Blessed With Venom: The History Of Muay Thai
I. Muay Boran –
A Foundation To Build On
In the eighteenth century, during the many wars between the Kingdom of Burma and the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya (modern day Thailand), a famous Thai boxer named Nai Khanomtom was captured and imprisoned in Burma.
After several years of being held in a Burmese jail, the king of Burma arranged a festival to test Khanomtom. He wanted to see how his Burmese boxers fared against this Thai champion. Khanomtom was up against the Burmese champion and, as per tradition performed, his wai khru before the fight. This mystified the Burmese; they thought it was some form of black magic, particularly after Khanomtom brutalised their champion.
The king ordered that more Burmese boxers face Khanomtom. Rival after rival fell by his hand. After the tenth Burmese boxer was mangled by kicks and knocked out as the previous nine had been, no Burmese fighter dared step into the ring with him.
“Every part of the Siamese is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents.”
The Burmese king then granted Nai his freedom. Now, his triumph is celebrated every year on March 17, National Muay Thai Day. The martial art that Nai employed to win his freedom wasn’t actually Muay Thai. There are several old styles from various regions of Thailand (Muay Boran [literally “Ancient Boxing”], Muay Chaiya, Muay Thasao, Muay Lopburi and Muay Korate). These have been driven to near-extinction due to the popularity of Muay Thai – yet they all contributed vast amounts to the modern-day sport.
Muay Thai was originally called by generic names, such as Toi Muay or simply Muay. It was not just a practical fighting style for use in actual warfare, but Muay Thai became a sport in which opponents fought in front of spectators. They gradually became interweaved with the local festivals and celebrations. Originally bare-knuckled, fighters began to wear lengths of rope around their hands and forearms that had been soaked in sea water, so that the salt hardened them when they dried.
Being the “Art of Eight Limbs,” Muay Thai was used to mimic the art of warfare. Fists became swords and knives; shins and forearms hardened in training to act as armor against blows; the elbow a mace or hammer, and the knees and legs as bow staffs or axes. Those who practice Muay Thai are known as nak muay whereas Western practitioners are called nak muay farang (meaning “foreign boxer”).
II. Thai Traditions: Wai Khru Ram Muay
In Thai tradition, the teacher is seen as sacred. When a new student wishes to begin training, it isn’t as simple as signing up to a gym and joining in; usually rituals have to be undertaken, such as meditating and performing the wai khru. The teacher will then request all of their other students to give the initiate their blessings as well – this is performed on a Thursday, the day of Brihaspati, Vedic god of wisdom and teachers. As such, at the beginning of every performance, the wai khru ram muay is also performed to pay respect and homage to their teachers as well as the deities who patronize their arts.
The wai khru ceremonies that take place in Thailand today generally follow the same form as they have always done. The ceremony begins with a Buddhist prayer ritual – only in institutions where Buddhism is observed – followed by a recitation of the wai khru chant, expressing respect and gratitude to teachers and asking for blessing of their students. Institutions also present student awards during the ceremony. Traditional offerings for wai khru represent student qualities:
- Ixora flowers: while closed form pointed buds, symbolizing sharp wit
- Cynodon dactylon (Bermuda grass): the rapid growth and resilience symbolizing perseverance, as well as the ability to learn
- Popped rice: symbolizing discipline and commitment
- Eggplant flowers: which bow low when nearing fruiting, symbolizing respect and humility
The wai khru ram muay is performed by participants before Muay Thai competitions. The wai is a Thai greeting – palms together as a sign of respect. Khru is the Thai form of the Sanskrit word “guru” – teacher. Ram is the Thai word for classical dancing, and Muay means boxing. The full term translates to “war-dance saluting the teacher,” but Thai-speakers shorten it to “wai khru” or “ram muay.” It is used to show respect to teachers, parents, and ancestors – and when boxers fought in front of royalty, it paid respect to the king.
Upon entering it, fighters circle the ring counter-clockwise and pray at each corner, bowing their head at every corner three times: saluting to Buddha, Rama, and the sangha of monks (monastery community) and then begin the ram muay. It is a personal ritual, ranging from the very complex to the very simple, often containing clues as to who trained the fighter and where they’re from. It’s done to music, providing a rhythm to the boxer’s movements.
III. Thai Traditions: Mongkon
A sacred headpiece worn by most nak muay before fighting – the mongkon. Fighters wear it to the ring and during the wai khru ram muay before having their teacher remove it and place it on their corner for good luck. A teacher will present the mongkon to the fighter once he has trained hard and is ready to represent the gym inside the ring.
As a nak muay farang, it is important to know the true significance of why you are wearing it: loyalty and respect to your gym, teacher and martial art as a whole. The mongkon is made of rope thread and silk braided together, then blessed by a Buddhist monk for good luck before stepping into the ring. Mongkon means holy spirit, luck and protection and should never be held near to or placed on the ground as it is bad luck to do so. The student is never allowed to touch or handle the mongkon – only his teacher may handle it.
What’s your take on the history of Muay Thai?
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- Ben Evans is a 17-year-old Brit with a year of Muay Thai training under his belt. His experience in martial arts so far has inspired him to continuing learning and helping to teach others about the sport.