Of all the literature that is fundamental to Thai cultural consciousness, the Ramakien (the Glory of Rama), or the Ramayana epic, transcends into local philosophical & social contexts. Each version may vary in detail yet the moral of the story remains the same – virtue wins over evil as Dharma conquers all.
The Ramayana lives not only on the page – it has been interpreted into all kinds of artistic & dramatic media, including mural paintings, shadow puppet shows, Burmese marionette performances, animation, plays, TV series, & dance.
The most celebrated form of dance for the Ramakien is called ‘Khon’ or the mask dance, derived from Kathakali in southern India. Since it requires a large cast and crew comprising dancers, musicians, singers and craftsmen, Khon has often been seen as a courtly art (Lakorn Nai). However, it can be performed in various styles both in & out of the court.
As the poetic verses are sung to narrate the story, it was the habit of many Siamese kings to revise & pen their own version. King Rama II in particular is said to have changed many of the crucial dance scenes. And Khon still has royal connections – every November one can witness the most extravagant production of Khon dance royally sponsored by HM the Queen at Thailand Cultural Centre. The crafts of creating intricate costumes, masks, accessories & stage sets have been revived & exhibited for the public.
As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men & women merely players”, so the Ramakien was adapted, told, retold, & performed again & again to remind Thais of their social structures, values and roles. It depicts the duties of relationships, portraying model characters such as the ideal father, the ideal king, the ideal wife, the ideal brother, & the ideal servant. In Vaishnavism, the sect within Hinduism that worships Vishnu, & within Dhevaraja doctrine, the Ramakien serves to propagate absolute monarchy as well as point the audience to satisfactory deeds & Dharma.
The five main characters in the Ramakien – Rama, Lakshmana, Sita, Thosakan, & Hanuman – are wellknown in modern Thai society. Rama symbolizes the archetypal hero, the avatar of Vishnu. As a divine ruler, Rama is noble, virtuous, perfect, & revered – hence from the the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) the title of ‘Rama’ was retrospectively ascribed to all previous Thai monarchs & to him & his successors.
Lakshmana, Rama’s younger brother, portrays a loyal supporter. He is, in fact, another avatar of Vishnu. In the old political system, he represented the Wang Naa or the Front Palace where the king’s brother resided. This wasbefore Siam had a Crown Prince.
Sita epitomises a perfect lady, the queen. She is beautiful, devoted, chaste, & peerless. As an archetypal wife she stays at home, cooks, cleans, and takes care of her husband. She has no voice until she finally wants something – a golden stag which becomes her ruination. A satisfactory woman should not want! If the story had been written today, feminists would have had a fieldday criticising the Sita character.
Thosakan, or Ravana, the ten-faced demon, is possibly the most human of all. He embodies all kinds of sins & emotions ranging from shame to greed & love and lust. If one has ten faces, how can one be blamed of having too many feelings? Dramaturges often view villains with more shades of grey. With his illustrious back story, Thosakan’s character is certainly charismatic & he commands the stage with his many masks.
Hanuman, the tremendous white vanara or simian, faithfully serves Rama & Co. As with other animal roles, he was often played by soldiers in the time of peace. As the leader of the simian army, he signifies ardent subjugation to the king. However, he is not only a tremendous fighter but moreover the philandering lover to many of the female characters, both human & demon.
Whether the Ramayana is dramatically recounted in a one-hour dance by an Indian troupe or in the lengthy and measured style of Khon, this allegory tale explores more than just Dharma & human values. It combines both organisational viewpoints & devotional elements and also holds up a mirror to our modern social behaviour.
On The Ramakien
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