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RAMAYANA MASKS & Mask of Asia : Thailand


Epics, a holy scripture used to develop people’s faith, belief, and Hinduism mindset, are still alive in Thailand today. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana story are evident in performing arts, literature, and mutual paintings – especially the Ramayana, or as known by the Thais as “Ramakien.” It is not clear when Ramakien came to Thailand. Still, the evidence has shown that Khon mask drama dance is a descendant of “Chak Nak Dukdamban,” an ancient performance listed in the Thai palace law about the coronation ceremony. This performance is influenced by the legend of the churning of the Ocean of Milk, which came from Kurma’s tale, one of Vishnu’s ten primary avatars in Vaishnavism. The word “Dukdamban” is presumed to come from a Kmear word “ทึกตุบาร,” meaning agitate or turn (water). The evidence could also be seen on a carved stone at the east terrace of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Ancient states like Ayutthaya, Lawoe, Suvarnabhumi, and Sukhothai established a relationship with the ancient Khmer Empire. They were influenced by the prosperous Indian civilization that came to the Khmer Empire.

Rama, Lakshmana, and “the Ogre” (Ravana) are mentioned in the Ongkan Chaeng Nam, or the Oath of Allegiance. Chit Phumisak, a Thai historian, noted that the poem was written when King Uthong founded the Kingdom of Ayutthaya in 1350 CE. The Oath of Allegiance is an ancient poem written to be read or taught in the oath of allegiance ceremony, a ritual promoting loyalty of nobles and government officials. Another evidence showed that Khon was played in the reign of King Ramathibodi II (1457 C.E.) was written in Lilit Phra Lo, important Thai literature, stating that Khon was played during the funeral of Phra Lo, Phra Phuean, and Phra Phaeng. Another historical evidence showed that “Nang Talung and Nang Yai,” forms of Thai shadowplays, were played in the Ayutthaya Kingdom since the 15th-century CE. (around 1457 C.E.). A Harvard professor, James R. Brandon, wrote in his book, Theatre in South East Asia, that Ramayana is famously adapted to Nang Talung and Nang Yai. Some researchers have found that the Ramayana performers had traditionally been face-painted the same way as the Indian culture but switched to the full-head masks in the reign of King Borommakot (1732 – 1767 C.E.). And from the journal of Simon de la Loubère, a French diplomat to Siam in the reign of King Narai the Great, staging in detail: “The Siamese have three sorts of Stage Plays: That which they call Cone [khôn] is a figure dance, to the sound of the violin and some other instruments. The dancers are masked and armed, and represent rather a combat than a dance … Most of their masks are hideous, and represent either monstrous Beasts, or kinds of Devils.” Captain James Lowe, an English academic and an expert of Southeast Asian culture, has stated in his note in the Rattanakosin Era: “The Siamese have developed their performing art to almost perfection and have exported it to the neighboring countries. Those in Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia all seek Siamese performers.”

The Ramayana’s greatness that had spread throughout the Suvarnabhumi in this Southeast Asian region can be seen in Thailand’s customs, tradition, and art and culture to these days. For example, the name of the Thai King, “Ramathibodi,” or known in the Rattanakosin Era as “King Rama.” Or the usage of the Garuda, the mount of Vishnu, as the national and royal symbol of Thailand, which was influenced by Hinduism.

The Ramayana epic’s influence on the development of Thai art and culture can be seen in mural paintings, literature, performing, and elaboration art. Khon is a form of royal entertainment that performs at major royal ceremonies since the Ayutthaya Era. Khon is considered a royal treasure, making this form of classical dance flourished and continued as a national treasure until today.

The majesty and grace of Thai kings is another essential factor, as evidence that many Thai kings have written an episode of the Ramakien. For example, the play that the King Taksin of Thonburi wrote for his royal court to compete with Chaophraya Nakhon Si Thammarat’s drama. The Ramakien that:

  • King Rama I wrote in its entirety
  • King Rama II wrote its four chapters
  • King Rama IV wrote the “Rama’s Journey into the Forest to Protect His Father’s Words” chapter
  • King Rama V and King Rama VI both wrote a chapter of the Ramakien

Later, Queen Mother Sirikit, the queen consort of King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), had adopted Khon royal dance under her royal patronage. There was a grand theater of Khon receiving a great application from Thai and internationals alike. The support from the royal court has driven the ongoing development of Khon, making the Thai Khon mask-making the pride of Southeast-Asia.

Thus, the journey of the Ramayana epic to the land of Thailand had to be traced to the theory of the origin of Thai people, which is a study that has no ends. As long as historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists are still finding new evidence, the history of Thai people will be as dynamic as the discoveries. Recently, the ancient U Thong city’s excavation has shown that this land had been a settlement for 3,000 years. Some Thais had lived here, and this city, together with Nakhon Pathom and Lopburi, is the center of the Ancient Dvaravati Kingdom. This kingdom was prosperous. There is a 4th-century CE. (900 BE.) Amaravati-style Buddha image found.

Though there is still no evidence of Khon’s existence in Thailand that goes past the the16th-century BE., the consistent development in Khon’s art could not be more precise. The recent developments in this art form have brethren a new life beyond its original nation. And most interestingly, the interest from the new generation has led the evolution of the Ramakien Dance-Drama to the modern international style named Contemporary Khon Dance, as well as the export of this cultural heritage to the world sarge. It truly is the pride of the Thai people.


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