Ravana, King of Langka

Ratanakosin period (1782? ), Thailandlate 18th?early 19th century

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The Ramayana, one of the great Indian epics, was introduced to Southeast Asia by Indian traders as early as the 8th or 9th century. In Thailand, where it is known as the Ramakien (Glory of Rama), the legend has inspired storytelling, performance and the visual arts for centuries, and remains extremely popular. The destruction of the kingdom at Ayutthaya in 1767 and the subsequent relocation of the royal centre to Bangkok resulted in the tragic loss of most Thai literary texts. However, in the 1790s, King Rama I devoted himself to compiling surviving texts and composing the Ramakien in its present form, adding 40 episodes and many uniquely Thai elements to the story in the process.

The lengthy tale begins with the previous incarnations and early lives of the main characters and is best known for the series of battles that ensue when Ravana (Tosakanth in Thai), the demon King of Langka and supreme villain of the story, abducts Sita (Sida), the wife of the story’s hero Rama (Prah Ram). In the Ramakien version of the epic, unbeknown to Ravana, Sita is his daughter. As a baby, Sita was predicted to destroy the demon race and consequently banished from his kingdom. The prophecy is validated when Rama, alongside his brother Lakshmana (Phra Lak) and the monkey army led by Hanuman, fights for Sita’s release and ultimately defeats the demon king.

This sculpture represents Ravana or possibly his ally Sahasadecha, the white-faced demon king of Pangtan who was killed in battle by Hanuman. The superhuman qualities of the demons are indicated by their multiple heads, with descriptions ranging from 10 to 1000, as well as their fangs and bulging eyes. Seated in a reverential pose, this sculpture may once have adorned the entrance to a noble residence or temple.

Melanie Eastburn

Curator, Asian Art Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010

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