Introduction | English text version | Poetics of Ramakian | Murals from the Ramakian | Khon Masks of Thailand |
| Characters in the Ramakian | Ramayana (Cartoon version) | Thai Puppets |



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The Khon Drama The Khon Masks Demon Masks

Monkey Masks

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Celestial and Human Masks Costumes Conclusion Bibliography

The Khon Masks

Mary Lou Robertson
(M.A., Anthropology, NIU)

         Khon masks comprise part of the costume of performers of
    the classical dance-drama of Thailand. The dance-drama is also
    known as "Khon." A Khon performance involves singing, dancing,
    acting, acrobatics, and music. Stories for the drama are based
    exclusively on the Ramakien, the Thai version of an Indian epic.
    The following paragraphs will elaborate on the masks, the types
    and symbolism, and various aspects of the Khon drama.

    The Khon Drama
         As was mentioned earlier, the Khon drama, commonly called
    the "masked-play," involves singing, dancing, acting, acrobatics,
    and music. The singing is accomplished by an offstage chorus
    which also recites the narrative and dialogues. The majority
    of actors are-unable to do this because of the masks they wear.
    Some forms of the masked-play, probably older forms, did not
    use singing. Most performances today, however, do use it.
         Traditionally, performers in the masked-play were men only;
    men played all the female roles. Supposedly, this had to do
    with the fact that the masked-play was performed inside the
    court exclusively. Therefore, the only available female dancers
    would have been members of the King's personal harem. Obviously,
    the King did not want his personal harem associating with men
    (Brandon 1967, p.63). Because men were the only performers
    involved, a very rough and vigorous style of dancing and acro-
    batics developed. Actors must start training at an early age.
    The early stages of training are akin to gymnastic training
    (Vajiravudh 1967, p.8). Although at times much muscular exer-
    tion is required, the dancing is still very graceful and expres-
    sive. Actors must learn the gesture language of the dance.
    Certain hand gestures and body movements indicate different
    emotions or responses. In recent times, changes have occurred
    and women are now playing the female parts,
         Music for a masked-play is provided by a "piphat" orchestra.
    The major instruments of the orchestra include xylophone type
    instruments, gongs, drums, and oboe-sounding instruments. The
    audience at the masked-play can usually tell what is happening
    on stage by the music which is being played. Musical passages
    are rigidly fixed and symbolize specific events (Bowers 1956.,
	Traditionally, Khon dramas were performed at the court for
    special occasions, i.e. weddings, funerals, births, etc. On
    rare occasions, there were open-air performances which the public
    could attend. With the change to a constitutional monarchy in
    1932, royal support for Khon performances declined. However,
    the Department of Fine Arts in Bangkok has revived the tradition
    and has been staging public performances for a number of years.

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    The Khon Masks
    Link to pictures of Khon Masks
    	With the setting established, a discussion of the masks
    may follow. The various masks are the distinguishing features
    of Khon drama. H.H. Prince Dhaninivat and Dhanit Yupho state:
    The mask is perhaps the most important characteristic
    of the Khon, for through it more than any other
    agency one distinguishes the variety of roles
    (Bridhyakorn and Yupho 1962, p.12).
    	Originally, masks were worn by all performers except those play-
    ing the parts of goddesses, female humans, and some female de-
    mons. Today, those playing the parts of gods and male humans
    have discarded the masks but still wear crowns. Demons, monkeys,
    and animals all still wear masks.
         Maskmaking is an art still being practiced today in much
    the same manner as it was years ago. It must be a very exact
    process since many masks appear identical except for a few small
    details. (The following description is taken primarily from
    Van Beck 1980, P.42.) The artist starts with a plaster mold to
    which fifteen layers of papier-mache are added. The paper used
    is a special kind called "koi." It is the same type of paper
    which Buddha's teachings were written upon for temple manuscripts.
    The glue used for the papier-mache is made of rice flour. After
    the mask has dried, it is cut off the mold and additional layers
    of papier-mache are added to cover the cut. A resin from a
    sumac tree, lac, is then formed into strips and applied in order
    to accent the mouth, ears, and eyebrows. Various highlights
    are then added such as tiaras and earflaps made of buffalo skins.
    Finally, gold leaf and fake jewels are applied to the tiara or
    crown and facial details are painted on. Often, the masks are
    not made by one indiviaual but rather, several of the artists
    in the workshop contribute parts. Maskmakers must also repair
    masks which dancers bring in.
	In all, there are probably two hundred to three hundred
    masks. They can be divided into five basic categories: demon,
    monkey, celestial, human, and animal masks. The most numerous
    and the most discussed are the demon and monkey masks. These
    two types can roughly be further divided into Peaked Masks and
    Bald Masks depending on the headdress. Therefore, there are
    four categories: demon and monkey Peaked Masks (Yaksha Yod
    and Ling Yod respectively), and demon and monkey Bald Masks
    (Yaksha Lon and Ling Lon respectively). Various types will be
    described in detail in the following paragraphs.

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    Demon Masks
         Demon masks comprise the largest category; there are more
    than one hundred. Individual demons are distinguished by a
    number of features on the masks, for example, color, facial
    expressions, and crown types. Which features a particular char-
    acter possesses have been determined by traditions established
    long ago; maskmakers are not free to change them. Like other
    masks, demon masks are painted red, white, blue, or green, etc.,
    with contrasting colors for highlights around the eyes, mouth,
    and nose. Demons may have two types of eyes, bulging or croco-
    dile. Bulging eyes are wide open and crocodile ones are par-
    tially closed. Demons may also have two types of mouths, clamp-
    ing or snarling. Both types of mouths display the teeth which
    include either curving, tusk-like canines or straight, fang-
    like canines. Demon masks can also display features of masks
    from, the other categories. For instance, Indrajit, a son of
    Tosakanth, has human ear flaps. Two other sons of Tosakanth
    have trunks fixed to their noses which reflect their parentage;
    they had elephantine mothers (Bridhyakorn and Yupho 1962, P.14).
        For demons, there are fourteen types of crowns or head-
    dresses.(Yupho 1960, p.10). In general, the more important
    characters wear crowns while the most important ones have the
    most e1aborate styles. Some of these styles include a crown
    with multiple tiers, one with a cock's tail top, or one with
    a gourd top. The demons with crowns fit into the Peaked Mask
    category and the ones without are of the Bald Mask category.
        The mask of the most important demon, Tosakanth, is des-
    cribed in detail. Tosakanth's green face is highlighted with
    blue and gold lines and bright red lips. He has bulging eyes
    with a snarling mouth and curving, tusk-like canine teeth. His
    crown is his most distinguishing feature. He is the only char-
    acter with a three tiered crown. It is also classified as a
    Crown of Victory. The first level is a gold leaf cap complete
    with jewels and flower designs. The second level contains a
    face identical to the mask proper. This face is repeated on
    all four sides and represents Tosakanth's ten faces. The top
    level of the crown is the face of a celestial being. Possibly,
    this reflects the fact that some people consider Tosakanth a
    descendent of Phra Phrom, the Thai name for the Hindu god
    Brahma (Sripochanart and Mekchaidee 1971(?) and Vajiravudh 1967,
    P.15). Or it could be due to the fact that, as was mentioned
    earlier, the Thai people do not consider Tosakanth completely
    evil. He is good but behaves badly at times. Before being born
    on the earth, he was associated with the gods in some way. At
    certain times during a Khon performance, a gold mask represent-
    ing Tosakanth is used. In his kinder moments, his canine shrinks
    to half the normal size. Tosakanth is a demon possessing a
    tremendous amount of power. Multiple body parts are usually a
    reflection of power. Tosakanth not only has ten faces with
    which he can see in every direction, but has twenty arms also.
    The Hindu gods are often represented with multiple body parts
    to indicate their power.

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    Monkey Masks
   	 Monkey masks are the second most numerous type, totalling
    thirty to forty. Individual monkeys are also distinguished by
    color, facial expressions, and types of crowns. With some char-
    acters, the colors or the masks reflect their parentage. For
    example, Nilanol is an incarnation of Agni the Fire-God and is
    therefore red. Nilapat, on the other hand, is an incarnation
    of the God of Death and thus is black. Both Nilanol and Nilapat
    are monkey leaders (Bridhyakorn and Yupho 1962, p.16). All of
    the monkeys have bulging or wide open eyes, Their mouths may be
    either open or closed.
	Crowns and headdresses for the monkeys are of seven types
    (Yupho 1960, p.8), One type, a Peaked Mask called a "Yodbat
    Crorwn" and worn by Pali and Sukrip, two monkey kings, indicates
    high royal rank. These two kings had gods for fathers. Anotner
    Peaked Mask, the Yodchai Crown, is worn by Chompoopan, one of
    Rama's generals. Chompoopan was brought into being by Phra
    Isuan, the Thai name for the Hindu god Shiva. Phra Isuan or
    Shiva is considered the chief of the gods among the Thai people.
    Chompoopan's crown, reflecting his heritage, is very tall and
    sharply peaked, very similar to Rama's crown. Bald Masks are
    the most abundant of the monkey masks. They are divided into
    four different types and each type is worn by difterent ranks of
    monkey officers.
         Hanuman is by for the most important monkey. Therefore,
    his mask will be described in detail. Hanuman's mask has many
    features which indicate he is a monkey with very special powers.
    In the Ramakien, Hanuman is Rama's most trusted general. In
    fact, some scholars say Hanuman is at times more important than
    Rama (Bowie 1960, p. 212 and Desai 1969, p.127). Hanuman's
    white mask is highlighted in green and pink. He wears only a
    coronet so red and gold markings are evident on the top of his
    head. Hanuman's gaping mouth displays his canine teeth which
    are usually just features of the demons. His gaping mouth also
    makes visible the jewel in the roof of his mouth. The jewel
    is a symbol of his special powers. Hanuman is the son of the
    God of Wind and can thus fly through the air. Also, when Hanuman
    yawns, he exhales suns, moons, and stars. This is the magical
    power by which people recognize Hanuman, The jewel is sometimes
    referred to as a "glass canine" thus, Hanuman has five canines.
    Another symbol of Hanuman's special power is the jewel between
    his eyebrows. This symbol appears on statues of the Buddha and
    represents inner energy. Possibly it means the same with re-
    gards to Hanuman.

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    Celestial and Human Masks
         Although masks of gods and humans are usually no longer
    worn, they are still being made. The following is a possible
    explanation for this phenomena. First, a Khon performance must
    be preceeded by a special ceremony in which the gods are recog-
    nized. If this is not done, misfortune may come to the perform-
    ers. The celestial masks may be used in this ceremony. Second-
    ly, the masks may be made in order to sell both to Thai people
    and to tourists.
         Celestial and human masks are much simpler in design than
    the demon and monkey masks. They are more refined in appearance
    also, especially the representations of gods or the humans which
    are incarnations of gods. Coloring varies between characters
    as it does with all the masks. Rama is green although it is a
    different shade of green from the mask of Tosakanth. Phra Isuan
    or Shiva is white in keeping with the Hindu tradition of repre-
    senting Shiva covered witn ashes. Most celestial masks have
    closed mouths and the important deities display a jewel between
    their eyebrows skin to Hanuman's. Crowns also vary among char-
    acters but like with the other types of masks, the more important
    characters have more elaborate Crowns. The crowns are still
    worn even though the masks are not and they have remained the
    same. They are decorated with flowers.

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         Costumes complete the outfits or the autors and actresses.
    The costumes which the various characters wear are the same for
    those of royal and non-royal rank. The dress of male humans and
    gods is intended to create a feeling of majesty and grace.
    That of the females is to give a sense of beauty and gentility.
    The demons'attire portrays ferocity and strength while the mon-
    keys' dress gives a sense of restlessness of character (Bridhya-
    korn and Yupho 1962, p.12). The costumes are often as colorful
    as the masks. In some instances, they are color coordinated
    with the masks. Monkeys wear coats which are intended to in-
    dicate fur.
         Although the costumes may not indicate individual characters,
    the weapons the actors carry may help to distinguish personali-
    ties. For example, Hanuman carries a trident and Indrajit, the
    demon son of Tosakanth, carries a bow and arrow (Yupho 1960,
    p.10 and 16). If this is still not enough to distinguish in-
    dividual characters, the audience may take comfort in the fact
    that performers appearing very similar in masks and costumes
    are never on stage at the same time (Yupho 1960, p.16).
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        Why would an Indian epics religious in nature, and a dance-
    drama based on this epic become so popular in a country with
    Buddhist beliefs? The answer to this question may be sought
    in part by looking into the origins of Khon.
        The traditional date established for the beginning of Thai
    classical dance is 1431. This is the time when the Thai captured
    Angkor, the Cambodian capital, and kidnapped the Khmer royal
    dance troupe (Brandon 1967, p.63). However, records from prior
    periods in history were lost during the sack of the Thai capi-
    tal in 1767, so it is possible that dance forms existed before
    this date. Khon is known to have existed in the Bangkok per-
    iod, beginning in the eighteenth century, and was most likely
    prevalent before this time. What may be said with confidence
    is that both Khon and Nang Yai, a type of puppet play based on
    the Ramakien and believed to be the forerunner of Khon, existed
    during a period in history when kings all over Southeast Asia
    were intentionally adopting Indian ideas on how to run a govern-
    ment. Indian religious ideas were especially popular because
    the kings could then equate themselves with the gods and thus
    legitimize their rule. The Ramayana was popular because the
    kings could equate themselves with Rama, a prince who was an
    incarnation of a god. Performances of Khon and Nang Yai were
    therefore visual representations of this fact and thus served
    as continual reminders to the king's subjects that he was some-
    one to be respected. The fact that the Thai people altered the
    story to become more Thai in character emphasized the Thai king'
    association with the gods even more.

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    Anuman Rajadhon, Phya
	1968	Essays on Thai Folklore. Bangkok, Thailand:
                The Social Sience Association Press of Thailand.
    Bowers, Faubion
	1956	Theatre in the East. New York: Thomas Nelson
                and Sons.
    Bowie, Theodore
	1960	The Arts of Thailand. Bloomington, Indiana:
                Indianna University Press.
    Brandon, James R.
         1967	Theatre in Southeast Asia. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
                Harvard University Press.
    Bridhyakorn, H.F. Prince Dhaninivat Kromamun Bidyalabh
         1965   Hide Figures of the Ramakien. IN Collected
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	 1948   The Shadow-Play as a Possible Origin of the Masked-
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    	 1952   Traditional Dresses in the Classic Dance of Siam.
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		and Dhanit Yupho
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    Cadet, J.M.
	 1970	The Ramakien. Tokyo, Japan: Kodansha
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    Cadiz, J.V. Art of the Thai Ramayana. Orientations 6,lO:
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    Colley, Frances
    	 1970 	The Khon:Thailand's Glitterinp Spectacle. IN
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    Desai, Santosh Nagpaul
	 1969	Hindu Elements in Thai Culture. St. John's
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