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While touring Wat Phra Kaew (วัดพระแก้ว, Temple of Emerald Buddha, see earlier post here) in the Grand Palace complex in Bangkok, we came across a series of murals on the walls of the surrounding cloisters.

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The murals depict the legend of Ramakian or Ramakien, a big part of the Thai mythology.  The Ramakian is a Thai adaptation of a popular Indian tale, Ramayana written by Valmiki in the fifth century B.C. Much of what we say below comes from this very scholarly website maintained by Northern Illinois University.

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Apparently, there were 178 murals painted in the late 1700’s by King Rama I’s men and they have been repainted regularly up to now.

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The Grand Palace appears in many of the murals, including the white perimeter wall.

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Basically, the Ramakian is a story of a demon king, Tosakanth (Ravanna in the Indian version), who abducts Rama’s wife Sita. Rama is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu. Rama gathers the support of a monkey army, led by Hanuman,  in order to rescue Sita.

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Thailand was not the only country to which the epic appeared; many countries in Southeast Asia, e.g., Malaysia, Indonesia, adopted the tale. The Thai version appears to be a combination of several versions.

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The demon king Tosakanth does not appear totally bad in the Thai version. His emotions towards Sita are genuine even if they cause him to do bad things.

Paklan the giant (I think).

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The Thais have changed the story to suit their taste. Since they are Buddhists, they have stripped the story of its Hindu religious elements. The closest it comes to having religious significance lies in the fact that Rama is viewed as Buddha in a previous life.

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There are many characters, superheros and monsters. This giant monkey(?) allow others to use its tail as a bridge to cross a river.

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A massive curtain emerges from the mouth of this character to cover or protect the palace.

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Every country has at least one such epic, saga or legend, which permeates its popular culture.  This might be applicable even for the modern US. Many of those who grew up with Star Wars would consider it a story which is shared and enjoyed by many, and the story is told in different media, though I do not see murals of Darth Vader being installed in the White House anytime soon.

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Gold paint is used liberally to highlight certain groups of individuals and many of the buildings. In the darkened gallery, it creates a pleasing effect on the murals.

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On each pillar of the gallery is hung a poem which presumably describe one of the neighboring  murals. Some of the poems are translated into English on this webpage.

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Many puppet shows and dances (especially, Khon) in Thailand and in Southeast Asia are based on episodes from this tale. I found this Khon on youtube – I think it shows the recruitment of the most important monkey, Hanuman.

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