NONTHOK | SANGTHONG | LIST OF RAMAKIEN CHARACTERS

INTRODUCTION ON ART & LITERATURE

 

Ramakien

The Ramakien is derived from the Indian epic Ramayana, the ‘Story of Rama’, written more than 2,500 years ago by Valmiki and has 24,000 verses. In India alone, there are several versions of the story in different languages, such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil and Assamese. The most important version is the original one in Sanskrit. It is not only a great literary classic but is also considered the holy book of the Hindus, in importance exceeded only by the Vedas. Beyond India, the story of the Ramayana spread over Southeast Asia and was translated in the vernacular of Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Burma, Laos, (where it is considered a jataka and known as Pha Lam Sadok or Pha Lak Pha Lam), and the Philippines.

In Thailand, there are a number of variations and forms of the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian epic, which includes incidents and details not found in the Sanskrit original, such as the appearance of Suphanamatcha (fig.). Some of the versions are sponsored by the royal court, while others are local versions, varying in form from tale or play to masked drama. It is also represented in several other forms of art, such as sculpture, murals and paintings (fig.). The most complete edition of the Ramakien is the play composed by Rama I (fig.) in 1785, the first king of the present Chakri dynasty. Due to its long and widespread popularity the Ramakien is also deeply interwoven into the Thai way of life, apparent in the different arts and in daily life. Pictures of characters and scenes from the Ramakien are found all over Thailand, expressed in several forms of art and in the nomenclature.

The story relates the vicissitudes of Phra Ram, i.e. his birth as Prince Rama, the son of Queen Kao Suriya and King Totsarot of Ayutthaya (fig.), and his later marriage with Sida, the daughter of King Janaka. Sida is kidnapped by the demon-king Totsakan, who abducts her to Longka, the present Sri Lanka. Then follows the account of the lengthy battle between Rama and the ten-headed Totsakan, in which Rama is assisted by mythical half-man half-animal characters, including the courageous monkey-god Hanuman (fig.), always depicted in white. The battle brings the defeat of Totsakan and the salvation of Sida, after which Rama returns as king.

In Khon, traditional dance performances, officially all parts including female roles are played by men. In lakhon both men and women perform. The themes may be shortened versions of the Ramakien, or other folk tales. The complete version of the Ramakien consists of 311 characters and an uninterrupted performance would last more than a month.

Khon dancers are dressed in rich brocade embroidered costumes and the human characters usually wear a chadah, a kind of conical headdress resembling a small chedi. The dancers that represent demons or monkeys wear masks in a variety of colours and shapes according to their character. By means of a complex combination of mudras and positions of the body, different situations, thoughts and feelings are expressed. Every hand position in combination with the pose of the body has an exactly defined meaning. The Sanskrit word ‘mudra’, usually translated as ‘handposition and also applied in Buddhist iconography, literally means seal’ orprint’. Only experienced khon adepts are able to distinguish the many gestures and their nuances.

 

Nonthok

A popular story preceding the Ramakien epic has protagonists who are the previous incarnations of Rama and Totsakan. Nonthok, the later Totsakan, had the task of washing the feet of the gods who came to mount Krailaat to worship the chief god Idsuan. Whilst humbly performing his duty he was constantly teased by the gods. They pulled his hair and banged his head.

Weary of being tormented he complained to the chief god and asked him for a diamond finger that would kill when pointed to anyone hostile to him. Idsuan at first granted him his request but after too many victims died he reconsidered. He charged the god Narai -the later Rama- to silence Nonthok. Disguised as a female dancer Narai was able to tempt Nonthok into dancing with him. Because he didn't know how Narai urged him to imitate his movements. Copying him faithfully Nonthok unconsciously pointed his lethal index finger on his own knee and immediately fell dying to the ground.

The worst humiliation for Nonthok however was that he was killed by a being with human appearance. Because also Narai thought this punishment was too severe and humiliating he promised the possibility for revenge in a next life. Nonthok would come back as a hideous giant with ten heads and twenty arms, whilst Narai would be born as an ordinary mortal. The sequel is described in the Ramakien epic.

 

Sangthong

The folk narrative of the Sangthong (fig.) or the Golden Conch starts in a legendary prosperous city named Phrom Nakhon, which was ruled by King Phrommathat, who had two wives, i.e. Queen Chantra Thewee and Queen Suwan Champa. When both wives became pregnant simultaneously, the first with a boy, the latter with a girl. Because only a male could inherit the throne, the second Queen out of jealousy put a spell on the King to make him love her more and believe whatever she would say, and in the meantime falsely accused Queen Chantra Thewee of having a secret affair with some of the young soldiers in the palace. Infuriated by this, the King expelled her from the palace, without even listening to her side of the story.

After wandering for sometime, Queen Chantra Thewee met an old couple who took pity on her and invited her to live with them in a cottage outside the capital, where she would help the couple to collect food and wood from the forest. Meanwhile, her baby in the womb felt sympathy for his mother's hardship and by his merit created a conch, in which he and sought shelter. Thus, the Queen gave birth to a conch in which the baby remained until he grew up and emerged as a cute boy with a topknot.

When the King learned of the birth of his son he was delighted, thus Queen Suwan Champa quickly recited the magic spell to control the King, who then ordered the boy and his mother were arrested and floated out to sea on a raft, which was eventually shipwrecked, separating Phra Sang from his mother, who was washed ashore and ended up in the service of a rich man named Thananchai. The boy, on the other hand, was rescued by a Naga and given a golden boat by a reusi (hermit), who directed him to the city of Benares, warning the prince that he had to pass through Wasi, a city of giants.

Wasi was ruled by a female giant, who upon meeting with Phra Sang adopted him as her son and heir, keeping the boy locked in the city for a long time. Here, Phra Sang found a pond with liquid gold and one with liquid silver, which had the power to change anything submerged in it into pure gold or silver. When he later found a heap of human bones and discovered that his foster-mother was giant that devoured humans, Phra Sang took a bath in the pond of gold, which subsequently turned his body into gold, and then escaped by disguising himself as an ugly ogre, thus eventually reaching the city of Benares after a long delay.

Ngo

Here, he was accepted by the villagers and especially by their children, who liked him because of his ugliness. Still disguised as an ogre of the Ngo tribe, Phra Sang, now nicknamed Chao Ngo, enjoyed a simple life in the village, where he taught the children to play polo and got married to the youngest of the King's seven beautiful daughters. However, the King, dismayed by the poor choice of his daughter, plotted to kill Ngo. With a trick he tried to get rid of him, but after several failed attempts, he annoyed the god Indra, who intervened on the behalf of Ngo.

Now Indra challenged the King with two questions and if he were unable to answer them within seven days, Indra would smash his head with his axe. Incapable of finding the correct answers, the King in despair turned to Ngo for help. Ngo took up the challenge, took off his disguise and revealed himself as Phra Sang, gave the right answers and played a game of polo with Indra, who pretended to be defeated and escaped. After this, the King gave his blessing to the marriage and offered Phra Sang his throne.

Sometime later Phra Song was reunited with his mother, who was subsequently acknowledged as the Queen Mother and when the news of his wise and just reign reached the city of Phrom Nakhon, many of its subjects migrated to live under his rule. To stop a mass migration of its citizens, Phra Song was eventually invited to return to Phrom Nakhon. Queen Suwan Champa soon after died when she lost a bet to prove her ongoing accusations against her enemy. She was burned to ashes and reborn in hell as a result of her grave sins.