Rama Traditions in Thailand: the Dynastic Cult
Like other classical versions of the Rama story, the Ramakien tradition has been expressed not only in literature and artistic performance but in sculpture and in painting as well. These visual representations of the tale have almost always existed in temple settings, and it is probable that most of them had, at one time or another, specific associations with cultic practice. Insofar as these practices are historically remote, the character of the relevant cult is impossible to reconstruct. In the case of the Ramakien tradition, however, we are dealing with a relatively recent cult established by Rama I, the same king who sponsored the primary Ramakien text. And, like that text, it remains a vital part of religious and cultural life in contemporary Thailand.
For our purposes the most important iconic expression of the Ramakien tradition is one intimately associated with the so-called Holy Emerald Jewel or Emerald Buddha that King Rama I brought to Bangkok from the Laotian capital of Vientienne, and with the closely related dynastic practices that he subsequently established when he became king and built his new capital at Bangkok. Although there had almost certainly been similar images and dynastic cults in the old central Thai capital of Ayudhya, Rama I bypassed
any Ayudhyan precedents and drew on the heritage of another region, ultimately founding a tradition distinctive to the Bangkok kingdom and its Chakri rulers.
Evidence strongly suggests that the image of the Emerald Buddha and t he rituals associated with it in Vientienne were Buddhist transformations of a Saivite "Holy Jewel" and corresponding dynastic cult established in the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor in the early centuries of the second millennium C.E. Through a long and fascinating process, this originally Saivite tradition was appropriated and transformed by the Theravada Buddhist reformers who subsequently came to dominate the religious life of the area. Although the early phases of this process are hard to trace in any detail, it is certain that thoroughly Buddhized forms of the image and its cult were well established in the northern Thai kingdom of Lannathai by the late fifteenth century. They were transported to the Laotian capital of Luang Prabang in the middle of the sixteenth century and a few years later taken to the Laotian capital of Vientienne.
During this northern Thai-Laotian period, the image and the practices associated with it were closely affiliated with different Buddhist dynasties. There is strong evidence that the image itself served as the palladium of Buddhist kings in each of the three capitals mentioned above, and that the cult was a central element in the ritual structure that legitimated their rule. There is also strong evidence that the stories told about the image and the activities surrounding it involved a wide variety of Buddhist symbols that signified various aspects of royal authority and power. These include notions of the king as a cakkavatti , as an Indra, as a bodhisatta , and (though in proper Theravada fashion this always remained ambiguous) as a Buddha.
When Rama I installed the Emerald Buddha in his new royal temple in Bangkok, the image became the palladium of his dynasty and kingdom, the cultic activities associated with it were regularly performed, and all the earlier associations with Buddhist notions of royal power and authority were retained. But what is especially interesting for our purposes is that Rama I added an important component which, as far as I have been able to discover, had not previously been connected with the image. Along the galleries surrounding the central altar of the royal temple, Rama I commissioned the painting of a set of murals that depicted episodes from the Ramakien . When celebrations associated with the image of the Emerald Buddha were held, he saw to it that performances of episodes from the Ramakien story were included. In visual and ritual terms a clear message was being sent. The "Glory of Rama" had now been incorporated into the Buddhist ideal of royal power and authority manifested in the Emerald Buddha on the one hand and in the reigning dynasty on the other.
As in the literary and performance strand of the Ramakien tradition, so in the iconographic and ritual strand: the pattern established by King Rama I has persisted to the present day. The Emerald Buddha has continued to
serve as the palladium of the kingdom; the Buddhist cult associated with the image has continued to legitimate the rule of the Chakri dynasty; and the iconic version of the Ramakien story has continued to play a central symbolic role. Thus, to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the dynasty, the Ramakien murals painted on the walls of the gallery in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha were refurbished by King Rama III. On the one hundredth anniversary they were refurbished by King Rama V, and on the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary by King Rama VII. During the 1980s, to mark the two hundredth anniversary, they were refurbished once again, this time by the present monarch, King Rama IX.