INFORMAL PHOTO-ESSAY BY GAYLE CASTAÑEDA, DIRECTOR, THE CASTAÑEDA MUSEUM OF ETHNIC COSTUME, TUCSON, ARIZONA SEPTEMBER 2019
Dear Friends of the Museum,
Collecting ethnic dolls has been my passion since childhood, and through the years, the number of my Thai doll characters, especially the pairs of prince and princess dolls, has grown.
I have purchased many of these dolls and several have been given to me as gifts. I never attempted to do any research about them, but I always appreciated the intricate detail of their faces, masks, and clothing. Then, not long ago, I acquired two actual masks and a woman’s crown pertaining to the Ramakian. That finally spurred me into taking action-investigating the history and meaning of the Thai items in my collection. Thus, I was ushered into the world of Thailand’s classical dance-drama, the Ramakian, and I invite you to join me. (Most dolls pictured in this photo-essay have front and back views). Very few of the items have exact dates as to when they were made, but I guesstimate the majority are from the 1970’s, with some from the 1960’s. I am providing the approximate sizes of the dolls. Even the toy company Mattel released a Thai Barbie® in 1998.
The Hindu poet Valmiki composed the Indian epic, the Ramayana, sometime between 500 BCE and 100 BCE. A masterpiece of world literature, its basic story is that of Prince Rama, who rescues, with the help of his vast monkey army, his wife, Princess Sita, who was abducted by a powerful demon.Princess Sita & Prince Rama 14 1/2″ tall
Princess Sita & Prince Rama 14 1/4″ tall
Hanuman, White Monkey General, Leader of Rama’s Monkey Army 7″ tall
Princess Sita & Prince Rama 9 1/4″ tall
Princess Sita & Prince Rama 12 1/2″ tall
Princess Sita & Prince Rama 16 1/2″ tall
Both dolls of this pair are heavy probably made of some type of heavy composite, perhaps resin, quite unlike all the other dolls in this photo-essay. Both dolls, unfortunately, are missing the spires of their crowns. They were made by the SR Doll Co. of Bangkok, ca late 1950’s – 1970’s.
The demon king Tosakanth, who had kidnapped Sita, carried her away to his island kingdom, Lanka, where he and his demon family presided over a horde of demon allies. (There is disagreement as to whether or not this Lanka refers to the present-day island of Sri Lanka.) One of the demon characters is Agat-Talai, shown here. (This is one of the two masks I purchased.) In charge of keeping order, she patrols Lanka by flying back and forth over it, ever vigilant. 23 1/4″ tall
The Ramayana–Ramakian stories also have the purpose of teaching people moral values and teaching them how to exhibit correct behavior in society.
Through the centuries, the Ramayana epic dispersed throughout Southeast Asia, and countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, and Vietnam molded the Ramayana into their own special versions. For example, the demon Tosakanth is pictured like this in Thailand. (This is one of the two masks I purchased.)24 1/2″ tall
In India, Tosakanth is called Ravana and looks like this.photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ravana, an album painting on paper, c1820.jpg
map from: STONES OF HISTORY.com-THAILAND-BANGKOK’S HISTORIC TEMPLES, BY MARISOL MACIAS
The doll collection has two dolls that especially show the Hindu Ramayana connection to the Thai Ramakian. (Thailand is a Theravada Buddhist nation.) This doll made by the Bangkok Dolls Company represents Vishnu. According to the Hindu faith, Prince Rama is an incarnation of the deity Vishnu. The upper left hand holds a conch, the lower left hand holds a mace/club, the upper right hand has a chakra/discus, and the lower right hand lifts a lotus flower. Each item has a special significance. My doll, unfortunately, is missing its mace and discus. For some reason, a trident was put in its lower right hand instead of a lotus flower. Vishnu 12 3/4″ tall
Portrait of Lord Vishnu from the Internet: connectsciencetodivinity.blogspot.com
This doll has the label “Brahmin Dancer”. Internet resources state ancient Hindu texts referred to the word Brahmin as meaning master, expert, preacher, or guide of a particular tradition, not implying a caste. Over the centuries in Thailand, Brahmins guided the justice system as royal government officials. They also functioned as priests taking part in royal ceremonies. 11″ tall
The figure on the left is Naga Raksha, also called Devil Dancer, and wears a cobra mask. In legend, the island of Sri Lanka was once ruled by a race of beings called Rakshasa, whose king was Ravana of the Ramayana. The actual devil dancer is taking part in a Buddhist festival/Perahera in Ambalangoda, a coastal town of Sri Lanka.12″ tall photo credit for actual dancer: Gane Kumaraswamy
In Thailand and India, plays of the Ramakian and Ramayana are presented to the public. Only a portion of the plays are staged at one time. One Internet source stated that the Ramakian has 138 episodes, 300 characters, and if it were to be performed as just one show, the presentation would take 720 hours. A long time to sit! Khon Theatre Performance: KHON-THAI CLASSICAL MASKED DANCE AT THE SALA CHALERMKRUNG ROYAL THEATRE-BANGKOK, THAILAND
Close-Up Khon Fighting Scene: naorococo.net-Thailand & Singapore Celebrate 50 Years of Friendship, photo credit: Chew Teck Yong
There are colleges of dramatic arts established by the Thai government for advanced studies of Thai classical dance and music. The Ramakian dance-drama is called Khon. During Khon programs, the characters/actors on stage do not speak. Narrators and musicians are off to the side of the stage. Chin Chinawut Indracusin, Thai-French actor & singer removing Tosakanth mask. (photo credit: pinterest.com) For more info, check out Sirinya’s Thailand-Chin Chinawut Indracusin on the Internet.
The Ramakian is a very complex story, and although I am only offering very basic information, I do hope I have piqued your interest in continuing your own investigation into this special world.
As I mentioned previously, I have several pairs of Prince Rama and Princess Sita dolls, but there are several dolls without a partner, for various reasons. I also want to make you aware that you will see several dolls having a Bangkok Dolls label. This doll company started doing business in the 1950’s and still produces dolls today in Bangkok, where you can visit their establishment. Check out their website. Bangkok Dolls workshop photo credits: tripadvisorUnited Kingdom-Bangkok Dolls
Prince Rama could not have rescued his wife Sita without the aid of his loyal monkey allies, headed by Hanuman, the White Monkey General. Monkey dolls have tails, and the costumes of Khon actors in monkey roles display tails. I have two other beautifully detailed monkey dolls. One is Nilapat, another monkey leader, who has his own series of adventures. Waiyabut is a great warrior in the battle against Tosakanth.
Nilapat 9 1/2″ tall
Waiyabut 11 1/2″ tall
Here we have 2 views of Nilapat fighting a demon, probably Sahashadeja, a general officer of the demon army. 11 1/4″ tall
This doll pair represents Sita and Tosakanth, who courts Sita after falling in love with her. Tosakanth’s face is gold when he is in his role as ruler, but, also, I like to think he becomes more mellow when he is near Sita. 11″ tall
Here two views are presented of Tosakanth battling Lakshmana, Prince Rama’s loyal brother. 16″ tall
Prince Rama & Hanuman battling a demon. Top to bottom: front, side, and back
16 1/4″ tall
Dolls without their partners are presented in the following section.
Princess Sita 11 1/4″ tall
Prince Rama 8 1/2″ tall
K.J. Doll label on stand. This doll company was probably based in Bangkok, but is not in existence now. 13″ tall
I have only one female doll wearing a low crown like this. Perhaps it has a special significance. The doll may be Princess Sita or another character. 6 3/4″ tall
Princess Sita 9 3/4″ tall
Princess Sita 10 1/2″ tall
Princess Sita 7 3/4″ tall