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Manuscript with scenes of combat from the Thai version of the epic of Rama
approx. 1800–1840
Central Thailand
Pigments and gold on paper
Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.9

This manuscript is unusual in a number of ways. Less elongated than most manuscripts. It is filled with paintings and has no text at all. All of its paintings show scenes from the Rammakian, a Thai version of the epic of Rama, which—for all its popularity in central Thai literature, theater, and visual arts of the late 1700s and the 1800s—is rarely depicted in manuscripts.

All sixty-three paintings show several figures in hand-to-hand combat. No other important episodes of the epic of Rama are included. Various characters are identifiable by their facial features, skin color, type of headdress, and so on—for example, Rama; his brother Lakshmana; their monkey ally, Hanuman; and their enemy, Ravana. Why are there so many scenes of hand-to-hand combat and none of any other kind of episode?

This manuscript may have been a sort of pattern book. However, a pattern book would be expected to be a workaday affair, and to show evidence of use and passing from artist to artist. But this manuscript is luxurious and well preserved, and the only similar volume known is in the Thai royal collection, kept at the Bangkok National Museum.

Another interesting issue is the relationship, if any, between the illustrations in this manuscript and the famous Rammakian reliefs at Wat Phra Chettuphon (Wat Pho) in Bangkok. (A rubbing of one of these reliefs hangs on the pillar to your right). Both have large, and often few, figures in a square field, and the size of the paintings is within a centimeter or two of that of the reliefs. So far, though, research has not worked out the specifics of any relationship.

all text & images © Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

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