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AMUSEMENTS OF THE COURT.
OF all the diversions of the court the most polite, and at the same time the most engrossing, is the drama.
In a great sala, or hall, which serves as a theatre, the actors and actresses assemble, their faces and bodies anointed with a creamy, maize-colored cosmetic. Fantastic extravagance of attire constitutes the great gun in their arsenal of attractions. Hence ear-rings, bracelets, massive chains and collars, tapering crowns with wings, spangled robes, curious finger-rings, and, strangest of all, long tapering nails of gold, are joined to complete their elaborate adornment. The play, in which are invariably enacted the adventures of gods, kings, heroes, genii, demons, and a multitude of characters mythical and fabulous, is often performed in lively pantomime, the interludes being filled by a strong chorus, with songs and instrumental accompaniment. At other times the players, in grotesque masks, give burlesque versions of the graver epics, to the great amusement of the audience.
Chinese comedies, termed Ngiu, attract the Siamese in crowds; but the foreign is decidedly inferior to the native talent. "Nang," so called, is a sort of tableau, masked, representing characters from the Hindoo mythology. Parts of the popular epic, Ramayana, are admirably rendered in this style. In front of the royal palace an immense transparent screen, mounted on great poles, is drawn across the esplanade, and behind this, at a moderate distance, great fires are lighted. Between the screen and the fire masked figures, grotesquely costumed, en; act the story of Rama and Sita and the giant Rawuna, with Hanuman and his army of apes bridging the Gulf of Manaar and piling up the Himalayas, while the bards, in measured story, describe the several exploits.
A great variety of puppet-shows are contrived for the delectation of the children; and the Siamese are marvellously ingenious in the manufacture of toys and dolls, of porcelain, stone, wood, bark, and paper. They make pagodas, temples, boats, and floating houses, with miniature families to occupy them, and all true to the life in every apartment and occupation; watts, with idols and priests; palaces, with kings, queens, concubines, royal children, courtiers, and slaves, all complete in costume and attitude.
The royal children observe with grave formalities the eventful custom of "hair-cutting" for their favorite dolls; and dramas, improvised for the occasion by ingenious slaves, are the crowning glory of those high holidays of toddling princes and princesses.
The ladies of the harem amuse themselves in the early and late hours of the day by gathering flowers in the palace gardens, feeding the birds in the aviaries and the gold-fishes in the ponds, twining garlands to adorn the heads of their children, arranging bouquets, singing songs of love or glory, dancing to the music of the guitar, listening to their slaves' reading, strolling with their little ones through the parks and parterres, and especially in bathing. When the heat is least oppressive they plunge into the waters of the pretty retired lakes, swimming and diving like flocks of brown water-fowl.
Chess and backgammon, Chinese cards and dice, afford a continual diversion to both sexes at the court, and there are many skilful players among them.
The Chinese have established a sort of "lottery," of which they have the monopoly. It is little better than a "sweat-cloth," with thirteen figures, on which money is staked at the option of the gambler. The winning figure pays its stake thirty-fold, the rest is lost.
Kite-flying, which in Europe and America is the amusement of children exclusively, is here, as in China and Birmah, the pastime of both sexes, and all ages and conditions of people. At the season when the south-wind prevails steadily, innumerable kites of diverse forms, many of them representing gigantic butterflies, may be seen sailing and darting over every quarter of the city, and most thickly over the palace and its appendages. Parties of young noblemen devote themselves with ardor to the sport, betting bravely on results of skill or luck; and it is most entertaining to observe how cleverly they manage the huge paper toys, entangling and capturing each other's kites, and dragging them disabled to the earth.
Combats of bulls and elephants, though very popular, are not commonly exhibited at court At certain seasons fairs are held, where exhibitions of wrestling, boxing, fencing, and dancing are given by professional competitors.
The Siamese, naturally imaginative and gay, cultivate music with great zest. Every village has its orchestra, every prince and noble his band of musicians, and in every part of Bangkok the sound of strange instruments is heard continually. Their music is not in parts like ours, but there is always harmony with good expression, and an agreeable variety of movement and volume is derived from the diversity of instruments and the taste of the players.
The principal instrument, the khong-vong, is composed of a series of hemispherical metallic bells or cups inverted and suspended by cords to a wooden frame. The performer strikes the bells with two little hammers covered with soft leather, producing an agreeable harmony. The hautboy player (who is usually a professional juggler and snake-charmer also) commonly leads the band. Kneeling and swaying his body forward and backward, and from side to side, he keeps time to the movement of the music. His instrument has six holes, but no keys, and may be either rough or smoothly finished.
The rant, or harmonicon, is a wooden instrument, with keys made of wood from the bashoo-nut tree. These, varying in size from six inches by one to fifteen by two, are connected by pieces of twine, and so fastened to a hollow case of wood about three feet in length and a foot high. The music is "conjured" by the aid of two small hammers corked with leather, like those of the khong-vong. The notes are clear and fine, and the instrument admits of much delicacy of touch.
Beside these the Siamese have the guitar, the violin, the flute, the cymbals, the trumpet, and the conch-shell. There is the luptima also, another very curious instrument, formed of a dozen long perforated reeds joined with bands and cemented at the joints with wax. The orifice at one end is applied to the lips, and a very moderate degree of skill produces notes so strong and sweet as to remind one of the swell of a church organ.
The Laos people have organs and tambourines of different forms; their guitar is almost as agreeable as that of Europe; and of their flutes of several kinds, one is played with the nostril instead of the lips.
Another instrument, resembling the banjo of the American negroes, is made from a large long-necked gourd, cut in halves while green, cleaned, dried in the sun, covered with parchment, and strung with from four to six strings. Its notes are pleasing.
The takhè, a long guitar with metallic strings, is laid on the floor, and high-born ladies, with fingers armed with shields or nails of gold, draw from it the softest and sweetest sounds.
In their funeral ceremonies the chanting of the priests is usually accompanied by the lugubrious wailing music of a sort of clarionet.
The songs of Siam are either heroic or amatory; the former celebrating the martial exploits, the latter the more tender adventures, of heroes.
Athletic games and the contests of the arena and the course form so conspicuous a feature in all ceremonies, solemn or festal, of this people, that a description of them may not with advantage be wholly omitted here. The Siamese are by nature warlike, and their government has thoughtfully and liberally fostered those manly sports and exercises which constitute the natural preparation for the profession of arms. Of these the most popular are wrestling, boxing (in which both sexes take part), throwing the discus or quoit, foot-shuttlecock, and racing on foot or horseback or in chariots; to which may be added vaulting and tumbling, throwing the dart, and leaping through wheels or circles of fire.
The professional athletes and gymnasts are exercised at a tender age under male or female trainers, who employ the most approved methods of limbering Sand quickening and strengthening and toughening their incipient champions, to whom, though well fed, sleep is jealously allowanced an intoxicating drinks absolutely forbidden. Their bodies are rubbed with oils and unguents to render them supple; and a short langoutee with a belt forms the sum of their clothing. None but the children of Siamese or Laotians are admitted to the gymnasia. The code of laws for the government of the several classes is strictly enforced, and nothing is permitted contrary to the established order and regulations of the games. Excessive violence is mercifully forbidden, and those who enter to wrestle or box, race or leap, for the prize, draw lots for precedence and position.
The Siamese practise wrestling in its rude simplicity, the advantage being with weight and strength, rather than skill and address. The wrestlers, before engaging, are rubbed and shampooed, the joints bent backward and all the muscles relaxed, and the body and limbs freely oiled; but after the latter operation they roll in the dust, or are sprinkled with earth, ground and sifted, that they may be grappled the more firmly. They are matched in pairs, and several couples contend at the same time. Their struggles afford superb displays of the anatomy of action, and the perfection of strength and skill and fierce grace in the trained animal. Though one be seized by the heel and thrown, — which the Siamese applaud as the climax of the wrestler's adroitness, — they still struggle grandly on the ground, a double Antæus of arms and legs, till one be turned upon his back and slapped upon the breast. That is the accepted signal of the victor.
In boxing, the Siamese cover their hands with a kind of glove of ribbed leather, sometimes lined with brass. On their heads they wear a leather turban, to protect the temples and ears, the assault being directed mainly at the head and face. Besides the usual "getting away" of the British bruiser, blows are caught with surprising address and strength in the gloved hand. The boxer who by overreaching, or missing a blow he has put his weight into, throws himself, is beaten; or he may surrender by simply lowering his arms.
The Siamese discus, or quoit, is round, and of wood, stone, or iron. Their manner of hurling it does not differ materially from that which all mighty players have practised since Cæsar's soldiers pitched quoits for rations.
Quite otherwise, in its curious novelty, is their spirited and picturesque sport of foot-shuttlecock, — a game which may be witnessed only in Asia, and in the perfection of its skill and agility only in Birmah and Siam.
The shuttlecock is like our own, but the battledore is the sole of the foot. A number of young men form a circle on a clear plot of ground. One of them opens the game by throwing the feathered toy to the player opposite him, who, turning quickly and raising his leg, receives it on the sole of his foot, and sends it like a shot to another, and he to another; and so it is kept flying for an hour or more, without once falling to the ground.
Speed, whether of two legs or four, is in high estimation among the Siamese. Their public festivals, however solemn, are usually begun with races, which they cultivate with ardor and enjoy with enthusiasm. They have the foot-race, the horse-race, and the chariot-race. In the first, the runners, having drawn lots for places, range themselves across the course, and, while waiting for the starting signal, excite themselves by leaping. At the word "Go," they make play with astonishing speed and spirit.
The race of a single horse, "against time," with or without saddle, is a favorite sport. The rider, scorning stirrup or bridle, grips the sides of his steed with his knees, and, with his right arm and forefinger stretched eagerly toward the goal, flies alone, — an inspiring picture. Sometimes two horsemen ride abreast, and at full speed change horses by vaulting from one to the other.
In the chariot-races from two to four horses are driven abreast, and the art consists in winning and keeping the advantage of ground without collision. This kind of racing is not so common as the others.
The favorite pastime of the late Second King, who greatly delighted in equestrian exercises and feats, was Croquet on Horseback, — a sport in which he distinguished himself by his brilliant skill and style, as he did in racing and hunting. This unique equestrian game is played exclusively by princes and noblemen. There are a number of small balls which must be croqueted into two deep holes, with the aid of long slender mallets. The limits of the ground are marked by a line drawn around it; and the only conditions necessary to render the sport exciting and the skill remarkable are narrow bounds and restive steeds.
The Siamese, like other Orientals, ride with loose rein and short stirrups. Their saddles are high and hard, and have two large circular flaps, gilded and otherwise adorned, according to the rank of the rider. Cavaliers of distinction usually dress expensively, in imported stuffs, elaborately embroidered with silk and gold thread. They wear a small cap, and sometimes a strip of red, like the fillet of the Greeks and Romans, bound round the brows.
Prizes for the victors in the games and combats are of several kinds, — purses of gold and silver, suits of apparel, umbrellas, and, more rarely, a gold or silver cup.
In concluding this imperfect sketch, I feel that a word of praise is due to the spirit of moderation and humanity which seems to govern such exhibitions in Siam. Even in their gravest festivals there is an element of cheerfulness and kindness, which tends to promote genial fellowship and foster friendships, and by bringing together all sorts of people, otherwise separated by diversity of custom, prejudice, and interest, unquestionably avails to weld the several small states and dependencies of Siam into one compact and stable nation.