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Thai literature


From: Thailand: Traits and Treasures, National Identity Board, ©2005 by Office of The Permanent Secretary, The Prime Minister’s Office, ISBN 974-9771-52-4


Thai literature has had a long history. Even before the establishment of the Sukhothai Kingdom there existed oral and written works. Generally, Thai literature is divided into four different periods:

1. Sukhothai Period (circa 1238-1377)
2. Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767)
3. Thon Buri Period (1767-1782)
4. Rattanakosin Period (1782-present)

1. Sukhothai Literature (1238-1377)

The literary works in this period were designed to reaffirm national cultural identity, political stability and spiritual values, with the monarchs taking the lead in the promotion of arts, religion and public administration. Thus, the stone inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng and those of others relate stories about the way of life of the people at that time in an agricultural society governed by some kind of kinship system.

Most literary works were written in simple prose with certain alliteration schemes. Major works include King Ramkhamhaeng’s Stone Inscription, Stone Inscription at Wat Sichum, Stone Inscriptions at Wat Pa Mamuang, Phra Ruang’s Proverbs and Traiphummikatha. King Ramkhamhaeng’s Stone Inscription is considered the first Thai literary work in Thai script. It gives an account of the life of King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, the way of life of Thai people in general, laws, religion, economic and political stability.

The Stone Inscription at Wat Sichum is a narrative prose ascribed to the Venerable Phra Maha Sisattha Ratchachulamani, who preached Ceylonese Buddhism in Sukhothai. Written between 1347 and 1374 during the reign of King Lithai, it gives an account of the origin of the ruling Phra Ruang Dynasty, the construction of the twin cities of Sukhothai and Sisatchanalai, the construction of the stupa containing the Buddha’s relics, and the planting of sacred bo trees in homage to the relics. Such planting is believed to have started the practice of planting bo trees in all monastery compounds.

The Stone Inscriptions at Wat Pa Mamuang are probably the earliest translated literary works. The four tablets were inscribed with the same message in three different languages: Thai, Khmer and Pali. They were written around 1362. They describe the creation of religious objects and monuments and the construction of a forest monastery for King Lithai, a retreat for his religious practice and study of the Tripitaka.

Phra Ruang’s Proverbs is a collection of traditional Thai sayings believed to have originated during the Phra Ruang dynasty. They reflect the ideal way of life of the ancient Thai society.

Traiphummikatha or commonly known as Trai Phum Phra Ruang, was written in 1345 by King Lithai, the fifth king of Sukhothai. It expounds Buddhist philosophy based on a profound and extensive study with reference to over 30 sacred texts. The work could be considered the nation’s first piece of research dissertation. It was written in beautiful prose rich in allusions and imagery. It is a treatise on Buddhist cosmology, ethics, biology and belief system.

2. Ayutthaya Literature (1350-1767)

The literature of this period started with the establishment of Ayutthaya in 1350 by King U Thong, the first king of Ayutthaya Kingdom and ended in 1767 in the reign of King Suriyat Amarin. A long span of 417 years witnessed an impressive array of literary works in both substances and forms.

The period produced a variety of forms on diverse subjects. New poetic forms were created, with different rhyme schemes and metres. It is common to find a combination of different poetic forms in one poetic work, resulting in lilit (a combination of rai and khlong), kap ho khlong, kap he ruea (a combination of kap and khlong), klon konlabot and phleng yao. Besides, the title name of poetry could describe the nature of its contents. For example, a poem with a title name of kamsuan is a lament over the parting from a loved one. Thus, Khlong Kamsuan Si Prat is a tragic story of a courtier named Si Prat serving under King Narai the Great, who was banished, mistreated and executed. Similarly, a poem with a title name of nirat is a description in verse of a journey with a lament over the separation between two lovers. Some examples of nirat are Khlong Nirat Hariphunchai, Kap He Ruea and Kap Ho Khlong on the Visit to Than Thongdaeng by Prince Thammatthibet.

The Golden Age of Thai Literature of Ayutthaya was manifest in three reigns:

1. During the reign of King Borommatrailokkanat (1448-1488) there were three major works. Lilit Yuan Phai is a narrative poem describing the war between King Borommatrailokkanat of  Ayutthaya and Prince Tilokkarat of Chiang Mai. Lilit Phra Lo, voted the best of lilit by King Rama VI’s Royal Literary Club in 1916, had its origin in a folktale in the north of Thailand. It tells a story of love and passion that ends with the deaths of the young lovers, Prince Lo or Phra Lo the ruler of the city of Suang, and Phra (Princess) Phuan and Phra Phaeng, daughters of the ruler of the city of Song. The two principalities were bitter enemies. The romantic but ill-fated union of the three young royalties culminated in the bloody assaults by the palace security guards in which the lovers all died fighting. It is a story of love, bravery and sacrifice, showing the power of love and tragic ending. Mahachat Kham Luang, written in the style of Buddhist chant, was a collection of works by a group of scholars commissioned by King Borommatrailokkanat. It tells the story of Prince Wetsandon and the virtue of giving.

2. The next prolific age of literature is in the reign of King Narai the Great (1656-1688) which saw a rise in such didactic literature as Khlong Phali Son Nong, Khlong Thotsarot Son Phra Ram and Khlong Ratchasawat. Khlong Phali Son Nong is concerned with the principles of entering into royal service while Khlong Thotsarot Son Phra Ram is mainly about how to govern and Khlong Ratchasawat about how to act as a good courtier. They were the works of King Narai the Great. Chinda Mani was the first textbook of lessons on the Thai language and literature compiled and composed by Phra Horathibodi. Another important literary work is Phraratcha Phongsawadan Krung Si Ayutthaya, commonly referred to as Phongsawadan - Luang Prasoet Aksonnit’s Version, chronicling royal and public ceremonies and festivities in each month of the year. Khlong Nirat Hariphunchai, the first Thai khlong nirat, describes a poet’s love and longing for his lady while on a scenic journey to Lamphun to pay respect to the Buddhist relics in the ancient kingdom of Haripunchai.

3. The third golden age of Ayutthaya literature is in the reign of King Borommakot (1732-1755).
One of the most beautiful literary works is Kap He Ruea composed by Prince Thammathibet comparing the scenic beauty to that of his beloved lady on a boat journey in  the nirat tradition. Traditionally, the verse is sung during the colourful royal barge procession. It has been the model for subsequent poets to emulate. The same prince also composed the greatly admired Kap Ho Khlong on the Visit to Than Thongdaeng and Kap Ho Khlong Nirat Phrabat.  Another major work is Punnowat Kham Chan by a monk named Phra Maha Nak of Wat
Tha Sai. The poem describes a visit to Phra Phutthabat or the Buddha’s Footprint Shrine in Saraburi province. In addition, there is performing or dramatic literature including I-Nao, Dalang, Ramakian (a Thai version of the Ramayana), Sang Thong and Khawi. Some pieces are designed for recitals or accompaniments to the mask dance, shadow play and other dances such as Manora.

3. Thon Buri Literature (1767-1782)

Despite its short period of 15 years, Thon Buri produced Ramakian, a verse drama to which King Thaksin the Great contributed his poetic talent. The revival of literature at this time is remarkable since the country had not quite recovered from the aftermath of war. Some poets who later became a major force in the early RattanakosinPeriod had already begun writing at this time. Luang Sorachit, better known as Chao Phraya Phra Khlang (Hon), wrote Lilit Phetchamongkut, a poem based on an old Brahmin tale while his I-Nao Kham Chan was drawn from the Javanese source. The Thon Buri Period saw the emergence of a new genre, an account in verse of foreign travel. For instance, Nirat Phraya Mahanuphap, sometimes called Nirat Kwangtung, was written by Phraya Mahanuphap recording the activities of a Thai delegation on a diplomatic mission to China in 1781.

4. Rattanakosin Literature (1782-present)

After sporadic fighting at the beginning of the period, the country gradually returned to normal. It is only natural that many of the early Rattanakosin works should deal with war and military strategy. Some examples are Nirat Rop Phama Thi Tha Din Daeng, Phleng Yao Rop Phama Thi Nakhon Si Thammarat, Sam Kok (a translation of the Chinese chronicles that recount the war between the three kingdoms) and Rachathirat (a translation of a war story from the Mon chronicles). When peace finally came, order was restored.

Laws of the country were revised and historical events were once again systematically  recorded. As a result, there came into being a historic legal document, Kotmai Tra SamDuang or the Laws of the Three Seals and the Phongsawadan-Phan Chanthanumat’s Version. During this period there sprang a great wealth of Buddhist literature.

Jataka tales include Nibat Chadok and Hitopathet. Didactic literature was also plentiful, e.g. Kritsana Son Nong Khamchan, Suphasit Son Ying, Lokkanit Kham Khlong, Itsarayan Phasit, King Rama VI’s Thamma-Thamma Songkhram and other royal speeches.

There were a great number of emotive literary works in the early Rattanakosin period, some modeled on Ayutthaya and Thon Buri traditions, others being new creations. Some examples of the former category are nirat poems, phleng yao poems (lyrics) and tales. Nirat London was something of an innovation like Nirat Kwangtung in the Thonburi period. It was written by Mom Rachothai, the first Thai-English interpreter. One of the most emotive works with a style of its own, exciting subject matter and international outlook is Phra Aphai Mani, a long narrative poem by Sunthon Phu.

Parody also made its first appearance in Raden Landai, a play by Phra Maha Montri (Sap), mocking the classical I-Nao with a congenial sense of homour and wit.

In the performing arts, perhaps the most important dramatic achievement is the complete work of Ramakian by King Rama I. In addition, there were dance dramas, for example, Unarut, Dalang, and I-Nao. There were also verse recitals with musical accompaniment, such as mahori telling the story of Kaki, sepha relating the story of Khun Chang-Khun Phaen. Other recitals include Si Thanonchai and Nitthra Chakhrit. The latter work is based on The Tales of One Thousand and One Nights.

Literature has been closely associated with Thai life. In the earlier times, it was often recited at ceremonies and on other traditional occasions. For instance, when a ceremony to calm royal elephants was held, the assigned officials would recite Kham Chan Dutsadi Sangwoei Klom Chang or Kap Khap Mai Klom Chang. On the eve of the ordination ceremony, Rai Tham Khwan Nakwould be chanted.

At the annual celebration of Maha Chat, one would hear the chanting of Rai Yao Maha Chat. With the printing of books and issuance of journals and magazines, new forms of writing appeared, especially in prose. The first daily newspaper in Thailand was called the Bangkok Daily Advertiser, which came out in 1868. Another development was the writing of prose essays designed to spread knowledge and information as well as to express opinions and criticisms. Short stories and novels also made their first appearances.

The first Thai essayist was King Rama V who wrote Phra Ratchapithi Sipsong Duean in 1888. Another essayist of great merit was Prince Damrongrachanuphap or PrinceDamrong (1862-1943) who was an expert in history and archaeology. The first Thai short story writer was Prince Phichitprichakon who wrote Sanukninuk in 1885. The forerunner of novel writing was Phraya Surinthracha or Nokyung Wisetkun under the pseudonym of Mae Wan. He translated Vandetta by Marie Corelli into Thai, the Thai title being Khwam Phayabat.

What is striking about the literature of the Rattanokosin Period is that all the kings have played an important part in promoting and creating literary works. Their contributions and dedications to the literary cause have led to the proliferation of high-quality literary outputs whether they were original works or translations. The Rattanakosin period was experiencing an internal social transformation and external influence from the West. In the wake of the setting up of the printing press in 1844, most works were written in the Western style, as can be seen in magazine and newspaper articles, short stories, novels and literary translations.

After the establishment of constitutional monarchy in 1932, the Thai literary scene has been geared toward popular literature. The novel has enjoyed immense popularity. Novels come in many types and tastes. Some are historical while others represent political ideals. Adventure stories are mostly inspired by Chinese or Japanese works. Mystery and spy stories as well as light fictions are also popular. Modern Thai poetry inherits much from the earlier Rattanakosin experimentation. For example, King Rama VI introduced several forms of verse characterized by new rhyme schemes including Khlong Sinthumali, Maha Sinthumali, Chitlada and MahaChitlada. Another innovator of poetic forms was Prince Phitthayalongkon (under the pseudonym of N.M.S.) who invented Sayam Ratthana Chan. Such creative force is also seen among modern poets such as Khru Thep and Mr. Angkan Kanlayanaphong.

In terms of the relationship between poetry and the lives of the Thai people, nothing comes anywhere near songs. There is a vast array of musical compositions and songs _ classical, modern, Thai-Western, and country. There are also songs that reflect Thai life in rural areas. Generally speaking, Thai modern drama is modelled in the most part on its Western counterpart. Other types of dramatic art that should be mentioned here are radio and television plays. Radio plays emerged in 1937, characterized by wordplay and humorous incidents. The first Thai television play was a comedy with incidents taken from Khun Chang-Khun Phaen. Directed under Khru Neo Duriyaphan, the play was first televised in 1955 on Thai TV Channel 4, the first television station in Thailand. At present, many modern television plays are adaptations of popular novels.

With a long history of more than 700 years, Thai literature has become quite complex and varied. Thanks to the literary tradition, it still goes strongly with the tide. Contemporary fictions, short stories, poetry, plays and movies are now concerned with social, economic and psychological issues. They grapple with new social and cultural values.

 Whatever direction Thai literature will take, one thing is certain. It will always keep the Thai character.

Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.


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