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 and social contexts. Each version may vary in detail but 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 and dramatic media, including mural paintings, shadow puppet shows, Burmese marionette performances, animation, plays, TV series, and 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 and out of the court.
As the poetic verses are sung to narrate the story, it was the habit of many Siamese kings to revise and 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 and stage sets have been revived and exhibited for the public.
As Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”, so the Ramakien was adapted, told, retold, and performed again and 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, and the ideal servant. In Vaishnavism, the sect within Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and within Dhevaraja doctrine, the Ramakien serves to propagate absolute monarchy as well as point the audience to good deeds and Dharma.
The five main characters in the Ramakien – Rama, Lakshmana, Sita, Thosakan, and 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, and revered – hence from the the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) the title of ‘Rama’ was retrospectively ascribed to all previous Thai monarchs and to him and 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, and 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 good 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 and emotions ranging from shame to greed and 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 and he commands the stage with his many masks.
Hanuman, the great white vanara or simian, faithfully serves Rama and 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 great fighter but also the philandering lover to many of the female characters, both human and 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 and human values. It combines both organisational viewpoints and devotional elements and also holds up a mirror to our modern social behaviour.