Annie Eagle, Betsy Miller, Gian Gargaro,
Celeste J. Holland, David Summers, Bea Camp, John Cadet, Reinhard
Hohler, Oliver Hargreave, Bonnie Brereton, Nancy Eberhardt, Nattiluck
Thadruk, Renee Vines, Dale Harcourt, Judy Harcourt, Michael Tuckson,
Hans Bänziger, Saengdao Bänziger, Manus Brinkman, Annelie
Hendriks, Jay Rabin, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, Scott B. Holland,
Bodil Blokker, Byron Meador. An audience of 26.
The subjects most often depicted on monastery
walls are the Life of the Buddha and the tosachat, the last ten Jatakas
telling of the Buddha's ten previous lives. These Jatakas each explain
a given virtue which the Buddha-to-be had to perfect before he could
Interspersed among these morality tales are
delightful vignettes of everyday life. The genre scenes are meant to
relate the parable to the life of the viewer. Thus scenes of rice
farming, dancing, drinking, ribaldry, sex, animal husbandry, etc. can
be positioned next to a scene from a Jataka story. I will first explain
a number of artistic conventions used by the traditional mural painter
then go into the subject matter which also includes the Thai cosmos,
the Three Worlds, and such individuals as the denizens of the Himavat
forest, animals both mythical and real, devas, apsaras, and hell
scenes. I will then show slides with key scenes from the Jatakas using
brief examples from the tosachat, but go into more depth with the
Vessantara Jataka, the last and most important life of the Buddha to be.
Before we get into the details of Buddhist mural
paintings in Thailand, we should consider the Thai traditional
worldview or Thai Cosmos as it permeates much that we will see in mural
painting. The traditional Thai Cosmos, which is derived from Indian
precepts, is often pictured in a schematic drawing such as seen in
detail on this magnificent footprint of the Buddha.
SLIDE: Buddha's Footprint: The lower part shows
the Three Worlds. Some older footprints from Lan Na show the Cosmos.
The Cosmos is very complicated but basically it consists of the Three
Worlds: these are not the Western triad of earth, hell and heaven.
Here, they are: The Worlds of the Senses, Form and Non-Form. Mt. Meru
in the center is the Cosmic Axis. Mt. Meru is located somewhere in the
Himalayas and is surrounded by seven peaks, seven oceans, and four
continents. These are shown in cross section as if Mt. Meru and the
peaks have been cut in half. Mt. Meru in the center, the seven halved
peaks on either side.
SLIDE: Painting: Mt. Meru, peaks, continents, and
seas. In central Thailand, the Cosmos most often appears in mural
painting, usually placed behind or at the side of the main Buddha image
in the back. Again we have the traditional way to depict Mt. Meru and
its seven peaks in cross section. Along the sides of Mt. Meru are the
sun and the moon as well as various planets and constellations all
represented by godly figures seated in palaces.
SLIDE: The Cosmos from above: The Cosmos in this
painting is seen from above looking down at Mt. Meru with its seven
peaks are in tiered circular form. The four continents are spread at
its feet, one of which is inhabited by humans such as ourselves. The
continents are surrounded in turn by oceans.
SLIDE: The Cosmos: Mt. Meru and Tavatimsa; Another
view, this on a lacquer cabinet, showing Mt. Meru. At its feet are the
continents and the mythical Himavat forest filled with thick
impenetrable jungle interspersed with all manner of marvelous creatures.
SLIDE: Himavat: lacquer with squirrels and
kinnari: The mythical Himavat forest which is populated by many real
and strange beasts and humanoids.
SLIDE: Hermits and animals
SLIDE: Indra on Erawan: At the apex of Mt. Meru is
Tavatimsa Heaven, ruled over by the god Indra. Indra, the king of the
thirty-three Gods, can often be identified in Thai painting by his
green color and also by his mount, which is the three-headed elephant
SLIDE: The Buddha descending from Tavatimsa
Heaven: From Tavatimsa Heaven, the Buddha is descending to the world of
man. He had gone to Tavatimsa Heaven to preach to his mother who had
died seven days after his birth and thus did not have access to the
dharma. Having preached to her, thus assuring she would become a
bodhisattva or future Buddha, he returns to the world of man and is
shown here as descending on a ladder. Above are the
denizens of Tavatimsa. Indra's kingdom is splendid, inhabited by
heavenly musicians (gandhabbas) and beautiful dancers (apsaras),
crystal palaces and fragrant gardens. Here one can enjoy of every
sensual delights. Below is the World of Man. Hell is shown in the
bottom right-hand corner looking as if the earth was dug into to reveal
the tortures below.
SLIDE: Gandarvas Musicians and Indra: As he
descends the Buddha is accompanied by musicians and Indra himself
blowing a conch shell.
SLIDE: Hell: The various hells are located beneath
Mt. Meru. The Thai muralist delighted in painting the agonies suffered
in these hells, just as the viewer was curious to see what torments
might await. Gruesome tortures are often more interesting to see in
murals than fair-faced divinities who pretty much look alike. Thus the
Thai Cosmos consists of Three Worlds or stages (bhumi):
SLIDE: stupa: This is symbolized by the stupa or
jay-di (chedi) a replica of Mt. Meru, the cosmic axis where earth is
the main base (the hells are unseen below) and the three moldings or
rings between the base and the bell represent the three worlds.
1. Stage One: Worlds of the Phenomena, or Senses
All of the just mentioned worlds, the hells, the continents, Mt. Meru,
the Himavat forest and Tavatimsa heaven all belongs to the first of
three stages and it is called the Stage of the Senses.
2. Stage Two: World of Form The second of the
three stages is the world of form and intellect. It consists of 16
Brahma heavens each ruled over by a great Brahma and symbolized by the
tapering superimposed rings above the bell.
3. Stage Three: World of Non-form The third
stage, the stage of non-form, consists of four formless worlds where
there is no emotion, no physical shape, no desire but only the bliss of
Above or out of that is nirvana, the ultimate goal
of all Buddhists. Nirvana is indescribable, beyond human comprehension,
without form or time or space, beyond reason, beauty or bliss. Thus it
cannot be represented in painting not even in symbolic manner. But this
is all very abstract and difficult. Just remember that Mt. Meru is the
cosmic axis and that the hells below, the earth at its foot and
Tavatimsa Heaven above all belong to the world of the senses and thus
can be described pictorially.
SLIDE: alms giving: Most Thais believed that one
should do good works in order to improve one's karmic accretions and
insure a better rebirth. If the individual has done evil deeds such as
killing or maiming, he or she could tumble backwards down the chain of
rebirths or be reborn in one of the hells. Nevertheless, the emphasis
in Thai traditional art is not so much on hell fire and damnation but
on good conduct such as alms giving and following the Buddha's
teachings. In Thailand as in Southeast Asia, the goal of all Buddhists
is to work one's way up, over many, many lives, thousands of lives,
from human being, to exceptional human, to enlightened human and thence
into nirvana. The path is fraught with peril but the Buddha's teaching
pointed out the path to reach that goal.
So now from the realm of the cosmos and three
worlds we turn to the world of man where mural paintings in the
monasteries or temples presented the Buddha's teachings by means of
many pictorial tales. But in order to understand the murals, we first
need to look at some Thai painting conventions.
SLIDE: Over-all mural (Wat Chong Non Si) : Many
incidences of a story or several stories can be combined on one wall of
a monastery building by using a bird's eye view from an angle above.
Like other Asian painting, the lower part of the mural is often
depicted as the foreground, the middle ground is above it in the middle
of the wall, while the distant action is placed higher on the wall. But
not always. Often heavenly hosts (the divinities) are above, the main
scene is in the middle and genre scenes are below - but not always. In
order to figure out which story is being told, one looks for key scenes
which can be scattered about any section of the mural. The stories in
traditional painting can also be separated by artificial horizontal or
vertical lines. A favorite devise, particularly in Bangkok, is the
SLIDE: zig-zag (Temi story) : A fine example of
the zig-zag line.
SLIDE: scenes separated by landscape:
Alternatively, the incidences in a story can be separated by landscape
(hills, tree line, mountains) or by architectural elements such as a
series of buildings or a crenellated fortress wall.
SLIDE: a crenellated fortress wall
SLIDE: Contemporary - Indianized/Westernized: Mix
Buddhist stories (Jatakas) and Life of the Buddha scenes. Recently,
(early 20th C.) a very Westernized style of painting appeared on the
walls with Indian looking characters (after all Buddha was an Indian
prince before he became enlightened). They use western perspective with
a vanishing point instead of the bird's eye view. Of little artistic
merit, they at least make the stories easier to understand by being
segregated into discrete panels.
SLIDE: Interior wihan with murals, Wat Suwannaram,
Petchburi: Here is an interior of a central Thai wat with paintings in
SLIDE: over-all Isaan (Wat Sra Bua Kaew) : In
contrast to the more formal presentation of Central and Northern
Thailand, the murals of Isaan or Northeastern Thailand are often wildly
inconsistent. It is folk art at its most charming and sincere. Scenes
from the Jatakas and Life of the Buddha might not even be sequential,
or on the same wall. They are gutsy, vibrant, showing all aspects of
local life including sex, violence, sickness, death, festivals,
ribaldry, caring, livelihoods, etc.
In the Northeast, being a poorer area, the
painter was often a local person who was willing to do the job
inexpensively or even a monk. Other painters for the most part were
itinerant or lived in craft villages. Several would work on the same
scene but usually a master would outline the composition and main
figures and the apprentices would fill in the color.Population was
sparse in early centuries, craftsmen were coveted, whether painters,
lacquer-ware specialists, gold or silver smiths. Often captured as war
booty and they were taken to the new kingdom.
SLIDE: Heroes, Royalty, Gods and Demons: Dressed
in royal attire, divinities and royalty show their advanced state which
has been acquired by merit accrued over many lives. They have calm,
comely faces, never show their teeth or emotions and their skin is
fair, golden or a special color.
The body is idealized: males have broad shoulders
while the females have spherical breasts (like orbs), tiny waists and
flowing arms. The action is depicted in a stylized manner using
traditional Thai dance positions of body, hands and legs.
Demons: Demons and monkeys show their teeth while
demons have tusks, brightly colored skin, staring open eyes (often
blue). Their proportions are heavier and their postures are also
stylized as in dance. Demons are fierce Guardians of the Earth's riches.
SLIDE: Ascetics worshipping the Buddha:
Chinese-influenced flowers reflect the third reign's influence.
Common Folk: Ordinary people are often
dark-skinned and their actions are natural when they appear in the
SLIDE: commoners or attendants at the Birth of the
SLIDE: Hanuman: Of particular interest is Hanuman,
half god - half forest monkey who appears in the Ramayana story,
another favorite topic
SLIDE: Hanuman tweaking a bosom: Hanuman really
likes females and thus can be easily distracted from an urgent mission
by a comely female of any species. Composite animal & human such as
the gorgeous kinnari, a Thai favorite, combine the conventions for both
often in an idealized form.
SLIDE: kinnari: Mythic Scenes idealized the horse
and the elephant as seen in these exquisite Mother of Pearl examples
SLIDES: white elephant; magic horses can fly
through the air
SLIDE: Elephant & female mahout: Domestic
animals such as the water buffalo, the horse and the elephant as well
as domestic fowl are shown in a relatively realistic manner
SLIDES: water buffalo; cows
The purpose of the murals was to instruct through
example. In order to engage all members of society whether royalty or
commoner, and to make the stories relevant, the dress, cityscape and
genre scenes were transformed from 6th C. B.C. India to a time
contemporary with the days when the mural was painted - whether in the
18th, 19th or 20th C. Thailand. Thus genre scenes, showing all nature
of human business were included:
SLIDES: rice pounding; whispering/gossip;
answering the call of nature into a river; dancing & ribaldry; Love
making, foreigner with hat; loving couple sharing Pleasures; rabbits
sharing Pleasures; mythical animals; Entertainment - shadow puppet
show; arrival of French foreigners Thus, these murals are not only a
high expression of Thai art, they have an added ethnographic attraction
by recording of the life of that time
Thai Mural Painting has two favorite subjects: the
Life of the Buddha and the Vessantara Jataka. The Vessantara story
recounts the last life of the Buddha-to-be before becoming Enlightened.
As many of you know, most Thais believe in reincarnation. The Buddha
himself claimed that he could remember 547 of his past lives. He worked
his way up the chain of rebirths through fish, animal, higher animal,
human, evolved person, to highly evolved person. The stories of his
previous lives are called the Jatakas.
His last ten lives before he became the Buddha,
known as the thosachat, were the most important. In each of these ten
lives he learned or demonstrated fully a given virtue. Of these, the
last life or Vessantara (Wesandon in Thai), called the Great Life or
Mahachat is the most significant.
In Thai mural painting, these ten Jatakas are
shown in a proscribed manner usually with a key scene for
identification. The Jatakas also appear on banner paintings, lacquer
ware and manuscripts Some of the Jataka stories are long and
complicated but here I will give you a brief synopsis of each and show
you an identifying scene. Then we will go into more detail on the last
one, the Vessantra Jataka.
1. Renunciation: Determination: Temiya "the Mute
SLIDE: Temiya, the Baby Prince, decides to becomes
dumb after seeing his father condemning someone to death.
SLIDE: Temiya: Temiya is ordered to be killed.
However, he lifts chariot, shows strength & speaks, preaches, all
convert and become ascetics.
2. Courage: Mahajanaka "The Lost Prince"
SLIDE: Mahajanaka shipwrecked: The pregnant Queen
flees the kingdom, prince Mahajanaka born in exile, sails for
Suvnabhumi (golden land) storm,
shipwreck, swims for 7 days, saved by sea goddess.
SLIDE: future king identified: Ministers recognize
sleeping Mahajanaka as their future king because of his special marks
(palms of his hands and
soles of his feet). Long reign, all convert, become ascetics.
3. Loving kindness: SAMA "the Devoted Son."
SLIDE: over-all: Sama shot, parents grieve : Born
of blinded parents, loving care for them, mistakenly shot in forest by
SLIDES: Sama shot; Parents grieve: Parents weep
& perform solemn act of faith, Sama restored, sight regained,
preaches all convert and become
4. Resolution: Nimi "the Noble King" visits heaven
SLIDE: Nimi in Heaven and Hell
5. Wisdom: Mahasodha "the Clever Sage"
SLIDES: the kingdom under attack; uses ruse of
dropping a jewel at his feet to make greedy enemy appear to bow down to
6. Perseverance: Bhuridatta "the Naga Prince":
Only time Buddha-to-be is a creature but he is part god. A lot of magic
but he keeps the precepts and ascends to heaven with a host of virtuous
SLIDES: naga prince captured with a special charm;
made to perform at the market.
7. Forbearance: Patience: Canda-Kumara "the
SLIDE: King under evil counsel orders all his
court burned including Canda-Kumara. Indra breaks the sacrificial
umbrella at the last minute ending evil ceremony, crowd kills evil
counselor, Canda-Kumara crowned king.
8. Equanimity: Narada "The Great Brahma"
SLIDE: Narada descends from Brahma heavens to give
good council to another wayward king who, once shown the hells,
reforms. Narada is in the form of a Brahma with 4 faces from the Brahma
Heavens, carries a yoke with 2 golden alms bowls.
9. Truthfulness: Vidhura-Pandita "the Eloquent
SLIDES: Demon Punnaka wins Vidhura in a dice game;
Vidhura tries to kill Vidhura: Dragged through the sky holding on to
horse's tail. Vidhura-Panita converts Punnaka with sermon of truthful
10. Charity: Vessantara "the Charitable Prince"
SLIDES: Indra decides Buddha-to-be is reborn;
gives away magic white elephant to Brahmins, exiled; gives away horses,
chariot; walking to hermitage with wife, Maddi & 2 children;
Vessantara & his wife become hermits; Chujok, evil old Brahmin, has
beautiful young wife who demands a servant; Chujok location of
Vessantara from a hermit; Chujok begs for children as servants,
Vessantara acquiesces; Children hide in pond under lotus leaves; Chujok
returning home, ties children to tree, sleeps in safely in hammock,
gods come down to comfort the boy, nurse the girl; wife Maddi out
gathering nuts and berries, kept from returning by wild beasts;
Vessantara consoles Maddi; God Indra disguised as Brahmin asks for
Maddi, Vessantara acquiesces. Good ending: Thunder, earthquake at Great
Deed, Indra changes back to a god, returns Maddi; Ransom children from
Chujok, Chujok dies of gluttony; King & Queen come to fetch family,
Vessantara made King, long wise rule, then all become ascetics.
Purpose: Each tale has significance and a moral.
The consequence of wrong-doing is clear. The moral of Vessantara tale:
Charity, giving, letting go, and non-attachment including the bonds of
family and human love. This is a hard lesson for every Buddhist. After
acquiring the aforementioned virtues, the Buddha-to-be was able to
attain enlightenment in his last earthly life.
SLIDE: Buddha seated maravijaya: Here the Buddha
is calling Mother Earth to be his witness that he had accumulated
enough merit over those previous lives to become an Enlightened One or
A knowledgably enlightened question and answer
session brought to a conclusion what had been a most interesting,
informative and entertaining evening.
to Meeting Diary