Ramakien Puppets at Library@Esplanade

Ramakien Puppets at Library@Esplanade
Ramakien Puppets at Library@Esplanade

Exquisite Thai Ramakien puppets at Library@Esplanade.

Are you familiar with the Ramakien, or its inspiration, the Ramayana?

If you’re not, the latter is one of the two great Sanskrit epics of Ancient India. (The other being the Mahabharata) Also an Itihasa, or Hindu holy account, the Ramayana narrates the life of the righteous Prince Rama of Ayodhya. From his childhood to his unjust exile, to his epic battle with the demon king Ravana, and finally his triumphant return to his kingdom.

Rama himself is furthermore recognised as the seventh avatar of Vishnu, the great Hindu God of Preservation. His wife in the saga, Sita, is an avatar of Lakshmi, the Consort of Vishnu and the Hindu Goddess of Wealth and Beauty, and Fortune, among other things. By these alone, I’m sure you can tell how important the Ramayana is within the Hindu faith.

And oh, there is also the wonderful Festival of Lights, Diwali/Deepavali. For some traditions, it is a celebration of the day Rama returned to Ayodhya. How the whole kingdom lit up with lamps to welcome him.

Coming to the Ramakien, this greatest of all Thai national epics is based on the Dasaratha Jataka, with the Jataka itself a retelling of the Rama story. (I’m most likely phrasing this wrongly but it’s the most straightforward way I can say it) Historically, the Ramayana story, as told by the Dasaratha Jataka, reached Southeast Asia via Indian merchants and Buddhist missionaries. After the Thais embraced the saga, they began presenting the story as shadow puppet performances.

Most versions of these plays are now lost, unfortunately. However, several Thai Chakri Dynasty rulers recompiled the epic during the pre-modern centuries. These efforts include the writing of a version for Khon drama. The versions that currently exist are these.

Of note, the names of the Chakri Monarchs are also stylized as Rama I, Rama II, and so on. The current Thai Monarch, his Majesty King Vajiralongkorn, is Rama the Tenth.

The Ramakien at Library@Esplanade

To share, I’m very familiar with the story and characters of Ramayana. This, thanks to teenage me religiously watching the 1987 Ramayan Hindi series on SBC Channel 8.

On the other hand, I know next to nothing about the Ramakien, beyond it being culturally important to the Thais, the Thai Kings styling themselves after the avatar prince, and that there is a stunning mural gallery inspired by the epic at the world-famous Temple of the Emerald Buddha.

So imagine my surprise and delight, a few years ago, when I walked into Library@Esplanade for the first time, and saw a whole row of gorgeous Ramakien puppets.

Thai Puppets at Library@Esplanade
These intricate puppets aren’t something you expect to see in a public library!

What’s doubly exotic about this “unusual attraction” is this. Though they occupy prominent space in the library and are each clearly labelled, there’s absolutely no other reference within the library about them. No formal introduction or and so on.

Online checks reveal no details too. Actually, there aren’t even that many pictures of them on the Net.

Were they “leftover” from a previous Thai puppet performance at the Esplanade? But a staff told me they have always been there.

Or perhaps they are merely intended as tasteful, artistic décor? Library@Esplanade, after all, is a specialised boutique library for the performance arts.

Whatever the origin story, I think they add an air of exotic fantasy to the library! They are most certainly a fantastic introduction to the Ramakien too, and an absolute treat for mythology fans like me.

The Heroes and Demons of the Ramakien

Here are close-ups of the Thai puppets on display! Now, I’m a completionist of sorts, so I’m going to list everything. But if you can, PLEASE do visit the library for a full look.

Each puppet deserves to be appreciated in person.

Phra Ram | Hero of the Ramakien
Phra Ram, the heroic protagonist of the Ramakien and an avatar of Phra Narai/Vishnu. Like Rama in the Ramayana, he was forced into exile by his jealous stepmother. He also fought an intense battle with the demon Tosakanth (Ravana), after the latter kidnapped his wife.
Nang Sida
Nang Sida, the beloved wife of Phra Ram. Beautiful and virtuous, Sida followed her husband into exile and was subsequently deceived and kidnapped by Tosakanth. Like the original tale, Ram also briefly doubted Sida’s faithfulness after rescuing her from the demon king.
Thai Tosakanth Puppet at Library@Esplanade
Tosakanth, the ruler of Longka (Lanka) and leader of the demons. In the Ramayana, he was known as Ravana and both versions described the demon king as having ten heads and many arms. Notoriously, Tosakanth was also undefeatable by any immortal or demon, no thanks to a boon he earned from Phra Isuan (Shiva).

A quirky side note before I continue. It is always entertaining to see depictions of Ravana in fantasy TV series or movies. How those TEN heads are shown ranges from hilarious to awe-inspiring.

(One of the “latest” depictions is in Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva (2022). Ravana is the huge effigy burned at the Durga festival)

Phra Lak Thai Puppet
Phra Lak, the loyal younger half-brother of Ram. Lak not only followed his elder sibling into exile, he was Ram’s most trusted companion and a key figure during the war with Tosakanth. Said to be an incarnation of Ananta, the King of the Naga serpents. Also described as an aspect of the great god Vishnu.
Hanuman, the loyal monkey warrior general.
Hanuman, a key ally of Ram and general of the monkey army that allied with the prince. Mighty and capable of size-changing magic, Hanuman was instrumental in locating and rescuing the kidnapped Sida. He also set half of Longka on fire, after Tosakanth unsuccessfully tried to execute him by burning him alive.

Quirky sidenotes again, this time about the great monkey warrior Hanuman:

  1. Many historians believe that Hanuman is the inspiration for Sun Wukong, the Chinese Monkey King. Like Hanuman, Wukong is capable of size magic, is incredibly strong, and is immune to fire.
  2. So I was told, Phra Hanuman amulets are favored by Muay Thai fighters. The amulets represent strength and invincibility.
  3. Shin Megami Tensei and Persona players, ever wonder why you MUST NEVER use wind/force magic against Hanuman in the games? That’s because Hanuman is the son of Vayu, the Hindu God of the Wind.
Nang Agat Talai
Nang Agat Talai, the sister of Tosakanth. After her unsuccessful attempt to seduce Ram, she was banished and mutilated by Lak. To avenge herself, she persuaded her brother to abduct Sida.
Nonthuk Puppet
Nonthuk, a powerful ex-demonic guardian of heaven.

About Nonthuk, this demonic warrior gained incredible power from his fervent worship of Phra Isuan (Shiva). He was even given a diamond finger that could kill anything simply by pointing. A power Nonthuk soon abuses.

The great god Phra Narai (Vishnu), however, managed to trick Nonthuk into killing himself. Masquerading as a charming dancer, Narai fooled Nonthuk into mimicking his moves, the final of which baited Nonthuk into pointing at himself with his deadly finger.

Nonthuk is then reincarnated as Tosakanth, only to be killed “again” by Narai/Vishnu. As I mentioned in my intro, Phra Ram is an avatar of Narai/Vishnu.

Library@Esplanade is open daily from 11 am to 9 pm. The Thai puppets are to the left of the main entrance.

Read my other Home Tourist photo essays.

Ramakien Puppets at Library@Esplanade
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Ramakien Puppets at Library@Esplanade
There is a gorgeous collection of Thai Ramakien puppets at Library@Esplanade, Singapore’s premier public library for the arts.

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