A number of versions of the epic were lost in the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767. Three versions currently exist, one of which was prepared in 1797 under the supervision of (and partly written by) King Rama I. His son, Rama II, rewrote some parts of his father's version for khon drama. The work has had an important influence on Thai literature, art and drama (both the khon and nang dramas being derived from it).
While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects were transposed into a Thai context, such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature, which are described as being Thai in style. Although Thailand is considered a Theravada Buddhist society, the Hindu mythology latent in the Ramakien serves to provide Thai legends with a creation myth, as well as representations of various spirits which complement beliefs derived from Thai animism.
The Ramayana, holy revered text of Hindus, is believed by many archaeologists and historians to be a collection of stories from Hindu mythology concentrating on the work of the gods in the lives of men, and was first written down, as legend states, in the forests of India by Valmiki in the fourth century BC. Nevertheless, the Ramayana came to Southeast Asia by means of Indian traders and scholars who traded with the Khmer kingdoms (such as Funan and Angkor) and Srivijaya, with whom the Indians shared close economic and cultural ties.
In the late first millennium, the epic was adopted by the Thai people. The oldest recordings of the early Sukhothai kingdom, dating from the thirteenth century, include stories from the Ramayana legends. The history of the legends was told in the shade theater (Thai: หนัง, Nang), a shadow-puppet show in a style adopted from Indonesia, in which the characters were portrayed by leather dolls manipulated to cast shadows on a nearby screen while the spectators watched from the other side.
The Thai version of the legends were first written down in the eighteenth century, during the Ayutthaya kingdom, following the demise of the Sukhothai government. Most editions, however, were lost when the city of Ayutthaya was destroyed by armies from Burma (modern Myanmar) in the year 1767.
The version recognized today was compiled in the Kingdom of Siam under the supervision of King Rama I (1736–1809), the founder of the Chakri dynasty, which still maintains the throne of Thailand. Between the years of 1797 and 1807, Rama I supervised the writing of the well-known edition and even wrote parts of it. It was also under the reign of Rama I that construction began on the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok, which includes the grounds of the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The walls of the Wat Pra Kaew are lavishly decorated with paintings representing stories from the Ramakien.
Rama II (1766–1824) further adapted his father's edition of the Ramakien for the khon drama, a form of theater performed by non-speaking Thai dancers with elaborate costumes and masks. Narrations from the Ramakien were read by a chorus to one side of the stage. This version differs slightly from the one compiled by Rama I, giving an expanded role to Hanuman, the god-king of the apes, and adding a happy ending.
Since its introduction to the Thai people, the Ramakien has become a firm component of the culture. The Ramakien of Rama I is considered one of the masterpieces of Thai literature. It is still read, and is taught in the country's schools.
In 1989, Satyavrat Shastri translated the Ramakien into a Sanskrit epic poem (mahakavya) named Ramakirtimahakavyam, in 25 sargas (cantos) and about 1200 stanzas in 14 metres. This work won eleven national and international awards.
The tales of the Ramakien are similar to those of the Ramayana, though transferred to the topography and culture of Ayutthaya, where the Avatar of Pra Narai (the Thai incarnation of Vishnu, who's also known as Narayan) is reborn as Pra Ram.
- Phra Narai/Witsanu (Narayana/Vishnu)
- Phra Isuan (Ishvara/Shiva)
- Phra Phrom (Brahma) – altogether with Phra Isuan and Phra Narai, forms the Hindu Trinity.
- Phra Uma-thewi (Uma/Parvati) – Consort of Phra Isuan
- Phra Laksami (Lakshmi) – Consort of Phra Narai
- Phra In (Indra) – The King of thevadas – lesser celestial deities. Father of Pali
- Mali Warat – God of Justice. Grandfather of Thotsakan
- Phra A-thit (Aditya or Surya) – the solar deity. Father of Sukreep
- Phra Phai (Vayu) – the wind deity. Father of Hanuman
- Phra Witsawakam/Witsanukam (Vishvakarman) – the artisan god, responsible for rebuilding Lanka after Hanuman burned it down and creating Khitkhin
- Phra Ram (Rama) – The son of the king Thotsarot of Ayutthaya and the Incarnation of Phra Narai.
- Nang Sida (Sita) – The wife of Phra Ram, who embodies purity and fidelity. Incarnation of Lakshmi
- Phra Lak (Lakshman), Phra Phrot (Bharata) and Phra Satrut (Shatrughna) – half-brothers of Phra Ram, who represent the reincarnated possessions of Phra Narai
- Thotsarot (Dasaratha) – often called Thao Thotsarot. King of Ayutthaya and father of Phra Ram and his brothers
- Nang Kaosuriya (Kausalya) – one of the three wives of Thotsarot, mother of Phra Ram
- Nang Kaiyakesi (Kaikeyi) – one of the three wives of Thotsarot, mother of Phra Phrot
- Nang Samut-thewi (Sumitra) – one of the three wives of Thotsarot, mother of Phra Lak and Phra Satrut
Allies of Phra Ram
- Hanuman – God-king of the apes, who supported Phra Ram and acted as the monkey general.
- Phali Thirat (Vali) – King of Khitkhin, elder brother of Sukhrip and uncle of Hanuman
- Sukhrip (Sugriva) – Viceroy of Kitkin, younger brother of Phali and uncle of Hanuman
- Ongkhot (Angada) – Ape-prince and son of the Pali Thirat and Nang Montho, cousin of Hanuman
- Phiphek (Vibhishana) – enstranged brother of Thotsakan. He is an excellent astrologist and provided valuable information to Phra Ram in defeating Thotsakan.
- Chomphuphan (Jambavan) – Ape-prince and adopted son of Phali, an expert in the healing arts and acted as the troop's medic.
Enemies of Pra Ram
- Thotsakan (Ravana, from dashakantha) – King of the Demons of Lanka and strongest of Phra Ram's adversaries. Thotsakan has ten faces and twenty arms, and possesses a myriad of weapons.
- Intharachit (Indrajit) – A son of Thotsakan. Phra Ram's second most powerful adversaries. Intharachit uses his bow more than any other weapon. He once fired arrows (Nagabat Arrows) which turned into Nagas (or snakes) in mid-air and rained down on Phra Ram's army. He once had a blessing from the Phra Isuan that he shall not die on land but in the air, and if his severed head were to touch the ground, it will bring down great destruction.
- Kumphakan (Kumbhakarna) – brother of Thotsakan and commander of demonic forces
- Maiyarap – King of the Underworld, embodied as a donkey
- Khon (Khara), Thut (Dushana) and Trisian (Trishira) – younger brothers of Thotsakan, and the first three to be killed by Phra Ram, in that order.
- Vālmīki, Robert P. Goldman (1990). The Rāmāyaṇa of Vālmīki: An Epic of Ancient India 1. Princeton University Press. pp. 14–15. ISBN 0-691-01485-X.
- Julia Leslie, Authority and Meaning in Indian Religions: Hinduism and the Case of Valmiki, Ashgate (2003), p. 154. ISBN 0-7546-3431-0
- Sanskrit’s first Jnanpith winner is a ‘poet by instinct’
- Thai Ramayana (abridged) as written by King Rama I, ISBN 974-7390-18-3
- The story of Ramakian – From the Mural Paintings along the Galleries of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, ISBN 974-7588-35-8