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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Tai textiles: Yesterday and today

Silk and cotton weaving is an art that was practiced among all Tai peoples, and still is well known among most of them. Handwoven textiles showed not only the wealth of families, communities, and the Tai royal courts, but also was an important factor in the commercial relations between the Tai and their neighbours like China, Angkor, and Vietnam. Tai textiles were mentioned as tributary gifts and merchandise in the historical records of the Ming dynasty. It is impossible to exactly date the beginnings of weaving in the region of Southeast Asia and Southern China. More than thousand years ago, trade flourished between India and China via various silk roads. The south-west silk road had its origin in Sichuan where traders followed the rivers through the mountainous areas to today`s Assam. Silk and textile trade may have favoured and influenced the development of different weaving and dyeing techniques, but also design and use of textiles among the various Tai groups. Clothes are used as a form of group identification, and textiles have been very important symbols of prestige throughout history. But, they also fulfil important ritual and religious functions.

These and various other aspects of Tai textiles are the topic of an online exhibition of material from the SEACOM collections, curated by Jana Igunma and Cholthira Satyawadhna, and photographed by Oliver Raendchen.

Read and see more from the online exhibition here.

Lao handwoven ritual cloth

Lao handwoven ritual cloth

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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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The Cham Art Heritage of Vietnam: Ecological, Cultural and Art Historical Traditions

International Conference, April 25-26, 2014 in New Delhi

The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts proposes to hold an International Conference on Cham Art  Heritage of Vietnam.  The Cham people are the inhabitants of mountainous region of  Central – South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Currently, they numbered over six hundred thousand who are descendants of a mighty kingdom called Champa which flourished in  Central part of Vietnam. They are people of Malayo Polynesian origin. Champa of Vietnam appeared in the epigraphic record as Champaura / Campanagra reminds us a historic city of India.

The Cultural heritage of Champa appears to be very ancient one that can be traced from the dvapara era with the establishment of  mukhalinga of Shambhu (Shiva) in Kauthara by king Vicitrasagara or Vicitra. This name Sagara recalls the King of Ayudhya mentioned in the Ramayana. Epigraphic records mention the beginning of the rule in the kingdom of  Champa.  It is  god  Sambhu who sent Uroja to occupy the throne of Champura.

Historically, the Kingdom of Champa began in the end of 2nd Century A.D., then known as kingdom “Lin-yi” in the Chinese sources. In the course of time, they gradually adopted aspects of Indian civilization in the selective manner. The Cham script is of Indian origin and their art forms betray Indian influences while maintaining their autonomous status. Their various principalities such as Panduranga, Vijay, Kauthara, Amaravati etc. are all derived from Indian proto types.

The Cham followed Hinduism based on veneration of Indian trinity: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, and the Shakti or wives of the latter two. But Siva was the root of the State of Champa.  He was usually worshipped in the shape of lingam, covered with a sheath or Kosha, often of gold, depicting the faces of the god.  Besides, god  Ganesha, Skanda, Nandi, Garuda were highly venerated as they are depicted in art. With the foundation of Mahayana monastery of Lakshmindralokesvara at Dong-Duong  (Quang-Nam province) by Indravarman II in the year 875 A.D,,  Buddhism began to exercise its influence on Champa.  Thus, both Hinduism and Buddhism flourished side by side. The kingdom Champa seized to exist as an independent kingdom in fifteenth century A.D.

During historical periods, Cham produced significant Hindu and Buddhist temples besides sculptures of both Hindu and Buddhist deities. About 300 bricks temples still survive ranging from seventh to fifteenth century in the central and southern parts of Vietnam. These temples are distinguished by the reliefs of terracotta and stone sculptures of Hindu and Buddhist gods and goddesses. A large number of them, now preserved in Danang Museum, reveal Gupta and post-Gupta art styles submerged by indigenous art idioms.

The Cham people cultivated Sanskrit language. Their mother tongue is a Cham language of Austronesian family.  A large number of the inscriptions have been found in both Sanskrit and Cham language. The people of Champa were also fond of music. A number of musical instruments are depicted on the reliefs of the temples. Even today, at every religious and social ceremony, they use various musical instruments which are heavily influenced by the Indian, Khmers, and musical instruments of neighbouring areas.

The Cham civilization has been focus of studies and conferences in the field of history, language, religion, culture, art and architecture. However, its inner connections and its external relations have so far not been studied in depth. The International Conference on Cham Art Heritage of Vietnam: Ecological Cultural and Art Historical Traditions” has been planned  to explore cultural interface which distinguishes Cham civilization.  The proposed panels of the Conference are:

I.  Polynesian, Indian and Indigenous context of Cham art.

II. Interface of Art and Ecology in Cham Art.

III. Connections of Cham art with Indian and South East Asian Art Styles.

IV. Cham Architecture and Its connection with India and South East Asia.

V. Chams Musical Instruments in the wider context of Indian and South East Asian Traditions.

VI. Any Research on Champa based on epigraphy and recent field work


International Conference

“The Cham Art Heritage of Vietnam:

Ecological, Cultural and Art Historical Traditions”

25-26 April, 2014,  at IGNCA, Janpath, New Delhi, India


Cham temple in Vietnam

Cham temple in Vietnam

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Irrawaddy Literary Festival 2014

14 – 16 February 2014, Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma)
Under patronage of Aung San Suu Kyi

Burmese literature has a long tradition and goes back well over a thousand years. The oldest extant specimen is a stone inscription dated 1113 A.D., but it is believed that many older inscriptions have been lost or were destroyed during wars. Many of these inscriptions contain eloquent prayers and poems composed by royal ladies. Imaginative literature was written down on palm leaf manuscripts with a stylus, or in folded paper manuscripts in steatite pencil, often under the auspices of Buddhist monarchs. Historical ballads, verse romances, odes, metrical versions of Buddhist Jatakas, and poetic letters constitute this literature. These books flourished until printing became prevalent in the 19th century.

The introduction of printing into southern Burma in the early 19th century led to a change in Burmese literature. From 1875 onward, under British rule, the owners of printing presses began to publish popular works such as plays, complete with songs and stage directions. At the beginning of the 20th century, the first Burmese novels were published. The emergence of literary magazines in the 1910s stimulated the popularity of short stories and serialized novels. Nationalist and anticolonial themes were common in literature from the 1920s to the 1940s. Following Burmese independence in 1948, many writers tried to use literature to help create an egalitarian, democratic society. However, following the 1962 military coup, the Myanmar government pressured writers to adapt the themes and style of Socialist Realism, and freedom of expression continued to erode through the turn of the 21st century.

In 2013, the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival was being held in Burma. It has ignited international press and public interest and support. The Irrawaddy Literary Festival this year announces the participation of a wide range of highly esteemed Burmese and international authors, journalists and broadcasters, as well as literary agents and publishers.

The festival homepage provides more details of participating authors as well as a programme and media coverage.

Folio from a Burmese Kammavaca manuscript, 19th century

Folio from a Burmese Kammavaca manuscript, 19th century

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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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When an angel meets a demon

Advice on love and relationships in a Thai divination manual

A new year – a new beginning. An easy (re)solution, one might think. But it may turn out later that things like love and relationships should not be taken too lightly, and it is always worth thinking twice. Or, at least, seeking advice. People in 19th century Siam would certainly have done so before getting serious in a relationship. They would have consulted a divination specialist (mor duu) who would have had the knowledge to interpret the texts and illustrations of divination manuals (phrommachaat) that had been handed down from generation to generation. Such manuals were part of the paraphernalia of divination masters who specialised in fortune telling, matching the horoscopes of prospective couples, and giving advice on love and marriage.

Find out more about one stunning 19th-century Thai divination manual held at the British Library from their Asian Manuscripts Homepage and enjoy amazing images from this fully digitised manuscript.

Thai divination manuscript BL Or.4830 (courtesy of the British Library)

Thai divination manuscript BL Or.4830 (courtesy of the British Library)

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