under Santhumala's strict orders, each one chopped her baby's body into twelve pieces to share with the other sisters to eat. When Phao gave birth to a beautiful boy who was alive, she lied to her sisters that her son was dead. Phao named her son Rothasen and looked after him well. As he grew he found a secret way out of the deep cave. He had a cock that won in all the cockfights. With the prize money he bought rice and from then onward he brought regularly food for his mother and his eleven aunts. As years went by Rothasen became a handsome young man. When the king heard of him, he invited him to the palace where he played games of dice with the monarch displaying great skill.

Santhumala found out that twelve sisters were alive and she was angry that her plan to get rid had failed. Again she feigned sickness and told the king that only a certain fruit growing in her kingdom could cure her. She also told the king that only Phra Rothasen would be able to fetch it. So she wrote the following letter to her adoptive daughter, Meri, in the language of the ogres:

"If this young man arrives to our kingdom in the morning, devour him in the morning; but if he arrives in the night, devour him in the night"

On the way to the kingdom Phra Rothasen met an old Rshi who gave him a flying horse named Pachi to ride and who gave him hospitality. While the boy slept the sage altered the meaning of the letter by replacing the words "devour him" with "marry him".

Thus, when he arrived at the kingdom of the ogres Phra Rothasen went straight to Meri and showed her the letter. Meri was surprised and pleased at seeing the virtuous-looking and handsome young man and she fell in love with him, celebrating her wedding with him straight away as directed.

Meri was a kind-hearted and beautiful lady and Phra Rothasen lived with her very happily for some time, but he remembered his blind mother and aunts who still stayed in the dark cave. While showing him the palace, Meri had told Rothasen about certain magic medicines kept in a locked room including Phra Rothasen's mother and aunt's eyes. Then he made a plan to get Meri to sleep by making her drink wine and take the eyes for his mother and aunts. Thus one night, after Meri was sleeping, Phra Rothasen stole many medicines and the eyes from the locked room. Meri woke up and looked for her husband but she saw him far away riding his flying horse. She suddenly grew into a giant and followed Phra Rothasen crying and calling him with a loud voice. To stop her, Phra Rothasen threw a magic branch that turned the space between them into a deep lake and a high mountain. Seeing her husband escape from her Meri wailed in despair, asking him to stop. Phra Rothasen was moved by her sad screams and replied that he will back after he finished his urgent mission. Then Phra Rothasen flew away and left Meri with a broken heart crying bitterly at the shore of the lake.

Phra Rothasen arrived back to his city and killed evil Santhumala with a magic club. He then went into the deep dark cave and healed the eyes of his mother and aunts by putting them back in their place with a special magic ointment. His mother and aunts left their deep cave and regained their former status with the king. They invited him to live in the palace again but Phra Rothasen told them that he had to hurry back to live with Meri who was waiting for him.

But meanwhile Meri had died of sorrow. During her long wait she had shed so many tears that she had become blind. Before she died, she solemnly vowed that she would follow Phra Rothasen in every future reincarnation. Then she died with her grandmother crying at her side and surrounded by her servants.

When Phra Rothasen arrived to the ogre kingdom he realized it was too late. He heard about her vow and carried his wife's body. Full of sadness at having lost everything, he dropped dead while holding his wife in his arms. Finally, their spirits flew together to their next rebirth where they would be joined again.

In Tambon Mon Nang, Phanat Nikhom District, Chonburi Province, there is a shrine to the Twelve Sisters with the rock they used as pillow when they wandered in the wilderness and a Carissa carandas tree.[4]

Sa Siliam (สระสี่เหลี่ยม), also in Chonburi Province, is said to be the pond where Phra Rothasen brought his cock to drink water when he ran cockfights to make a living for the twelve sisters while they were banished in the deep dark cave, according to a legend of the area.[5]

In Cambodia this legend is known as Puthisen Neang Kong Rei.[6] The story goes thus:

Once upon a time, there was a rich man who turned to a poor man because of his twelve daughters. So he abandoned his daughters in a deep forest. There the giant Neang Santema took the 12 foundlings to be the servants of her daughter, Kong Rei.

Eventually tiring of the toil of their lives under the terrifying giants, the 12 fled their bondage and made their way to a neighboring kingdom where they were wed en masse to its king, Preah Bath Rothasith.

But the giant Santema was unwilling to allow the dozen former servants of her daughter to live in even the relative freedom that polygamous relationships of the time allowed. Instead, Santema concealed her identity - not a small matter considering her physical stature and reputation - and charmed Rothasith into making her his 13th wife.

Once she had gained the trust and sympathy of her new husband, Santema feigned a deadly illness, one that all the doctors and medicines of her husband failed to cure.

Santema capitalized on Rothasith's growing desperation and informed him that only a potion concocted from the eyeballs of her 12 pregnant co-wives would save her life. Entranced by Santema's wiles, Roth-asith ordered his soldiers to carve out the eyes of 11 of the 12 women, with wife Neang Pov allowed to keep one of her eyes.

After their ritual mutilation, the now blind or nearly blind women were confined in a cave, where they were forced to consume their newly born children one by one.

Only one-eyed Neang Pov was allowed to let her son, Puthisan, survive. In the darkness of the cave with his blind, grief-crazed aunts, Sen quietly fortified himself with dreams of revenge as he nourished himself with the flesh of his dead cousins.

When he became an adult, the evil Santema began to fear the consequences if Puthisan became King. To circumvent any possible acts of revenge by Sen, Santema sent him a letter instructing him to use it for passage into the Forest of Giants. In fact, the letter was a death warrant that stated "When Pothisan arrives, eat him".

But the letter was cunningly altered by a hermit living in the forest to read : "When Puthisan arrives, marry him to my daughter."

Thus when Pothisan entered the Forest of Giants, the letter was read and its instructions obeyed by the sentinel giants. Unbeknownst to Santema, her beloved daughter Kong Rei became the adoring wife of her greatest enemy.

After their marriage, Kong Rei had told Puthisan all about the magic thing in her Kingdom including the Eyeballs that belonged to Puthisen's mother and aunts. Predictably, rather than fulfilling his conjugal duties Puthisen took advantage of his new position to steal back the eyeballs of his long-suffering aunts along with some magical potions designed to facilitate his escape.

When a stricken Kong Rei attempted to pursue Sen, he used the magical potion to turn the land between them into water, allowing him to flee. Kong Rei cried and begged him to come back to live with her but he refused because he should have stronger thoughts for his mother than for his wife. Kong Rei cried until she died and became the Mountain called Kong Rei Mountain at Kampong Chhnang

When he arrived in his kingdom, he gave back their eyeballs to his mother and aunts and killed Santema. Finally, Putisan, his mother and his aunts lived happily in the royal palace. Santema's body was turned to stone and abandoned in the deep forest.

Phnom Kong Rei is a mountain in Kampong Chhnang Province, Central Cambodia. The silhouette of the mountain seen from afar looks like a sleeping lady. According to local folklore this mountain is related to the story.[7] Kompong Cham province of Cambodia as the temple of the 12 sisters rest in Siemreap, Cambodia. The story was adapted to movie and released in 1968.[8]

The Lao version of the Twelve Sisters, the story of Putthasen (Buddhasen), was translated into French by Louis Finot in 1917.[9]

A merchant fell into poverty and abandoned his twelve daughters in the forest.

Instead of a magical branch or potion, in this version of the story Putthasen throws magical limes or lime seeds as he runs from his wife.[10]

Two mountains located close together facing Luang Prabang on the right bank of the Mekong are named Phu Tao and Phu Nang, after Putthasen and Kankari.

Several stories written in the style of a jātaka appeared in Southeast Asia. Several were assembled into collections often known as the “Fifty Jātaka” (Pali: Paññāsa Jātaka) even though the number of stories varies.

Rathasena appears in the collection assembled at National Library of Thailand in the 1920s by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, and translated from Pali into Thai. The Rathasena story does not appear in any other of these collections.

It is often stated that the folktale was based on the jātaka. Possibly, it was the other way round. The jātaka version is much shorter, in particular, omitting the romantic finale. Several key points in the plot are missing. The verses have in part been taken from well-known passages in classical jātaka stories such as the Vessantara Jataka.

A rich man, who is ruined after having twelve daughters, abandons them in a forest. They are adopted by an ogress, Sandhamāra, but escape to Kutāra. After they are found in a banyan tree, emitting a golden aura, the king of Kutāra makes all of them his queens. Sandhamāra enraptures the king, is made his major queen, and persuades him to pluck out the twelve queens’ eyes, leaving only the youngest with sight in one eye. The eleven others become pregnant. Sakka sends down the Bodhisatta Rathasena to be conceived by the youngest. The king has all twelve imprisoned in a cave. When the eleven give birth, they share their babies’ flesh as food. The youngest gives birth to Rathasena. On growing up, Rathasena appeals to Sakka to provide them with cloth and ornaments, and to teach him to gamble.

To feed the twelve, he gambles, first with cowherds, later with the king. When the king learns that this remarkable boy is his own son, Sandhamāra maneuvers to have him sent to the ogre realm carrying a letter. On the way he meets a rishi who reads the letter, finds that Rathasena is being sent to the ogre realm to be eaten, and changes the wording. On Rathasena’s arrival, the ogress’s daughter falls in love with him, and he is anointed with her to rule the realm. After a dalliance, he takes her to the royal park, gets her drunk, learns from her the means to restore the sight to the twelve sisters, and escapes. On failing to follow him, the ogress’s daughter dies of a broken heart. On seeing him return, the ogress Sandhamāra dies of defeat. Rathasena restores sight to the twelve, who again become queens.

The story has been adapted to Thai films, Thai television soap operas (ละคร) and Khmer films.

The Twelve Sisters story has been adapted as well to printed media, such as books,[19][20] children's books,[21] Thai comics in classical style[22] and in manga.[23]

The theme of the story of the Twelve Ladies is ever popular[24] and is found in traditional theatre, dances,[25] poetry[26] and songs.[27]