Muay Thai and Tomoi: Blood Brothers
Tomoi and Muay Thai: Blood Brothers
I’ve been asked recently to examine the nature of the relationship between Muay Thai and Malay Tomoi. So as I set to my task I realized that there has been much written about this topic in fairly alarmingly broad defining strokes by its authors (see the wikipedia article). I have never seen this topic given a balanced viewpoint in published form ever. This will be my attempt.
On one hand many western authors of these articles have made a far too homogenized and frankly stereotypical overview on Tomoi and Muay Thai as a basic archetype of a Southeast Asian ringsport that looks alike to them. At the other end of the extreme authors seem eager to focus on the ethnic and regional differences above all else and ignore the common ground altogether that Tomoi and Muay Thai share. To understand the differences and similarities wholly one has to understand some history.
The truth is in the details and as much differences as the two arts and sports have, they have more characteristics in common than not. For example, in traditional silat a boxer performs the Kembungan, flower dance. The dance is performed to align the body with postures to ensure a balance and protection. It also was to call upon the divine creator to increase your skill. In Muay Thai a boxer performs the wai kru to honor their gym, teacher, and their opponent. The similarities in performing the dances are undeniable. However, so are the differences. If only different in intent and not cosmetic appearance the differences are notable and important in defining both the origin and spiritual significance in each.
Unfortunately the history of ancient Tomoi and Muay Thai is largely undocumented leaving speculation for possible answers. What I find to be the most likely answer to the origins of both is that Muay Thai and Tomoi had a common ancestor dating back to the time when the region of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Pahand and what is now known as modern Thailand were one place. The traditional pre-fight dance became divergent in practice and meaning as Thailand became primarily Buddhist and Malaysia became primarily Muslim. This to me is the most logical answer given what is known of a largely undocumented period of time for this ancient sport. Any other scenario becomes largely a discussion of which came first and invariably its subject to the same things that make the which came first: chicken or the egg discussions ultimately fruitless. Except to serve to stoke the flames of nationalism and not truth I find these discussions nearly pointless.
The other fact that is certain is that due to separation and Thailand’s quick growth as ringsport in Thailand: Tomoi and Muay Thai began to diverge. As a ringsport Muay Thai is so broadly practiced and so commonly televised that Muay Thai’s public presence and ring presence became the dominant sport. Once again there are various authors that would disagree on the basis of a largely cultural bias. But it is difficult to argue against Thailand’s progress and dominance of its sport both internationally and in Thailand as a simple immutable fact.
As of 2006 Malaysia began to enjoy a revival in Muay Thai. Events became more widely promoted and Malaysia became host to many international competitors in Muay Thai including the Z-1 Muay Thai events. In the modern era Tomoi and Muay Thai have become virtually interchangeable terms to describe this ringsport. While the differences in origin are notable and in my opinion important enough not to be dismissed Muay Thai and Tomoi share more common ground. Both have deep spiritual roots, both are noted for the effectiveness in ring sport and as a means of self-defense, and both are from the same part of the world.
It’s enough that both should be considered as brothers just as Thais and Malay are of the same family. The differences are enough to make the family tree of Tomoi and Muay Thai interesting but not enough to wholly divide them. Thanks for reading.