themes of the Sanskrit classics eventually provided a narrative
source for 's
visual and performing arts. Most influential of all was the
Ramayana which, along with the Mahabharata, ranks as India's
greatest literary work.
some 2,000 years ago and accredited to the Indian poet Valmiki,
the Ramayana opens with the founding of the rival cities of ,
capital of the gods, and Langka, city of the demons. The long
and convoluted tale revolves around the struggle between these
two antagonistic forces, the principal action focusing on the
trials and tribulations of Ayutthaya's Prince Rama, the
abduction of his wife, Sita, and the eventual defeat of Langka
by Hanuman and his army of monkey warriors.
all the best stories, the Ramayana combines adventure and
excitement- plus a touch of comic relief-with moral edification,
and full play is given to strange occurrences in which magic,
divination, horoscopes and other mysteries are important
one form or another the epic was incorporated in the
of most Southeast Asian civilisations, and was firmly
established before the rise of the Thai kingdom. But while the
Ramayana's influence stretches way back, the Thai version is a
distinctly local creation, as exemplified by the text of , written in 1807.
is not known how far King Rama I relied on the vernacular
versions of the story which had been passed down through the
centuries, nor to what extent he consulted Indian sources, yet
it is important to note that he did not merely translate the
Ramayana. The Ramakian is adapted to the Thai world.
narrative follows the Indian story only in its broad outlines,
and there are considerable differences in detail. Names are
modified, and dress, customs, ways of life and even the flora
assume local distinction.
classic though it is, the Ramakian, unlike western literary
landmarks, has impact not through the pages of a handsomely
bound book but via myriad art forms. The text is incomparably
rich and lends itself naturally to illustration and to theatre
in all its forms.
Po (Temple of the Reclining Buddha), Bangkok's oldest and
largest temple complex, presents an easily accessible
manifestation of the Ramakian's visual impact. On the outer wall
of the main chapel is a series of marble bas reliefs depicting a
selection of connected scenes from the epic tale in a set of 152
panels. The reliefs portray the abduction and subsequent rescue
of Sita and, for some strange reason, conclude not with the
stirring climax of the victory over Langka, but with the death
of a minor character before the recovery of Sita. Perhaps the
artists simply ran out of space-but then the audience would have
been familiar with the tale since childhood. And such is the
artistic skill that each panel can be regarded as an individual
work of art.
doors of the main chapel of Wat Po also illustrate the power of
the Ramakian in an unusual medium: the exquisite mother-of-pearl
inlay work-in which cut pieces are glued onto a paper cartoon
and then applied to a permanent and subsequently lacquered
surface-which has a long tradition in
and reached its zenith in the mid-19th century.