Khon: The Masked Dance Drama of Thailand
Khon is a classical dance drama originating from Thailand. It has been included in the UNESCO’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2018. Khon has a history dating back to the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya.
Khon is usually performed to present the stories of the Thai epic Ramakien. Ramakien is the Thai adaptation of the Indian Hindi epic Ramayana. It is also Thailand’s national epic. Although the main plot of Ramakien is fairly similar to Ramayana, some details have been changed or introduced to fit the Thai narrative and traditions. Ramakien narrates the story of Phra Ram, an incarnation of the god Phra Narai. His wife Sida is abducted by the demon king Tosakanth, king of Longka. Phra Ram is aided by monkey warriors including Hanuman, the white monkey, to bring his wife back.
Scholars have compared Valmiki’s Ramayana and the Ramakien (the glory of Rama) and have concluded that the Thai version is derived from an Indonesian version and not directly from the Indian versions. Unlike the Indian versions of the epic, there is no religious relevance to the Thai version. The Ramakien has many versions but the earliest versions were lost when the kingdom of Ayutthaya was destroyed. The only complete and currently recognized version was compiled under the supervision of Rama I. His version closely resembles the main plot of Ramayana, but with differences in certain details like names, locations, characters, customs, etc. Furthermore, Hanuman plays a more prominent role in the Thai version.
Khon is the only art form used to perform the story of Ramakien. In Khon, four categories of people are involved: the performers, the chorus, the singers, and the orchestra. Performers play one of the four characters: male, female, demon, or monkey. There are a total of three hundred and eleven characters in the Ramakien. Some of the main characters of the Ramakien are:
Phra Ram is the protagonist and the king of Ayutthaya. He is the incarnation of Phra Narai.
Phra Lak is Phra Ram’s loyal brother who helps his brother in ruling the city.
Sida is Phra Ram’s beautiful consort who is the incarnation of the goddess Laksami.
Tosakanth is the ten-face, twenty-arm demon king of Longka who is portrayed as the antagonist of the story.
Hanuman is Phra Ram’s monkey general. He is also an important person who defeats Tosakanth.
The structure of the Ramakien is often presented in a fragmented fashion. According to Thai people, it is not necessary to present the end onstage as it is also considered a taboo to show the final defeat of the demon king, Tosakanth in public. Although the Ramakien is considered a major literary work, the opinions on the sources of the story vary. King Rama I added an additional forty episodes which made it the longest Thai composition in verse.
Today the Department of Fine Arts, established by the Thai government, teaches students the art of Khon. Khon was traditionally played by an all-male cast. But when Lakon Nai (an all-female dance drama) became popular at court, many elements of Lakon Nai were added to Khon. At present, women often play male and female human roles, while men traditionally play male human, demon, monkey and animal roles. Khon dances are graceful and expressive. Each gesture that every performer presents, expresses many feelings. The ‘Alphabet of Dancing’ evolved from Indian dance. Many movements are similar to movements described in the Natya Sastra.
Thai children are taught the story of Ramakien at a young age. In some elementary schools, students are trained to perform the Khon annually while in secondary schools they learn the Ramakien in greater depth. Since Ramakien is a representation of Thai culture, students are able to learn their heritage, values, and lifestyle through this epic. Hinduism has greatly influenced the Ramakien Story and hence the Thai lifestyle. This is visible by the inclusion of Hindu rituals in their royal and wedding ceremonies. Therefore, through Khon and the Ramakien, other religions and cultures are introduced to the students.
The morals and values that each character presents in the Ramakien are the kind of values that Thailand wishes to instill in their youth. Even though Khon might be seen simply as an artistic performance, there is a splendid history of Asian mythology at its roots. Through artistic pieces like the Khon, we are able to preserve the culture associated with its history.
– CLAIRIN ROLLAND
S.Y.B.Sc. Eco (19-22)