16 South-Asian Ramakien

Dr. Mrinmoy Pramanick

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“The Siamese Classical Theatre is characteristically Asiatic but, at the same time, notably different from that of other Oriental countries. Siam has a long tradition of national independence. Over the centuries, she has been subject to numerous foreign influences which she has modified, absorbed, and ultimately made her own”


(Redwood, John Ekert;).

Ramakien (“the glory of Rama”) is the national epic of Thailand. There is a long history of Ramakien becoming the national epic. This history involves the history of cultural exchanges happened between India and South East Asia in the medieval period. Rama katha of Indian tradition not only is the denominator of Indian culture but it also exists so integrally in different South East Asian culture also. Rama katha was adapted, recreated, reinterpreted in different South East Asian languages since the time of Hindu conquest in different countries of South East Asia. Multiple stories owned by different linguistic communities of India and neighboring countries prepare whole grand narrative of the Ramakatha. Ramakien as a national epic or national epic form of Thailand not only shows the influence of certain culture or encountering certain cultural practice from different cultural zone but it also shows the integrity of the narrative which makes the narrative acceptable to the whole community of the Thai people.


Ramakien, the national epic of Thailand is significant for the Thai people in many ways. One among those is its role as source of ethical, moral and cultural education. It holds the national life of the Thai community, as it should be in modern Thai political understanding. Thai people have multilayered understanding with this text. One side, this text authenticate the history of the ancestors of the modern Thai people, in other side it keeps record of cultural and psychological evolution of the community during the course of the time. As this text is national epic, and witnessed cultural evolution of the Thai community, it reflects the community bonding and brotherhood too. So, the Ramakien, to the Thai people is integral to their community life and special in unparalleled way. None of the epics is so much identical or integral to the whole community as Ramakien is even in modern practical aspects, such as nation building and moral education to the citizens.


Ramayan was brought to Thailand during the Khmer kingdom and it was passed through the Siamese Kingdom of Sukhothai and widely spread over the country. Ramayana stories were written down in Siam for the first time and most of the ancient manuscripts of the Ramakien were lost when Burmese conquered the capital Ayutthaya. Not only Ramakien, but there are many other forms of performing or representing Rama stories in Thai culture, such as shadow plays, dance-drama, paintings, music and literature.

Rama Story and Thai culture:


The Ramakien has to be understood in the greater context of Thai culture. There are Rama stories in every nook and corner of Thai life and cultural geography of Thailand. Thai people used to believe that the Ramayana was emerged from the soil of the Thailand. U Thong established a new city called Ayutthaya in 1350 A.D. as the place of birth of Rama originally found in the Ramayana as Ayodhya. A small town situated north of Ayutthaya is named as Lopburi (Lavapuri) in the name of Lava, son of Rama. “The impact of the Rama story in the Thai folk tradition is also evident from several expressions of proverbial value, which are traceable to the Rima story. Thus, for example, ‘to fly further from Lanka’ means ‘to overdo something’ and this expression is apparently derived from the episode in which Hanuman during his journey towards Lanka is said to have flown beyond Lanka, because of his enthusiasm to find the whereabouts of Sita quickly”.


There are different forms of folk narratives, known as Phra Lak-Phra Lam, Rama Jataka, Horaman, Prommachak and Ramakien, undergone many changes during the course of the time. This shows continues flow of the Rama story in the life of the common people in different parts of the Thai land. And the major changes in these stories confirms the stories and forms as living as the folks of different geo-cultural areas of Thailand.


Rama Story and Shadow Play:


As we hinted that the Thai culture is surrounded by the Rama story, and naturally this produces different art forms, shadow play is one of the outcomes of this community cultural practice. Rama narrative in shadow play is much popular among the Thai people. So, it needs a special attention to be discussed. “The basic repertoire of the Thai shadow-play known as the Nang consists exclusively of the episodes drawn from the Ramastory. A favourite theme of the Nang in the ancient t1mes is the campaign of war waged by Ravana’s brothers Khorn (Khara), Thut (Dusanan) and Trisian (Trisiras) against Rama and his companions after Ravana’s sister Sammanakha (Surpanakha) is mutilated by Rama and Laksmana when she tries to molest Sita. The other popular episodes played by the Nang performers include the episode in which the demon Maiyarab (Mahi Ravana) abducts Rama, who is then rescued by Hanuman”.

This shadow play is known as Nang, is consisted with Rama story in its all the chapters. Beside this Nang shadow play there is another form also which is known as Nang Yai (shadow play of large hide figures).


Rama story as a theme of classics epics in different languages, also was adapted simultaneously in different performative forms too. S. Singaravelu points out that classical Thai drama always takes its theme from the Rama story. “For example, the repertoire of the Thai Masked Play known as the Khon is exclusively taken from the Rima story. The performers of the Khon, except those playing the divine and human roles, wear masks and enact the story to the accompaniment of music and the recitation of texts containing poetic versions of the story composed by ancient poets.” (Singaravelu, S.;). The subject matter of Khon is always taken from the story of Ramakien. Khon appears like as sequel or further narrative of Ramakien.


Besides Khon, other popular classical Thai drama form is Lakhon. Actor and actresses speak on suitable occasions in their performances. The story of this performance is mostly romantic stories of the life of the kings and demons written in verse forms but Rama stories also many times adapted as theme for these performance to fulfill the taste of dramatic desire of the audience across the rural and urban Thai land. This thematic verities of Lakhon proves the popularity of  Rama story in Thai life as daily necessary habit. But Lakon Nai is not necessarily based on the stories of the Ramakien, it mainly adapted stories from different folk narratives and legends of nearby languages and countries too. And most of these stories have non-brahminic origin.



Ramakien, the Siamese version of Ramayana, first dramatized entirely by the King Rama II (1809-1824). But the parts of this epic has been performing since the time theatre became an art practice in Royal court. Singara Velu argued that the origin of the Ramakien can be traced in the historical past and geographical location of Thailand. It is not Thailand only, but the most of the parts of the South East Asia which was not influenced but were made their selfhood with the cultural ether of the Rama story. Painting, sculpture, literature and many other performances have been widely performed in different languages and different parts of South East Asia. Before Ramakien there were few more dramatic forms and performance tradition in Thailand which were completely based on Rama story. Hence it is quite natural that such a polished developed progressed form of performance based on Rama story will be emerged from Thai soil, which is known as Ramakien. The theme of the Ramakien has been adapted and borrowed from multiple sources like oral traditions of the Thailand, from the narrative of Valmiki Ramayana, other Sanskrit Ramayana, Tamil, Bengali and Hindi Ramayana too.



Singaravelu vividly described the basic characteristic of the Ramakien, as,

  • The Ramakien of King Rama I is long poetic text composed in Thai metrical Klon
  • This text is written in 102 folios and each folio consists of 24 pages. Each page contains 4 lines which contains 20 words each. Total verses are 52086 in number and the total word count is 195840.
  • “The first part dealing with the origin of the chief characters, the second part depicting the chief dramatic events of the story including the fall of Ravana, and the final part describing the events which occur after Rama’s conquest of Ravana”
  • “According to the Ramakien, Phra Isuan (Lord isvara, or Siva) accords his servant Nonthok (Nandaka) a boon which will enable him to change his index finger into a diamond and destroy anyone at whom he points this finger, and as Nonthok begins to misuse his power, Phra Naray assumes the form of a charming young woman and dances in front of Nonthok, who also tries to imitate the the various movements of her hands. At a particular moment, Nonthok happens to point his diamond finger towards himself and instantly his bones are crushed by the power of his own finger.”
  • All the major characters of the Ramayana, are character here also. Beside these incidents, another major event in Ramakien story is “Phali banishing Sukhrip to the forest relates to Phaii’s battle with a buffalo named Thoraphi” (Singaravelu, S.;). Ramakien says story about the birth of the Hanuman, as it also says birth story of the god Narayana, Rama and the Ravana as well.
  • The stories divided into different parts in Ramakien is quite interesting, as observed by John Ekert Redwood, “The first scene showed Prince Rama assembling his army in preparation for the battle, and included processions and stately martial dances. The second scene depicted the battle itself, in which Virun, who is Rama’s adversary, is defeated despite his magic powers. In the third scene, Virun is taking refuge in the cave of a nymph and the two perform a grave, tortuous dance in a kneeling posture. Hanuman, the monkey general and ally of Rama, pursues Virun and, in the fourth scene, encounters the servants of the nymph who are out gathering fruit for their mistress”.

Singaravelu referred Kamban Ramayan’s genealogical reference which is similarly found in Ramakien and Singaravelu commented, “As regards the lineage and birth of Rama, who is known as Phra Ram in the Ramakien, his ancestors are said to be of divine origin, which is traced back to Phra Naray (Lord Narayana or Visnu) through king Thosorot (Dasaratha), Achaban and Anomatan. Phra Ram himself is the reincarnation of Phra Naray, and his brothers Phra Lak (Laksana, or Lakshmana), Phra Phrot (Bharata), and Phra Satrud (Satrughna) are the manifestations of Phra Naray’s emblems, namely, the serpent Ananta, the discus, and the mace, respectively” (Singaravelu, S.;). These deep study on the textual affinities show cultural communication between Tamil and Thai. And this textual affinity also establishes historical and psychological closeness of the communities. The Rama story than the stories of the Mahabharata attracted people across the Asia more and Rama as a cultural theme appears as a shadow on the cultural geography of all over Asia, especially the South and South East Asia. We finds innumerous number of Rama story in different Indian languages in different forms which establishes the claim of Rama theme as common denominator of Indian Literature but this is also the common mode of dialogue with the neighbors of India even in the contemporary time.


Singaravelu points out 30 distinctive characteristics of the stories of the Ramakien which are actually innovation and not as such found in the major Indian Ramayana stories but some stories are very much related to the stories found in the Kamban Ramayana, Jaina Ramayana, Bengali Ramayana and Malay Hikayat Seri Rama




About the reading of the characters in Ramakien, Redwood said that, “An idea of the scale and breadth of this world of the Ramakien may be gained by examining the list of characters which was compiled by King Vajiravudh. He mentions by name 311 characters and describes their appearance, masks, origin, and descent. They are grouped under headings such as: Celestials; Mortals of divine and earthly descent; Rishis (anchorites); descendants of Brahma; de- mons; ministers, guardians, and allies of Lanka (the demon kingdom); nymphs; monkeys; birds, serpents, buffaloes, and horses”. Such characterization is also common in any other versions of the Ramayana found in different Indian written and oral culture. King. Vajiravudh’s point on characterization what Redwood mentions shows the similarity between imagining epic narrative world in different languages and culture.

Ramakien represents its main character as more human. Major character of Ramakien is simultaneously admirable and not desirable. “The chief character Phra Ram is said to be the reincarnation of Phra Naray (Lord Naraya), and as a ruler, who is endowed with supernatural powers, bravery, righteousness, munificence and compassion, Phra Ram is a model of kings. At the same time, Phra Ram is also shown to be a human being, who, in a fit of great anger on seeing the picture of Thosakan, drawn by Nang Sida, orders her to be put to death, but as he later repents for his hasty action, he merits the grace of Phra lsuan, who plays a commanding role in all critical situations” (Singaravelu, S.;). Unlike Tulasidas’s Ramcharitmanas, Ramkien makes the Rama more humanly. There is very distinct nature found while Hanumana is portrayed in the Ramayana and the Ramkien. In the Ramayana Hanumana is so virtuous whereas in Ramakien, Hanuman is heroic, who does not care as such about virtue or morality and has relationship with multiple women together. In the Ramayana, Vanar Senas built a bridge through which Rama and others crossed the sea but in the Ramakien Hanuman himself lie down over the sea and asked Vanara and others to cross the sea walking through his back.

Khon dance artist in Hanuman attire (https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-Ramayan-and-its-Thai-interpretation-Ramakian)

Singaravelu, one of the renowned scholars of Ramakien and Ramayana in South East Asia, found a deep affinity of Ramakien with many stories of Tamil folklore. According to him, Maiyarab episode of the Thai Ramakien used similar motifs found in Tamil folk narrative. His argument is based on the claim made by H.H. Prince Dhani Nivat in 1942, according to what, the detail of the episode has been derived from the south Indian Rama story. And this is how such kind of study unfolds deep affinity of cultural pasts of different civilizations and discovers the common narratives of the humanity.




This discussion on Ramakien shows cultural affinity and affinity in psychological taste between Indian and Thai communities. This cultural history of textual reception also establishes the historical friendship among the communities and shows how people were so keen to accept the other and reconstruct their own cultural elements, merits and values. As the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are so common narrative in Indian literature, culture and performance, in the same way it is common in Thai literature, culture and performance.


Singaravelu and Redwood, renowned and leading scholar on Thai culture, literature and performance, researched on this cultural form so deeply that the works have epic significance and expansion. The deep study of this genre presents archival significance of the work. Their works are not only significant for the study of Ramakien only but these are also important in the study of reception of Indian literature. In that sense these works reflect enough significance to the Indian scholarship and these open a broader way for South and South East Asian literary and cultural studies.

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  • Redwood, John Ekert;. “The Siamese Classical Thatre.”Educational Theatre Journal 5.2 (1953): 100-105. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3203648.pdf>.
  • Singaravelu, S.;. “THE RAMA STORY IN THE THAI CULTURAL TRADITION.” n.d. Web. <http://www.siamese-heritage.org/jsspdf/1981/JSS_070_0g_Singaravelu_RamaStoryInThaiCulturalTradition.pdf>.
  • The Episode of Maiyarāb in the Thai “Rāmakīen” and Its Possible Relationship to TamilFolklore,
  • Author(s): S. Singaravelu, Source: Asian Folklore Studies, Vol. 44, No. 2 (1985), pp. 269-279,Published by: Nanzan University, URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1178511