The Thai Ramakien-Thailand’s Folklore
The Thai Ramakien
The Thai Ramakien is the National Epic of Thailand. Literally translated it means “the Glory of Rama”. Thus, the Ramakien (in Thai: รามเกียรติ์, it may also be written as ‘Ramakian’) may be considered as depicting Thailand’s folklore. In addition, we can claim that the Ramakien is the most influential piece of Thai literature.
In point of fact, the Ramakien is based on the Ramayana which is a Sanskrit epic poem said to be written by the Hindu sage Valmiki. The characters and the storyline of the Thai Ramakien are also based on the Ramayana. Hence, the Ramakien can be considered a mythical story in which both realistic and mystical events coincide. Summing up, we may say that the Ramakien is about Rama who fights against a demon that has abducted his wife.
Most likely, the Ramayana was brought from India to the Khmer kingdoms which in turn spread the Ramayana tales to the Siamese Kingdom of Sukhothai. In the course of time, the Ramayana stories were written down in Siam for the first time. Nevertheless, most of the early editions of the Ramakien were lost when the Burmese conquered the former capital city Ayutthaya.
The version of the Ramakien tale that endures today was edited and partially written by Rama I, the first King of the Chakri. In fact, in the Siamese Ramakien there are some changes to the original Sanskrit version of the Ramayana concerning the characters. In addition, the style and presentation became more specifically Thai. For instance, Hanuman, the monkey god, has an expanded role in the Ramakien in which he is depicted as a wanton and lascivious character. Rama I ordered and oversaw the building of he Grand Palace in Bangkok and thus also the construction of Wat Phra Kaew which has murals illustrating the Ramakien tale elaborately.
As a matter of fact, the Ramakien is depicted in many Thai temples (Wats), additionally to the Buddha’s life stories. As mentioned, the monkey god Hanuman, who is also the commander of Rama’s Army, plays an important role in the Ramakien and its depictions. Thus, you will often come across a white monkey dancing around on the murals of the temples you visit in Thailand 🙂
The Ramakien also extends to and influences Thai art forms like theater and the visual arts. For example, Thai National Artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit painted pictures with scenes from the Ramakien.
Thus, Rama I’s son, Rama II, adapted his father’s epic to be a play which is known as the Khon. This Thai dance drama was originally only performed at the royal court. Khon was played by men wearing masks and by narrators who told the Ramakien story. In addition, traditional Thai puppet theatre is also similar to Khon performances since it is also based on the Ramakien. It is also important to note that in particular Siam sterling nielloware and also traditional Yantra tattooing often depicts scenes from the Ramakien.
However, today there are modern forms of Khon performances. For instance, in 2006 there was also a rock opera adaption of the Ramakien in Bangkok, called ‘Ramakien: A Rak Opera’. It was performed at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts. The band ‘Pru’ and singer Noi (Krissada Sukosol) as well as rapper and producer Joey Boy were also among the Thai pop music artists participating in this rock opera. Here are some impressions of this show.
Do you know the Thai Ramakien and have you seen its depictions on temple murals in Thailand? Do you also like Khon performances?
I’m deeply impressed by Thailand’s folklore and I really would like to see a Khon performance 🙂