The Khōn

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The Khōn


H.H. Prince Dhaninivat

Kromamün Bidyalābh Bridhyākorn


Dhanit Yupho

The Khōn


H.H. Prince Dhaninivat

Kromamün Bidyalābh Bridhyākorn


Dhanit Yupho

Published by

The Fine Arts Department

Bangkok, Thailand

B.E. 2511

H.H. Prince Dhaninivat Kromamün Bidyalābh Bridhyākorn was educated at Rugby School and Oxford University, where he took a second class in the Honour School of Oriental Studies and a B.A. On returning home he first served in the Ministry of the Interior and later became the chief of the administrative bureau of the Circle of Ayudhyā. When King Rāma VI came to the throne he was appointed Private Secretary to the Queen Mother and later Private Secretary to the King (foreign correspondence section) as well as clerk of the Cabinet Council and Secretary of the Privy Council. Under King Prajadhipok he was appointed Minister of Public Instruction. During this time he also served as Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and Literature, a Civil Service Commissioner, and Vice-President and Commissioner-General of the Boyscouts Assocation. Retiring in 1932, he was later appointed in 1947 one of the members of the Supreme Council of State. He was Regent of Thailand until the King's return and assumption of duties in B.E. 2494 (1951). Since then he has been President of the Privy Council. He is also Hon. LL. D. (FEU. Manila) & Hon. Litt. D. (Chula-U., Bangkok).

Outside of government service he has been on the Siam Society Council and other bodies. At present he is Hon. President of Siam Society and Hon. President of the Boyscouts Association.

Publications: in English – The Coronation of Prajadhipok, King of Siam, Bangkok, 1926; The Siamese Version of the old Javanese Tale of Panji, in India Antiqua, Leiden, 1948; The old Siamese Conception of the Monarchy, in J. Siam Soc. XXXVI, 2; The Rāma Jātaka, in J. Siam Soc. XXXVI, 2; The Reconstruction of Rāma I of Bangkok, in J. Siam Soc. XLIII, 1; The Rāmakien, in J. Burma Res. Soc., etc., Commemoration Vol. II; SEATO Lectures 1961, etc.

Mr. Dhanit Yupho, Director-General of the Fine Arts Department since 1956 and the Editor of Thai Culture, New Series, was a graduate of the ecclesiastical doctorate of Thailand. He entered the government service in 1934 and became Chief of the Research Section of the National Library in 1943. He was Director of the Division of Music and Drama in the Fine Arts Department from 1946 to 1956. Formerly Mr. Yupho was also a lecturer in history of Thai literature at Chulalongkorn University.

Publications: The Economic Conditions of India in the Buddha's Time; The Khōn; The Classical Siamese Theatre; Artists of the Thai Dance-Dramas or Lakon Vol. I; The Preliminary Course of Training in Thai Theatrical Art; Thai Musical Instruments, etc.

First Edition, 1954

Second Edition, 1958

Third Enlarged and Revised Edition, 1962

Fourth Edition, 1968

The Khōn

Masked Play

One of the Thai classic dances, known from time immemorial as the khōn, implies the wearing of masks by performers. These masks indicate the personality of its wearer and have a wide variety of design. By reason of the fact that performers wear masks and are therefore unable to utter any kind of sound, there has to be a sort of a recite, whose rôle somewhat resembles that of the "chorus" in the old English dramatic sense. This, however, does not apply to the clowns who wear no masks and carry on their dialogues in the ordinary way. Later on it became the preferred habit for those taking human rôles as well as rôles of celestial beings not to wear masks. These performers still keep to the former tradition of non-utterance. All performers of the khōn, therefore, have to conform their steps and poses to the recitations, and songs of the chorus.

Kon Pāk

The "chorus" is known in Thai as the kon pāk (i.e. the recite) and has the same rôle as the dalang in Javanese choreography. What they recite forms a species of poetry which poets of old wrote for the performance of the Shadow-Play. These recitations are of two categories: the kam pāk and the čerača. The kam pāk is chanda grown in accordance with the nature and setting of the piece to be performed. Performers of the orchestra must be proficient not only with all the stock melodies and marches, etc., but also with the movements of the classic dance. The onus of the orchestra devolves upon the player of the ranād, who leads on most occasions and the player of the sphon who sets the pace of the movements. Latterly there has been interspersed into the khōn considerable singing in the fashion of the Court lakon and extra singers have to be augmented into the constitution of the chorus. The khōn as it is performed now, therefore, consists of four categories of participants, namely: the dancers, the reciter who also does the čerača as well, the singers and the orchestra.

Khōn Texts

The story of the khōn is the story of Rāma the Indian hero who is immortalised in the Hindu epic Rāmāyana of Vālmiki. The Thai version is called the Rāmakien. Savants have studied and made comparisons between the great epic of Vālmiki and versions beyond the seas to the east of India and have come to conclusion that our version belonging to the latter class, was not derived from that of the seer Vālmiki, but from Indonesian versions no doubt prevailing in the epoch of the Sri Vijaya Empire. The latter in their turn might have been derived from various sources themselves originating from preclassical Indian versions as far back perhaps as the time of our Lord Buddha. We have for instance the Tamil episode of Mahirāvana in the localised form of Maiyarāb; we have also the tradition of Rāma commanding two monkey armies, one from Khītkhin and another from Jombū, whereas the Rāmāyana of Vālmiki records an army of monkeys from Kīshkindha (Khītkhin) and another army under Jāmbavān consisting of bears. This rôle seems to correspond with the Jambūbūn of the Thai version although the latter is a monkey from Khītkhin and not even a monkey commander of the monkey army of Jombū. And this agrees with the non-Vālmiki version of Bengal. So, whether ours is derived through Indonesia from South Indian Tamil traditions or from the Begali—in which case the Pāla culture there might have been the key to the problem—it seems clear that it is not derived from the Rāmāyana of Vālmiki. It is also clear that the origin and venue of our Rāmakien indicate cultural relationship between these oriental civilizations.

The Thai Rāmakien which was composed for the classical dance exists in many versions. The only one, however, which is complete is the version of King Rāma I; while the one most suitable for representation on the stage is that of Rāma II. In more recent representations, however, the management of such representations often adapts the old version to suit circumstances or the special abilities of their performers. In the adaptations, for instance, of the Royal Fine Arts Department, the versions of Kings Rāma I and Rāma II form the main basis, namely, the sung portions. The recitatives and the dialogues have, however, often had to be composed for each of the episodes performed.

There are, however, khōn texts which are not based on the versions of the two Kings above mentioned. The best known was written by King Rāma VI, who used as his authority for the story the classical Rāmāyana of Vālmiki through its English translation.

The Rāmakien[1]

The greater part of the story is concerned with the war waged upon Tosakanth, the demon king of Loŋkā, by Rāma the righteous king of Ayodhā and his brother Lakshman. The two brothers with Rāma's beloved consort Sīdā (Sk. Sītā) had gone to take up a hermit's life in the depth of the forest when the demon king abducts Sīdā and brings her to his pleasance near the city of Loŋkā with the hope of marrying her. The brothers star a pursuit. Hanumān volunteers service and through him they win two allies in the persons of Sukrīp (Sugriva), king of Khītkhin, and Thao Mahājompū ("the great king of Jombū"). They them march with their allied armies to the seaboard of the south of the Indian continent, opposite the island of Loŋkā after they had crossed the ocean. After a long series of battles with the demons of Loŋkā and their allies, the armies of Rāma are invariably successful. Tosakanth, having exhausted the sources of all help from relatives and allies, resolves upon going out himself to give battle to the enemy. He is finally killed in battle. Rāma then consecrates his ally, Pipek, as King of Loŋkā; and returns with Sīdā to Ayodhyā where he resumes his reign. The Epic goes on to record a good deal more fighting but save for the single episode of the adventures of Rāma's sons.[2] These subsequent campaigns very rarely find their way to the stage.

Preliminary Training

Khon Training - 001.jpg


Tapping the Knees.

Khon Training - 002.jpg


Knocking the Waist.

Khon Training - 003.jpg

3A, 3B

Steps at the Pole.

Khon Training - 004.jpg


Pressing into Angles.

Training for the Khōn

Performers of the khōn are normally male, although at times the rôles of human males and females are taken by women. They are trained from early childhood. Since the rôles in the story of the Rāmakien are of four categories, the training is divided into four sections, namely, those of the male human, the female human, the demoniac and simian parts. For the human rôles the training is identical with those of the drance-drama which have been described elsewhere. It is here proposed to deal only with the demon and monkey rôles, as follows:

Preliminary training for these parts is identical, and consists of:

1. Tapping the knees, in order to train the pupil to realise a sense of rhythm and musicality

2. Knocking the waist, to accustom the upper part of the body to flexibility;

3. Steps at the pole, to accustom the legs to correct angular poses and strengthen them for angular movements;

4. Pressing into angles, to bend and retain the body, arms, legs and breast into fixed angles so that there could be no undignified stooping at any movement during the dance.

For the simian parts there are other acrobatic movements to be trained for. Additional training for the simian rôles consists of:

1. Squaring the thighs, in order to strengthen them and to enable the legs to stretch out to their full length (figs. 5 & 6);

2. Turning somersault, a special somersault for the simian rôles in which the pupil first places his upwards as in fig. 7 and then raises his legs up to the position shown in fig. 8. In such a pose he is trained to "walk with his hands" in that position (fig. 8) and then bring the legs down to complete the circle, thus regaining the position of fig. 7, all this and a few other movements being done to render the body supple and quick of movement.

After this the pupil is taught either singly or in batches of two or three in the simian movements, the instructor not only setting example but always ready to help in balancing or setting the limbs in correct positions.

After these preliminary exercises, the pupil is trained, very often individually or in groups of two or three, in movements of the classic dance in general.

Training for the Simian Rôles

Khon Training - 005.jpg


Squaring the thighs, the instructor pressing them into position with his feet.

Khon Training - 006.jpg


Squaring thighs.

Khon Training - 007.jpg


Turning somersault, with the legs raised.

Khon Training - 008.jpg


Turning somersault, commencement.


The most distinctive item of dress for the khōn is, naturally the mask, which in the cases of the demoniac and simian parts, conform to stipulated shapes and colours. Other sartorial items are also conformable to certain characteristics. The dress of a demon is designed to create a sense of ferocity and strength; whilst that of a human hero majesty and grace, female parts beauty and gentility, and the simian rôle a restless characteristic of its original.

Besides sartorial properties there are of course other accessories, such as a movable dais, war chariots, bows, arrows, batons, tridents, royal canopies, etc.

The Mask

The mask is perhaps the most important characteristic of the khōn, for through it more than any other agency one distinguishes the variety of rôles.

Generally speaking, diving and human rôles no longer wear masks and are represented in natural colours. In pictorial art, however, Rāma is still green of complexion, whilst the brothers Bhrot, Lakshman and Satrud are painted red, yellow and purple respectively as the masks used to be in former times.

Demons for the most part still hold to masks with the exception in more modern representations where female demons have demon features painted on to their natural faces. As for the individual features, Tosakanth, the king of Loŋkā, has generally a green complexion with a 'crown of victory'which is however differentiated by two tiers of faces within the crown, one of the demons representing, through numerically inaccurate, his ten faces, and a top one of a celestial face. Tosakanth now and then, such as in peace-time episodes, wears a golden complexion with the same crown, Indrajit, his son and heir, is also of a green complexion with a peaked crown. According to khōn tradition this rôle is attributed with a few human characteristic not usually associated with demons, such as the human ear flaps and his dance movements. Kumbhakarn, next brother to the king of Loŋkā, being attributed with an ascetic disposition, wears no crown but a coronet. He too is given a green complexion. Pipek, another brother, also of green complexion, wears a gourd crown. The king of Loŋkā had also other brothers who were killed by Rāma before the actual campaign of Loŋkā commenced. They were Tūt, king of Chārik, (Sk. Dūshana), of purple complexion with a crown of flames, Khorn (Sk. Khara), king of Romakal, of green complexion with a pleated crown; and Trisian, whose name may be transcribed in Sanskrit by Triśira, though so far unidentified with any character in the Rāmāyana. This last wears a mask of white with a triple-headed crown. His kingdom is given as Majavāri. Tūt, moreover, gad a son Virunčambaŋ, one of the later leaders of the demon hosts and like his father was a powerful fighter with his ability to assume invisibility on a battlefield. He too wears a crown of flames and has a blue-black complexion. Khorn had two sons, Mankorakanth (Sk. Makarāksha), green with a crown topped by the head of a makara, and Sên-Ātit, red with a crown of flames. The name signifies Sunray. Trisian had a son Trimegh, with a dark red complexion and a crown drooping in a tail. A few masks have individual features in accordance with the story of their parentage. The two sons of Tosakanth by elephantine mothers have miniature trunks fixed on to their noses. The sons of the crow demoness, Svāhu (Sk. Sutāhu), dark-red in complexion, and Mārič (Sk. Mārici), white in complexion, have wings affixed to their crowns in the fashion of old Teutonic warriors though of smaller sizes. The other demon relatives and allies in the Loŋkā as well as the later wars are given a variety of crowns and complexions some of which are highly artistic.

It is not clearly evident by what principles the various rôles are assigned their individual masks. Most of the principal demon rôles are given a green complexion. A few demons wear crowns which are easily traceable to their parentage. The leading ones wear a 'crown of victory'. There are besides additional features for distinguishing the demon characters, such as the eyes which are made of two types—bulging or crocodile. The mouths are also of certain types, namely, clamping or snarling. Take the mask of Tosakanth for example. Here the crown is one of 'victory type'with rows of visages to signify his ten faces; the mouth is of snarling type and the eyes bulge. Maiyarāb, however, has clamping mouth and crocodile eyes. The mouths they adopt in battle are usually a chariot but some invariably ride a horse or an elephant. The weapon though usually a club is often varied; the leading demons being however given bows.

Another feature to be noticed is that demons wear coats of mail on top of their vests which are usually made to distinguish the colour from the coats. We do not see therefore their bodies though it is taken for granted that the completion of the face represents that of the whole of the body. On the other hand the monkey rôles, even if they are generals, wear coats of an identical colour with the masks on which are designs of hair indicating their bare bodies.

One the whole the simian masks are simpler than those of the demons. The simian kings, Pāli (green) and Sukrīp (red) as well as the king of Jombū (blue) wear the 'yodbat'crowns with an insertion at the top. The crown in also worn by the demon Indrajit. This type of a crown seems to indicate a high royal rank. Oŋkot, however through heir to the Khītkhin throne as Indrajit is to the one of Loŋkā, wears a gourd crown. Three monkey leaders though of great eminence do not wear crowns but are given coronets. They are Hanumān (white), Nilanol (red, being an incarnation of Agni the Fire-God) and Nilapat (black, being an incarnation of the God of Death). There are other monkey officers who wear coronets and can only be distinguishable by the colours of their complexion. One or two have similar colours and they are usually distinguishable by their open or closed mouths.[4]

The reader who is acquainted with the Wayang Purva of Java will find here the difference in colouring the masks. Whereas Sukrīp (Sk. Sugriva) is here invariably red the one in Indonesia is of another colour. The same applies to the other masks too.


The Rāmakien is a long story and has been written by various authors in several versions. For the purpose of presentation, therefore, adaptions into episodes have been necessary. Such an episode is called a chud (ชุด); whereas in other forms of dramatic presentation such an episode would be known as a tôn (ตอน). The latter term signifies a section; whilst the former means a "set". The reason why the chud, or set, should be adopted only for the khōn, and for other forms of entertainment seems to lie in the following fact. The khōn was originally inspired by, or ever originated from the nang, i.e. the shadow-play. When a shadow-play was to be presented it used to be necessary to select the figures for screening, which were very numerous; and arrange them in sets for due presentation in the order in which they were to be screened. Thus the word set came to be used to episodes of the khōn, such as the ones which have been presented by the Royal Department of Fine Arts from time to time at our theatre since the conclusion of the South-east Asian War, namely: the sets designed as the Conquest of the Demon-Crow, the Lady Afloat, the Magic of Maiyarāb, the Snake-Noose, the Weapon of Brahma, Hanumān the Volunteer, the Fire-Ordeal of Sīdā, etc.

Forms of Representations

There have been forms of representation of various kinds in the past. Nowadays there are five of them, namely:

a. Khōn-klāŋ-plêŋ, the open-air mask-play, in which it is understood that military reviews and battles are the order of the day. The accompanying music would then be appropriate marches whilst the text would consist of recitatives (kam pāk) and dialogues without singing.

b. Khōn-rōŋ-nôk, also called Khōn-naŋ-rāo, a variety in which the play is performed on the stage with a pole, the latter serving as seating.[5] The pole is placed towards the back of the stage, flanked by a simple curtain on which is painted a scene of mountain or forest. Like the above variety there is no singing, only recitatives and dialogues taking place. There are as a rule two piphāt bands, one at either end of the stage.

A development of this variety, called the Khōn-rōŋ-nôk, is often adopted, in which a preliminary performances takes place on the first day and the main representation on the second. The troupe staying the night in between on or near the stage. The preliminary performance would consist of inaugurative music (the hōmrōŋ), a sort of an overture but repeated in every set and episode of a performance. Then performers would do the pole-dance, which is in turn followed by the short episode of Pirāb, the demon who, being in the habit of catching for food any living being straying into his park, tries to devour Rāma and his brother while wandering in search of Sīdā. Pirāb is eventually killed. This demon is found in the Sanskrit Rāmāyana under the name of Virādha.

c. Khōn-nā-čô, or the "mask-play before the screen", is a variety in which the representation takes place, like the shadow-play, in front of a screen of white cloth which acts as the back of the stage.

d. Khōn-rāŋ-nai, meaning the Court mask-play, is a variety which has the greatest affinity to the dance-dramas of the Court, consisting of signing as well as recitatives and dialogues. The staging is naturally more elaborate.

In these four varieties of the mask-play, the story presented is not divided into acts or scenes, nor is there any kind of mise-en-scène. There is yet one more variety and that is…[i]

e. Khôn-chāk, i.e. the mask-play on a modern stage, such as the performances of the Royal Fine Arts Department which have been regularly staged since 1946.


Thai choreographic technique is an intricate and exacting one, indicating how strict was the observance of formalities within the profession. No one, for instance, may cross the stage during a performance, except those dressed for their parts, and it is due to this reason that stage hands who carry accessories on to the stage are required to adopt some kind of theatrical dress while performing their duties if the duties necessitate their appearance on the stage. The reason for this is obvious…[ii] the stage is open on three sides instead of…[iii] intrusion is much easier here than on the western stage. Neglect of this formality is regarded as discourtesy to the traditional Master of the Dance or Music.

No performance may end in a tragedy, if Rāma or his brother is wounded or worsted in battle, performance must continue till they are cured or restored to life. Similarly the final defeat and death of Tosakanth is considered by professionals as a taboo and is never played. Exception to this ruling has been known at times but then it is only permissible through the express command of the sovereign.

The khōn, or masked play, has been regarded among us, Thai people, from olden days as an art which is made up for various fine arts and is, as it were, a key to all other forms of dramatic or choreographic manifestations of arts because of its classic traditions.

Printed by Siva Phorn Limited Partnership, 74, Soi Rajjataphan, Makkasan Circle, Bangkok, Thailand. Mr. Charas Wanthanathavi, Printer. 1968. Tel. 70752.


Original notes
  1. cf. The Programme of Rāma's Rule in Ayodhyā staged on Silpakorn Theatre, 1958.
  2. cf. The Preliminary Course of Training in Thai Theatrical Art by Dhanit Yupho, No. 13 in this Series.
  3. cf. Traditional Dress in the Classic Dance of Siam, Journal of Siam Society, Vol. XL, Pt. 2, pp. 133-146.
  4. cf. No. 7, this Series.
  5. Prince Dhaninivat's Shadow-play in the Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. XXXVII, part I, p. 30.
Notes by Wikisource
a. i, ii, iii Faded.

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