Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Protection and Power in Siam: From Khun Chang Khun Phaen to the Buddha Amulet

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Protection and Power in Siam: From Khun Chang Khun Phaen to the Buddha Amulet

Article excerpt

Today in Thailand the wearing of an amulet (phra khrueang), a small image of the Buddha or of a famous monk usually enclosed in some form of casing and attached to a cord or chain worn around the neck, is among the most widespread of religious practices.1) The principal benefit of such amulets is protection from dangers of various kinds, verging into a more positive desire for good fortune. In Khun Chang Khun Phaen (KCKP), a massive folk epic dating back to the late Ayutthaya era, the demand for protection against dangers is a dominant theme, and many devices are used for this purpose.

In the study of religion, power, and social ordering in Thai society, the key concepts have been merit and power, prowess, patron-client ties, kingship, and so on.2) All these concepts betray a top-down view, a focus on explaining why certain people are powerful. The concept of protection comes into play when the angle of vision switches to bottomup and concentrates on what people seek from religion, power, and social institutions. In historical study, the nature of the few sources available (chronicles, laws) has favored the top-down view. However, literary sources that emerged from a popular tradition offer the possibility of moving outside this straitjacket. Similarly, in contemporary study, the concept of protection or security has emerged with increasing attention to the analysis of popular religious practice. In his recent pathbreaking work, Justin McDaniel argues that besides the well-known Buddhist qualities of non-attachment, compassion, and enlightenment, everyday practice points to "the importance of security and protection (khwam plotphai, kan pongkan), abundance . . . , graciousness . . . , and heritage" (McDaniel 2011, 219).

In this article, we trace the concept of protection from the late Ayutthaya era to the present. The early sections analyze the meaning and prominence of protection in KCKP, and the range of devices and practices deployed in its pursuit. The later sections trace the emergence of the modern amulet and the changing role of the Buddha in the business of protection.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen as a Source

KCKP is a long folk epic that developed in an oral tradition of storytelling for local audiences. The plot, set in the provincial urban society of central Siam, is a love triangle ending in tragedy. Khun Phaen is handsome and dashing but his family was ruined after his father was executed by the king for an error on royal service. Khun Chang is the richest man in the local town but fat, ugly, and crass. The two compete for the lovely Wanthong. Khun Phaen woos and weds her, but Khun Chang then uses his wealth and court connections to take her away. The rivalry continues through two pitched battles, two court cases, trial by ordeal, jail, treachery, abduction, and other mayhem. Tiring of this disorder, the king summons the three and commands that Wanthong be executed for failing to choose between the two men.

Probably the tale originated around 1600 and developed in an oral tradition of storytelling for local audiences, becoming hugely popular by the eighteenth century, and very long (21,000 lines excluding late sequels). It was then adopted by the court, converted to written form, extended with new episodes and sequels, and embellished with fancier poetry. The first printed edition appeared in 1872, but the work is known today through an edition published in 1916-17 by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, half-brother of King Chulalongkorn.3)

Works like KCKP that develop through repeated interaction between performers and audiences over a long period, as did many of the classics of world literature, come to reflect the tastes and values of their society. While the court revisions greatly changed the surface of KCKP, the plot, tone, structure, and rhythm of the work retained much of their original character. The epic is a rare document that reflects the society and mindset of premodern Siam.

Protection in Khun Chang Khun Phaen

Throughout the tale, characters seek protection (khum-khrong, pong-kan) against risks, dangers, and threats (siang, phai, antarai, khuk-kham) in order to ward off sorrowful hardship (thuk) and achieve peaceful contentment (suk). …

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