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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 DalbĂŠra, wikimedia.org

An episode from the Cambodian Reamker, Phnom Phen, photo: Jean-Pierre DalbĂŠra, 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)




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