National Geographic : 1947 Feb
Pageantry of the Siamese Stage BY D. SONAKUL* FROM a boiling caldron supported by human skulls a demon giant conjured two fierce lions. Slaying them, he extracted their hearts. These he ground with herbs and fungi to produce a powder which would put an army to sleep. Able also to render himself invisible by applying the powder to his own body, this warrior-magician later stole into his enemies' camp, though special guards had been posted for the night and one general had expanded himself to such size that he encompassed the entire headquarters. Shooting the powder from his blowgun, the shadowy figure then overcame the whole army and ran off with the High Command! With equal ease those ancient warriors could hurl lightning bolts at each other, shoot quickened arrows to destroy whole battle units, ride chariots through the sky, transform themselves at will into gods or three-headed elephants, and utilize herbs to heal wounds with a magic swiftness that makes penicillin seem obsolete. Drama Honors Rama, Hero of Old Many of these lively battles of wit, magic, and force are recounted in the Ramakien, our version of the ancient Indian epic, the Rama yana. This time-honored story, the "Glory of Rama," forms the basis for the glittering pageantry of our classical drama. Sometimes called the Odyssey of Asia, the Ramayana is one of the oldest and certainly the most widely known of Indian tales in Southeast Asia. Millions of Hindus in India look upon it with the same reverence that Christians hold for the Bible. Its prestige likewise has spread into non-Hindu lands to win it more millions of devotees. Legends of Rama the hero date far back into the history of the Aryans in India, for mention of him occurs in the Upanishads (circa 600 B. c.), prose supplements to the Rig-Veda. Older sections of Buddhist literature (circa 5th century B. c.) recite a folk tale of Rama's adventures, and doubtless other such stories, oral or written, existed. Finally, perhaps toward the end of the 3d century B. c., the legend took definite form in the Sanskrit epic called the Ramayana, ascribed to the seer Valmiki. The gist of the Valmiki story is essentially that of the old folk tale. Rama, heir to the throne of one of the kingdoms of ancient India, is exiled by his father in consequence of a boon which the aged king, in a weak moment, has granted to his second queen. The latter, taking advantage of the king's promise of a favor, extracts the pledge that her own son, not Rama, shall succeed to the throne. The hero is followed into exile by his beautiful bride, Sita, and his younger brother, Lakshmana. While they dwell in the forest, Sita is abducted by the demon king Ravana, ruler of the Rakshasa tribe of Lanka (Ceylon). Rama, acquiring the monkey state of Kish khinda as ally, wages war upon his wife's abductor. In this undertaking he is helped greatly by the distinguished monkey warrior Hanuman, an incarnation of the wind god. After many battles and adventures, Rama vanquishes his adversary and Sita is restored to him. The story has been taken by some scholars to signify the Aryan conquest of South India as far as Ceylon with the help of an aboriginal tribe described here as a monkey race. The "demon" Rakshasa of Ceylon were actually the fairly civilized Dravidian people from whom the Aryans wrested their state step by step. Legend Came to Siam from India It would be a long tale to trace the course of the legend of Rama into Siam. Through successive waves of migration India exerted great political and cultural influence upon the races of Indochina and Indonesia. Hindu, or at least Hinduized, states flourished at one time or another in the Malay Peninsula, the East Indies islands, Cambodia, and in our land. Probably our Siamese version came via Java and Cambodia in successive stages. At all events, the Ayutthayan period of Sia mese history (1350-1767) is rich in evidence of the popularity of the Rama legend in literature, sculpture, architecture, and deco rative art. No written compilation of the whole story seems to have existed, but fragmentary metrical recitatives for the puppet shadow play, known as K'amp'ak, are believed to date from the period. Needless to say, in Bud dhist countries such as Siam and modern Cam bodia the story is shorn of its divine character. It was not until 1798 that the founder of * The author is Prince Dhani Nivat, outstanding Siamese scholar and former Councilor of the Royal Academy of Letters of Siam and President of the Siam Society.