by Lang Reid
Ramakien and Thai Classical Dance is another of the ‘Golden Souvenir’
series released by Asia Books (ISBN 962-7987-25-5) and was printed in 2003 in
Hong Kong by Pacific Rim Press. A trifle disappointing, if I can be a little
parochial, as Thailand these days can do very high quality colour print, and
the publishers are also Thai.
I will make my position clear at the outset. I am fascinated
by the story of the Ramakien and despite acknowledging the Indian Ramayana
origins, the ‘Thai’ nature of the local version is fascinating.
It is a pictorial book, with the first half being
descriptive with illustrating photographs, while the second is photographic
with captions. The words are the work of Peter Holmshaw, whom the back cover
credits as being Chiang Mai based these days. The photographs come from the
cameras of Luca Invernizzi Tettoni who has been working in Asia for over 30
years. His work is exceptional, whether he is photographing people, places or
puppets. The front cover is just so evocative it demands you take the book down
from the shelf.
Despite being a slim volume, this book is crammed with
information, and Holmshaw has done his ‘holmwork’ (sorry about that,
Peter!). He describes not only the Ramayana origin, but shows how the tale of
Rama spread through SE Asia, especially its being brought to the Thai court
after Thailand conquered the Khmer capital of Angkor in 1431 AD. He also refers
to the adoption of the epic into Thai royal culture, with Sukhothai’s King
Ramkamheng (King Rama the Valiant) and when the Sukhothai era was eclipsed by
another Thai kingdom, they named their capital Ayuthaya after the city of
Prince Rama in the Ramakien.
The Thai version really was brought to prominence after the
fall of Ayuthaya by Phra Phuttayotfa and the establishment of the new capital
Bangkok, whose long name includes references to Vishnu, the divine incarnation
of Rama. One of the attributes of Vishnu was the discus, known as a
‘chakra’ and the new dynasty was named the Chakri dynasty, with the first
king being called Rama I. There are many more details such as this, and ones
that most Thais themselves would not be aware of.
All the way through the book there are also some
photographic plates from many years ago, showing the costumes of those days,
and how the tradition has been maintained. Additionally there are many other
photographs from the various SE Asian cultures that have embraced the original
The review copy was supplied by Bookazine, and should be
available in all good bookstores. The RRP was B. 498. This marketing ploy is
another of my pet hates. Let’s be frank and honest about this. It is not 400
baht. It is 500 baht. Give the other 2 baht to charity if this book is really
that keenly priced.
However, this is an excellent reference volume, and makes a very suitable
gift for people overseas, to show them a little of the history and culture that
makes up Thailand as we know it today.