Written some 2,000 years ago and accredited to the Indian poet Valmiki, the Ramayana opens with the founding of the rival cities of Ayutthaya, 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.
This is the Ramakian, the epic tale providing story lines for dance, drama, puppet plays and shadow theater. The influence of the Ramakian is so pervasive that nothing could appear more Thai. Ironically, it is not strictly a home-grown product, but rather the local version of the Indian Ramayana epic, and its roll call of gods and demons belongs essentially to the Hindu world of the subcontinent rather than to the Theravada Buddhist land of the Thais. Most cultures of Southeast Asia are rooted in Indian influences which filtered through the region from around the second century AD onwards.
Religious, mythological, linguistic and other elements of Indian culture were absorbed, and thus became especially persuasive. Various local populations adapted and moulded Indian influences to their own ways, gradually evolving cultures that were distinct yet with common roots. Most influential of all was the Ramayana which, along with the Mahabharata, ranks as India's greatest literary work.
Like 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 elements. In one form or another the epic was incorporated in the cultures 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 King Rama I, written in 1807. It 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 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. A 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.
Wat 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 relief's depicting a selection of connected scenes from the epic tale in a set of 152 panels. The relief's 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.
The 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 Thailand and reached its zenith in the mid-19th century. The influence of the Ramakian on temple murals can be seen at nearby Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), in the grounds of the Grand Palace. The tradition of covering interior temple walls with murals dates almost from the birth of Thai civilisation, and it is arguably the highest form of truly indigenous creative expression.