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