Visitors to Thailand will soon find themselves immersed in a culture that is bursting with gods, demons, giants and mythical beasts. They are everywhere; they tower over you as they ominously guard doorways, they grin at you from intricate carvings, they bedazzle you from golden silk threads and dance around you from beautifully painted landscapes. These exotic creations are truly Thailand. They are so deeply ingrained in the culture, customs and beliefs of the Thai nation that myth and fact have merged into one epic legend. This deeply evocative tale is a story of magic and wonder, it is the Ramakien.
A tale of truly epic proportions – with recent publications running to nearly 3,000 pages, the only known complete version of the Ramakien was penned by King Rama I in 1804. No one knows when the story first entered Thai culture, but there is evidence of the Ramakien being performed in dances and shadow puppet theatres as far back as the 13th century.
The legend of the Ramakien owes its roots to the Ramayana, an ancient tale from India. Written more than 2,000 years ago by the Sanskrit poet Valmiki, the Ramayana is the story of the Hindu god Vishnu and his 7th incarnation as Rama, the prince and king of Ayodhya.
The main story begins with the births of Rama and his wife Sita (herself a reincarnation of Lakshmi goddess of wealth and prosperity). Rama proves himself to be the perfect son and perfect husband, but before he can become king, he is forced to renounce his title and leave Ayodhya. For 14 years the royal couple live in exile, making a life for themselves in the magical Himapan Forest. During this time, Sita is abducted by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka. With the help of the monkey general Hanuman, Rama rescues Sita, however Sita is forced to prove her purity before Rama will take her back as his wife.
This amazing tale is rich with lessons. It teaches about virtue, trust, honor, pride and forgiveness, and promotes love among families and towards society. It recognizes the infallibility of human nature and shows us how to control our minds in order to gain inner peace and spiritual bliss. Is it any wonder then that the Ramayana has become a sacred text throughout Asia? While the main narrative is based on the Ramayana, there are many fundamental differences within the Ramakien that make it quintessentially Thai. In the Ramakien, names, dress, customs, weapons and even the topography all relate to the Thai kingdom. Rama is now Phra Ram and instead of being incarnated from the Hindu god Vishnu, Phra Ram is a reincarnation of the Lord Buddha – making the Ramakien a distinctly Thai Buddhist text. Phra Ram is no longer prince and king of Ayodhya as in the Inidian epic, but instead he rules Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand.
As in the Ramayana, the Ramakien also exemplifies how an honorable man should conduct himself; facing situations with composure and rising to successfully lead his people, despite his own personal tragedies – a lesson that the Thai royal family has clearly identified with. During the past 200 years, nine Kings of Thailand have taken the name Rama.
Some of the best examples of the legend can be found at Wat Phra Kaew. Located within the grounds of the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) is sumptuously decorated throughout with images and scenes taken from the Ramakien. Splendidly attired giants stand guard whilst handsomely adorned demons support the golden chedis - and there, magnificently painted on the surrounding wall are 178 murals that depict the Ramakien. Painted in a kaleidoscopic palate of deep hues and luxurious golds the legend is laid before us in all its glory.
Gain a basic understanding of some of the historical culture leading to what is Thailand today. Click here to view a list of Articles about Thai Culture.
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