The Khon Exhibition: Wisdom of the Kingdom, 2014

The Art of Khon
Exhibition & Performances

FOREWORD - This presentation is the result of long hours of work & research on this topic. The text belongs to the presented exhibition since it was very informative. Some parts have been altered, some have been added.It has implied three visits, note taking, a great number of personal photographs; a few websites have been added too. The structure is personal in order to remain as didactic as possible. The idea lying behind remains purely cultural as a means to keep an account of a wonderful attempt to preserve a magnificent form of Art and to share it with other people and cultures.[C.S]
Exhibition poster

   'The Exhibition-Wisdom of the Kingdom' has been organized to honor Her Majesty the Queen for the auspicious occasion of her 82nd anniversary of her birth on 12 August 2014.

 In recognition of Her Majesty's gracious patronage of Khon, the exhibition presents all aspects of traditional Thai high art, from its history, the preparation of costumes, scenery, and accessories, the contemporary stage techniques, and the staging of the Royal Khon Performances.

From 30 July to 17 August 2014
HM Queen Sirikit

Khon Mask Collection
The Origin of KHON,
Exquisite Dance Drama of Thailand

Khon [โขน], the grand drama created for the Divine King, with scenes from the Ramakien drama, a Thai version of the ancient Hindu epic Ramayana. Khon combines several art forms: drama, music, painting and sculpture, and crafts. Together they create a complex elegant performance
a uniquely Thai art.

Khon originated from the Ayudhya Period (1351-1767), as hymns in praise of the monarch.As Divine King he was considered an incarnation of the god Vishnu (Narai in Thai) to end suffering on earth, and sometimes also as reincarnation of the gods Siva, Brahma, or Indra.

Khon was originally performed exclusively at the court, organized for significant royal functions. Although still mainly a regal function, in the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV, r. 1851-1868) other royals and high ranking officials were allowed to stage Khon performances. King Vajiravuth (Rama VI. r. 1910-1925) established the Department of Entertainments within the Ministry of the Palace to organize Khom performances. Today the Fine Arts Department of the Ministry of Culture is responsible for royal Khon performances, with the Department's Bundtpatanasilpa Institute providing training in Khon and related arts. Several other educational institutions now also provide training in Khon and stage occasional performances.
Khon evolved from 3 types of performing arts:
  • Chak Nak Duekchamban - an ancient royal ceremony re-enacting the churning of the ocean of milk by the gods and demons for a millennium to obtain Amrita, the elixir of immortality, and in praise of the gods' victory over the demons. Their churning rope was the King of Serpents, and the churning pole Mount Mandara. To steady the pole, it was placed on the back of the Great Tortoise, an incarnation of Vishnu known as Kurma Avatar. When the elixir emerged the demons and gods fought over it, with the gods victorious and so becoming immortal.
  • Nang Yai-the Great Shadow Play, a traditional form of entertainment using animal hides carved as characters in Ramayana. Performers behind a white screen control these shadow puppets, accompanied by narration and music.
  • Krabi Krabong - a Sword and Pole Dance, based on various arts of self-defense, with weapons used in combat.
As Khon developed through the combination with other forms of performing art, it emerged into several forms:
  • Khon Klang Phaeng - an open air performance, presented in a large and open space, with a large number of performers to enact opposing sides in a battle. This popular form of Khon requires two full classical Thai orchestras of wind instruments and percussion.
  • Khon Na Cho-Khon performed in front of a Shadow Play Screen, alternating with the Great Shadow Play. In later years only Khon was staged but the backdrop remained a shadow play screen.
  • Khon Nang Rao-Khon performed in an open theater with bamboo poles laid in rows for performers to sit on in the place of low tables. It uses two full classical Thai orchestras, along with narration and dialogue. Unlike royal Khon, there are no songs with the music.
  • Khon Rong Nai - a combination of Khon with a drama called Lakhon Nai performed by the women of the inner court. Songs and dances were added to make it more exquisite and entertaining.
  • Khon Chak-Khon staged with backdrops and props according to the story. In recent years, other techniques have been added such as lighting, sound and color tones as appropriate.

Exhibition Sections

1. Royal Chariot:
Chariot detail
The Royal Chariot
Sculpture detail
2. The Sivikakarn Roofed Palanquin:  for use by senior female members of the royal family.

3. The gable of the ceremonial hall where Kumphakan was polishing the celestial Mokkasak lance

   This is a replica of actual gables which are a major component in Thai architecture. This gable is decorated with a hornlike finial ridges on sloping edges and a Naga body from the beams. Featured on the gable is the god Brahma seated in a lotus flower, as the origin of the Lankan lineage was said to come from Brahma.

4. Tosakan's Throne Hall: This is the distinctive 1st scene of almost every episode of the royal Khon production. The Demon King consults with his entourage before making battle with Phra Ram.

Tosakan's Throne Hall


Regalia are signs of prestige and honor, indicating the importance of the rank and rewards granted by the king for contributions made in royal service:
  • Chum Sai, a three-tiered royal umbrella, with silk threads woven as nets and tassels. It is brought in a royal procession trailing a golden chariot. A set consists of 4 umbrellas.
  • Aphirum, a five-tiered royal umbrella, brought in a royal procession on foot. A set consists of 10 umbrellas: 6 in front and 4 to the rear.
  • Saptapadon Chat or Chat Gajathan, is a seven-tiered royal umbrella brought in a royal procession on elephant-back. One set consists of 4 royal umbrellas, placed on the 4 corners of the royal howdah, indicating the divine elephant of the god Phra In (Indra) in the Khom performance, or placed in the Throne Hall.
  • Bang Saek is a round shade of embroidered cloth with a long metal handle. The bottom edge of the shade is shaped as lotus petals, while the top comes to a point. One set consists of 6 shades, positioned between the 5-tiered umbrellas in a royal procession, or placed on a platform in the Throne Hall.
5. The Ceremonial Pavilion
The Ceremonial Pavilion

This is a designated sacred space to perform rituals.
It uses specific colors to indicate the particular place and character:
  • green for Indrachit
  • black for Maiyarap
  • red for Kumbhakan

6. The full classical Thai orchestra of wind and percussion instruments 
    [Piphat Khruang Ha]:
                                           There are 5 instruments:
Thai Xylophone


   - an alto xylophone,
   - a large circle of small gongs,
   - an oboe-like wind instrument,
   - a two-faced drum,
   - circular drums,
   - and a pair of small cymbals.

Thai Classical Orchestra

7. Pha Yok Weaving (Gold & silver brocade):

Light blue silk weaving
Pha Yok from Nakhon Si Thammarat is renowned since the Ayudhya Period for use by the royal court. This cloth of fine woven silk has distinctive raised patterns of delicate silver and gold silk threads. The cloth was worn by senior royals, pulled between the legs and beautifully pleaded in the front. It was also used to wrap holy scriptures. In the past Khon costumes of high ranking royal characters were made from Pha Yok.

Weaving Pha Yok is quite complicated, and by the late 20th century its production had nearly ceased. Her Majesty the Queen made regular visits to the provinces throughout the country, encouraging the promotion of handicrafts to give the rural poor supplementary incomes. In the South, the handicrafts included cotton weaving, embroidery, intricate basketry, and artificial flowers, with training provided through the SUPPORT Center of Ban Noen Thammang established in 1994. When Her Majesty heard of famous Pha Yok of Nakhon Si Thammarat, she sought the help of the master craftsman Vuratham Trakulngenthai, who had revived the traditional art of weaving cloth with raised patterns in Surin in the Northeast, to study Pha Yok and to train weavers in Nakhon Si Thammarat.
Exhibition display

Red piece of weaving

The SUPPORT Centers of Ban Noen Thammang and Ban Trok Khrae helped develop the silk weaving techniques until people could weave the famed Pha Yok of Nakhon Si Thammarat.

8. Costumes
Costume 1

Costume 2

Detail of a costume

Costumes of the Royal Khon are made from intricate embroidered cloth, using traditional designs. Many of the techniques nearly died out in recent decades, but thanks to the Queen's promotion of handicrafts together with her gracious support of Khon have helped revived these traditional crafts.
Much of the material used to make the Khon costumes is produced domestically, though some special materials need to be imported from abroad, such as gold trim from England, special sequins from France, and overlay materials and sequins from India. The loin cloth worn by some Khon characters is designed in Thailand but woven in Surat, India.

Colors and designs of the costumes

Detail of a Female Costume
   The choice of colors for the Khon costumes take many things in consideration: the lineage of the character, the main and secondary colors, opposite colors, and color combinations to make the character more distinctive. The colors used for the costumes were studied from Thai paintings and sculpture, as well as puppets of the Palace of the Front and in the Ramayana section of the National Museum.

The cloth patterns of the costumes are determined according to the rank and importance of the characters:
  • For the male hero, the cloth is patterned with a Thai running scroll design, a classical pattern traditionally used to make garments for the king with complicated embroidery inlaid with metallic beetle wings and decorated with sequins.
  • For prominent female characters, the close is also patterned with a running scroll design, embroidered on brocade and satin with various overlays, glitter, golden silk thread, and metallic beetle wings. The collars are of elaborate design with metal strips and decorated with gems similar to necklaces in a tonsure ceremony.
  • For court ladies of lower rank, the cloth is embroidered with vine patterns in gold silk thread and decorated with overlay.
  • For Tosakan the Demon King, the cloth patterns must express grandeur and power, with running scroll design combined with silk embroidery of human-lion and dragon figures. The weaves are complex, with gold and silver overlay, colored silk threads, and embossed patterns decorated with gems.
  • For other prominent demons, similar complex designs and embroidery are used.
  • For demon soldiers of lower rank, their cloth is of less complicated patterns and embroidery, with floral and vine patterns embroidered mainly with silk and overlay.
  • For the monkey characters, floral and foliage patterns are used, without a running scroll design, with elements of the forests as their symbols: flowers, leaves and trees. Only little embroidery is used, with the use of overlay and patterns of clockwise circles to indicate their body hair.
Demon Costume
Male Costume

Simian Costume
Female Costume
9. Khon Masks and Headdresses:

The principal accessories of Khon are the masks or headdresses that indicate the  
Mask Display
different characters, whether gods, demons, humans or simians. Nearly all combine a mask with a headdress, indicating a Crown of State, a royal coronet, or other status. All Khon masks are of male characters. Though Khon has female characters, none have a mask. They have a headdress and make-up which also indicates their role.

Khon Masks and Headdresses are intricate works of art, exquisitely and carefully crafted by master artisans. To avoid the sacrilege of making headdresses too much like a real crown or coronet, lighter and less valuable materials are used, such as cardboard frames with lacquered surfaces decorated with mirrors and gilding, in place of precious materials like gold and gems.

Yellow Mask of a Demon
 With the masks covering most characters' faces, the tradition is that they do not speak; a narrator speaks for them instead. 
Mask at Ceremonial Pavilion

Mask Collection
The headdresses are intricate works of art combining sculpture with painting. Their beauty depends on the designs, the proportionate shape of the faces of the masks, the use of colors, and the patterns in accordance with the characteristics of lineage of the characters in the Ramayana.

The working group studied closely original works, including Khon masks, ancient crowns and coronets in the National Museum in Bangkok. The Khon masks were from the early Rattanakosin Period (the reigns of Kings Rama I, II, and III) up to the time of the Department of Entertainment in the reign of King Rama VI. They included masks from the Palace of the Front (the Viceroy) made by Prince Krom Muen Worawat Suphakom, masks and headdresses of the dramatic troupe of Chao Phraya Mahintrasakthamrong, masks made by during the reigns of Rama V and VI, and related performing arts, such as the puppets of the Grand Palace and the puppets of the Palace of the Front.

From these intensive studies, today's artisans have crafted new masks and headdresses based on the principles and designs of the originals.

10. Khon live performances

Live Dance 1
Headdresses used in the Royal Khon performance are imitations of actual objects, but made from common materials such as card board for the frame, decorations from lacquer, gilding instead of solid gold, and mirrors or artificial gems rather than real jewels.

Crowns are used for the characters of gods, kings, and princes. Some have victory crests, others shaped as the Royal State Crown topped with a 3-tiered class balls, and still others have special tops or decorations associated with specific characters.

Coronets are generally understood as head decorations for female characters, the heavenly maidens or royals. The coronets are similar to but smaller than the crowns.  
Live Dance 2

Panchuret is a headdress created for court drama in the reign of Rama II. It means 'thieves in the wild'. In some stories brocades are used as head wraps, which later were developed as headdresses.


For centuries special guests for the kingdom were awestruck by the Khon performances held in their honor. In recent decades, though, Khon became performed only rarely, and began to fade from Thai people's awareness.

Her Majesty the Queen remarked how seldom Thais these days had an opportunity to see a Khon performance, as each staging involves so much work. Her Majesty graciously arranged for a meeting of experts on Khon and related fields of fine arts and crafts for them to prepare new Khon costumes for a royally-granted Khon performance. She insisted these new costumes adhere to the style of ancient costumes, but more durable and attractive.

Portrait of a Dancer
   After the new Khon dresses were completed, the committee of experts arranged to stage the Ramayana episode 'Prommas' for the auspicious occasion of the 80th birth anniversary of His Majesty the King and the 75th birth anniversary of Her Majesty the Queen in 2007. Performances were held at the Thailand Cultural Center from 24 to 28 December 2007 to great acclaim. Public demand led to another round of performances from 19 to 21 June 2009.

Her Majesty the Queen was overwhelmed by the public response and the heart-warming scenes of so many families, from young children and youth to the elderly, joining together to queue for the shows. Her Majesty therefore commanded that Khon be staged every year. Now known as the 'Royal Khon Performances' the episodes staged thus far are:
  • 2007 and 2009, 'Prommas'
  • 2010, 'Nang Loi'
  • 2011, 'The Battle of Maiyarap'
  • 2012, 'Jong Thanon' (The Building of Rama's Causeway)'
  • 2013, 'The Battle of Kumbhakan: Mokasak Episode'
A new episode, 'The Battle of Indrajit: Episode of Nagabas' will be presented from 7 November to 5 December 2014 at the Thailand Cultural Center.

Behind the Scenes Gallery

In order to perpetuate the legacy of this highly cultural form of Thai Art, shows, demonstrations and workshops have been organized to sustain people's interest. 
The following gallery presents some of these various facets.
Make-up artist

Mask painting workshop
Jewelry making

Gold embroidery
Mask making

This document is the result of countless hours of  work 
and documentation. 

It was made in order to help preserve such a wonderful 
Art legacy and also to share it with many other people.

I would appreciate your comments. They will encourage
me to pursue this kind of presentation.

Christian Sorand,
Bangkok, August 2014.

Portrait of a female dance performer

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