Sunday, May 8, 2016

Khon Masks

On May 1st, we attended a Korb Siarn Khru Ritual at Wat Pha That Nong Mat outside of my wife's home village of Ban Thasang.

Special masks play a very important part of the Korb Siarn Khru Ritual.  I have posted some photos of the masks on Facebook over the past week.  One of my friends asked if they were Halloween masks.

No they are not Halloween masks.  The reply just like the reply for some people to the social media question about if they are in a relationship ... "It's complicated"

The history and culture of Thailand is definitely complicated.  Although Thailand was never conquered or colonized by Europeans, the history of Thailand is a series of conflicts - the rise and fall of kingdoms internal as well as external.  Each progression influenced and progressed to what is today's Thai culture.

The region, now recognized as Thailand was also subject to migrations of peoples from China, Tibet, Cambodia, Lao, as well as Burma.

In regards to religion, I have written before that ... "It's complicated".  The influx of the various peoples bringing their own belief systems and traditions added to the Animist belief system.  Over time Brahmanism, the precursor to Hinduism, exerted its influence over the region's religious beliefs.  Rather than rejected their old Animist beliefs, the people incorporated the Brahman rituals and traditions into their belief system. When Buddhism arrived, the people once again adapted and incorporated the new system and traditions into their religious Pantheon.

Khon masks have their origins in Hinduism, specifically the Hindu epic poem "Ramayana" circa 400 BC.  The Ramayana, like epic poems such as Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey", Virgil's "The Aeneid", Milton's "Paradise Lost, and Dante's "Divine Comedy, is a long, narrative poem that is  about heroic deeds, intense adventures, heroic deeds and events that are significant to the writer's culture.

The Thais adopted the Ramayana around 900AD with the earliest record of it being in the 1200s.  The Ramakian, Thailand's adaptation, was supervised and portions written by King Rama I from 1797 to 1807.  Previous copies had been destroyed by the invading Burmese  in 1767.

King Rama II, modified parts of the Ramakien for the basis of Khon, a mask dance drama which includes music, singing, dance, narration and acrobatics.  Originally the Khon was traditionally only performed for the royal court to celebrate significant events.

The performers of the Khon wore masks to identify the characters of the Ramakian whom they were portraying.

The characters of the Khon performances are gods, deities, spirits and greater humans.  In the Hindu religion there are 14 worlds - 7 heavens and 7 underworlds each inhabited by various beings.

One group of beings, Rishis, are also known in Thailand as "Ruesi" are sages and seers.  Ruesi was and are hermit sages who spend their time meditating and developing their psychic powers - sort of like wizards.  They collect magical herbs, and minerals.  Using magical ingredients they produce love charms, spells and powerful amulets. The goal of the Ruesi is to help others have a happier life by telling fortunes, conducting rituals and making spells to reduce the effects of bad karma.  Ruesi also are able to ward off evil spirits.  They also help people by protecting them from enemies.  Certain rituals performed by Ruesi can bring good luck and fortune to their devotees.  Some of the Ruesi make Sak Yants, the magical and powerful tattoos know throughout this world.

One of the most important Ruesi rituals is performed once a year is the Korb Siarn Khru - laying the Ruesi mask of the master teacher, Ruesi Por Gae, on the devotee  The Korb Siarn Khru is performed during the Wai Khru Ceremony.  The Siarn Ruesi mask is a full sized mask with head dress with an open mouth, three eyes, two teeth sticking out of the mouth, a moustache, and a beard.  There are also masks of other deities within the Ruesi pantheon - some of them being tigers, elephants, yaks (giants) and other creatures - creatures of the Ramakian, also spelled as Ramakien.

No, they are not Halloween masks, but masks of much greater tradition. meaning, and significance.  Khon masks are also much more complicated - transcending the ages, across great spaces and binding cultures together.

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