In Thailand fighters are often more concerned with forgetting their Ram Muay than they are with the fight at hand.
Today we are going to cover the origins, postures and some of our favourite hand picked Wai Khru videos from some of the best fighters on the planet.
With deep roots into Thai culture, the Wai Khru Ram Muay dance is believed to bring body, mind, and spirit together. You may have seen fighters perform this ceremony before a bout.
Popularly referred to as Wai Khru or Ram Muay, it is not just a dance, or performance. It is, first and foremost, a ritual through which the fighters pay respect to their gods and to their teachers – but we’ll get into that a bit later.
It is also a warm-up exercise, requiring strength and elegance, self-control and coordination.
Since it’s very important in Muay Thai practice, in today’s article were going to tell you everything about Wai Khru. You’ll see that it has a very interesting and complex history, taking you deeper into Thai culture and its beautiful traditions.
Respect – Teacher – Boxing – Dance
Before we get into what Wai Khru symbolizes, we should take a look at what it means. In Thai, the word wai describes the gesture of bringing one’s hands together and bowing to show respect. You may well have seen this before as it is extremely important in Thai social behaviour and culture.
Ronald McDonald Wai’s all patrons at every one of Thailand’s McDonalds restaurant
Khru means “teacher”, so wai khru means to pay respect to ones teacher. Ram is a Thai word for “dance”, specifically a traditional type of dancing in this case. As for muay, you might already know it means “boxing”.
Wai Khru Ram Muay therefore directly translates to ‘respect teacher dance boxing’. You get the idea.
As we’ve seen, this traditional Thai dance as part of Wai Khru is mostly known – especially in the Western world – as the dance performed by Muay Thai fighters before a fight. However, in Thailand, it has several manifestations.
Wai Khru ceremonies are performed every year, and one of the main instances this happens is within schools. At the beginning of the school year, the ceremony is held by the students and teachers, and it’s purpose is for the first to pay homage and respect to their teachers, and receive blessings for their education or initiation. The types of Wai Khru performed today in schools are a modern form developed in 1941 at a school in Thailand.
If the school observes Buddhism, then such a ceremony would be started with a Buddhist prayer, after which the students perform a chant. In the schooling system, this ritual can be continued with a moment in which the best students from each class bring offerings in the form of candles, flowers, incense (or joss sticks, as they are known in Chinese culture, or other cultures that follow Buddhist traditions) and other traditional arrangements.
The students themselves can receive blessings that take a physical yet symbolical form. In this situation, the teachers present them – depending on their stage in learning, or their achievements – with flower buds, eggplant flowers, Bermuda grass, or popped rice.
Each offering has its own meaning: popped rice symbolizes discipline, eggplant flowers humility, flower buds (Ixora) are offered for intelligence, and Bermuda grass, called Cynodon dactylon, means perseverance.
For those in Thai dance or music schools, the ritual is a bit different. The Wai Khru ceremony is also held once a year, on Thursdays – which have a religious character in Thailand, being the day of the god of teachers and learning, Brishapati. In all educational institutions, this day is usually chosen for the ritual. In music schools, they also take on a more religious, traditional form, in that Buddhist monks are sometimes invited to say prayers. They are offered alms the day before the Wai Khru, and then they show up to say some prayers that start the ceremony.
Buddhist altars are raised – which besides money, white cloth, and the other elements I mentioned above, may contain food, musical instruments and masks (khon) that represent god patrons of music like Biraba, Pancasikha or Bharata Muni. A presiding teacher is chosen, who traditionally wears white clothing, and a musical ensemble performs the na phat, which summons the music gods.
Dancing for forgiveness
As for Wai Khru Ram Muay, it specifically refers to the Muay Thai dance executed before Muay Thai fights. Although it is also a warm up session for the fighters, its old religious origins are also deeply rooted in Buddhism. Historically, Muay Thai was performed ceremoniously, on festive or important celebrations, where the combatants paid respect and strengthened their allegiance to their trainers. They also made praise to the gods, thanking for their initiation and asking for blessings and success in winning.
Historically Muay Thai competitions were held by the Thai military so men could prove their strength and ability in fighting. On special occasions, the emperor would attend, and the Wai Khru also served further to ask forgiveness for the cruelty and fierceness of the fights.
The Ram Muay is not executed only in honor of teachers, trainers and parents, but to show respect for former, or long deceased trainers as well, without whom the art of Muay Thai could not have continued and been perfected. Passed down generation to generation.
Originally, someone who wanted to train in the art of Muay Thai had to gain acceptance from a trainer. The trainer would observe them for some time to decide on their character, and eventually accept them into apprenticeship. This meant the student would live with their master, serving them in every way possible to show gratitude for being trained and as way of paying for tuition.
Not performing the Wai Khru before a fight is said to bring forth bad luck ( read our post about muay thai tatoos here), with the fighter losing the match, or even losing in a brutal or humiliating way. To get a first glimpse of what Wai Khru looks like, here is a short video:
Wai khru requires some strength and ability. The dancer must perform the poses gracefully,fighters spend many hours perfecting this art. and it is considered offensive to perform the dance poorly.
The Wai Khru can be very complex. There are many poses and combinations that a skilled dancer can choose to perform, especially if they feel confident in their skill. In the past, and perhaps even today in more traditional parts of Thailand, a fighter’s way of dancing would contain clues about the region they came from and who their teacher was.
Muay Thai is also very popular throughout the world in general. In Western competitions, a shorter form of Wai Khru is usually performed, lasting no longer than a minute. The traditional form however, lasts at least five minutes, because for Thai fighters it’s got a much deeper meaning.
Here is Buakaw Banchamek from Thailand, several time Muay Thai world champion, who is considered one of the best Ram Muay performers:
Performing towards the adversary’s corner serves as a daring move meant to intimidate the opponent and shoot down his morale, to show confidence in one’s ability, and raise the confidence of the Ram Muay dancer. You can notice Buakaw’s pride and confidence as he dances in the adversary corner, and hear the crowd cheering him excitedly.
A fighter might also stomp their foot forward three times in the opponent’s direction, sometimes before this, to further intimidate their opponent, they will write their opponents name on the matt with their feet (this IS NOT very polite! – see our guide on Thai culture HERE).
Some fighter add their own personality to this traditional art. See Sudsakorn Sor Klinmee dispatch with the traditional bow and arrow in favour of something a little more modern:
Muay Thai is a high impact sport, the performance and endurance of the athletes relies on flexibility and so the Ram Muay serves as a good warmup exercise.
The posture in the picture below, known as the Promnang King Garuda Posture is particularly beautiful, where the fighter takes the form of a bird – one must have great balance and elegance to execute it correctly.
In some parts of Thailand, the superstition that you can tell who is going to win by their performance of the Wai Khru is maintained, that the Muay Thai fighter with the most beautiful, complex and well executed dance will probably win – it is thought perhaps that the gods will favor him for his excellent performance and in doing so praise to them.
The Warrior’s Mongkhon
Muay Thai fighters also wear certain special elements while they’re performing the Ram Muay. The most important garment is the head ring, called Mongkhon, which only Thai boxers wear, the Burmese or Cambodian “Thai boxers” do not. This head ring is symbolistic of the fighter’s expertise in Muay Thai, and it is offered to them when they have completed their training. As such, it’s treated with great respect – it must not get close to, or touch the ground. That’s why Muay Thai fighters jump over the top rope when they get into the ring, instead of going under it.
Fighters also sometimes use armbands, called Pra Jiad, and which are traditionally meant to give the fighter confidence and good luck. It is also considered bad luck to step on the pra jiad, of which the fighter can wear one or two. Some fighters also wear special garlands around their necks while performing the Ram Muay.
The Mongkhon is taken off after the ceremony is finished, but the Pra Jiad can be kept if the fighters wants to.
Music is another essential part of the Wai Khru Ram Muay ritual. The instruments used to play it are Thai traditional, and the most common ones include a Javanese flute (Toe Pee Java), a two face drum (Glong-Kag), and cymbals (Ching).
In the case of music schools, as I’ve said, professional or amateur music ensembles called pi phat perform, and these include a larger number of people. The chant they sing is called na phat.
There are many postures for Ram Muay, and the fighters choose which ones to perform, or execute those that represent their region and trainer. The video below shows some of the postures and tells you what their names are:
Another movement performed by those in the boxing ring is to touch the top rope on each side of the ring to seal it off from any outside distraction.
Within Muay Thai education, which is a martial arts form that disciplines both the mind and the body, there are several types of Wai Khru ceremonies, each with a specific movement. I’ll explain them briefly below, so we can get a better idea of the importance of this ritual in Thai culture.
a. The trainee fighter ceremony
In this ceremony, the Muay Thai trainer accepts the apprentices and promises to teach them everything he knows, as best he can. At the same time, the apprentices pledge to obey the rules imposed by their trainers and go through any difficulty with diligence and resilience. This ritual is a part of initiation for the students.
b. The annual ceremony to pay homage
As the name suggests, this ceremony is performed every year, and it is an opportunity for students to reiterate their respect and gratitude for their trainers. It is also when homage is paid to the trainers and teachers who have passed away.
c. The ritual dance of homage
This ritual is performed either at the end of an annual-homage ceremony, or separately. It symbolizes the apprentices’ allegiance pledge to their teachers (khru muay). When their initiation and training are completed, the khru muay sends them to participate in contests where they can prove their skills and gain achievements.
Even then, the teachers decide when one is worthy of being called a true Muay Thai fighter. When this happens, the fighter gets to execute the ritual dance of homage once more, usually right after a competition
d. The teacher ceremony
Becoming a Muay Thai teacher is not achieved easily. One must be an excellent fighter, have perfect command of the philosophy and teachings of Muay Thai, and prove to have the appropriate character for it. At least in Thai culture, this usually when they’ve had enough experience, good competition attendance, and plenty time to master the Muay Thai theory.
Such an important milestone deserves its own Wai Khru ceremony, so rising to this rank is also celebrated with prayer, Ram Muay dance, offerings and other traditions.
The rituals of Wai Khru are extremely important in Thai culture, and Ram Muay is an essential part of Muay Thai practice for those who approach it with the right attitude. While it may have a profoundly spiritual character, it can, or should be just as important for secular players as well, at least as a way of showing their respect for the sport.
Ram Muay is one of the elements that make Muay Thai such a special combat sport, even though many argue it can be brutal. When we look behind the actual hitting, we see beautiful form and choreography, elegant moves, great physical condition and focus, self-discipline and balance.
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