Category Archives: Thailand

Thai and Lao traditions of the Ramayana

Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. Courtesy of the British Library, Or.14229, f. 29

Phralak – the Thai and Lao name of Lakshmana, Rama’s brother – served Rama and Sita reverently and played an important role in the war with Ravana. In the Thai and Lao traditions, he is a symbol of brotherly love, loyalty and commitment. He gave his life in order to protect Rama’s integrity and Ayodhya from an evil curse. This illustration of Phralak is from a folding-book with Thai character drawings including figures from the Ramakien, central Thailand, 19th century. Courtesy of the British Library, Or.14229, f. 29

The Thai version of the epic is known as the Ramakien. The Rama story is thought to have been known to the Thais since at least the 13th century. It was adopted from older Khmer sources, hence the similarity to the Khmer title Reamker. Various new versions of the story have been composed, often by royal authors, since the 16th and 17th centuries. However, large numbers of Thai manuscripts were lost with the destruction of Ayutthya in 1767, and the Ramakien known today was compiled only between 1785 and 1807 under the supervision of King Rama I (1785-1809). The famous reliefs depicting about 150 scenes from the Ramakien at Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok date back to the early 19th century. Manuscript and mural paintings showing scenes from the Ramakien are particularly famous for their illustrations of the monkey armies. Best known are the mural paintings at the royal temple Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok. In King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien all names, places, traditions, and flora and fauna were adapted to a Thai context. In this form, the Rama story has become an epic of national character in Thailand, and it is very popular not only as a literary work, but also as a mask dance (khon) and even TV drama. It has been re-published many times in the form of children’s and juvenile literature, and characters from the Ramayana have featured on series of postal stamps and trading cards. The title of Rama constantly re-occurs in the royal genealogies of Thailand.

A stamp issued by the Kingdom of Laos ca. 1960 featuring Ramayana dancers.

A stamp issued by the Kingdom of Laos ca. 1960 featuring Ramayana dancers.

The Lao version of the Ramayana is known as Phra Lak Phra Ram (or Pha Lak Pha Lam since in modern Lao R is often replaced by L), the title referring to both the brothers Lakshmana and Rama. Sometimes it is also called Phra Ram sadok (Rama Jataka) as it is widely believed that Rama was a former incarnation of a Buddha-to-be. The Rama story featured in many mural paintings and wood relief carvings on temple doors and windows. It was also one of the favourite themes in the repertoire of the Lao Royal Ballet until 1975, and this tradition has been revived since 2002 by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Introductory scene to thank and honour the Hindu gods during a Phra Lak Phra Ram performance by the Royal Ballet Theatre of Luang Prabang.

Numerous palm-leaf manuscripts from all regions of Laos containing shorter versions of the Lao Ramayana, Lam Pha Lam, show that the story was very popular all over the country in urban centres as much as in rural areas. These versions were created in order to be sung by a Mor Lam, a traditional expert singer who can melodically recite lengthy poems and epic literature while being accompanied by a Khaen (bamboo mouth organ). In both Thai and Lao traditions, Hanuman was part of a favourite Yantra design used by soldiers and martial arts specialists. The leader of the monkey armies represents strength, stamina, agility, intelligence and devotion. Hanuman Yantras would either be drawn on protective shirts, headbands, battle standards of entire armies, or, most efficiently and durably, tattooed on a fighter’s body.

More information about the Ramayana in other countries of Southeast Asia can be found in a series of articles on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.

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A Treatise on Siamese Cats

Southeast Asia Library Group (SEALG)

Jana Igunma, British Library

A Thai Treatise on Cats (Or.16797) has recently been digitised and made available online by the British Library. The original manuscript containing fine paintings of cats was brought to the library in February 2011 by the wife of an elderly manuscripts collector in the UK. The manuscript could easily be identified as a Treatise on Cats, similar to one manuscript already in the library’s Thai collections (Or.16008). However, the significant difference between the two manuscripts is that the illustrations in the newly acquired item are watercolour paintings on cream coloured paper whereas the other manuscipt contains drawings in white chalk on blackened paper.

The newly acquired Treatise on Cats has the format of a Thai folding book (samut khoi) with 12 folios, which open from top to bottom. It was produced in the 19th century in Central Thailand. Folding books were usually made from the bark…

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First printed Tipitaka in Thai script online

A full text digital copy of the first printed Tipitaka, known as the Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka 1893 Edition (39 Volumes), printed in Bangkok by King Chulalongkorn (Chulachomklao) of Siam, is available online.

The Tipiṭaka is the repository of the Buddha’s words well preserved in the Pāḷi language. Since Pāḷi is a unique historic language and is not known to have its own alphabet, this historic edition provides the entire Pāḷi text in Thai script, totaling over 12,000 pages.

After 1893, the King of Siam presented these newly printed
sets to royal monasteries all over the Kingdom, and then after a request, presented them as a Gift of Dhamma from Siam to over 250 leading institutions worldwide. A record at the National Archives of Thailand has been found that over 30 countries in five continents have received these royal gifts and many of them are still holding them in good condition.

The preservation of this edition began in 2000. A complete digitised draft edition was first published in 2008. The Thai-language introduction was published in 2009 and the English Version was published in 2010 which was entitled ‘ The Chulachomklao of Siam Pāḷi Tipiṭaka 1893 : A Digital Preservation Edition 2010′.

A general guide to the Tipitaka in English is available from Buddhanet.

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The Ramakien in mural paintings at Wat Phra Chetuphon

Wat Phra Chetuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and the place where traditional Thai massage was made a higher education discipline, houses one of the most important collections of mural paintings dedicated to the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana.
The story of Rama (Phra Raam) and Sita (Naang Sidaa) is retold in German together with a collection of photographs showing the murals at Wat Pho on the Thailandseiten website, which also contains German versions of the Last Ten Jatakas, the Life of the Buddha, the legend of Phra Malai, and the Traiphum Phra Ruang. It also includes a collection of historical photographs from North Thailand and essays on lacquer art, Thai Buddhist temples, the art of Buddha footprints, the art of mother-of-pearl inlay, the Buddha in modern Thai art and much more (all text is in German language).

Stone rubbing showing a scene from the Ramakien.

Stone rubbing showing a scene from the Ramakien.

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Grabbing the Blue Tiger : a documentary on Northern Khmer musical traditions

Grabbing the Blue Tiger : The Past and Future of Northern Khmer Musical Arts
Length: 00:29:28
Language: Northern Khmer with English subtitles
Year of production: 2013

This film by Chaimongkol Chalermsukjitsri and Peter Vail documents traditional kandrim, an art form among Khmer speakers in northeastern Thailand. Kandrim features the extemporaneous production of lyrics connected to traditional meters and is regarded by its practitioners as a vital component of Northern Khmer heritage. The focus on kandrim reveals a high degree of ambivalence about the connection between literacy and heritage among Northern Khmer speakers.

The documentary is one of many research projects  of the Culture and Rights Project of the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre in Bangkok. Latest news from the project can be found on their homepage.

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“Understanding Buddhist Death” in Films

The Centre for Buddhist Studies, Bristol University, carried out a major research project on the Understanding of Buddhist Death from 2007-11. The outcome of the project are not only numerous publications, but also a range of ethnographic films documenting death rituals in Laos, Thailand and China. The main focus, however, is on death rituals and ceremonies in Laos.

The project was an interdisciplinary collaboration between anthropologists and experts in Religious Studies. It was the first comparative academic study of Buddhist death rituals in these two very distinct cultural areas resulting in the production of ethnographic films. Some of the chosen locations and rituals, such as the festivals for the dead in Laos and China, have not been documented and published before.
An overview and links to the films can be found on the Understanding Buddhist Death Project homepage.

Offering trays at a Buddhist temple in Laos. Source: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/religion/buddhist-centre/projects/bdr/

Offering trays at a Buddhist temple in Laos. Source: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/religion/buddhist-centre/projects/bdr/

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Thai medical treatise from the 19th century

An interesting article about a Thai medical treatise from the 19th century can be found on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies Blog. The article includes illustrations from the original manuscript as well as a link to a full text electronic version of the manuscript.

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