Attending Ayutthaya’s annual Muay Thai ceremony and celebration
Every March, nearly 1,500 fighters from more than 50 nations around the world gather in the ancient ruins of Ayutthaya to pay homage to the masters and inherited wisdom of Muay Thai, Thailand’s legendary martial arts tradition. Held on the grassy grounds of the venerated Wat Mahathat temple ruins in the center of Ayutthaya, the three-day event centers around the final day’s wai khru, a ceremony in which disciple fighters from far and wide pay respect to their teachers, both past and present. The wai khru culminates in a group performance of the elaborate, dance-like combination of Muay Thai moves called ram muay.
In Muay Thai, a 10-point arsenal of fists, elbows, knees, shins, and feet—hardened by years of full-contact training—batter away at virtually every point of the opponent’s body. The Thai word muay translates loosely into English as “boxing” or “martial art”, but the term derives from Sanskrit mavya, meaning “bind”, a reference to the binding of the fists with hemp (now replaced by padded boxing gloves for stadium fights), as well as the ceremonial bindings of the head and arm.
Back during the Ayutthaya kingdom’s 400-year reign, when Muay Thai was a staple of Thai military culture, wai khru ceremonies were held annually. But after the sacking of Ayutthaya in the late 18th century, and the subsequent shift of the royal Thai capital to Bangkok, Muay Thai training splintered into various factions. These were re-united, at least in theory, following the founding of the International Muay Thai Federation (IMTF) in 1994, when the annual wai khru was revived at Bangkok’s National Stadium. Training and teaching standards were further united and codified with the formation of the Kru Muay Thai Association (KMTA) in 2003.
Ayutthaya’s ancient temple sites are an appropriate venue for today’s wai khru, since Thais heavily identify the martial art today with the history of what was once the world’s grandest city, as European traders described Ayutthaya. London and Paris, at the time, were said to be mere villages in comparison.
The earliest known Thai written reference to Muay Thai, found inscribed on palm leaf chronicles in Chiang Mai during the earlier Lanna era (1296-1558 AD), mentions a ferocious style of unarmed combat that decided the fate of Thai kings. But most of what is known about the early history of Thai boxing comes to us from Burmese and Cambodian accounts of warfare with Ayutthaya during the 15th and 16th centuries. When the Burmese first invaded the royal capital in the mid-16th century, a nine-year-old boy named Naret was among the many Siamese prisoners taken back to Hamsavati (Pegu, or modern-day Bago, Myanmar) as hostages. The boy showed a keen interest in martial arts, and after he defeated the kingdom’s best Burmese fighter in a public bout at the age of 15, the Burmese court of King Bayinnaung allowed him to return to Ayutthaya.
When Naret later found himself crowned as King Naresuan (1555-1605) in the Ayutthaya royal court, he made Muay Thai a required component of training for all Thai soldiers. With his armies thus trained, Naresuan successfully led the Siamese to independence from Hamsavati rule. A fighter to the last, the king died in combat repelling yet another Burmese invasion during which he slew Crown Prince Bayin, the son of King Bayinnaung, on elephant-back.
Another Ayutthaya king, Sri Sanphet VIII, further promoted Thai boxing as a national sport by encouraging prize fights and the development of training camps in the early 18th century. At this point Muay Thai began making the transition from a system of defense practiced only by the military to a spectator sport that could be enjoyed by all.
In these early days, massive wagers and bouts to the death were not uncommon. Combatants’ fists were wrapped in thick horsehide for maximum impact with minimum knuckle damage. In grudge matches between particularly keen rivals, the hands were bound with glue-soaked cotton or hemp and then dipped in ground glass to inflict further injury. Tree bark and seashells were used to protect the groin from lethal kicks. Sri Sanphet VIII himself became an incognito participant in many of the matches during the early part of his reign, earning the nickname the ‘Tiger King’ for his ferocity and daring.
The first commoner to earn lasting distinction as a fighter was Khanom Tom, one of 30,000 Thais taken prisoner during another attack on Ayutthaya in 1767. At a large Buddhist festival held in Yangon the following year, the Siamese pugilist was invited to represent the prisoners of war in a round of public boxing matches. Before a crowd of hundreds, Khanom Tom unleashed a barrage of bare fists, feet, knees, and elbows that polished off his Burmese opponent in a matter of minutes. The Alaungpaya royal court, hoping to save face, sent one Burmese boxer after another into the ring against the Siamese, only to see each one roundly defeated. After 10 consecutive victories, the Bago royal court was so impressed that Khanom Tom, along with many other Siamese prisoners, were set free and allowed to return to Siam.
Khanom Tom’s heroic performance is said to have taken place on March 17th, and now, over two centuries later, that date is honoured as National Muay Thai Day with the annual wai khru. Beyond the actual ceremony that takes place in Ayutthaya on that date, attendees enjoy a daily roster of live Muay Thai matches in which fighters from all over the world do battle in a stadium-standard Muay Thai ring.
Another tent section is reserved for several local khru sak yan, masters who practice the art of Thai sacred tattoos using mai sak, the traditional metal needle-and-shaft that applies blue-black ink through the epidermis by hand. At the tattoo tents, I watch as fighter-disciples perched on low stools receive designs believed to offer protection and power in the Muay Thai ring. Most are given smaller designs but a few master fighters are inked with Hanuman the Hindu monkey god, an icon for those who would emulate his courage, fortitude, and exceptional fighting skills. Back in the Ayutthaya era, Hanuman tattoos were done using actual monkey blood in the belief that this would help Hanuman’s possess the fighter’s body in combat. Nowadays sterilized tattoo ink is used.
By Joe Cummings/CPA Media