The Indian epic ‘Ramayana’ is not something that influences the culture and history of India and Sri Lanka alone, but it is also an integral part of Thailand’s culture. Known as ‘Ramakien’ – the uniquely Thai version of Ramayana, it is deeply rooted in the Thai way of life. While I already knew this association with Ramayana, I discovered an interesting tradition on my recent trip to Thailand. That tradition is the making of ‘khon masks’ and its usage in the classical dance-drama of Thailand.
Let me break it down for you. ‘Khon’, founded in the Ayutthaya era, is a classical dance-drama of Thailand that involves singing, dancing, acting, acrobatics and music. Stories for this khon dance-drama are based exclusively on the Ramakien and making up its characters are gods, ferocious demons, monkeys and some 400 other type of characters. While the khon drama as a whole is an amazing experience, it is the richly gilded crowns and colorful masks that catch all your attention. And on this trip of mine, I got to know more about these vibrant colored khon masks and even got to see the making of this traditional art.
Originally, khon masks were worn by all performers except those playing the parts of goddesses, female humans and some female demons. Today, those playing the parts of gods and male humans have discarded the masks but still wear crowns. Demons, monkeys and animals all still wear masks. This art of mask making is limited to a very small set of highly skilled artisans who follow the traditions of many years ago.
Mask Making Process
The artists start with a plaster mold to which fifteen layers of papier-mache are added. The paper used is a special kind called ‘koi’. It is same type of paper which Buddha’s teachings were written upon for temple manuscripts. The glue used for the papier-mache is made of rice flour. After the mask has dried, it is cut off the mold and additional layers of papier-mache are added to cover the cut. A resin from the sumac tree, lac, is then formed into strips and applied in order to accent the mouth, ears and eyebrows. Various highlights are then added such as tiaras and earflaps made of buffalo skins. Finally, actual gold leaf and fake jewels are applied to the tiara or crown and facial details are painted on. Often, the masks are not made by one individual, but rather, several of the artists in the workshop contribute parts.
As you see, it is a fairly complex and intricate process. And adding more spice to this process is the fact that there are more than 300 characters that can be divided into 5 basic categories: demon, monkey, celestial, human and animal masks. My personal favorite are the demon masks as they are vibrant and if I may, ‘magical’. It is these masks that make you feel the power of the character.
If you are wondering, why an Indian epic such as Ramayana and a dance drama based on it is popular in a country with Buddhist beliefs, you should explore this cultural side of Thailand on your next trip to this Buddhist kingdom. To understand properly, you should definitely see a khon dance drama first at any of the traditional performances in Bangkok or any other city. Then, you should visit a mask making facility, such as the one I visited near Ban Amphawa and see the work and detailing that goes into it. If you are the curious type, you can ask questions about the masks and the overall dance-drama to the artisans or you could read it up online or through a book. Finally, you should see the khon dance drama performance again to understand it at depth.
And for all those traditional souvenir hunters, you could buy a khon mask (that comes in various characters, shapes and sizes) to decorate your home or to gift it to your friend or family. Whatever, you end up doing, you are bound to appreciate this dance, drama and ancient tradition from Thailand.