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The Origin of Khon Masks (Ramakien or Ramayana Epic)

Art Consulting Thailand l Art History l The Origin of Khon Masks l Ramakien

The Origin of Khon Masks (Ramakien)

Since ancient times, the Siamese way of life has involved music and drama. This is because the Thai people believe that making merry or having fun is an important part of life. A good wholesome life was one that was filled with sanuk and that is why music and drama is an important part of Thai life (M. R. Kukrit Pramote – Former prime minister of Thailand and master of the Khon dance drama)

Khōn Performances

Khōn performances are retellings of the Rāmakien, the Thai epic poem, using costume and dance. The origins of the Khōn performances can be traced back all the way to early Thai martial arts. Two martial arts, the Sapayuth and the Sapakila, provide the basis from which the Thai war dance, the Krabee-Krabong (“Single-Edge Sword and Staff”) evolved. These three elements further evolved into three separate war dances: the Mong Kroom, the Gula Tee Mai and the Rabeng. These three dances were probably performed at the festival of Chak Naga Deuk Dumban (“Pulling the Giant Serpent”) before both the Siamese and Khmer courts. Much of the Khōn choreography consisted of elements of these war dances, and, in fact, many of the musical numbers in Khōn performances have names that are similar to the musical numbers in the Krabee-Krabong dances. Another source of Khōn performances is the Nang shadow play, which is said to have originated in Java or Malaya and can be traced back in Thailand to the Ayudhya period between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. Nang shadow plays use large pieces of leather in the shape of different characters to tell the story of the Ramakien. Nang puppeteers held these enormous puppets or shapes with both hands while dancing and miming the narrative. The Thai Nang performances, unlike the Javanese, use dance steps that are very similar to the steps of the Krabee-Krabong dances.

Khōn Masks

Originally, Khōn performers did not wear masks. The actors instead painted their faces to resemble their characters, similar to the Rāmāyana performers in India. However, Thai Khōn performances involve many actors and it’s difficult to paint the faces of so many performers. Masks were therefore used very early on: they have been in use since the late Ayudyha period, from the reign of King Boroma-Kote (1742 – 1743) up to the current period.

Early Khōn masks were modeled on the masks used in the old Chak Naga Deuk Dumban (“Pulling the Giant Serpent”) performances mentioned earlier. These early masks were placed on top of the performers’ heads rather than covering their faces, which later evolved into masks covering the entire head as they are today.

The Rāmakien

The Rāmakien is known as the Thai version of the Hindu epic Rāmāyana. More than just a Thai translation of the Rāmāyana, however, the Thai version has grown over the years to become its own piece of artistic creation. The plot of the Rāmakien revolves around Phra Rāmā, a prince who is exiled into the forest due to a promise his father had to make, accompanied by his wife, Nàng Sita, and his brother, Phra Lāk. Nàng Sita is abducted by Thotsakan, the King of Demons. This is the starting point for a great war between Thotsakan and his demon armies and Phra Rāmā and his allies, comprised of humanoid monkey soldiers. Phra Rāmā eventually wins the war and kills Thotsakan. The title “Rāmakien” literally means “Glory of Rāmā”, while the original title “Rāmāyana” means “Rāmā’s Journey”. The Indian epic is comprised of accounts of Rāmā’s life taken from Indian antiquity, rewritten into an epic poem by Sanskrit poet Vālmiki. The story exists in many different versions. The Thai version is influenced not only by the original Indian version, but also from the Bengali version (the Krittivasi Rāmāyan), the Tamil version (the Kamba Ramayanam) and, most directly, from the Cambodian version, the Reamki or Rāmākerti. However, the Thai version modified and altered characters and details to reflect Thai society and culture. For example, while Hànúmān in the Indian story was a chaste character with no interest in sex, the Thai version depicts him as constantly lusting after women and keeping many mistresses, as was socially acceptable for Thai men at the time.

Categorization of Khōn Masks

The Rāmakien contains a large variety of characters, each with their own rank and special characteristics. The design of the Khōn masks, then, has to make it easy for the viewer to differentiate between the characters. Each mask has its own distinctive facial features, colours, headdresses and ornaments. There are four broad categories that Khōn masks can be divided into:

  • Humans and deities: These faces look like human faces but with stylized features and ears. Their faces are smiling and relaxed, with mouths and moustaches that curve upwards.
  • Demons: These are more beast-like, with expressions of anger or hate. Their eyes are either wide open or half-closed “crocodile-style” eyes. Those with wide-open eyes usually have gaping mouths.
  • Monkeys: The monkey masks are known for being especially beautiful and elaborate. Like the demons, they have either gaping or closed mouths.
  • Various other animals or animal deities: These differ depending on the animal they are based off, and sometimes do not cover the entire head of the actor.

Khōn Masks

The Khōn Mask Cabinet designed by Art Consulting Thailand contains the ten greatest types of Khōn masks. The following pages will describe each mask, the character it represents and its importance in the Rāmakien performance.

  • Humans: Phra Rāmā, Phra Lāk
  • Deities: Brahmāthada, Phra Pikanet
  • Monkeys: Hànúmān, Tao Mahā Chompoo, Sukreep
  • Demons: Thotsakan, Mangkornkan, Wiroonjumbang

Phra Rāmā

Phra Rāmā is the main character of the Rāmakien. He is the fourth king of Sri Ayodhya and the reincarnation of Phra Narai, the heavenly deity. Phra Rāmā was sent to be born on Earth as son to Thao Thotsarot and Queen Kaosuriya. The Rāmakien follows Phra Rāmā’s story when he is exiled from his father’s palace and sent to live in the forest for fourteen years. While in the forest, Phra Rāmā’s wife, Nàng Sita, was abducted by the demon king Thotsakan. This event triggered the great battle between Thotsakan and Phra Rāmā that eventually lead to the demise of almost all of the demons. Phra Rāmā did not immediately reunite with his wife after the battle was won, because of a misunderstanding that caused him to believe that she had given herself to Thotsakan. To resolve the misunderstanding, Phra Isuan himself had to descend from the heavens.

  • Colour: Green
  • Headdress: Throughout the Ramakien story, his headdress changes according to his role. As a monarch, he wears the phra maha mongkut (the Crown for Kings). When exiled in the forest, he wears the mongkut yod dem hon (the Crown for Traveling).
  • Weapons: His weapon is the bow and arrow. In battle, he gains two extra arms and carries Phra Narai’s weapons: the trident, mace, discus and conch shell.

Phra Lāk

Phra Lāk (also known as Laksman) is Phra Rāmā’s half-brother, born to Thao Thotsarot and Samutr Devi. While Phra Rāmā is the reincarnation of Phra Narai. Phra Lāk is the reincarnation of the great deity Phra Narai’s serpent throne and conch shell. Phra Lāk came with Phra Rāmā during his half-brother’s exile in the forest and stayed with him for the entire fourteen years in exile. When the great battles with the demons begun, he was Phra Rāmā’s right-hand man and became a great warrior.

  • Colour: Gold
  • Headdress: Throughout the Ramakien story and depending on the performance, his headdress changes. He either wears the mongkut yod chai (the Victory Crown) or the royal phra maha mongkut (the Crown for Kings). As a hermit in the forest, he wears the chada yod reuse (hermit’s headdress).

Brahmāthada

Brahmāthada is the third most powerful deity in the Brahmanic heaven, after Phra Nasai and Phra Isuan. He is described as kind, compassionate and beautiful. He rides a golden swan and wears bracelets and rings of gold, as well as beads around his neck. Brahmāthada has four faces and eight arms, all the colour of white. His Khōn mask can be made in two styles, to represent his four faces. The first style has two tiers with the first tier having an ordinary face and the second tier having three small faces. The second style has only one tier with an ordinary face in the front and three small faces on the back of its head.

  • Colour: White
  • Headdress: The Headdress of Brahmāthada depends on the style of mask. The first style, with two tiers, wears the mongkut yod chai (the Victory Crown). The second style, with only one tier, the mongkut nam tao haa yod (a gourd-topped crown with five apices)
  • Weapons: Brahmāthada carries an arrow known by the name Poraweeta. He also carries the Vedas, a large body of Hinduistic texts, and a water container.

Phra Pikanet

Phra Pikanet is a male deity, perhaps better known as the Hindu god Ganesh. He is also known by many other names, such as Wikanetsuan; Akurot; Kochamook; Kreemook, Ektaon; Lampakan; Lampothorn; Tawitheh, Kanesh; and Pinet. He is the god of the arts, learning, and fortune in trade. During the battle with Treeburum, Phra Pikanet commanded the left wing of Phra Isuan’s army. Phra Pikanet has the body of a short, pot-bellied human and the head of an elephant with long ears and a single tusk. His Khōn mask is represented as an elephant face with either two tusks or one broken off. He is the son of Phra Isuan and Phra Uma. He is known for riding a rat. Later, he was reincarnated as the officer monkey Nila-ek.

  • Colour: Red or bronzed
  • Headdress: He wears the serd yod nam tao (a short gourd-topped headdress) or a mongkut nam tao fueng (a starfruit shaped gourd-topped headdress)
  • Weapons: A battle axe, a snare, and an elephant hook. Some sketches from ancient chronicles show him carrying weapons belonging to the god Indra: a discus, a conch shell, a mace and sometimes a lotus

Hànúmān

Hànúmān is devoted to Phra Rāmā and assists him in his battle against Thotsakan. He is charming, seducing any women that he comes across on their journey. However, he also has great strength, power and selflessness. According to the version of the Rāmakien written by King Rama I, Hànúmān is the son of Phra Pai and the maiden Swaha and came out of his mother’s mouth when he was born. He can, at will, turn himself into a monkey with four faces and eight arms. He has a coat of diamond hair and when he yawns, stars and moons come out of his mouth. Because of Hànúmān’s powers, his Khōn masks come in two different styles. Without his powers, he is represented with a normal monkey face with a gaping mouth and a bejeweled fang in the centre of his palate. When he uses all of his magical power, he is represented with a Khōn mask that has an ordinary monkey face in the front and three small faces at the back of the head.

  • Colour: White
  • Headdress: Throughout the Ramakien story, his headdress changes according to his role. Normally, he is baldheaded and wears the kiao rak roy (a headdress with a bejeweled golden garland). When he lures Thotsakan, he wears the chada yod kap phai (a bamboo bract travelling headdress). When he plays the role of ruler, he wears the mongut chai (the Victory Headdress). When he travels in the forest as a hermit, he wears the chada yod reuse (hermit’s headdress)

Tao Mahā Chompoo

Tao Mahā Chompoo is a monkey ruler of the Chompoo principality. He is so powerful and mighty that he bows to no one except the deities Phra Narai and Phra Isuan. He only agreed to help Phra Rāmā once he discovered that Phra Rāmā was Phra Narai incarnate. To help Phra Rāmā in his battle against Thotsakan, Tao Mahā Chompoo offered his army. Tao Mahā Chompoo’s Khōn mask is always represented as a monkey face with a gaping mouth. His consort is the maiden Kaeo Udon, but they have no children. His closest ally and friend is Phya Karkart, another monkey ruler, who is his counterpart ruler at Keetkin principality.

  • Colour; Dark blue
  • Headdress: He wears the mongkut yod chai (the Victory Crown)

Sukreep

Sukreep is a monkey ruler and one of Phra Rāmā’s warriors in the battle against Thotsakan. His major role in the Rāmakien was to set straight the leaning Krailart mountain, which began leaning when demon deity Rāmāsoon lifted Orachoon and smashed him against it. After righting the Krailart mountain, Sukreep eventually replaced Pali, his half-brother, as ruler of Keetkin by usurping his throne. Thus, he presented his services to Phra Rāmā. He arranged to send an entire regiment of soldiers to assist Phra Rāmā every time he went to war with Thotsakan and his demon armies. After winning over and killing Thotsakan, Phra Rāmā presented Sukreep with the title of Phya Waiyawongsa Mahasuradej. Sukreep is the son of Phra Athit, the Sun God, and the maid Kala-ajjana. He was cursed by the hermit Gotoma to turn into a monkey. Sukreep’s Khōn mask is represented as a monkey face with a gaping mouth.

  • Colour: Red
  • Headdress: He wears a chada yod but (a type of headdress cut straight across without apices)
  • Weapons: He is often portrayed while breaking a chattra (royal umbrella), a reference to the scene where he was ordered by king Rama to destroy Totsakan’s huge chattra, which the latter used to block out the sun in order to put the city of Longka in the dark.

Thotsakan

Thotsakan is the demon leader against whom Phra Rāmā battles. He is shrewd, evil and loutish. He abducted Phra Rāmā wife Nàng Sita from the forest and is therefore responsible for the grand battle that ensues. At the end of the battle, Phra Rāmā kills him with his bow and arrow. To accomplish this, Phra Rāmā is helped by Hànúmān, who steals the box containing Thotsakan’s hearts. Thotsakan has ten faces and twenty arms, and can remove his hearts from his own body without dying. He is the first son of Thao Lastian and Rachada and the third king of Lanka, the island fortress. He has a host of minor wives, 1, 015 sons and two daughters. His Khōn mask has three tiers. The first tier has a demon face with a grimacing mouth and wide-open eyes. There are three small faces at the nape of his neck. The second tier has four small faces facing in four different directions. The third tier has the face of Brahmāthada in the front and a demon face at the back.

  • Colour: Green (however, when he has transformed into Brahman at the moment of his death, a golden antique mask is used, showing that Thotsakan is of Brahma Demon lineage)
  • Headdress: He wears the mongkut yod chai (the Victory Crown)

Mangkornkan

Mangkornkan is a demon or giant who rules over the principality of Romekan. During one of the battles against Phra Rāmā’s army, Thotsakan sends Mangkornkan out to fight with a regiment of his own. In the ensuing battle, Phra Rāmā kills Mangkornkan by shooting him with an arrow. Mangkornkan is the son of Phya Khorn and Rachada. He is also the reincarnation of the rebellious water buffalo, Phya Torapee, who failed to show paternal fealty. His Khōn mask is represented as a demon face with crocodile-style eyes and a clinched mouth. He is one of the twelve giants that stand guard at the check-in hall of Bangkok’s International Airport Suvarnabhumi, as well as one of the twelve giants, set up in six pairs, that guard the entrances of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha (Wat Phra Kaew) in Bangkok.

  • Colour: Green
  • Headdress: He wears a mongkut yod naga (a serpent-topped headdress)

Wiroonjumbang

Wiroonjumbang is a demon ruler who assists Thotsakan with his army. He has a horse named Nilapahu, and both he and his horse have the ability to become invisible. When Phra Rāmā kills his horse with an arrow. Wiroonjumbang then flees to Mount Askan where he hides in a water bubble until Hànúmān finds him. Wiroonjumbang is the son of Phyā Toot and became ruler of Jareuk after his father died. His mask is represented with a clinched mouth and crocodile eyes.

  • Colour: Ink grey
  • Headdress: Wiroonjumbang wears the mongkut haang kai (a headdress topped by a cock’s tail emblem)