ISSUE 8 Reformatting Documenta with lumbung Formula: documenta fifteen
The Politics in the Ramayana / Ramakien in documenta fifteen: Decoding the Power of the Thai Ruling Class
This essay’s objective is to discuss the academic concepts that reveal the historical and literary realities that are tightly entwined into one powerful rope, suspending the foundational ideas, beliefs, and emotions produced by the Thai nation-state, a social construct established by the ruling class since the Rattanakosin period that remains to this day. These realities also explain why the modern concept of the nation-state has been misconstrued as something long pre-existing the modern period. Decoding the power of Thailand’s ruling class requires a range of methodologies, including metaphor analysis by Susan Koch and Stanley Deetz, literary interpretation by Lajos N. Egri, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s psychoanalytic theory on the politics of desire, Julia Kristeva’s critical theory on language, and even Norman Fairclough’s theory of the power of language. These critical strategies will aid us in understanding the ‘centripetal’ and ‘centrifugal’ pressures in the Ramayana, also known as the ‘Ramakien’ in its Thai version (Jantima Angkapanichkit, 2011: 4).
For documenta fifteen, an international exhibition of contemporary art held every 5 years in Kassel, Germany, from 18 June to 25 September 2022, Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture, an artist collective from Ratchaburi province, Thailand, presented Churning Milk: the Rituals of Things (2022). A collaborative and participatory art project, the work stems from a research project into a range of interrelated mediums, including literature, oral storytelling, and folklore, in order to create a contemporary piece combining live performance and film. It seeks to demonstrate how meanings of a story change when they are presented in various forms of media; in this case, the characters in the Ramakien combined with other text and re-situated in a multimedia installation. Size 14.00 x 12.00 x 1.20 m. Include: 85″ LCD monitors, VDO 3 channel full HD B/W and color, 13 min, sound, speakers, mixer, fluorescent light tubes, balasts, color, prepared motor, steel, inflatable air-object, spray paint, skateboard mini ramp, Nang Yai*, live piece performances*, skateboard donation drive, series of workshops and events.
Churning Milk: the Rituals of Things, Baan Noorg, installation view, Documenta Halle, 2022. Photo by Nicolas Wefers.
Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture selected ‘Churning the ocean of the Milk’ as its primary text, a momentous scene of the Devas (gods) and Asuras (beasts) working together to obtain the Amrit, the elixir of immortality. This event depicts a horizontal collaboration, as opposed to other war scenes wherein there is a vertical, cosmic hierarchy between the Devas and Asuras, with the former above and the latter below, in hell. Eventually, Narayana of the Devas devises a cunning ruse to obtain the Amrit from the Asuras’ chief, Ravana. While the story tries to justify the Devas’ deceptive means, their political and governing powers are undeniably obvious.

When we critically decode the Ramayana, also known as the Ramakien in its Thai language version, we see how certain politics or systems of governance are being perpetuated, how the modern nation-state produces its own desire while suppressing that of the people. Anyone who refuses to adopt these desires will be vilified or labeled as ‘ungrateful’ to the nation. But what lies behind most people’s willingness to reject their personal desires in favour of the nation’s, or to accept the so-called ‘collective memories’ force-fed by society? This is a question we have yet to answer and that requires further debate.


Keywords: politics, Ramakien, King of the gods, Thai-ness

The Ramakien: The roles appropriated by the ruling class

The Ramayana, a well-known Indian epic, is a story that is believed to have circulated in the Jambudvipa region for thousands of years. Maharishi Valmiki was the first person to author this epic 2,400 years ago, when he arranged the Ramayana into 24,000 shlockas in Sanskrit.
The Ramayana epic has been widely appropriated, retold, and circulated throughout many regions in Asia, cementing itself as a common ground of Southeast Asian culture. Different versions of the epic started to emerge as the text traversed through multiple regions and authors.
The Ramayana and the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana epic. Image via:,
In 1922, Periyar E.V. Ramaswami, a scholar from south India, interpreted the Ramayana as follows: Rama represents the northern culture, the Sanskrit culture, that invaded south India. He goes on to say that the Ramayana is likely based on a true story, making it an attempt on the part of literature to discredit Tamil identity and culture. Furthermore, in its representation of the conflict between these two ethnic groups and cultural traditions that are prevalent across India, he argues that the Ramanaya is one of the precursory texts that gave rise to the Aryan and Dravidian conflict.
On the other hand, Emeritus Professor Dr. Madan Lal Goel, a political science scholar from the University of West Florida, argues that the Aryan invasion never actually happened. He explains that the Aryans and indigenous peoples lived in harmony, their cultures and ethnicities havealways coexisted with one another. The archeological findings of ancient Aryan culture from Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro found no evidence that indicate an Aryan invasion. Many scholars have also argued that Aryan is a culture, rather than a race.
The Thai language version of the Ramayana epic is known as the ‘Ramakien’. It became a highly influential text regarding politics, systems of governance, arts, culture, and religion. Even the words ‘Rama’ or ‘Ramathibodi’ have always been a prefix of the names of countless Thai monarchs of the Rattanakosin era, implying a link to Rama, an incarnation of the gods Vishnu and Narayana who, in accordance with Vaishnavism, was sent to defeat the Asuras and aid humanity.
From beginning to end, Ramakien is a seamless literary work in terms of language and storyline. King Rama I of Thailand’s version of the Ramakien was lauded by Phya Anuman Rajadhon, a Thai scholar and linguist also known by the pseudonym ‘Sathien Koset’, as being exquisitely crafted in verse. It became one of the most influential literary works that are deeply entwined with the Thai culture and way of life. Ramakien has also been adapted and staged as a royal play, Nang Yai, and Khon, within the palace walls. During King Rama II’s reign, a new version was written specifically for the stage, which meant that it only included the portions from the original text that were considered to be best for performance.

The King Rama I’s version of Ramakien, the King Rama IV’s version of Ramakien. Images viaบทละครเรื่องรามเกียรติ์-1-4 ,

During King Rama IV’s reign, the king composed another version of the Ramakien and selected the scenes that only corresponded to his own personal history, namely from ‘Phra Ram Deon Dong’, a scene which literally translates to ‘Lord Rama in the Forest’. According to Santi Phakdikham, the plot, which shows Rama spending 14 years in the forest before returning to the capital of Ayuthaya, is rich with significant details pertaining to the king’s life. Although this play version of the Ramakien is not a lengthy one, it is packed with political nuances and symbols (Santi Phakdikham, 2022).
During Rama VI’s reign, the king drew upon Valmiki’s version and composed a new version of the Ramakien that sends a “political message” amidst the impending threat to the country’s absolute monarchy at the time (Arthitaya Charuchida, 2012: 151-152). The result is a literary tool for instilling nationalist sentiment and faith in the divine-like monarchy (Saowanit Chunlawong, 2003: 66).
Surapong Sotanasathien notes in his political reading of Ramakien that there is a limit to interpreting the text, unless it is read alongside other works from other disciplines and their socio-political contexts (Surapong Sotanasathien, 1983: 16). Reading the Ramakien in view of its matrix of intertextuality requires understanding those respective contexts, he adds.
The literal translation of the Thai title, the ‘Ramakien,’ explicitly states that the text is composed in ‘honour’ of ‘Rama’. All of the scenes in the Ramakien revolve around Rama’s majesty and might, since he is the deity Narayana’s avatar, echoing a belief that has persisted throughout the Suvarnabhumi region that the monarch is an avatar of the gods. The Ramakien, therefore, is a perfect text for glorifying the monarchy, especially in the Thai context whereby the Ramakien established itself as the state’s version of morality literature, that places the power of the monarchy at the centre of the universe.
Rather than being a text that merely grounds its readers within their cultural reality, the Ramakien encourages that readers should imagine an honourable and majestic king. Chetana Nagavajara’s reading of the Ramakien (Chetana Nagavajara, 1978: 55-56), thus demonstrates how the text employs symbols of ‘goodness’ to convey the Buddhist concept of Dharma, and how the character of Rama is the representation of King Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty.
In fact, the political agenda behind said version of the Ramakien was very successful in consolidating power and reverence to the monarchy. King Rama I purposefully composed his version of the Ramakien during the inauguration of a new kingdom, the transitional period when the new ruling class were legitimising themselves and justifying the persecutions of their opponents, specifically the execution of the old nobility (Supawit Thavornbut, 1999).
King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien purposefully abides by the cosmic law that assigns a rightful place for all things. It is a Thai worldview that operates on a hierarchical order whereby inequality is a given state of the universe, just like how it is in the human world, wherein individuals are assigned a class as determined by their birth and social status, hence the belief that the monarch is of a higher birth than others (Chawalnan Jansap, 2020: 45).
The Thai worldview, which is based on Buddhist and Hindu beliefs, organises the universe in such a hierarchical fashion. The result is structural inequality pillared by the law of karma and destiny.
The character of Rama in King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien represents the powerful and virtuous ruling class. This version of the epic was written with the intention of promoting domestic stability, portraying political identities, regulating society, and indoctrinating certain values that lead the people to think that the king possessed the God-given right to be crowned.
More importantly, this particular version of the Ramakien intimates the 3 concepts in political science: firstly, social theory and political philosophy; secondly, a revolutionary purge (similar to how purging historical records can legitimise the ruling elite, hence purging the Ramayana promises the same); and thirdly, a media or political tool for indoctrinating moral values and cultural ideas to society.
Politicians in India often refer to Rama, particularly those from the right-wing BJP or pro-Hindu parties. Likewise, Prayut Chan-o-cha, the prime minister of Thailand, has stated in his response to a poll conducted by the opposition in parliament on 17 February 2022, that his entry into parliament can be likened to the Ramakien, with him playing Rama and the opposition playing Ravana. It is a known fact that Ravana must die, he added.
By elevating himself and vilifying others by likening them to Ravana, Prayut’s own moral integrity was called into question. In fact, Rama has many flaws in his character. Reunruthai Sajjapan states that, although Rama is Narayana’s avatar, he possesses many mortal shortcomings and always depends on Lakshmana, the monkey army, and Pipek, during battle.
According to Periyar E.V. Ramaswami’s interpretation, Ravana is a Brahman caste member who is educated and philosophical. He is not an ordinary lay person; rather, he is Aryan in culture and holds the rank of Tamil royalty. While Rama stands for the deity and a utopian worldview, Ravana represents the reality of the human world, which is full of good and bad, passion and desire, weaknesses and strengths (Prapas Pengpum, 2001).
“Royal Coronation” ceremony: Image via
The concept of the Dhammaraja, or Righteous King, and the ritual of coronation are crucial to political legitimacy in Thai society. King Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, prioritised such rituals of legitimising himself and consolidating the authority he endowed upon himself as king (Sombat Janwong. 2004). During the transition period between kingdoms, it was necessary for the king to retain the belief system from the Ayuthaya period into the Rattanakosin period, especially the various rituals that served to legitimise his ‘kingship’. For example, the Brahman ritual of coronation that elevated his status from a commoner to a monarch and affirmed the country’s stability under his reign (Saowanit Chunlawong, 2001: 74).
This particular version of the Ramakien, as well as the character of Rama, have successfully been translated from ‘caste literature’ in Brahmanism to ‘ideological literature’ and ‘political literature’ by the Thai ruling class (Chawarin Khammakeaw, Warawat Sriyaphai, Boonyong Ketthet and Charuwan Benjathikul, 2021: 78). This dynamic, in our view, has had a profound influence on the practice of royal functions to this day.
Instilling ‘Thainess’ in the unconscious of a society of ‘good people’ through the Ramakien
According to Nidhi Eoseewong, the Thai ‘nation’ is an imagined construct imposed by the ruling elite, which has always used the nation and ‘Thainess’ as a means to preserve social structures that protect their own privileges (Nidhi Eoseewong, 1999: 9-10). The rhetoric and rationales presented in the Ramakien, which are mirrored in the absolute monarchy system, remain to this day, influencing the desires of Thai society, the social structure and culture, and making it impossible to sustainably address the problems of social and economic inequality (Thanasak Saijampa, 2014: 525).
The absolute monarchy system is maintained by a social structure that abides by the so-called cosmic law that catagorises people into different classes. One of the things that produces the definitions of the Thai nation and Thainess is literature allegedly authored by the monarch or the ruling elite. According to Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari’s theory of desiring-production, any desires that deviate from the ones dictated by the authority, or, in this case, by the old politics of the Thai ruling class, are ultimately suppressed in the name of ‘Thainess’.
Although the Ramakien originated in India, it has been adopted and appropriated into a political weapon in order to justify Thai belief in a king of the gods, which has become a key component in consolidating the regime of absolute monarchy. ‘Thainess’ is a social construct of the modern Thai state, an entity which was conceived when the country was still under absolute monarchy, a system that established the social and political structures when the Rattanakosin kingdom was founded. Therefore, the ‘Thainess’ that emerges from the modern Thai state adheres to the rationale of absolute monarchy (Streckfuss, 2011: 58).
Although the country transitioned into democracy in 1932, class hierarchy remains, planted deep into the foundations of ‘Thainess’. The desires of the people have always been manipulated, steered into those which are dictated by the ruling elite and the Thai state, benefitting largely them, despite the changing times. Interestingly, the people’s desire remains fundamentally unchanged, even though the country officially moved away from absolute monarchy into a constitutional one with a democratic system of governance (Tanasak Saijampa, 2014: 525).
‘Thainess’ has long been perpetuated and instilled into society’s unconscious, to the point where the people have misconstrued it as rooted in their own desires. People are not only unaware that such a desire was fostered by the ruling elite, or the Thai state, but they are also unaware of how rigid and narrow such a desire is (Thongchai Winichakul, 2013: 206).
‘Thainess’ provides ‘form’: a blueprint for the virtues upheld by Thai society, a code of conduct for citizens to abide. “Be loyal to the Nation, Religion, and Monarch”; “Behave yourself according to the traditions and conventions of Thai culture”; and “Preserve the Nation’s independence and autonomy.” Anyone who can abide by these virtues will be commended or glorified as a ‘good citizen’, whereas those who deviate from such codes will be vilified as ‘bad citizens’ or dismissed entirely from being ‘Thai’.
The Thai royal nationalist history has rendered ‘Nation’ and ‘Monarch’ synonymous. As clearly written during the reign of King Rama VI, ‘the love for your country entails a loyalty to the monarch’. Anyone who is disloyal to the monarch does not love his/her country. The monarch is the nation in absolute monarchy, and he plays an important role in uniting the nation into one homogeneous land (Nidhi Eoseewong, 2005: 69).
The Buddhist concept of the Righteous King sacralises the monarch’s identity as Dasavidha-rajadhamma, or ‘the ruler of the people’ (Thongchai Winichakul, 2013: 13), while the Brahman concept of the king of the gods paints a portrait of the king as the avatar of Narayana, the saviour who relinquishes all suffering and brings happiness to the people, as well as the mediator of all political conflicts (Connor, 2003: 131). Together, these narratives serve to legitimise the monarch as the ruler of both the religious and secular worlds.
Nation, Religion, Monarch: The centre of the universe in Thai society
Looking at the construction of Thai-ness through the lens of Deleuze and Guattari, the concepts of Nation, Religion, and Monarch work to regulate and align society’s desires to those of the state. The state is capable of convincing individuals that the desires of society, which have been fed to them, are ones that they unconsciously possess. People are made to believe that their loyalty to the Nation, Religion, and Monarch comes from their own willingness, rather than it being forced upon them. They are taught that being loyal and behaving in accordance with the codes of Thai-ness is the best way to preserve these virtues in society (Thanasak Saijampa, 2014: 523).
The process of establishing the Nation, Religion, and Monarch as the fundamental pillars of Thai society, revered by its people, takes various forms. One of the most powerful tools is to fabulate ‘collective memory’ and perpetuate it within society’s unconsciousness through a manufactured historiography and literature. The result is ‘Royal Nationalist history and literature’ that writes Royal Nationalism into a historical and literary plot that depicts a nation threatened by evil, with the king, or Narayana’s avatar, as its saviour. This literary genre glorifies Rama as the chief who persecutes or punishes the ‘villains’ through social and judicial processes. According to Natvipa Chalitanon, this type of plot is similar to the historiography in Thai historical annals, particularly those written during the Ayutthaya period and during the Early Rattanakosin period (Saowanit Chunlawong, 2001: 73).
According to Delueze and Guattari’s psychoanalytic lens, structural and cultural problems in Thai society are the main reason why the Thai military state has never completely transitioned into a liberal democratic nation. People are still willing to suppress their individual desires within the framework of Thai-ness and therefore prioritise the social class hierarchy. They believe that the Thai ruling class, educated class, or economically privileged are entitled to greater rights than the poor, uneducated, farmers, or labourers.
Thai-ness, in the unconscious mind of a society of ‘good people’, is a rhetoric fashioned from a range of historical and literary symbols, and manipulated by the ruling elite. At the centre of this rhetoric is the reverence to the monarchy, hence it is used as one of the procedures of social mastery, wielded as bio power so as to constitute the social body, and operating as a biopolitical process that normalises such conditions of governance (Woratep Wongsuppakan, 2018: 125).
The Politics of the Ramayana / Ramakien in documenta fifteen
Churning Milk: The ritual of things (2022), a collaborative and participatory art project, engages with the politics of the Thai version of the Ramakien, which was composed at the beginning of the Rattanakosin period. According to Rungrot Phiromanukun, King Rama I not only composed the text, but also commissioned a mural painting of the story on the walls of the Grand Palace’s terrace, which was built to mark the establishment of the new kingdom in 1782.
The Grand Palace (Wat Phra Si Rattana Satsadaram and the mural paintings on the wall of the balcony.
Image via:
King Rama I’s version of the Ramakien pays special attention to the idealised characteristics of Narayana’s avatar and the rituals performed in the story. Its intertextuality is rooted in a multi-semiotic approach which draws on a range of mediums, such as play scripts, literature, performing arts, visual arts, and architecture. The Grand Palace thus becomes a simulation of Traibhumikatha, or the three levels of existence; its mythical elements are incorporated into the architectural features of the Grand Palace, extending its hold over society by structuring it according to the hierarchical orders of its envisioned universe (Siriphot Laomānačharœ̄n. 2020).
Ramakien’s ‘Churning of the ocean of the milk’, as presented by Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture in documenta fifteen 2022, and exhibited at the Documenta Halle, is combined with the Brothers Grimm’s fairy tale, The Forest House. The result is a heteroglossia of the various symbols present in society, conflicting power dynamics, and competing ideologies, that addresses the question of identity through the reproduction as well as renewal of existing texts: a process of becoming.
Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture designed the space for this multimedia installation to facilitate activities-based art whereby the different elements of the work are activated through public participation. The work was live for 100 days, weaving different threads of experiences that were shared among other artworks, artists, and audiences.
According to John Dewey (b. 1859–1952), understanding the core idea and unique characteristics of the process manifested by an artwork is fundamental to understanding human experience and perception. How the artwork is stimulated by the artist, and how much the audience is aware of it, is part of an improvised performance: the push and pull between the material and mental environments, and their culture at large. Through their shared experience, the audience and participants can question the text, reassemble the images, and re-interpret them to create new meanings, while being aware of the work’s intertextuality, and of its pretexts.
Churning Milk: The rituals of things is a textual reproduction of the Ramakien’s ‘Churning the ocean of the Milk’, as well as other texts re-interpreted into a new text: multi-semiotic and multi-media. All of this serves to emphasise a new context, the sociopolitical conditions of present-day Thailand, in which it was created.

Jiandyin, collaborative interdisciplinary duo artists and curators, Pornpilai Meemalai, obtained an MA degree from School of Arts and Humanities, Royal College of Art, UK, Jiradej Meemalai, obtained an MFA degree in Sculpture from Silpakorn University, Thailand. They currently live and work in Ratchaburi, Thailand. They have been developing work that approach through artistic research, field work, genealogically layered with references to multiple sources and evidence, forms and matters upon a wide range of disciplines and mediums, with collaboration and social engagement. jiandyin are interested in creating space/platform or situation to analyze relationships between man and society in relation to context and history of the place and space. They delve into complex, ambiguous universal and specific issues regarding the political conflict or effect on marginalized groups which is a paradox of nation-state.

Jiandyin were awarded a fellowship grant from the Asian Cultural Council New York in 2009 and were artists in residence at Headlands Center for the Arts, San Francisco, International Studio and Curatorial Program, New York, 2010, Treasure Hill Artist Village, Taipei, Taiwan, 2012, Civitella Ranieri center, Umbria Italy 2013. Their solo-exhibitions include Portrait [Archives of Dialogue: Seeing and Being] Gallery Seescape, Chiang Mai, Thailand, The Ontology of Gold: Magic Mountains, Cartel Artspace, Bangkok, Thailand, in 2017. Biennales and exhibitions include 2021 Jakarta Biennale, 2019 Asian Art Biennial: The stranger from beyond the Mountain and the sea, The National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung, Taiwan. 2018 Kuandu Biennale: Seven Questions for Asia, Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts, Taipei, Taiwan. Thailand Biennale Krabi 2018: Edge of the wonderland, Krabi, Thailand. 
Jiandyin are founders of Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture in 2011, a not-to-profit artist initiative that runs Off-school art and cultural, artist in residency, curatorial, creation and  interdisciplinary exchange programs for Nongpo community, Ratchaburi, Thailand and global networks. Baan Noorg Collaborative Arts and Culture recently joined the documenta fifteen, 2022, Kassel, Germany.
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Issue 10 Exhibition Amnesia
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Issue 9 Curating Against Forgetting
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The Politics in the Ramayana / Ramakien in documenta fifteen: Decoding the Power of the Thai Ruling Class Jiandyin
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Issue 7 The Heterogeneous South
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Issue 3 Curating Performativity
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Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms
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Issue 10 Exhibition Amnesia

Issue 9 Curating Against Forgetting

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Issue 6 The Beginning of Curating

Issue 5 Curatorial Episteme

Issue 4 Curatorial Consciousness in the Times of Post-Nationalism

Issue 3 Curating Performativity

Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms

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