The Ramayana is generally thought to have originated as an oral epic in India, where it appears in numerous dialects. The most famous version is that of the sage Valmiki, who is said to have drawn together the collection of stories as a tribute to his king over two thousand years ago. From India, the Ramayana spread to all the Hindu-influenced countries of Southeast Asia and was passed down through the Khmers to Thailand, where as the Ramakien it has become the national epic, acting as an affirmation of the Thai monarchy and its divine Hindu links. As a source of inspiration for literature, painting, sculpture and dance-drama, it has acquired the authority of holy writ, providing Thais with moral and practical lessons, while its appearance in the form of films and comic strips shows its huge popular appeal. The version current in Thailand was composed by a committee of poets sponsored by Rama I (all previous Thai texts were lost in the sack of Ayutthaya in 1767), and runs to three thousand pages – available in an abridged English translation by M.L. Manich Jumsai.

The central story of the Ramayana concerns Rama (in Thai, Phra Ram), son of the king of Ayodhya, and his beautiful wife Sita, whose hand he wins by lifting, stringing – and breaking – a magic bow. The couple’s adventures begin when they are exiled to the forest, along with Rama’s good brother, Lakshaman (Phra Lak), by the hero’s father under the influence of his evil stepmother. Meanwhile, in the city of Lanka (Longka), the demon king Ravana (Totsagan) has conceived a passionate desire for Sita and, disguised as a hermit, sets out to kidnap her. By transforming one of his demon subjects into a beautiful deer, which Rama and Lakshaman go off to hunt, Ravana catches Sita alone and takes her back to Lanka. Rama then wages a long war against the demons of Lanka, into which are woven many battles, spy scenes and diversionary episodes, and eventually kills Ravana and rescues Sita.

The Thai version shows some characteristic differences from the Indian, emphasizing the typically Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. In addition, Hanuman, the loyal monkey general, is given a much more playful role in the Ramakien, with the addition of many episodes which display his cunning and talent for mischief, not to mention his promiscuity. However, the major alteration comes at the end of the story, when Phra Ram doubts Sita’s faithfulness after rescuing her from Totsagan. In the Indian story, this ends with Sita being swallowed up by the earth so that she doesn’t have to suffer Rama’s doubts any more; in the Ramakien the ending is a happy one, with Phra Ram and Sita living together happily ever after.

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