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Lao
Khon Lao collage.jpg
From top left:
ເສດຖາທິຣາດ King Setthathirath • ຄຳໄຕ ສີພັນດອນ General Khamtai Siphandon • ໜູຮັກ ພູມສະຫວັນ (หนูฮัก พูมสะหวัน) Nouhak Phoumsavanh • Bryan ທ້າວ ວໍຣະ Bryan Thao Worra • ຈິນຕະຫຼາ ພູນລາບ (จินตหรา พูนลาภ) Jintara Poonlarp • ຫຼວງປູ່ມ່ັນ ພູຣິທັຕໂຕ (หลวงปู่มั่น ภูริทตฺโต) Mun Bhuridatta • ຄາສ ພອນສັກ ພະແທຟຕະ Kaz Patafta • ອນນັດາ ເອເວອຣິ່ງແຮນ Ananda Everingham
Total population
30 million (est.)

 Laos:
   4.5 million
 Thailand:
   20 million
 United States:
   approx. 300,000
 Vietnam:
   169,000
 Russia:
   150,000
 France:
   50,000
 Burma:
   25,000
 Canada:
   25,000
 Australia:
   14,000
 Argentina:
   2,000
 Brazil:
  1,000  New Zealand:
   1,000

Languages

Lao, Isan, Thai, French and English

Religion

Predominantly Theravada Buddhist, with animist and some Hindu influences.

Related ethnic groups

Thais and other Tai ethnic groups

The Lao (Lao: ລາວ, Isan: ลาว, IPA: láːw) are an ethnic subgroup of Tai/Dai in Southeast Asia. The vast majority of Lao people live in Laos and the Isan region of Thailand.

Contents

Names

The etymology of the word Lao is uncertain, although it may be related to tribes known as the Ai Lao (Lao: ອ້າຽລາວ, Isan: อ้ายลาว, Chinese: 哀牢pinyin: Āiláo, Vietnamese: ai lao) who appear in Han Dynasty records in China and Vietnam as a people of what is now Yunan Province. Tribes descended from the Ai Lao included the Tai tribes that migrated to Southeast Asia.[1] The English word Laotian, used interchangeably with Lao in most contexts, comes from French laotien/laotienne.[2] The Lao people, like many other Tai peoples also refer to themselves as Tai (Lao: ໄທ, Isan: ไท, IPA: tʰáj) and more specifically Tai Lao (ໄທລາວ, ไทลาว). In Thailand, the local Lao people are differentiated from the Lao of Laos and by the Thais by the term Thai Isan (Lao: ໄທຍ໌ອີສານ, Isan: ไทยอีสาน, IPA: i: să:n), a Sanskrit-derived term meaning northeast, but 'Lao' is still used.[3]

History

Tai Migration Period

According to a shared legend amongst various Tai tribes, a possibly mythical king, Khun Borom Rachathiriat (ຂຸນບໍຣົມຣາຊາທິຣາດ, ขุนบรมราชาธิราช, kʰŭn bɔː lóm láː sáː tʰī lȃːt) of Mueang Thaen (ເມືອງແຖນ, เมืองแถน, mɯ´əŋ tʰɛ̆ːn) (modern-day Điện Biên Phủ) begot several sons that settled and ruled other mueang, or city-states, across South-East Asia and southern China.[4] Descended from ancient peoples known to the Chinese as the Yue and the Ai Lao, the Tai tribes began migrating into South-East Asia by the beginning of the 1st millennium, but large-scale migrations took place between the 7th and 13th centuries AD, especially from what is now Sipsongbanna, Yunnan Province and Guangxi. The reasons for Tai migration include pressures from Han Chinese expansion, Mongol invasions, suitable land for wet rice cultivation and the fall of states such as Nanzhao that the Tais inhabited[5][6].

The Tai assimilated or pushed out indigenonus Austroasiatic Mon-Khmer peoples, and settled on the fringes of the Indianised kingdoms of the Mon and Khmer Empire. The blending of peoples and the influx of Indian philosophy, religion, language, culture and customs via and alongside some Austroasiatic element enriched the Tai peoples, but the Tais remained in contact with the other Tai mueang.[7]

Lanxang

The Tai states took advantage of the waning Khmer Empire and emerged independent. The Lao reckon the beginnings of their national history to this time, as many important monuments, temples, artwork, and other aspects of classical Lao culture harken back to this time period. From this point, one can refer to the Tai states of the Chao Phraya River valley as Siam and Lan Xang as Laos, albeit quite anachronistically. The Kingdom of Lanxang (ອານາຈັກລ້ານຊ້າງ, อาณาจักรล้านช้าง, ʔaː náː t͡ʃák lȃːn sȃːŋ), the Land of One Million Elephants, began in 1354 AD, when Somdej Phra Chao Fa Ngum (ສົມເດດພຣະເຈົ້າຝ້າງູ່ມ, สมเด็จพระเจ้าฝ้างู่ม) (1354 - 1373 AD) returned to Mueang Sua (ເມືອງຊວາ, เมืองซวา), thence renamed Xieng Thong ((ຊຽງທອງ, เซียงทอง). From his base, all of modern-day Laos and the Khorat Plateau as well as parts of Sipsongbanna (ສິບສອງພັນນາ, สิบสองพันนา), Sipsong Chu Tai (ສິບສອງຈຸໃທ, สิบสองจุไทย), Xieng Tung (ຊຽງຕຸງ, เซียงตุง), and Xieng Taeng (ຊຽງແຕງ, เซียงแตรง).

The kingdom prospered with riverine traffic along the Mekong and over-land caravan routes to the ports of Siam, which had emerged as a bustling entrepôt of sea-bourne trade, and to southern China and other Tai mueang. The first Western visitors during the reign of Phra Chao Suriyavongsa (ພຣະເຈົ້າສຸຣິຍະວົງສາທັມມິກຣາດ,พระเจ้าสุริยวงศาธรรมิกราช) (1634 - 1697 AD) noted how the kingdom prospered off exports of gold, benzoin resin, lac and lacquerware, medicinal herbs, ivory, silk and silk clothing, and wood. Numerous temples, especially in Xieng Thong (now Luang Phrabang) and Vientiane attest this. During this time, the legends of Khun Borom were recorded on palm-leaf manuscripts and the Lao classical epic Sin Xay was composed. Therevada Buddhism was the state religion, and Vientiane was an important city of Buddhist learning. Cultural influences, besides Buddhism, included the Mon outposts later assimilated into the kingdom and the Khmer. A brief union of the crowns of Lannathai and Lanxang under Phra Chao Sai Sethathirath (ພຣະເຈົ້າໄຊເສດຖາທິຣາດ, พระเจ้าไชยเชษฐาธิราช) (1548 - 1572 AD) introduced many architectural and artistic developments, in imitation of Lannathai style, but intellectual as well. The libraries of Lannathai were copied, including much religious literature. This may have led to the adoption, or possibly re-adoption of the Mon-based Tua Tham, or 'dharma script' for religious writings[8]

The kingdom split into three rival factions, ruling from Luang Phra Bang, Vientiane, and Champasak (ຈຳປາສັກ, จำปาศักดิ์). The kingdoms quickly fell under Siamese rule. The remnants of Lan Xang received their final blows in the 18th and 19th centuries, during the campaigns of Taksin and retribution for the revolts of Chao Anuvong (ເຈົ້າອນຸວົງ, เจ้าอนุวงศ์) against Siamese rule during the reign of Rama III. During both these periods, Vientiane and other cities were looted and their Buddha images and artwork moved to Thailand.[9] The cities and much of the population was forcibly removed and settled in the lesser populated regions of Isan and central Thailand and others were enslaved to do corvée projects[10] By the time the French reached Laos in 1868, they had only found a depopulated region with even the great city of Vientiane disappearing into the forest.[9]

The Lao after Lanxang

Lao in Laos

The area of Laos, now annexed by Siam, was explored by the French and, under Auguste Pavie, the French were keen to control the Mekong. The French, as overlords of Vietnam, wanted all the tributaries of Vietnam, including the remnant territories of Lanxang. This lead to French gunboat diplomacy and border skirmishes known as the Franco-Siamese War of 1893, which forced Siam to cede its claims to most of what constitutes modern-day Laos.[11]

The French forced the Siamese to renounce their claims to Lao territory in 1893, thus signalling the genesis of the modern Lao state.

The French prevented and preserved the Lao from becoming a regional sub-category of the Thai nation, much like their brethren in Isan, also known as the 'North-Eastern Thai'. Like former historical rivalries between the kings of Luang Phrabang, Champasak and Vientiane, post-independence Laos was quickly divided between the royalists under Prince Boun Oum of Champasak (ເຈົ້າບຸນອຸ້ມ ນະ ຈຳປາສັກ, เจ้าบุญอุ้ม ณ จำปาศักดิ์), the neutralists under Prince Souvanna Phouma (ເຈົ້າສວັນນະພູມາ, เจ้าสุวรรณภูมา), and the communist Pathet Lao (ປະເທດລາວ, ประเทศลาว, pá tʰêːt lá:w) under his half-brother Prince Souphanouvong (ເຈົ້າສຸພານນະວົງ, เจ้าสุภานุวงศ์). These internal divisions, with the Cold War and the region quickly being drawn into the Vietnam War lead to a protracted battle for government control that would not end until the communist victor in 1975.[12]

The Laotian Civil War was disastrous for the country. The royal family was forced to abdicate and sent to a labour camp and as much as ten percent of the population fled to Thailand and elsewhere, including much of the intellectual élite. Laos became one of the poorest nations in the world, heavily reliant on foreign aid. The country has since relaxed many of its restrictions, which has opened up the country to trade and business, but the country is still plagued with small coffers, little infrastructure, and over-dependence on Thailand for business, education, and media[13]

Lao in Thailand

Although parts of Isan were settled and were part of Lanxang, many of the Lao were forcibly settled in the lesser populated southern and western regions or sent to boost the populations of Lao mueang loyal to the Siamese. The area was relatively isolated from the rest of Thailand by the Petchabun mountains until the beginning of the 20th century, when a direct rail link was built to Nakhon Ratchasima. The region's rurality, poverty, isolation, large numbers, and attachment to their unique culture helped preserve Lao culture[14]

Various Thaification policies were enacted to finally integrate the Lao into Thailand. 'Lao' was removed as a category in the census, and heavy-handed policies were enacted. References to Lao people or its past were removed and the language was banned from schools and books, and overt prejudice towards Isan people for their darker complexions, different language, and the agricultural base was commonplace[15]

Although the region remains mainly agricultural and poorer compared to other regions of Thailand, and many leave the region to find work in Bangkok or abroad, the region has enjoyed a renewed interest in traditional culture which is quite distinct although similar to Thai culture. The region is becoming increasingly more urban, and many large cities have sprung up. Due to the large population and Isan's important function as a voting bloc in elections, more attention to improving the region's infrastructure, business and education has come from the national government although poverty and regionalism are still impediments to Isan's development[16]

Distribution

There are around 3.6 million Laotians in Laos, constituting approximately 68% of the population (the remainder are largely hill tribe people). The ethnic Lao of Laos form the bulk of the Lao Loum ("Lowland Laotians") (Lao: ລາວລຸ່ມ, Thai: ลาวลุ่ม, IPA: laːw lum). Small Lao communities exist in Thailand and Cambodia, residing primarily in the former Lao territory of Stung Treng (Xieng Teng in Lao), and Vietnam. There are also substantial, unknown numbers of Lao overseas perhaps as many as 500,000 people. Most of the latter were refugees from Laos who fled during the Vietnam War (Second Indochina War) from the Pathet Lao. Places of asylum for the Lao refugees are the United States, France, Japan, Australia, Germany, Canada, Singapore, and the United Kingdom; many also live in Argentina, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Switzerland, Myanmar and Brazil.

The 2000 United States census figure of 168,707 Laotians and the 2005 figure of 200,000 exclude Hmong, but include Mien, Tai Dam, Khmu and other groups in addition to the Lao.

Language

The Lao language is a tonal, analytic, right-branching, pronoun pro-drop language of the Tai-Kadai language family, closely related to Thai and other languages of Tai peoples. Most of the vocabulary is of native Tai origin, although important contributions have come from Pali and Sanskrit as well as Mon-Khmer languages. The alphabet is an indic-based alphabet based on older forms of the Thai alphabet that developed from the Khmer script and ultimately are of Indic origin. Although the Lao have five major dialects, they are all mutually intelligible and Lao people believe they all speak variations of one language[17].

Lao in Laos

The Lao language (ພາສາລາວ) is the official language of the Lao People's Democratic Republic and its official script is the Lao alphabet.[18] As the dominant language of most of the Lao Loum and therefore most of the Lao population, the language is enshrined as the dominant language of education, government, and official use.[18] Numerous minority languages are spoken by roughly half the population, and include languages of the Austro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Austronesian and Hmong-Mien language families. Although spelling is not fully uniform, despite several reforms to move the language closer to phonetical systems, it has helped stabilise the language. No official standard exists, but the dialect of Vientiane is considered de facto official.

Lao in Thailand

The boundaries of Lao dialects also extend into the North-East of Thailand, known as Isan, but the Lao spoken in Thailand as a whole can be differentiated by adoption of much Thai vocabulary and code-switching. The language is not taught or used in schools, government, and most media outlets. Thaification policies removed the alphabet and now the language is written in the Thai alphabet, if at all, and the name changed to Isan to sever the political connection with Laos. Despite this, the Lao language is spoken by almost a third of the population of Thailand and is the primary language of 88% of Isan households. It continues to serve as an important regional language and a badge of Isan (hence Lao) identity, but it is experiencing a decline in the advance of Thai[19]

Religion

Religion in Laos is highly syncretic, and has drawn from three primary sources, although most Lao people claim to be Therevada Buddhists, many traditions are derived from Hindu and Buddhist practises.

Buddhism

Offering of food to monks to make merit at a temple in Vientiane

Buddhism (ພຣະພຸດທະສາສນາ, พุทธศาสนา, pʰā pʰūt tʰāʔ sàːt sáʔ năː) is the most popular and state religion in Laos, practised by 67% of the country, and nearly all of the ethnic Lao. The numbers could be much higher, as Buddhism has also influenced many other ethnic groups that are generally considered animist[20]. It is also the predominant religion of Isan and most of the nations beyond Laos' frontiers. Of these, most are of the Therevada Sect (ເຖຣະວາດ, เถรวาท, tʰĕː rā wȃːt) although historical influences of Mahayana Buddhism remain and it is the main sect of Vietnamese and Chinese minorities that have settled amongst the Lao and it has become syncretic with animistic practices.

The temple in a Lao community is the centre of community affairs, where villagers gather to discuss concerns or ask monks for their wisdom and guidance, and most men are expected to enter the monastery at some point to further their religious knowledge and make merit.

Paramount to religious living are the five Buddhist precepts (ປັນຈະສິນ, ban t͡ʃaʔ sin, เบญจศีล, beːn t͡ʃaʔ sin), viz., to abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Lao cultural and behavioural traits that stem from Buddhist belief include tolerance, respect for elders and family hiearchy, selflessness, detachment to worldly good and concerns, caring for younger siblings, politeness, self-negation, and modesty. Basic beliefs include re-incarnation and karma.[21]

Important holidays related to Buddhism include Boun Phra Vet (ບຸນພຣະເວດ, บุญพระเวส, bun pʰaʔ vet), Magha Puja (ມະຄະບູຊາ, มาฆบูชา), Songkhan (ສັງຂານ, สงกรานต์), Vesak (ວິສາຂະບູຊາ, วิศาขบูซา), Vassa (ວັນເຂົ້າພັນສາ, วันออกพรรษา), Wan Awk Pansa (ວັນອອກພັນສາ วันออกพรรษา), Kathina, (ກະຖິນ, กฐิน). In addition to these days, the Buddhist sabbath days (ວັນພຣະ, วันพระ, van pʰaʔ), during the phases of the moon, and temple fairs are also regular times to visit the temples, pray, ask advice of the monks for spiritual concerns, and donate food, money, or help out with temple chores, known in Lao as tambun (ທຳບຸນ, ทำบุญ, tʰam bun).

Animism

Animism is the native religion of most of the Mon-Khmer and more recent Hmong-Mien and Tibeto-Burman minorities, as well as the traditional religion of the Tais before Buddhism, although some Tai tribes to this day are still animist. For the ethnic Lao, animism has become interwoven with Buddhism and some Hindu elements. Despite suppression at various points in time, it continues to be a large part of Lao religious tradition.

A spirit house near Wat Kham Chanot, Udon Thani Province

Lao people believe in thirty-two spirits known as khwan (ຂວັນ, ขวัญ, kʰwan) that protect the body, and basi (ບາສີ, baː siː, ใบสี, bɑj siː) ceremonies are undertaken during momentous occasions or times of anxiety to bind the spirits to the body, as their absence is believed to invite illness or harm. In addition, there are the other spirits, known as phi (ຜີ, ผี, pʰiː); namely those that guard buildings or territories, those that are of natural places, things or phenomenon; ancestral spirits and other spirits that protect people; and malevolent spirits. Guardian spirits of places, such as the phi wat (ຜີວັດ, ผีวัด) of temples and the lak mueang (ຫລັກເມືອງ, หลักเมือง, lak mɯːaŋ) of towns are celebrated with communal gatherings and offerings of food.

In daily life, most people pay respect to the phi that reside in spirit houses, who are thought to prect the vicinity from harm. Offerings of flowers, incense, and candles are given, and the spirits are consulted during changes or times of duress for protection and assistance. Natural spirits include those that reside in trees, mountains, or forests. Guardian spirits of people often include ancestors or angelic-beings who arrive at various points in life, better known as thewada. Malevolent spirits include those of people who were bad in past lives or died tragic deaths, such as the ghastly phi pob (ຜີປອບ, ผีปอบ) and the vampirical phi dip (ຜີດິບ, ผีดิบ). Some of the phi are also include the indigenous, non-Hindu gods, the phi thaen (ຜີແຖນ, ผีแถน) [22]

Spirit shamans (ໝໍຜີ,หมอผี) are locally trained people in the rituals and in communication with their personal spirits and spirits in general. Using trances, sacred objects imbued with supernatural power, or saksit, possessions, and rituals like lam phi fa (ລຳຜີຟ້າ, ลำผีฟ้า, lam pʰiː faː) or basi, the shaman is often consulted during times of trouble, hauntings, and illness or other misfortune that might be caused by malevolent or unhappy spirits. They are also usually present during animist festivals.[23]

Brahmanism

A statue of Lord Brahma (background) at a temple in Vientiane

Hinduism was the primary influence over much of the Khmer Empire, and examples of Hindu themes can be found on their temples, such as Vat Phou from that era.[24] Temples were often built over the sites of ancient Hindu shrines, and statues or motifs of Hindu gods are commonly found outside temples. Although important influences can be traced to Hinduism and Brahmanic rituals, the Lao people are not as overtly influenced by Hinduism as their neighbours the Tai Thai.

The Lao have adopted and adapted the Ramayana into the local version, known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (ພຣະລັກພຣະຣາມ, พระลักษมณ์พระราม, pʰaʔ lak pʰaʔ laːm). The Lao version was interwoven with the Lao creation myth and is also, mistakenly, though of as a Jataka story so is held in high esteem.[25] Many court dances were based on the events of the story. Hinduism blended easily into both animism and Buddhism, so many Hindu gods are considered Thaen and Buddhist monks have incorporated much of Brahmanic rituals. Peculiar to Lao people are reverence for nagas, snake-like demigods that rule the waterways.

Culture

Lao Cuisine

A dish of tam mak hung, ping gai, and khao nio, a very common Lao meal.

The cuisine of Laos is similar to other regional cuisines such as Thai and Cambodian cuisines, but has several unique distinguishing traits. The cuisines of the Lao in Laos and Isan have diverged only minutely, with the key differences is that Lao cuisine lacks the influences of Thai cuisine and Isan cuisine lacks many of the Vietnamese and French influences in Laos. Rice is the staple, and the main variety is glutinous rice or khao nio (ເຂົ້າຫນຽວ, ข้าวเหนียว, kʰào nǐo), which is also a feature on Isan and Northern Thai tables. Although sometimes replaced by noodles or other, less popular varieties of rice, it is commonly served with an accompaniment of various dips and sauces, raw vegetables, and several dishes that are shared together. Many dishes are very spicy, fiered by the numerous varieties of chillies and made pungent by the strong herbs and fermented fish sauces.[26]

The tropical climate and mountainous areas gives Laos a wide variety of climates and also a rich bounty of edibles, so much of traditional Lao cuisine is composed of vegetables and herbs gathered from the wild, weeds from the rice fields, as well as vegetable plots. A rich plethora of vegetable and fruit varieties are grown, including [[cucumbers, gourds, cabbage, snakebeans, winged beans, [[yams\\, water spinach, mangoes, pomelos, papayas, and sugarcane. Raw vegetables often accompany a meal to help cool the tongue. The most popular meat is freshwater fish, which is also used to make two flavourings, fish sauce (ນ້ຳປາ, nâm paː) and padaek (ປາແດກ, ปาแดก, paː dèːk). Other common meats include pork, chicken, duck, beef, eggs, water buffalo. Protein intake includes a wide range of delicacies, including lizards, insects, frogs, and wild deer that also come from the forests. Common beverages are tea, coffee, and alcohol, including the native rice wine, lao lao (ເຫລົ້າລາວ, เหล้าลาว, làu láːw). The cuisine is noted for its use of mint and dill, relatively rare in surrounding cuisines, and the relative absence, especially compared to Thai cuisine, of Chinese and Indian influences, such as curries and stir-fry, and dry spices such as cumin, coriander seeds, cinnamon, anise, or fennel.[27]

Laos is generally very rural areas, and most of the people support themselves by agriculture, with rice being the most important crop.[28]. As inhabitants of river valleys and lowlands that have been long-settled, ethnic Lao do not practise swidden agriculture like upland peoples.

The traditional folk music is lam lao (ລຳລາວ, ลำลาว, lám láːw), although it is also known as morlam (Lao: ໝໍລຳ, หมอลำ, mɔ̆ːlám) which is the preferred term in Isan language. Artists from Thailand are also popular in Laos and vice versa, which has re-enforced Lao culture in Isan despite heavy Thaification. The music is noted for the use of the khene (Lao: ແຄນ, Isan: แคน, IPA: kʰɛːn) instrument.[29]

Subdivisions of the Lao people

In Laos, little distinction is made between the Lao and other closely related Tai peoples with mutually intelligible languages who are grouped together as Lao Loum or 'Lowland Lao' (Lao: ລາວລຸ່ມ láːu lūm , Thai: ลาวลุ่ม, IPA: laːw lum). Most of these groups share many common cultural traits and speak dialects or languages that are very similar, with only minor differences in tones, vocabulary, and pronunciation of certain words, but usually not enough to impede conversation, but many of these groups, such as the Nyaw and Phuthai consider themselves distinct, and often have differences in clothing that differentiate them[30].

Popular culture

  • Deaf Asian-American star Vichay Phommachan, artist, actor and entertainer. He is of Lao and Thai origin.
  • Badminton Laotian-American star Khan Malaythong,Athlete. He portrayed a Chinese badminton player in a Vitamin Water commercial starring David Ortiz and Brian Urlacher and played in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

See also

References

  1. ^ Fairbank, J. K., Loewe, M., & Twitchett, D. C. (1986). The Ch'in and Han Empires 221 B.C.-A.D. 220 . (1986). The Cambridge history of china. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ Hawker, S., & Soares, C. (Ed.). (2008). Compact oxford english dictionary of current english. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ Hayashi, Y. (2003). Practical Buddhism among the thai-lao: religion in the making of a region. Melbourne, Australia: Trans Pacific Press
  4. ^ Eliot Joshua et all. (2002). Laos Handbook. London: Footprint Publishers.
  5. ^ Edmondson, J. A. (2007). The power of language over the past: tai settlement and tai linguistics in southern china and northern vietnam. Harris, J. G., Burusphat, S., Harris, J. (ed). Studies in southeast asian linguistics. Bangkok: Ek Phim Thai Co. Ltd.
  6. ^ Church, P. (ed). (2006). A short history of South-East Asia. Vol. XII. Singapore: John Wiley and Sons Asia.
  7. ^ Wyatt, D. K., (2003).
  8. ^ Simms, P., & Simms, S. (2001). The Kingdoms of laos. London, UK: Curzon Press.
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  10. ^ Hattaway, Paul. (2004). Peoples of the Buddhist World: A Christian Prayer Guide. Pasadena: William Carey Library.
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