u"THE RAMAYANA, an Enduring Tradition: its Text and Context"
The Ramayana in Southeast Asia



In Thai literature, the Ramayana story is called Ramakien. The earliest evidence of the Ramakien dates back to the 13th century but it was mainly performed in the shadow puppet plays and dances which may have come originally from Java and Cambodia. The main story is very similar to Valmiki's text from India, but there are many deviations regarding the details. Some names are kept the same, but most differ probably due to the phonetic differences of the language. In the past 200 years nine kings of Thailand have been named Rama, and for 400 years the capital of Thailand was Ayutthaya (Ayodhya), Rama's kingdom in the epic. The capital moved to Bangkok in 1767. During the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809) the first Thai narrative depicting Rama's adventures was composed for a dance drama, unlike Valmiki's Sanskrit epic which was written as sacred text. His son, King Rama II (1809-1824) composed a more popular version for a dance by masked players.

In Thailand, there were also shadow puppet plays based on the Ramayana epic. The Ramayana puppets were cut from leather and painted colorfully for performances. These puppets (hnang) were similar to marionettes in their movements but they were controlled by sticks rather than string. These plays were probably introduced by Javanese artists. 

There are also Ramayana paintings on the walls of the gallery of the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok . There are approximately 200 pictures and they date back to the reign of King Rama I. Although Rama was clearly depicted in all art forms as being a super hero, he always appeared human enough to gain love and sympathy from the Thai audiences.

The Rama legend can be seen in wonderful paintings on temple walls, most famouly at Wat Phra Kaeo or "Temple of the Emerald Buddha" on the grounds of the Grand Palace built by King Rama I in Bangkok. In the gallery surrounding the temple there are 178 section mural paintings which depict the entire story of the Ramayana. If stretched out, the murals is about a mile long. They were originally painted during the reign of King Rama I in the late 18th century and then renewed under later monarchs. Nowadays, the murals were repainted once every 50 years.

These are images from the Wat Phra Kaeo telling some of Hanuman's adventures. For more about this Thai variation on the story of Hanuman's trip to Longka (Langka) see the English translation of King Rama I's version of Hanuman's journey to Lanka at http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/literature/ramakian/text.htm

Details from mural paintings (late 18th century, restored 1971-74), Wat Phra Si Ratana Satsadaram (Wat Phra Kaeo) or "Temple of the Emerald Buddha" on the grounds of the Grand Palace built by King Rama I in Bangkok, Thailand.
Click on photos for enlarged version.

Photos: Donna Kasprowicz

Hanuman defeats sea monsters to reach Langka.

One of Hanuman's abilities is to enlarge himself when the need arises. He is so large he is able to put Rama's pavilion in his mouth to protect them from Totsakan's (Ravana's) relative, Maiyarap.

Hanuman is captured by Totsakan's (Ravana's) demons. He intentionally allows this to occur in order to see the layout of the city. Then Hanuman sets fire to the kingdom of Langka.

Can you identify specific characteristics of Thai architecture in the image above?

Below is the entrance to the mural hall at Wat Phra Kaeo. Compare the roof lines and the prang (tower) at the center with the painting of Langka above.

Here is another example of a Thai prang at the Wat Phutthaisawan in Ayutthaya. (See the white tower in the center.) This wat was the first temple of Ayutthaya built by its first king, King U-thong, in 1353. You are seeing it from the Chaophraya River.

To explore more about Thai architecture visit the Asian Historical Architecture site.

Can you identify Ravana, Rama, and Hanuman below?

Hanuman fights Totsakan's (Ravana's) army.

Wall painting from Wat Phra Kaeo

To the left is an image of Corte Madera Middle School's 6th grade Khon dancers from their 2004 production of Ramayana/Ramakien. Masks were created by 6th grade teacher, John Davenport . Costumes were designed and created by 6th grade parent, Pam Rosekrans.

(For more information on Khon Masks and dancing see the websites listed at the bottom of this page. For more infomation on the student production see the Wayang and Mask projects in the lesson box.)

(For lots more photos from the Corte Madera Middle School production visit their school website at:
http://www1.pvsd.net/cms/Ramayana )

The ending of the story in Southeast Asian variants includes additional trials for Sida (Sita).

Sida (Sita) is tricked into drawing a portrait of Totsakan (Ravana). When Phra Ram (Rama) finds it he is tricked into believing she is unfaithful. In anger Phra Ram orders Phra Lak (Lakshmana) to kill Sida and bring back her heart.

Phra Lak takes Sida out of town, but when it is time to kill her a magic garland appears around her neck proving her faithfulness to Ram. The god Indra then comes down to help Phra Lak by leaving a dead deer beside the path. Phra Lak cuts out the deer's heart and brings it back to Ram, pretending that it is Sida's.

Indra then transforms himself as a buffalo and leads Sida to the hermitage of Watchamaruk.

Sida gives birth to a son and the hermit Watchamaruk magically creates another boy to be the playmate of Sida's son. He names Sida's son Mongkut (Kusa) and the other boy Lop (Lava). The boys both grow to be very powerful.

When Mongkut is ten years old he offends the gods by toppling a sacred tree with his magic arrow. Ram hears the noise of the sacred tree falling and decides to appease the gods by performing a horse ritual. This is an ancient ritual during which the king releases a consecrated white horse to run free through the kingdom for a year before being ritually sacrificed. (A horse ritual was also performed at the beginning of the Ramayana by Ram's father and results in Ram's birth.)

The horse is protected by soldiers who follow it and punish anyone who interferes with it. When Mongkut sees the horse he tries to ride it. When Hanuman tries to catch the boy, the monkey general is caught himself and tied by Mongkut and Lop. Ram then orders that the boys be captured, not knowing that they are his sons. Mongkut is caught and imprisoned in the town of Ayudhya. Lop comes to rescue him. With the help of a celestial nymph and a magic ring given by Sida, Mongkut escapes and returns to the forest with Lop.

The furious Ram goes out himself to fight against Mongkut and Lop. During the battle he discovers that Mongkut is his son and hears the story of Sida's life in the forest hermitage. In order to lure Sida back to the town of Ayudhya, Ram pretends to be dead and orders Hanuman to inform Sida. Sida comes back to pay homage to Ram's remains. However, as she leans over his body Ram opens his eyes to peek at her display of sorrow. When she discovers he has tricked her, she becomes angry and asks the earth to open up so that she can descend to the naga (serpent)'s world under the ground and live there.


The SEAsite at Northern Illinois Universtiy  in Dekalb, Illinois has an excellent Ramakian site with text and images.

See also the Khon Mask site: http://www.bangkokbest.com/KhonMaskinfo.htm

See Geography Links.

To explore more about Thai architecture visit the Asian Historical Architecture site.