Nang Yai, or the shadow play, is among the oldest theatrical arts performed in Thailand, tracing back at least to King U-thong of Ayutthaya (1350-1369). There is some evidence it dates back even further to the Sukhothai era just before the Ayutthaya kingdom. During the reign of King Rama II of the current Chakri dynasty (1809-1824), it was very popular. The ancient shadow figures were meticulous and colorful works of art preserved in the National Theatre, but sadly they were lost when fire destroyed the building in 1960.
Nang Yai performances are now rare with the Saturday shows at Wat Khanon in Ratchaburi west of Bangkok one of few. The troupe there is one of three remaining in Thailand, but Wat Khanon is the only temple with its own Nang Yai troupe that has regular performances. The others are Nang Yai Wat Sawang A-rom in Sing Buri province and Nang Yai Ban Don in Rayong province.
Performances start with a ceremony to pay respect to teachers of the art form. Then one or more shadow figures are held before a white screen. The performers are male because the puppets weigh up to 7 kg and are up to 2 meters tall.
An artist first creates the design; then, it is etched onto leather, usually cowhide, and shaped into figures. Nang Yai literally means Big Hides. The last step is mounting the puppets on sticks.
The figures move as the story unfolds. Since they have no moving parts, the performers must be skilled in how they move them and follow the narration and music, which is a vital part of the production.
Most Nang Yai performances are based on the epic The Ramakien and depict the battles between Thotsakan (vice) and Phra Ram (virtue).
Wat Khanon has played an important role in the preservation of Nang Yai and in 1989, HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn set up a royal project to conserve the 313 old Nang Yai figures. The project made a new duplicate set of the Nang Yai for performances, and the originals have been put on display in the recently established Nang Yai museum.
The temple has managed to continuously train young people for the Nang Yai performances and has been honored by UNESCO for preserving cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations.
Nang Yai performances are held every Saturday starting at 10.00 a.m. at Wat Khanon in Ratchaburi. The museum is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm..
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