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Thai literature begins with an inscription on stone in the name of King Rama Khamheng dated to 1283. With its legal provisions and its historical references, this inscription is our main source of knowledge of Thailand in that period. It also tells us that Rama Khamheng, if not actually the creator of Thai literature, at any rate made it possible by devising its alphabet, since “the characters exist because the king invented them.” The text itself has a distinctly literary character.

The four centuries of the Ayutthaya period were particularly creative and fruitful in the field of literature. Little remains to bear witness to its greatness, however, for only a few fragments survived the burning of Ayutthaya in 1767. The literature of Ayutthaya was a courtly literature, written by and for members of the court circle, who apart from the monks were the only people in the country who could read and write. Aristocrats and members of the royal family themselves made a name as poets, novelists and historians. A considerable part was also played by oral transmission, and this literature was familiar to cultivated people. Poetry flourished particularly during this period, but the refinements and complexity of the versification were more easily appreciated when it was spoken aloud. This rather mannered trend was counterbalanced by the epic and religious inspiration of most of the works, the main themes usually being taken from the Mahabharata (the great Indian verse epic, of earlier date than the Ramayana) and the Jatakas (stories of the 500 earlier lives of the Buddha).

Fresh impetus was given to Thai literature at the beginning of the Bangkok period. The Chakri kings continued the tradition of their predecessors and enriched literature with their own writings. Rama I (1782-1809) had already made it his business to assemble all that had survived the destruction of Ayutthaya; but it was the poet Santhorn Bhu (1786-1855) who was the major influence in the transformation of literature. Perhaps because he himself had originally been a court poet, he realized the danger of the academism which was threatening the traditional genres, and was instrumental in introducing popular themes. His tale “Phra Abhai Mani” inaugurated a popular romantic genre in which the story, whether of love or heroic deeds, was told without the preciosity of court literature. This example itself shows, however, that the change was not in the direction of greater realism or a literature of ideas: the dominant trend was towards a marvelous tale, whether religious, mythological or merely romantic.

During the 19th and 20th century other members of the royal family achieved distinction as writers. King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910) is one of the finest stylists in Thai literature, the author of a number of adaptations and of a collection, the “Phra Rajapithi Sipsong Duan”, which describes the various royal ceremonies throughout the year. His son Vajiravudh (1910-1925) first became known as a translator of Shakespeare, but also wrote a play, “Hua Chai Nakrop”, which he himself translated into English as “The Soul of a Warrior”.

In 1914 a royal committee drew up a list of classical works written in Thai or translated into Thai. Translations were included in this list because, apart from Shakespeare, they were all translations of works which in virtue of the myths or sentiments or ideas they contained were close to Thai sensibility and the Thai spirit. Translation (did not so much reveal unfamiliar talents and literary forms as add to the literary patrimony of Thailand works which might equally well have belonged to it originally.

Religious and mythological themes were mainly taken from the Jatakas (stories of the 500 incarnations of the Buddha before his Enlightenment) and the literature of India, in particular the two great heroic/religious epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The story of the hero Phra Samuthakot, written in the reign of Narai, is taken from the Jatakas: its protagonists are the demigods, vidhadharis and yakshas of Indian mythology. The beauty of its verse, in the purest style of the Indian chanda, made it a classic. The “Mahachat Kham Thet” is the story of the Buddha’s last life before his Enlightenment, a tale which is very popular in Thailand and has been treated many times in different styles. The version selected by the royal committee is written in the Kham Thet style, a highly charged lyrical style used in the solemn preaching of sermons. Its 13 cantos are familiar to all Thais, since they are recited during a traditional religious ceremony.

Theatrical works of different types draw many of their themes from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana (it seems appropriate to consider dramatic literature along with poetry and the novel, since all draw their subject matter from the same sources). Rama, son of the king of Ayutthaya, is banished to the forest by his father, accompanied only by his loyal and devoted brother and his beautiful and virtuous wife Sita. Ravana, the demon king, abducts Sita by trickery and carries her off to the mythical Kingdom of Lanka (Ceylon). Rama seeks revenge, and after innumerable and interminable battles, in which he has the help of supernatural and legendary animals, animal gods and an ingenious monkey-general, he finally succeeds in freeing the princess. He then doubts whether the court will believe in his wife’s fidelity, but all suspicions are dispelled by the ordeal by fire. This is the longest story in Thai literature, running to several volumes.

Romantic themes appear mainly in the late Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods, although it is sometimes difficult to date the works. It is not certain, for example, whether the story “Phra Law” was written by King Boroma Trailokanat (1463-1486) or by Narai (1647-1688), and the subject gives no clue to the date of composition. This is the tale of a young king who wins the love of two princesses of an enemy kingdom. Helped by the spirit of the forest, Pu Chao, they carry him off and bring him to the gardens of their family palace. When their grandmother hears about this she gives her servants orders to kill Phra Law, and in the fight which follows the three young people are killed. Then, during the solemn cremation ceremonies, the two enemy kings, the victims fathers, become reconciled.

“Khun Chang Khun Phaen” is another very popular tale, a story of romantic love, but this time without any element of the marvelous. The story, which involves two men (Khun Chang and Khun Phaen) and one woman (Wan Thong), is apparently based on an actual incident which took place in the late Ayutthaya period, but in the course of time it was embroidered with many additional episodes by different authors, including King Chulalongkorn and the poet Santhorn Bhu.

At the beginning of the Bangkok period Chao Phya Phra Khlang produced a translation, under the title “Sam Kok”, of a long Chinese novel, “San Kuo Chai Yen I”. This is written in prose notable for its musical quality and rhythm.

The celebrated old Javanese play “Inao” was adapted for the Thai theatre by Rama I (1782-1809) and is now a classic. It owes its success to its romantic hero, the Prince with the Crystal Dagger, and the adventures in which he becomes involved in seeking and winning Prince Busba, whom he had foolishly scorned.

It is only since 1920 that a literature in the western sense, including novels, short stories, essays and biographies has developed. The first modern novel was “Yellow Race – White Race”, by Prince Akat Damkoeng, which deals with the problems encountered by a westernized young Thai when he returns to his native country. This work paved the way for a new generation of young writers.

In addition to literature in the strict sense of the term Thailand has a rich store of fairy tales and legends reflecting centuries old traditions, as well as proverbs and folk poetry which often provide the theme of cradle songs and folk songs.