The evolution and significance of Thai literature

The image of Thai literature was generated by Dall-E.

Delve into the rich tapestry of Thai literature, a realm where compelling narratives meet cultural nuance. From the screenplays that have dominated TV screens to the novels that have captivated readers, Thai literature has an undeniable charm. One such luminary in this field is Chaoom Panjapan, a multi-talented personality with a legacy in screenwriting, book editing, and songwriting.

The development of Thai classical literature

Building on the literary foundations established by noteworthy authors like Chaoom Panjapan, Thai classical literature has evolved significantly. Panjapan, celebrated for her multifaceted penmanship across diverse platforms such as TV, radio soaps, and novels, contributed significantly to Thai literature’s landscape. Its continual progression is illuminated by her novel ‘Tad Dao Bussaya’, translated into a TV soap five times.

The development of Thai literature also embraced progressive narratives, introducing nuanced concepts like ‘geobody’ to its tapestry. As proposed by Thongchai Winichakul, ‘geobody’ exhibits the integral role maps play in the nation-state context. This concept found reception in numerous works of Thai literature that showcased Thailand’s geo-socio-cultural facets.

Various acknowledged authors have woven this concept in their stories, enhancing Thai literature’s depth and enriching its narrative style. Thai literature’s evolution has not only upheld its classical styles but also integrated advanced narrative techniques, making it a compelling field of study. It continues to progress, drawing from its distinctive past while dovetailing it with modern storytelling methods and themes.

What is the golden age of Thai literature?

The Golden Age of Thai Literature, marks a significant era in the history of Thai literature. This era saw a profound transformation of the literary landscape characterised by the emergence and popularity of diversified literary forms such as the Lilit and Nirat. Lilit, a complexly woven narrative with varying pace and tone, and Nirat, an epic poetry that articulates yearning and farewell, gained prominence around this time.

During the Rattanakosin era, Thai literature experienced unprecedented growth, becoming an integral part of Siam’s cultural fabric. Despite challenges, including the Burmese invasions that dealt severe blows to the Siamese tradition, the people’s longing for poetry led to a renaissance in Thai literature. Works of yore were refined, and emphasis began to shift towards prose, an innovative literary form in the Thai region during that era.

King Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai, also known as King Rama 2, played a pivotal role in this golden era. His reign was definitive in shaping Rattanakosin literature. A gifted poet and playwright himself, King Rama 2 strongly advocated the arts. His patronage led to the resurgence of important literary works that had been lost or damaged during the sack of Ayutthaya. His mentees, like the eminent poet Sunthorn Phu, contributed to a vibrant literary era. The king himself participated in reassembling and restoring Thai literary masterpieces, and introduced many plays based on folk stories or old plays that survived the destruction of the old capital.

This golden age of Thai literature ultimately provided the foundation of what Thai literature is today- a medley of classical elements weaved into modern narrative techniques forming the backbone of progressive and powerful storytelling.

Famous Literature in Thailand

Ramakien

The evolution and significance of Thai literature | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Rammakien by จิตรกรรมฝาผนัง เรื่องรามเกียรติ์รอบพระระเบียง วัดพระศรีรัตนศาสดาราม, สำนักงานสลากินแบ่งรัฐบาล

Exploring further into Thai literature provides valuable insights into Ramakien, a treatment of the Ramayana epic deeply ingrained in Thai literature’s rich tapestry. Originating in the 13th century, it first took shape as an Indonesian-style shadow puppet theatre crafted during the Sukhothai Kingdom era. This initial representation morphed, evolving into written forms during the Ayutthaya Kingdom in the 18th century. However, these monumental pieces of Thai literature came under attack with invasions of Burmese armies in 1767, leading to the destruction of most editions. Deeper studies on the Ramakien reveal its influence not only on Thai art and culture but also on history. Examples extend to Thai dramas and temple murals, and its inclusion in the national curriculum of most schools corroborates its significance.

The Siamese people continue to draw upon Ramakien as a source for dramatic narratives. Notable enhancements in classical dramatic forms dubbed Khon and Lakhon nok emerged during the Ayutthaya period, with changes attributed to Ramakien. Lakhon nai, a theatrical performance for the aristocratic audience, encompassed the dramatised version of Ramakien or Khon. The French diplomat Simon de La Loubère documented the existence of this Siamese drama and classical dance, in 1687, during King Louis XIV’s diplomatic mission. This art form expanded further into mainland Southeast Asia, influencing neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia, and Laos with their version of the Ramayana epic. Tracing the lineage of Ramakien hence provides an enriching understanding of Thai literature’s evolution.

Lilit Phla Lo

The evolution and significance of Thai literature | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Li Lit Phra Lo by อาจารย์จักรพันธุ์ โปรษยกฤต (ภาพจาก ศิลปวัฒนธรรม ฉบับ กุมภาพันธ์ พ.ศ. 2566)

Delving further into Thai literature reveals the remarkable realm of Lilit Phla Lo. Lilit, in Thai literature, is characterised as a creative format that integrates poetic verses of dissimilar metrical composition. This unique blend gives rise to diverse tempos and cadences in the melodic rhythm of the poetry.

Marking its first appearance, the Lilit Yuan Phai draws historiographical and literary attention. Penned in the early Ayutthaya period, around 1475 CE, this remarkable piece of Thai literature parallels the Song of Roland. The epic war poem, comprising roughly 1180 lines, details the critical occurrences during the war between King Borommatrailokkanat and King Tilokaraj of Lan Na. It serves both as an important historical account and a victory ode for the King of Siam. Moreover, Lilit Yuan Phai transcends its inherent literary importance by providing archival proof of the Siamese royal ideology evolving during Borommatrailokkanat’s rule.

Lilit Phla Lo’s popularity soared side by side with Nirat, another significant form of Thai literary expression. Though both are classified as lengthy forms of poetry, they differ in their thematic approaches. Lilit varies the pace and tone of the narrative by employing different metres in different stanzas, while Nirat, expresses farewell and longing for someone absent. During the Rattanakosin era, Thai literature witnessed a surge in innovation that moved towards prose, a comparatively newer form in the region, thereby opening doors to a prolific era of literary growth.

Thai literature, as envisaged through the enchanting verses of Phla Lo, offers an enrapturing journey into the historical, cultural, and emotional landscapes of the region, and adds to our understanding and appreciation of global literary traditions.

Four Reigns

The evolution and significance of Thai literature | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Four reigns from Sanook.com

Moving beyond the realm of shadow puppet theatre, again the focus shifts towards another pivotal piece in Thai literature, ‘Four Reigns’ by Kukrit Pramoj. An iconic representation of the fine prose and narrative style, this work bears testament to the literary innovation of the Rattanakosin era.

‘Four Reigns’ is on many a reader’s list, boasting an average rating of 4.18 and amassing a total score of 492 based on the combined number of votes and the voters’ rankings. As indicated by its popular appeal, a total of 849 readers shared their ratings, forming a robust base for this book’s reputation as a signature text in Thai Literature.

Written by Kukrit Pramoj, a virtuoso in the literary space, ‘Four Reigns’ serves as a journey through the monarchic rules of four Siam kings. The author’s astute observation of royal life grants readers a glimpse into Thai culture, unravelling historical intricacies with a literature lens.

Despite its noble aura, ‘Four Reigns’ isn’t immune to critics’ scrutiny. Much like artists awaiting a stroke of inspiration, readers too, periodically refresh their impressions of the book. This reflective process provides an evolving perspective on the work, keeping it ever-relevant in the discourse of Thai literature.

With its firm foothold in the literary world, ‘Four Reigns’ stands tall, blending retrospect with narrative artistry, ultimately continuing to enhance the rich tapestry of Thai literature. Its influence reaches far and wide, known and revered by both natives and global literature enthusiasts alike.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen

The evolution and significance of Thai literature | News by Thaiger
PHOTO: Khun Chang Khun Phean by จิตรกรรมฝาผนังเล่าเรื่องขุนช้างขุนแผน ที่ระเบียงคดรอบวิหารหลวงพ่อโต วัดป่าเลไลยก์ จังหวัดสุพรรณบุรี เขียนโดย เมืองสิงห์ จันทร์ฉาย

Continuing the exploration of Thai literature, we arrive at another noteworthy masterpiece, Khun Chang Khun Phaen (KCKP). Dating back to the Ayutthaya period, this tale occupies a significant place in Thailand’s rich literary tapestry. Known locally as Khun Phaen, Luang Pho Khun, or Khun Pan, this narrative offers an interesting blend of comedy, romance, and heroic adventure. It is intricately intertwined with an unfortunate love triangle and leads to the tragic demise of one of the central characters.

Based on the life of Khun Phaen, a Siamese general possessing extraordinary magical prowess, the tale unfolds his service to the King of Ayutthaya. It offers a peek into his complicated relational dynamics with Khun Chang and the lovely Siamese maiden, WanThong. This epic has essentially evolved from the spontaneous recitation or ‘sepha’ prevalent in the Thai oral tradition since the dawn of the 17th century.

Over time, the tale underwent evolution. Minstrels and troubadours during this period crafted engaging subplots, thereby enriching the initial storyline with fine details. Come the late Ayutthaya Kingdom, KCKP had morphed into an extensive and captivating epic. Considered a feat in literature, it continues to captivate readers and stands as a testament to Thailand’s rich literary heritage, leaving an indelible imprint on the canvas of Thai literature.

Madanabagha or the romance of a rose

Thai literature’s rich tapestry by King Rama 6, as we’ve seen, is woven with epics, poetry, and prose that have stood the test of time. From the influential Ramakien to the complex narrative of Khun Chang Khun Phaen, they’ve shaped Thai culture and captured the hearts of readers. The Lilit and Nirat poetry forms have added depth to this literary tradition, reflecting the soul of Thai society in different periods. ‘Four Reigns’ by Kukrit Pramoj has added a unique dimension, offering a window into the reigns of four Siam kings. It’s a testament to Thai literature’s flexibility and evolution, as it continues to adapt and thrive in changing times. As we delve deeper into this intriguing world, we’ll undoubtedly uncover more gems that reflect the richness of Thai culture and its literary heritage.

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Thunn

A true extrovert, Thunn enjoys writing to connect with people and tell stories about his vast experiences. His passion for building relationships drives him to write engaging content with his unique voice and views.

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