Credit by Chumsak Kanoknan/Getty Images © Traditional Thai puppets on display
After 150 Years, Thailand’s Royal Puppets Dance Again
SOCIO-CULTURE Thailand

After 150 Years, Thailand’s Royal Puppets Dance Again

For the first time in over a century, the lost art of Hun Luang will be performed, at the royal funeral of King Bhumibol, which will take place at the side nearest the Supreme Court.

Translating to "royal puppets," Hun Luang uses 3-foot-tall wooden marionettes mounted on tall poles that operators wear strapped to their bodies.

A system of 20 strings, ten mounted on each side of the contraption, allows the puppet masters to make the marionettes intricately dance along to slow songs composed specifically for them, as reported by Lonely Planet

Work is ongoing on the cremation site. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
Work is ongoing on the cremation site. ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

"The last time Hun Luang had a performance was for the royal funeral of King Rama IV [in 1868]. This will be a once-in-a-lifetime chance for the public to see the show at the royal funeral later this month," said Pairoj Thongkumsuk, 57, a music and drama scholar at the Office of Performing Arts and the Fine Arts Department, to Bangkok Post. He is one of four Hun Luang puppeteers who will pull the strings at the historic event.

The Fine Arts Department, with the help of young puppet expert Kamol Karnkitcharoen, has played an important role in reviving the art form. Four dancers will perform at the royal funeral, one of whom is a woman, Ancharika Noosingha, 43, is the first Thai woman to preserve this art form. Puppet masters. From left, Koerkchai Yaiying, Unchalika Morsingha and Pairoj Thongkumsuk. Image: Pawat Laopaisarntaksin/Bangkok Post

Hun Luang. Image: The Nation

“Work on recreating the four main characters – Phra (actor), Nang (actress), Yak (demon) and Ling (monkey) actually started last year in the hope that we would be able to perform in front of King Bhumibol. Unfortunately, he passed away before we had a chance to do so,” Kamol says to The Nation.

The performance, which is based on the Ramayana, will see three traditional khon dramatists manipulate the synchronised dancing of the five-metre-tall wooden puppets with 20 strings during a 20-minute prelude.

The royal puppets will be a highlight of the cremation performance. Image: The Nation
The royal puppets will be a highlight of the cremation performance. Image: The Nation

The puppeteers and their assistants are hidden behind the moveable stage and all the audience can see are the puppets dressed in beautiful costumes as they dance. 

“As they are heavy with complex strings, the puppeteer must be able to skilfully manipulate the puppets in synchronising the dance movements. When I perform, I become the puppet,” says Ancharika, who has been training hard over the last few months.

“We are grateful to be given this rare performance to deliver the soul of our beloved monarch to the heavens,” adds Pairoj Thongkumsuk, his eyes brimming with unshed tears.

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