On 29 November, 2018, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) listed Khon masked dance of Thailand as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The decision came as incredibly good news for the Thai people. Khon has been an integral and special part of Thai culture since ancient times. Yet, its history is full of ups and downs. The fact that Khon still exists today is not a result of mere coincidence, but a product of great efforts to preserve this unique art form.
Countless generations of individuals have contributed to the preservation of Khon. One such example is His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great. To celebrate Khon’s listing as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity, Thailand Today would like to present a story of how His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great contributed to the conservation of this performance, twice.
The spiritual tradition of Khon
Khon is a traditional theatrical dance of the Thai people that dates back to the Ayutthaya Period (1351-1767). It combines together the disciplines of dance, music, poetry, and martial arts. Khon dancers wear elaborate costumes depicting various characters from the epic of the Ramakien, which is based on the Hindu epic of the Ramayana. Each character possesses unique traits and personalities, which are represented through the masks that the dancers wear. There are four main families of characters: Phra (lords), Nang (ladies), Yak (ogres), and Ling (monkeys). Khon performances are accompanied by narrative singing and music from a traditional ensemble.
Thais consider Khon to be a sacred art that is closely associated with the royal court. Khon dance forms are believed to have originated from the gods, while the music of Khon is believed to hold the power to summon and appease divine beings. Performers of Khon and other dances of the royal court must demonstrate utmost respect for their art by performing a ritual of paying homage to the teachers called Wai Khru Khon Lakhon. Teachers of Thai classical court dances include gods who are believed to be progenitors of the arts and deceased classical dance instructors.
The most important person at the Wai Khru Khon Lakhon ceremony is the ceremonial master, who presides over the rituals and performs initiation rites called Khrop Khru. All dance pupils must receive Khrop Khru in order to be recognised as proper dancers in the royal tradition. Previously initiated dancers must also receive Khrop Khru again before receiving training on higher, more sacred dance forms.
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great and Khon
Since ancient times, the role of the ceremonial master has been passed down through a system of initiation. Older ceremonial masters would select senior dancers who were deemed to be highly skilled, morally upright, and well-respected in the community. Once selected, the senior dancers would receive the Khrop Khru initiation from older ceremonial masters and become full-fledged ceremonial masters themselves.
After the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI), Khon and other dances of the royal court received limited financial support due to economic difficulties. This event, coupled with the rise of newer, more popular forms of entertainment, caused Khon to enter a period of grave decline. Many Khon troupes disbanded as dancers dwindled in numbers. During the reign of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great (Rama IX), the position of Wai Khru Khon Lakhon ceremonial master was left with no successors.
Recognising the need to preserve Thailand’s artistic heritage, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great granted permission for a Wai Khru Khon Lakhon ceremony to be held under royal patronage. The ceremony took place on 24 January, 1963, at the Amphorn Sathan Residential Hall in Dusit Palace in Bangkok. Ancient customs consider Thai kings to be divine manifestations of the Hindu divinity. Since Hindu gods are among the celestial pantheon of Khon teachers, Thai kings are also considered to be the grandmaster of Khon and other classical court dances. Using his authority passed down through ancient customs, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great presided over the Wai Khru Khon Lakhon ceremony as the divine ceremonial master and appointed new ceremonial masters by personally initiating a number of senior dancers. The King also ordered for the Bhairava dance, the most sacred dance form of Khon, to be recorded and immortalised on film for the first time in history.
With the sacred line of Wai Khru Khon Lakhon restored, each of the new ceremonial masters has carried out his duty to preserve royal court dances until the time of his death. Everything went well until the last ceremonial master, Akhom Sayakhom, passed away unexpectedly in 1982 without having appointed any successor to his position. With no ceremonial master left to initiate new dances, Thai classical court dances were doomed to become extinct.
Royal dance instructors once again turned to His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great for help. On 25 October, 1984, the King gave permission to conduct the second royal Wai Khru Khon Lakhon to be held at the Chitralada Royal Villa in Dusit Palace. On this occasion, the King initiated five new ceremonial masters, thereby re-establishing the line of Wai Khru Khon Lakhon that remains to fulfill this very essential legacy until this very day.
His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great’s intervention has paved ways for Khon revival efforts in the 21st century. In 2003, Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, The Queen Mother began reviving royal court Khon under a royal initiative called the Supplementary Occupations and Related Technique of Her Majesty Queen Sirikit of Thailand (SUPPORT) programme. Her Majesty the Queen Mother personally led the effort to study old Khon performances and reproduce ancient Khon costumes. New stage sets and makeup techniques were also invented with the incorporation of modern technologies. The first SUPPORT Khon Performance Show debuted in 2007 and was very well-received by the public. Since then, a total of 9 shows have been performed. New generations of dancers are initiated into the royal dance tradition every year, with many young talents dreaming to become a part of the SUPPORT Khon Performance Shows.
Today, Khon stands tall as the symbol of Thai cultural heritage and pride, and we can be sure to see this high art form continue to flourish in the care of future generations. This is due to the farsightedness of His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej The Great and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit, The Queen Mother.