The unique character of Thai Buddhism is clearest in its rites and celebrations. But there are manifestations of diverse religious elements blended into Buddhist temple art as well. Everywhere you look there are pre-Buddhist hints and extraneous impositions. Sometimes temple art is the main thing that relates Buddhism to its setting and gives it residency. At the same time, often it is art that expands Buddhism’s scope.
Berm is a specialist. He is a temple artist. His main work is colorful temple frescoes. Most village temples have wall paintings. In fact, I don’t know of a Thai Buddhist temple that does not. Traditionally, the paintings are of legendary events in the life of the Lord Buddha. Often there are other sets which portray village history or customs. In the village of Ta Pong, San Pa Tong District, the vihara is adorned with a set of paintings that I think Berm did that show the founding of the village, evolution of the temple and various festivals. Old paintings in a temple in Nan are the most famous thing about the town.
This year Berm has been commissioned to produce a set of temple doors and window shutters for a temple in Chachoengsao, east of Bangkok. The panels are solid teak and are about a meter by two meters by an inch and a half thick. The doors are much larger. The work involves finding wood to meet these specifications, which is extremely difficult, and then cutting the panels. They must be sanded to a velvety finish and then carefully covered with 7 to 10 coats of black lacquer. Each coat is allowed to dry and kept free of dust. The final coats are polished to a patent-leather luster.
Then the delicate work begins. Every panel is unique. The shutters and doors come in pairs. Each pair is a work of art. The temple in Chachoengsao chose pictures of divinities for their windows. The artist copied the pictures from the restoration project of Wat Ram Poeng (Tapotaram) at the foot of Doi Sutape in Chiang Mai. Using a picture book for reference, Berm produced full size drawings on paper – in the same way stained glass window makers work from what they call a “cartoon”. The cartoon was painted on the lacquer panels by hand and then gold foil was applied. The process gives new meaning to the word “tedious” but the results are spectacular.
In the pictures accompanying this account we see the cartoon of พระพาย the god of storms and the finished panel ofพระพิรุณ the god of rain. The pairs of window panels Berm has finished include the following:
พระวันทร์ the god of those born on Monday, holding a lotus in full bloom, astride (standing on) a horse
พระอาทิฅย์ the god of those born on Sunday, holding a bow, astride a lion
พระพุธ the god of those born on Wednesday, holding an open scroll in the right hand and a lotus in full bloom in the left, astride an elephant
พระอังคาร the god of those born on Thursday, holding an axe in the right hand with his left hand at his side, astride a buffalo
พระศุกร์ the god of those born on Friday, holding a sword in its sheath with both hands, astride an ox
พระพฤหัสบดี the god of those born on Thursday, holding a cudgel, astride a golden stag
พระยม the god who judges and protects all spirits in the world of hell, the god of death, holding a bared sword in his right hand and a flower (or feather) in his left, astride a barn owl
พระเสาร์ the god of those born on Saturday, holding a shield in his right hand and a bared sword in his left, astride a tiger (he is the son of พระอาทิตย์ )
พระอัคคี the god of fire and therefore of cremations, with his right palm in the attitude of forbidding or preventing and with a hand-held trident in his left, astride a horse
พระโสมเทพ the god who dispenses light in the evening, deity of beauty and attractiveness, and also god of liquor (intoxicants), astride a deer
พระพิรุณ god of rain, holding an open lotus in his right hand and a bared sword pointed downward in his left, mounted on a Naga
พระพาย the god of wind and storms both on earth and in heaven, holding a sword with the point upward in his right hand and a curly cloud or wisp of wind in his left, astride a deer
พระแม่ธรณี goddess of the land and of earth, standing on rocks wringing out her hair
พระราหู god of those born on Wednesday night, holding a bloom in his right hand and a large orb (or rattle) in his left, astride a giant
To a large extent these panels define Thai design. The complex curves are characteristic of Thai design. The work is organic rather than geometric, but absolutely symmetrical just the same. There is no attempt at perspective, but every effort is spent on intricate detail. The lines fold and undulate, overlap and disappear in ways that are hopeless to follow but never random or haphazard. The effect is to force the observer to pay attention to the central figure and fathom its meaning and identity from clues that are all but hidden. For example,Phra Pi Run’s partner Phra Pai, the god of storms, has a bolt of lightning amid clouds over his head, rendered in about five lines buried among intricate details. The significance of the characters are underscored by the way they are astride their mounts, standing with their miniature beasts beneath their feet, in the same way that divinities in Egypt and Babylon were larger than the minions worshiping them. In Asian art it is a sign of reverence to be symbolically beneath the feet of divinities.
But why are Thai Buddhist temples featuring divinities at all? A monk speaking at an international conference in April 2015 asked this question, and concluded the laity are uninformed when they include reverence to divinities in their faith system. Divinities, the monk insisted, were a pre-Buddhist way of propping up the social hierarchy with a parallel sacred hierarchy. The solution, the monk proposed, was better education. It probably does not undermine the monk’s argument to point out that most temple art without direct Buddhist reference are not gods, but portray classical creatures derived from the Ramakien, and demi-gods like those that abound at Angkor Wat, both sources which are important mythic supports to the concept of Thai royalty as semi or somehow divine.
This line of reasoning, that the laity need to be educated away from interest in gods and divinities, is common among Thai Buddhists with advanced education – and (I dare say) whose perspectives are at a distance from village life with its dependence on the thick mixture of supernatural with doctrinal-scriptural practices. Academic Buddhists spurn supernaturalism as superstition and work to reduce its influence. But supernaturalism is an aspect of popular Buddhism that defies argumentation. Only superior art will succeed against it.
In an effort to wean laity away from attention to gods of the days of the week, images of the Lord Buddha in various poses for various days of the week are now being featured. The reclining Buddha represents Tuesday, for example, rather than Phra Ankarn.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.