Of War­ri­ors and Angels (1)

Alfre­do Attié(2)

Je hais les voya­ges et les explo­ra­teurs. Et voi­ci que je m’apprête à racon­ter mes expé­di­ti­ons. Mais que de temps pour m’y résou­dre !Lévi-Strauss

I hate the figh­ting and the figh­ters. And here I am, about to tell my res­tless expe­ri­en­ce obser­ving the evol­ving move­ments of com­ba­tants and the char­ged strug­gle they mani­fes­ted. Only after dre­ams, night­ma­res did I deci­de to des­cri­be my own fee­lings – sca­red at first, the enth­ral­ling fea­tu­res of the spec­ta­cle per­su­a­ded me that the­re could be some fas­ci­na­ting mys­ti­cism behind the sce­nes, like skill­ful han­dling of a pup­pe­te­er.

It was a Sun­day eve­ning. I had deci­ded, not without reluc­tan­ce, to accept the invi­ta­ti­on of a fri­end – who would, later on, reve­al him­self an expert in the field of Mar­ti­al Arts – to go to the Raja­dam­nerm Sta­dium, not far away from down­town, a pla­ce that adver­ti­ses itself as “The Ulti­ma­te Muay Thai Are­na.” The taxi dri­ver kin­dly divi­ded his atten­ti­on betwe­en the busy traf­fic of the City of Angels, and a small pac­ka­ge of tama­rind sal­ted seeds, whi­ch he ate as vora­ci­ously as he fought to unders­tand how we, foreig­ners, could have bought tic­kets to the Muay Thai enter­tain­ment through the inter­net without extra char­ge.

Of cour­se, the­re is no short­cut to unders­tan­ding any cul­tu­re in the world, becau­se the­re is no cul­tu­re that can at once nai­vely unveil its inhe­rent cha­rac­te­ris­tics, even to the most atten­ti­ve and expe­ri­en­ced obser­vers. Nonethe­less, the case of Thai cul­tu­re seems to be par­ti­cu­larly uni­que. The uni­for­mity of man­ners fused with the sim­pli­city in clothing hides an enig­ma­tic com­ple­xity, whi­ch, when unvei­led beco­mes as asto­nishing as the reve­la­ti­on that the name Bang­kok does not con­vey this city’s true iden­tity. In Pali and Sans­krit, the capi­tal espou­ses a much prou­der name, กรุงเทพมหานคร อมรรัตนโกสินทร์ มหินทรายุธยา มหาดิลกภพ นพรัตน์ราชธานีบุรีรมย์ อุดมราชนิเวศน์มหาสถาน อมรพิมานอวตารสถิต สักกะทัตติยะวิษณุกรรมประสิทธิ์, whi­ch can mean, “the city of angels (or gods), home of the Eme­rald Buddha, gre­at and mag­ni­fi­cent city of the nine gems, seat of the king, happy and gene­rous city of the Royal Pala­ce, simi­lar to the home of gods incar­na­te, erec­ted by Vish­va­kar­ma­nat, Indra’s behest.” Bang­kok, beyond its com­plex com­bi­na­ti­on of ter­ri­tory, peo­ple and rules, exu­des holi­ness and spi­ri­tu­a­lity, worthy of reli­gi­ous vene­ra­ti­on.

Muay Thai, and its many expres­si­ve fea­tu­res, much like the dis­co­very of the rich sym­bo­logy behind this city’s name, sur­pri­sed me. It is not just a fight or sim­ply a com­pe­ti­ti­on. The mea­ning of the sport can be unders­to­od only if one puts sen­sa­ti­ons into acti­on. And even so, it will requi­re an addi­ti­o­nal effort of the mind to unders­tand why the war­ri­ors per­form such a beau­ti­ful and tou­ching ritu­al befo­re the assu­red des­truc­ti­on. Khru Ram Muay (ไหว้ครูรำมวย), as it’s cal­led, begins with bowing and leads into a gra­ci­ous dan­ce, whi­ch, in its expres­si­ve­ness, almost makes one for­get the fight to come. In a second, rea­lity stri­kes the ten­der ritu­al, and as arms and legs flail in the air, blows are exchan­ged. The war­ri­ors, howe­ver, main­tain a stoic faça­de – without any sign of pain or com­plaint, not even a sound can give evi­den­ce of a suf­fe­ring body, or reve­al inde­ci­si­on of the mind. But in their unde­mons­tra­ti­ve gui­le, they for­get not to pay their res­pects, to the gods and angels, to whom they pray; to the public, for whom they per­form; and to their oppo­nent, to whom they devo­te vio­len­ce and art.

The fight and the ritu­als are accom­pa­ni­ed by the Sara­ma (สะระหม่า), modal music per­for­med by four musi­ci­ans, each playing an oboe, a pair of Thai drums and a cym­bal. The rhythm fol­lows the mood of the growing exci­te­ment of the com­bat, slow at the begin­ning, and fre­ne­tic at its most fier­ce. Some­ti­mes apol­lo­ni­an; other times, diony­si­an, the music not only com­pounds the atmosphe­re of bat­tle but also gene­ra­tes a kind of tran­ce in the audi­en­ce, who, out of body, feel them­sel­ves being car­ri­ed to a sacred pla­ce, whe­re the fight is solely against fate, for the sake of the eter­nal flow of life.

The ambi­va­len­ce of the vio­lent acts I was wit­nes­sing dro­ve me to unders­tand every detail of the path I had fol­lowed the day befo­re when I visi­ted the Wat Pho, Wat Arun, and the Royal Pala­ce. The stu­dent and acci­den­tal tou­rist beca­me awa­re of his sur­roun­dings, open to the assi­mi­la­ti­on of com­plex mea­nings; now incli­ned to par­ti­ci­pa­te in the buil­ding of far more com­plex ritu­als, roles, and rules for the buil­ding of pea­ce. (3)

(1) Writ­ten ori­gi­nally for the Chu­la­long­korn Uni­ver­sity
(2) Alfre­do Attié is Jus­ti­ce at the Sao Pau­lo Supre­me Court, Full Fel­low of the San Tia­go Dan­tas Chair at the Sao Pau­lo Law Aca­demy.
(3) Dedi­ca­ted to Fran­cis­co Luís and Tho­mas Attié