The War period
Martial Arts stem from the existence of War. That is, the need to know how to defend oneself from the threat of power, dominance, and death. This is true of all styles. Martial discipline was born out of environments in which survival, physical existence, was the primary objective of the day, not economic prosperity which is what appears to be much of the driving force of “survival” today. ‘Muaythai’ as we know today came from ‘Panlam’, meaning ‘circle’. In the warring periods, people used everything they had at their disposal to fend off attacks from rival villages, raids, and/or attacks from other nomadic tribes. ‘Panlam’ was concerned with two objectives: ‘Tamlai’ (To Destroy) and Kaa (To Kill). Panlam encompasses everything you could imagine the human body needed to do to survive. There were natural striking concepts, grappling methods: Katak (Hip throw), Toom (throw), Rat (lock and control), Hak (bone breaking). Weapons often involved swords, sticks and knives (which later on became a style called Krabi Krabong).
Make no mistake however, that Panlam was no sport, or style of fighting. It was simply a matter of doing whatever it took to survive. Points and sportsmanship were of no importance in this era. In fact, Lamlai Tom (Herbal Poison) and Mon (‘Black Magic’, aka Chili used to the eyes) were frequently used to gain a significant advantage over ones attacker. I want you to understand, that the roots of Muaythai do not come from sport. They come from survival and the natural forces and tendencies of society at the time. The body was viewed as a means for self-preservation, not as a means to score points. Panlam targeted the weak parts of the body to cause the most damage (Jud On), and even worse, parts that could kill in order to end attacks quickly and swiftly (Jud Thai). I shall share more information about these target points and there specific locations at a later time in the books.
As the military became ‘weaponized’, the hand-to-hand combat forms that began in Panlam underwent a refinement process. Techniques, strategies and training methods began to be more systemized. ‘Panlam’ evolved into Muay Boran. The term Muay Boran is literal: ‘Muay’ comes from the ancient sanskrit word ‘mavya’ meaning ‘to bind together’/‘unity’; ‘Boran’ meaning ‘ancient’. Muay Boran, roughly translating to ‘ancient boxing’ is an umbrella term that describes all unarmed Martial Art of Thailand. It was not necessarily a particular style or way of moving, but rather an era of particular movements and advances, because as I said above, Panlam was in the process of becoming refined into a system.
It is also important to remember that the content of a Martial Art is often defined by the context upon which it was born. As the military embraced technological advances in weaponry (swords, rifles, machinery) and hand-to-hand fighting was of less importance, Thailand was left with a population of people with a wealth of hand-to-hand skills, and no wars to apply it to. So to keep their skills sharp, they staged competitions and exhibitions. They did this to a) exercise an already existing rich skill set and b) entertain the people; and so came forth ‘Muay Kadd Cheuk’ (‘Muay’ meaning ‘unity’, ‘Kadd Cheuk’ meaning ‘Bound Fist’). Muay Kadd Cheuk was a hand-to- hand bout in which both contestants wrapped their hands in hemp twine. It was during this time, I believe that Thai people as a community experienced a spurt of evolution, as the way the people saw one another improved: the application of combat that was once used to protect borders and destroy enemies, was now doing the opposite: Communities were being united through competition, and enemies are now opponents. It was commonplace for competitions to range from a local scale such as within villages, to intercity such as across villages, and eventually international borders (Thais vs. Burmese)
With this resurgence and growth in popularity of this era of Thai fighting however, came the danger of the appetite for sensation– an appetite for destruction that seems to plague all sports that hold a relationship with entertainment. The art began to take forms that were less effective and more entertaining. We saw this with the gladiators in the coliseum, professional wrestling of the 1990s, the David vs. Goliath matches of K1 in the 2000s and even the UFC of today. As the saying goes, history repeats itself. Muay Kadd Cheuk bouts were not limited to two opponents, but could be against multiple combatants, one versus two opponents or one versus three opponents were not uncommon matches to be made. Contests also began to become quite extreme, that is fighting to the death. ‘Muay Nuam’, meaning ‘to the death’ is an extreme example in which fighters not only fought to the death, but fought with their hands with rope, and can even be dipped in tree sap and broken glass. This system of fighting did not have formal officiating. A fighter only had three outlets for the match: Quit, Death, or Rescue (by a loved one). Many of these sensationalized acts were fueled by another element that surfaced in the hype of entertainment: Gambling.
The fever for money had changed the origins and intentions for Thai Fighting Arts profoundly, demanding more and more acts of brutality for the sake of entertainment, and profit. Money, entertainment, and business ways began eroding our proud heritage of fighting and we began to turn against one another for the entertainment of fans. This era, was a turbulent one. Something had to change, and Thailand’s King Rama IV found his solution in England.
The Sport Period
As a Prince, Rama IV had become concerned with what the Thai Fighting Arts had turned into, and sought to clean it up. As part of his kingship, Prince Rama IV had his formal education come from England and during his stay in there he was exposed to their own form of pugilism: ‘Boxing’, under the Marquis of Queensbury Rules. Prince Rama IV saw the parallels between the English sport and his native country, but saw much value in their concept of regulation. He sought to protect the fighters’ safety, while providing his country with a healthy and safe avenue for combat sport. ‘Boxing’ under the Marquis of Queensbury rules inspired several adoptions to the Thai sport: i) a standardized ring for contestants to compete on, ii) timed rounds to regulate the length of competition, iii) weight classes to ensure bouts were as even in strength as possible, and iv) fight records to ensure bouts were as even in skill and ability as possible.
Prince Rama IV had found the solution he had been looking for to bring to his countrymen. He was deeply concerned that his countrymen were experiencing a de-evolution of sport. He saw a nation with a proud heritage of self-protection (essentially soldiers) reducing their once noble skills for mere entertainment. What was worse was that good strong men were dying as a result of this desire from entertainment and profit. The Prince’s vision was to reverse the effect of de-evolution and channel a nation of warriors towards a new identity: The Athlete. This became the age of ‘Muay Sai Naurm’, roughly translated as ‘regulation’; the transition to official sport.
The effects of the King Rama IV legislative changes were profound. The Thai man is a proud man. Thailand has never been occupied by another nation and fighting is in our blood. We do not lust for blood, but we also do not run from a fight. This can be both a gift and a curse if unmanaged and for the time being, King Rama IV was able to reverse the self destructive path our people were heading towards.