| Introduction | English text version | Poetics of Ramakian | Murals from the Ramakian | Khon Masks of Thailand |
| Characters in the Ramakian | Ramayana (Cartoon version) | Thai Puppets | Hanuman: Indonesian Version | Hanuman: No Ordinary Monkey |
In approximately the fifth century B.C., Valmiki, an Indian poet, composed the Ramayana,
an epic still popular today. Basically, it is a story of a demon king, Ravanna or
Tosakanth in the Thai version, who abducts Rama's wife Sita. Rama is an incarnation of the
Hindu god Vishnu. Rama gathers the support of a monkey army in order to get Sita back. In
composing the Indian epic, Valmiki combined two sets of legends. One set is the Northern
legends, which are rooted in Aryan traditions. They deal primarily with stories of Rama,
the prince of Ayudhya. The second set is the Southern legends, which were popular among
the Dravidians. These stories are of demons who possess many supernatural powers (Desai
1969, P-130-131). Evidently, Valmiki did not incorporate all of the tales of Rama and the
demons into his version of the Ramayana, Other writers incorporated other sets of tales
and some even attempted to localize their versions. Valmiki's version, however, remains
one of the most popular in India today.
It is not known for sure how the Thai people acquired the Ramayana epic. Indian influence, namely religious and political ideas, began to trickle into Southeast Asia during the early centuries after the death of Christ. Thailand was not the only country to which the epic appealed; many countries in Southeast Asia adopted the tale; especially those on the mainland. Non-Valmiki versions of the Ramayana also spread outside of India. The Thai version, called the "Ramakian," appears to be a combination of several versions. Like some of the southern Indian versions, the demon king Tosakanth does not appear totally bad in the Thai version. His emotions are genuine even if they cause him to do bad things (he is very much in love with Sita, Rama's wife). The Thai people can sympathize with this (Desai,1969, P.129). The Ramakian also resembles versions which are prevalent in Indonesia and Malaysia (Bridhyakorn, and Yupho 1962, P.5 and Desai 1969, p.165).
Despite its origin, the Ramakian is very Thai in character; the Thai people have changed the story to suit their taste. Since Rama is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, the Ramayana is viewed as a sacred story among Hindus. The Thai people, who are Buddhists, have stripped the story of its religious elements. The closest it comes to having religious significance lies in the fact that Rama is viewed as Buddha in a previous life. Primarily though, he is a Thai prince following all Thai mannerisms.
As with Indian versions, there exist several versions of the Ramakian. One of the most popular ones was that written by Rama I of the Chakri dynasty during the eighteenth century (Cadiz 1975, P.45). Another version was written by his son, Rama II, and was meant exclusively for the Khon drama (Anuman Rajadhon 1968, P.56). Versions of the Ramakian are also used for other purposes. Shadow plays and other classical dances draw on material from the Ramakian. Temple paintings are filled with scenes from the epic. The Ramakian is so popular that people are named after characters in the story (Velder 1968, P.39)
Why would an Indian epic, 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 capital in 1767 so it is possible that dance forms existed before this date. Khon is known to have existed in the Bangkok period, 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 government. 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 someone to be respected. The fact that the Thai people altered the story to become more Thai in character emphasized the Thai king's association with the gods even more.
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