Thai Classical Ensemble Music

Music is important to forming and reinforcing national identities, and traditional Thai classical music has existed in its present form since the 1300s. Classical music accompanies ritual ceremonies, funerals, and different forms of theater and entertainment.

There are three standard types of Thai classical music ensembles—Wong Pi Phat, Wong Khryang Sai, and Wong Mahori. “Wong” directly translated means “circle,” but in a musical context it generally means ensemble. These styles make use of four different instrument groups: woodwinds, strings, melodic percussion, and rhythmic percussion.

The Wong Pi Phat is an ensemble of percussion instruments and the oboe. Pi is the double-reed wind instrument used in ensemble, and Phat refers to instrumental music, or, literally translated, it means “to play music.” Pi Phat is perhaps the best known style among Thais. Examples of Wong Pi Phat music can be found at the following link: http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/music/classical/thaiensemble/pi_phat_ensemble.htm.

The Wong Khryang Sai is an ensemble of stringed instruments, drums, hand-cymbals, and flute. However, among the string instruments, this ensemble does not include the three stringed saw sam sai. Examples of Wong Khryang Sai music can be found at the following link: http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/music/classical/thaiensemble/Khryang_Sai_Ensemble.htm.

The Wong Mahori combines stringed instrument with the Mahori-sized xylophones and gong. In contrast to the Wong Khryang Sai, the most important characteristic of the Mahori instrumentation is the saw sam sai and the thon and rammana pair of drums. Examples of Wong Mahori music can be found at the following link: http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/music/classical/thaiensemble/mahori_ensemble.htm.

Works consulted:

“Thai Ensemble,” <http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/music/classical/thaiensemble/default.htm>.
“Music of Thailand: Folk and Traditional Styles,” Spotlight on Music, <http://spotlightonmusic.macmillanmh.com/m/teachers/articles/folk-and-traditional-styles/music-of-thailand>.

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Ramakien Mural

Known as the Ramakien in Thai literature, the Ramayana legend is depicted in paintings on temple walls at Wat Phra Kaeo, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, on the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, Thailand. There are a total of 178 section mural paintings depicting the entirety of the Ramayana story. The murals were originally painted during the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809) of the Chakri dynasty in the late 18th century and are now repainted once every 50 years.

“Rama and Lakshmana try to follow Sita. Sadayu, a bird, informs them about Sita's abduction by Tosakanth. They meet Kumphon who has been sent to earth as punishment. Rama kills him in order to free him and allow him to return to heaven. Hanuman, the white monkey, meets them and offers himself to be their ally.”

“Rama and Lakshmana try to follow Sita. Sadayu, a bird, informs them about Sita’s abduction by Tosakanth. They meet Kumphon who has been sent to earth as punishment. Rama kills him in order to free him and allow him to return to heaven. Hanuman, the white monkey, meets them and offers himself to be their ally.”

Around the 5th century BCE, the Indian poet Valmiki wrote the Ramayana epic, which depicts the story of Rama, the prince of Ayudhya and incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, as he gathers the support of a monkey army to rescue his wife Sita from the clutches of the demon king Ravanna.

“Rama sends three monkey soldiers—Hanuman, Ongot, and Chompupan—to search for Sita and to find the way to Langka.”

“Rama sends three monkey soldiers—Hanuman, Ongot, and Chompupan—to search for Sita and to find the way to Langka.”

The main story of the Ramakien is very similar to Valmiki’s text from India; however, most names in the story differ, probably due to phonetic differences in the languages. For example, the demon king Ravanna is called Tosakanth in the Thai version. Despite its origins, the Ramakien is very Thai in character, as the Thai people have changed the story to suit their tastes. Although the Ramayana is a sacred story among Hindus, the Ramakien is largely stripped of its religious elements, adapting to a predominantly Buddhist Thai culture.

“Hanuman sends a nymph, Busmali, who was also cursed by Indra, back to heaven. He forms his body into a bridge so that his monkey followers may continue on their way to find Sita. They meet a monk and ask him the way to reach Langa, the city of Demons.”

“Hanuman sends a nymph, Busmali, who was also cursed by Indra, back to heaven. He forms his body into a bridge so that his monkey followers may continue on their way to find Sita. They meet a monk and ask him the way to reach Langa, the city of Demons.”

The Ramakien has also been politically associated with the kingdom of Thailand through the centuries. Over the past 200 years, the nine kings of Thailand have been named Rama, and Ayutthaya (Ayudhya), the kingdom of Rama in the epic, was the capital of Thailand until it was moved to Bangkok in 1767. In this way, the kings could relate themselves to Rama, the incarnation of a god, to give their reigns more legitimacy and respectability through association with the Ramakien.

“Tosakanth tries to woo Sita, who is living in a garden outside the city of Langa. Sita tries to hang herself under the tree, but Hanuman saves her life and gives her Rama's ring (upper right hand corner).”

“Tosakanth tries to woo Sita, who is living in a garden outside the city of Langa. Sita tries to hang herself under the tree, but Hanuman saves her life and gives her Rama’s ring (upper right hand corner).”

Works Consulted:

“Ramakien: the Ramayana in Southeast Asia,” Thailand, orias.berkeley.edu.

Photos taken from “The Ramakian: Mural Paintings Along the Galleries of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha,” Printed by Rung Silp Printing Co.,Ltd. http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Thai/literature/ramakian/wallpaper/photoalbum.htm. Online.

Ramakien

A scene from the Ramakien in Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Ramakien is Thailand’s national epic, derived from the Hindu epic Ramayana. Three versions currently exist.. The Ramayama is believed to have been first written down in the forests of India by Valmiki in the fourth century BC. It came to Thailand by way of Tamil Indian traders and scholars. The epic was adopted by Thai people in the late first millennium. The version we are familiar with today was compiled in the Kingdom of Siam in 1797 under the supervision of King Rama I (1736-1809), the founder of the Chakri dynasty. A shorter version was adapted from the first version by King Rama I’s son, Rama II (1766-1824). Construction also began on the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok, which includes the Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

A painted representation of the Ramakien is displayed at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha and many of the statues there depict characters from it. The mural paintings on the walls of the gallery surrounding the temple depict the complete story of the Ramakien. These scenes were composed by King Rama I himself in 1782. Verses accounting the story accompany the paintings. The story begins in room one, near the north gate opposite Viharn Yod and then continues to the right. The paintings tell the story of Rama I’s version of the Ramakien.

The Ramakien goes as follows:

There was a giant king named Tosakan on the Island of Lanka who won a battle against the god Indra. This king sought to rule the entire world. The gods knew that only a mortal man would be able to stop Tosakan and so they send Vishnu down to earth. Vishnu is reincarnated as Prince Rama (Phra Ram), son of King Tosarot of Ayuthaya. Rama and his brother and friend Lakshman become famous heroes. Rama also wins the heart of the beautiful and chaste Princess Sita who becomes his wife. However, a jealous concubine convinces King Tosarot to inherit her son and disinherit Prince Rama, expelling him, his wife and friend from the palace.

During their time in the forest, evil King Tosakan notices Sita’s beauty and tries to lure her away from Rama. He transforms into a deer and kidnaps Sita, locking her away inside his palace. Rama and Lakshman enlist the help of the monkey king Subrik and white general Hanuman to help rescue her. They reach the Island of Lanka where Hanuman then forms a causeway with his body to allow them to reach the island.

A huge battle ensues with Prince Rama ultimately emerging victorious against King Tosakan. However, Rama questions Sita’s faithfulness and she must undergo a trial of fire to prove her chastity. Everyone returns to Ayuthaya, where Rama again becomes king. Rama is still unsure of Sita’s faithfulness and expels her from the palace. He orders Lakshman to kill her but Lakshman does not obey. Instead, he chooses to bring her to the jungle where they once lived when they were first expelled. She gives birth to a child. Rama hears about the child and finally recognizes his son. After a final battle with the remaining rebel giants, Rama’s mission is fulfilled and he returns to heaven.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok

The Grand Palace in Bangkok is a magnificent structure, representative of the finest in Rattanakosin art and culture. Construction on the Grand Palace began over 200 years ago under the reign of King Rama I, who moved the capital city of Thailand to Bangkok. Since 1782, the Grand Palace has housed the king and his family.The Grand Palace is separated into five different quarters and protected by high walls. After the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the royal family moved out of the palace and it has since become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Thailand.

Inside the Grand Palace sits the Emerald Buddha Temple Compound, which is located in the north east corner of the compound. It is surrounded by cloisters on all sides which separate it from the royal areas inhabited by the king. Because it is a royal chapel, it houses no monks. At the entrance to the temple stand two giants, characters from the Ramakien, named Asakornmarsa, distinguished by his purple skin and double tier of heads, and Chakrawat, who is identified by his white skin and four heads. There are 12 giants in total guarding the entrances on three sides of the compound.  Image