Fun Facts About The Thai Ramakien

If you are a Thailand lover, you certainly know the Thai Ramakien which is the National Epic of Thailand. In short, the Ramakien is about Rama who spends 14 years in exile after being banished by his stepmother. There he lives with his consort Sita and his brother Lakshman. When Sita is abducted by the Demon King Ravana (Tosakanth) to Lanka, Rama and his brother rescue her with the help of the monkey warriors. Well, there are also some entertaining facts about the ‘Story of Rama’ which I like to bring to you here 🙂

Thai Ramakien Trivia

  • Did you know that the Ramayana was written by the Hindu sage Valmiki and that it implies that the epic possesses magic properties? Merely reading one verse of the Ramayana is supposed to guarantee a son to everyone previously lacking a male heir and it also implies that poor readers of the epic will become rich and that errant readers are purified.

Scene from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Scene from the Thai Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

  •  In the Rama Jataka, the Buddha is quoted as claiming he had been Rama in a previous life. The Rama Jataka is popular in Laos and some northeastern parts of Thailand where it is recited during ceremonies for the dead and crematations.

Scene from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) (photo credit: Jpatokal, wikimedia.org)

Scene from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) (photo credit: Jpatokal, wikimedia.org)

  • In the oldest version of Rama’s story which is probably the Dasaratha Jataka, Sita is featured as Rama’s sister.

Sita in captivity in Lanka being_tempted by Ravana. Chromoli Wellcome Library London, wikimedia.org

Sita in captivity in Lanka being tempted by Ravana. Chromoli Wellcome Library London, wikimedia.org

  •  According to an ancient Thai belief, the Ramakien has magic properties. Thus, anyone who is able to read the Story of Rama over seven days and seven nights could command from the heavens three days and three nights of rainfall.

A scene from the Ramakien

A scene from the Ramakien, illustration at Wat Phra Kaew (photo: Sirinya Pakditawan)

  • The 16th century Chinese classic Hsi-yu-chi (Monkey) incorporated together with other material, Hanuman’s travels in pursuit of Sita. What is more, as early as 251 AD, a Jataka form of the Ramayana was rendered into Chinese.

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana at the Hermitage of Bharadvaja. Page from a dispersed Ramayana_(Story of King Rama),ca._1780, wikimedia.org

Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana at the Hermitage of Bharadvaja. Page from a dispersed Ramayana (Story of King Rama),ca. 1780, wikimedia.org

  • The Reamker which is the Cambodian version of the Ramayana takes about 50 hours to recite.

An episode from the Cambodian Reamker, Phnom Phen, photo. Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, wikimedia.org

An episode from the Cambodian Reamker, Phnom Phen, photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, wikimedia.org

  • The Ramakien can be called an esoteric allegory of man’s spiritual quest (Rama) for Nirvana (Sita). In this way, it is also a purification of physical and intellectual faculties in which Tosakanth (Ravana) and his brothers are coarse passions and imperfections while the monkey warriors stand for virtues.

Chin as Khon character Tosakanth (photo credit: pinterest.com)

Thai-French Singer Chin Chinawut as Khon (Ramayana) character Tosakanth (photo credit: pinterest.com)

Did you know about this trivia? I think the most entertaining fact is that the Thai Ramakien is supposed to possesss magic properties. Hence, maybe we should try to recite the Story of Rama and see what kind of magic we can work 😉

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Ramakien, The Thai Ramayana. Naga Books Bangkok, 1993)




Hindu Gods in Thai Culture

You may certainly have noticed that Hindu gods are very prominent in Thai culture. Thus, there are often images of these gods in Thai temples and shrines. In fact, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the three most important Hindu gods representing the recurring and continual cycles of birth, life, death and rebirth.

At the Ganesha Park (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

At the Ganesha Park (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Hindu Gods in Thai Culture

This trinity, along with the god Indra, Ganesha and some enlightened divinities and demons, have been converted to the Buddhist doctrine according to Buddhist belief. Hence, these gods often occur as guardians of temples and monasteries. In addition, they may also be seen attending the Buddha on important events in his life.

Brahma, Hindu gods (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Brahma, Hindu gods at the Ancient City, Samut Prakan (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

First there is Brahma (in Thai: Phra Phrom) who is the creator in the Hindu trinity. He is commonly depicted having four heads and the book of Vedas in his hand. His female aspect is the goddess of learning, Sarasvadi and his mount is the mythical celestial swan called Hong or Hamsa. Brahma is considered a guard of doors and pediments in temples. Furthermore, he is also popular as a protector of Thai hotels. Thus, in Thai culture, he is a deity of good fortune and protection.

Wat Yannawa Brahma (credit: photo dharma, Anandajoti Bhikku, wikimedia.org)

Wat Yannawa Brahma (credit: photo dharma, Anandajoti Bhikku, wikimedia.org)

In Thai art, Brahma is depicted in attendance to Buddhism along with Indra, at the crucial events in Buddha’s life. Hence, he is also considered to be converted to Buddhism. By the way, Hindu gods might also be the subject of one or the other Thai song. For instance, Noi (Krissada Sukosol), singer of the band Pru, featured a song called ‘Brahma Brahma’. I think this song is from the horror movie ‘Pawn Shop’ (Long Jamnam, 2013).

Another important god is Vishnu who is the preserver deity of the Hindu triad. In his hand, he often holds a disk and a conch shell. His mount is Garuda, the mythical bird that is half-human and half-eagle and the natural enemy of the Nagas. In other words, Garuda can be seen as the vehicle of Vishnu. What is more, Vishnu’s avatar is Rama, the hero of the Ramakien tale. In addition, this god is also associated with Thai royalty since the kings of the Chakkri dynasty have ‘Rama’ as part of their names. Similar to Brahma, Vishnu often functions as a (door) Wat guardian.

หน้าบันรูปพระนารายณ์ Vishnu tympanum (photo credit: กสิณธร ราชโอรส, wikimedia.org)

Vishnu tympanum (photo credit: wikimedia.org)

Shiva is the destroyer and regenerator aspect of the Hindu trinity. He usually has a third eye that is centred vertically on his forehead. Further characteristics are a brahmanical cord across his torso and sometimes a crescent moon which is caught in his tangled hair. Parvati is his consort and his mount is the bull Nandi.

Shiva on the bull Nandi, Prasat Muang Tam (photo credit: Ddalbiez, wikimedia.org)

Shiva on the bull Nandi, Prasat Muang Tam (photo credit: Ddalbiez, wikimedia.org)

The image of Ganesha (in Thai: Phra Pikanet) is also very prominent in Thai culture. For example, there is the Ganesha park in Nakhon Nayok which is considered a tribute to this elephant-headed god who is Shiva’s son. In Thailand, he is commonly seated at temple portals. What is more, he is also the patron of the arts and a protector of business.

Ganesha (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Ganesha at the same-named park in Nakhon Nayok (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Finally, we have the god Indra who is the god of Tavatimsa heaven. Hence, he is also the god of weather and war wielding a lightening bolt and riding Erawan, the multi-headed elephant. Indra is a temple guardian of portals and pediments. He is also prominent in the Vessantara story which is the last life of the Buddha-to-be. In addition, Indra occurs on mural paintings where he can be identified by his green colour. Along with Brahma, he is kneeling when attending Buddha during particular life events. Thus, it is indicated that the Hindu gods are subservient to Buddhism.

Bangkok Wat Arun Phra Prang, God Indra and the three-headed Erawan (photo credit Tsui, wikimedia.org)

Bangkok Wat Arun Phra Prang, God Indra and the three-headed Erawan (photo credit Tsui, wikimedia.org)

Summing up, we may claim that Hindu gods play a significant role in Thai culture. As a matter of fact, they not only show that Buddhism and Hinduism are intertwined but also represent a subservience of Hinduism to Buddhism. In this context, you might also want to check out my Thai Art Motifs Glossary for more general information 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference, Carol Stratton, What’s What In A Wat, Silkworm Books, 2010)




The Khon – A Thai Dance Drama

The Khon is a traditional Thai dance drama which includes part masked dance and part play. Originally the Khon (in Thai:โขน) was only performed at the royal court. Traditionally, similar to Shakespearian dramas,  the roles were played merely by men wearing masks and by narrators who told the Ramakien story on which the Khon is mainly based. The Thai Ramakien can be considered as Thailand’s National Epic in which Hindu and Buddhist mythology combine with local Thai traditions. What is more, traditional Thai puppet theatre is also similar to Khon performances since it is also based on the Ramakien.

Khon dance drama*

Khon dance drama*

A Thai Dance Drama

In short, the Ramakian is about Rama who fights against a demon that has abducted his wife. In addition, there are many side story and charakters in the Ramakien and thus also in the Khon. This dance drama is always accompanied by musicians playing traditional Thai instruments. This emsemble of classical Thai music is called ‘Piphat‘.

Khon - Thai dance, a battle scene (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Khon – Thai dance, a battle scene (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

In fact, the traditional Khon shows similarities to early Shakespearian productions because not only were all roles played by men but there was also comic relief included. Comic relief are humorous scenes or characters that contribute to relieve the tension of the dramatic action. In the Khon, comic relief was most often physical and bawdy and done in more common language. However, today in modern Khon performances there are also female actors for female characters. In this context, we also come across the term khon phu ying (โขนผู้หญิง). In addition, only the monkey characters and the ogre wear masks whereas most of the human-shape entities do not.

Thus, the Khon always consists of four categories of people, namely the performers, the chorus, the singers and the orchestra. The performers play either a human (male or female), a demon or a monkey. In fact, the Khon has numerous characters, there are 311 in total.

There are six main characters in the Khon that I like to introduce here shortly:

Phra Ram is the incarnation of the god Phra Narai (this is the Thai incarnation of Vishnu). He is Rama, the king of Ayutthaya and wants to extinguish evil. Hence, the demon king Tosakanth (Ravana) is his greatest opponent.

Phra Ram, Hanuman & Sita*

Phra Ram, Hanuman & Sita*

Phra Lak is the loyal brother of Phra Ram. He helps his brother to fight against the enemies and what is more, Phra Lak has special powers because he is the incarnation of the serpent.

Sita is Phra Ram’s loyal consort. She is the incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. However, she is also the daughter of Tosakanth.

Tosakanth (Ravana) is the demon king of Longka who is the incarnation of the demon gate keeper Nontuk. Tosakanth has ten faces and twenty arms. He destroyes everything that displeases him.

Hanuman (left) & Tosakanth (right)*

Hanuman (left) & Tosakanth (right)*

Hanuman is the monkey god, he is Phra Ram’s monkey general who defeats Tosakanth. Hanuman is loyal and funny but he is also wanton and lascivious.

Hanuman, the monkey god, luring Sita*

Hanuman, the monkey god, luring Sita*

Phipek is Tosakanth’s brother and a prophet. Since he predicts that Tosakanth will be defeated by Rama’s army, he is expelled from the city. However, after Tosakanth’s death Phipek becomes king of Longka.

By the way, the Sala Chalermkrung Royal Theatre shows the classical Thai masked dance drama. At the moment, there is a show depicting the story of Hanuman.

The Khon also extends to and influences Thai art forms like the visual arts. For instance, Thai National Artist Chrakrabhand Posayakrit painted many pictures with scenes from the Khon.

A scene from Khon by Chakrabhand Posayakrit (photo credit: chakrabhand.org)

A scene from the Khon by Chakrabhand Posayakrit (photo credit: chakrabhand.org)

Finally we can say that Khon is a classical Thai dance drama that expresses Thailand’s most elaborate tradition. I’d like to show you here some impressions of a Khon performance, the following video also demonstrates how the dancers prepare for the show. For instance, Thai pop singer Chin Chinawut also performed as a Khon dancer (Tosakanth) at the World Expo in 2010.

Have you been to a Khon Thai dance performance? Which of the characters do you like most?

Yours, Sirinya

(A very comprehensive source on this topic is Amolwan Kiriwat: Khon: Masked Dance Drama Of The Thai Epic Ramakian, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, 1997)

*photo credit: Amazing Thailand, FB page




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.

Scene from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Scene from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

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.

Scenes from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew, Hanuman on the right side (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Scenes from the Ramakien depicted on a mural at Wat Phra Kaew, Hanuman on the right side (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

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.

A scene from the Thai Ramakien, illustration at Wat Phra Kaew (photo taken by myself)

A scene from the Thai Ramakien, illustration at Wat Phra Kaew (photo: Sirinya’s Thailand Blog)

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.

Another scene from the Ramakien with demon

Another scene from the Ramakien with demon, illustration at Wat Phra Kaew (photo: Sirinya’s Thailand Blog)

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 🙂

Hanuman the monkey god

Hanuman the monkey god, illustration at Wat Phra Kaew (photo: Sirinya’s Thailand Blog)

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.

Ramakien, Khon

Scene from the Ramakien, Khon, painting by Chakrabhand Posayakrit (photo credit: chakrabhand.org)

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.

Khon dance drama*

A scene from the Khon dance drama (photo credit: Amazing Thailand, FB page)

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 🙂

Yours, Sirinya