Lekha Shankar | Khon and Ayuthaya, two hotspots of cultural tourism in Thailand

Exquisite Masks, Sets, and Sita Adorned with Khon-Style Jewelry. (Images by Lekha Shankar)

Ayutthaya, the ancient capital of Thailand, which saw the reign of 34 Thai kings over 417 years, is a popular destination for Indian tourists, as it’s only an hour away (80 km) from Bangkok. The regular way for them to visit it, is to take a package-tour, go there by bus and return by boat.

It was only recently that I visited two wonderful exhibitions and museums there that would definitely interest Indian tourists.

The first is the “All about Khon” exhibits, at the Khon Learning Centre, and the second, is the Ayutthaya Golden Treasures Exhibition at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum.

Khon is one of the oldest narrative dance forms of Thailand, which originated in the royal courts of Thailand from as far back as the 15th century. Most of the stories emanated from the celestial characters in the Ramakien (the Thai Ramayana), and the dramas became embellished with grand sets, costumes, dance, music.

The Khon dance-form received a fresh lease of life in 2005, when the Thai queen Sirikit (the current Thai king’s mother) took the great initiative to revive it, through her SUPPORT Foundation. This resurrected all the arts and crafts connected with the Khon drama, including the handmade materials, brocades, silk thread for the costumes, intricate designs for the jewellery, and even the paper for the masks.

The Thai queen mother decided to commission and hold a grand royal Khon performance every year, in Bangkok. The shows started in 2007, and were such a success, that they have now become a yearly event, attracting local and expat audiences, as also numerous foreign tourists.

The yearly Khon performances also gave a new lease of life to hundreds of craftspeople connected with the ancient dance-form. More important, they introduced Khon to new generations and new audiences.

There are at least 19 Khon dance-schools in Thailand, and students are recruited from all of them, to partake in the yearly royal Khon performance. The mega show is made up of at least 250 dancers, 40 instrumentalists, 20 singers.

This year’s royal Khon performance will take place from November 5 to December 5, in Bangkok and the preparations have already begun at the Khon Learning Centre.

We saw the painting of the giant back-drops, making of the grand costumes, creation of the ornate gold jewellery, designing of the masks. The masks are intrinsic to the Khon dance, because like in Kathakali, they represent different characters. Each mask takes at least two months to create. The jewellery included necklaces, bracelets, brooches and anklets, worn both by male and female characters in the Khon drama.

The handmade quality of the products impressed us all.

“It would have been much easier to make all these by machine, but this is one way of keeping the ancient crafts still alive,” said our guide, assistant professor, Anucha Thirakanont.

The story of this year’s royal Khon performance, titled Kumpakhan Blocking the River, centres on an incident in Kumbhakarna’s life, when he tried to block the river and cut the water supply to Rama’s army camp, by enlarging his body. But he was thwarted by Hanuman .The final scene portrays the last, great fight sequence between Kumbhakarna and Rama.

This year’s Khon performance will feature all the important characters in the Ramayana, from the gods to the demons, not to forget Hanuman and his monkeys. There will be grand sets and back-drops, varied music and energetic dance sequences, to portray the dramatic story. They should provide plenty of spectacle and entertainment, to bring out the rich nuances of Thailand’s best-known narrative dance-form.

It is a cultural extravaganza, not to be missed out.

The standard characters in the Khon dance dramas, are gods, demons, royal personages and animals. Their identity and status are portrayed by their varied costumes, masks, stylised gestures and movements. 

That’s why this museum would vastly interest Indian tourists, especially those interested in Indian dance.

In fact, the climax of the tour was a vibrant Khon performance, where the mudras and dance movements were as wonderful to watch as the creation of the sets and costumes, jewellery. The short sequence we saw of Ravana (called Tosakan, in the Thai Ramakien) wooing Sita, really whetted our appetite.

Incidentally, Khon was added to the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List by Unesco in 2018.

The All about Khon Exhibition at the Khon Learning Centre, is open to the public, Wednesday-Sunday, 9.30 am- 4 pm. Entry: 150 Baht. For details, check https://www.facebook.com/Allaboutkhon.

Our second stop at Ayutthaya was the newly opened Ayutthaya Golden Treasures Exhibition at the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum. This museum has been marvellously refurbished with innovative lay-outs, wonderful lighting and multimedia touch screens to display more than 1,000 gold artefacts that were excavated from two famed temples in Ayutthaya-Wat Ratchaburana and Wat Maha That.

The first floor is filled with gold, silver votive tablets, and exotic Buddha statues.

The second floor has a grand and varied range of royal artefacts, regalia, and jewellery over a space of 3,725 sq. metres divided into eight grand zones.

The lowest floor has an important relic of Buddha in a four-layered stupa (a technique, learnt from India), as also silver and gold votive tablets.

The numerous objects dazzle the eye, especially as they are marvellously laid out with innovative lighting, and bright walls studded with restored paintings, which include the Chinese phoenix and the Indian garuda.

The model of the Wat Ratchaburana Temple, with an imitation three-storey crypt, is one of the many striking objects in the exhibition.

This Exhibition of Golden Treasures is well worth a visit as well.

The Chao Sam Phraya National Museum is open, Tuesday-Sunday, 9 am-4 pm.

Entry: 150 Baht.  Check: facebook.com/chaosamphraya.

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