Art and Architectures
Thai Buddhist Art and Architecture:
Brief Overview and Selected Bibliography
Despite the distinctive styles and diverse influences on Buddhist Art in Thailand, it is a subject that has garnered little attention in the field of art history compared to the art of India, China, and Cambodia. Still, a handful of scholars have helped map out the dominant influences on Thai art and revealed a plethora of Thai innovations. In the early 20 th century most scholars saw Thai Buddhist art and architecture as merely a derivative of Indian and Chinese styles that entered the region through Khmer, Javanese, and Burmese interlocutors. However, recent work by Hiram Woodward, Na Na Paknam, Robert Brown, Nancy Tingley, Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Santi Leksukhum, Peter Skilling, John Lipostad, Dhiravat na Pombejra, Forest McGill, Henry Ginsberg, Piriya Krairiksh, Carol Straton, Betty Gosling, Dennis Byrne, among others have shown that Thai art is more than simply an odd conglomeration of Sino and Indic influences. Moreover, there are many styles that are unique to Thailand and that have in turn influenced neighboring regions. Below I offer a short summary of the major styles in Thai art and links to images and bibliographic sources. Images of a number of monasteries, images, murals, and the like can be found in this site's "image library" and "monasteries in detail" sections.
The oldest Buddhist art in the region called Thailand today is in the form of stone inscriptions ( charuek ), stupas ( chedi ), and dhamma wheels ( thammachak ). Robert Brown has written extensively on the wheels and shows how local production adapted a dominant Indian symbol. Hiram Woodward published a ground-breaking article on Thai stupa symbology (" The Thai "Chedi" and the Problem of Stupa Interpretation," History of Religions , Vol. 33, No. 1 (Aug., 1993), pp. 71-91). Inscriptions have been documented extensively by George Coedes, Hans Penth, Peter Skilling, Pampen Kreuathai, Srilao Kesaprohm, Dhida Saraya, A.B. Griswold, and Prasert na Nagara. These early forms reflect an active, although primarily elite, group of relatively independent kingdoms which each had artists and scribes promoting particular local styles. Inscriptions in Fakkham and Tai Lanna scripts from the north often contain astrological charts and are on stones shaped like Christian headstones, while stone inscriptions and bas reliefs from the Southern and Central regions are often found on carved into lingas, obelisks, and wheels. Stupas or chedi show a great diversity of styles. However, most include a few basic features: a tumulus, a round base (drum), a cubical platform with a nine tiered stone, gold-leaf, or bronze umbrella on top.
Bell shaped stupas were common in Central and Southern Thailand between the 5 th and 12 th centuries until the Khmer (or Angkorian) "prang" style stupa came to dominate monastic architecture especially in Lopburi, Suphanburi, Sukhothai, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surin, Srisaket, and Kampaengphet. Alongside these prang were square and hexagonal based stupas. In fact, Sukhothai monasteries have many different stupa styles side by side. Cities in the region, even early on, were cosmopolitan in their art and architecture, constantly adapting old styles and presenting new interpretations. For example, Wat Sa Si has nine different chedi (in different states of ruin) and a Sinhalese style chedi. Wat Channasongkhram has a unique chedi with three bases.
Thai art is best known for the wide range of exquisite Buddha images ( phra buddharup ). These images come in a variety of styles usually named by scholars according to the city/kingdom of their origin—i.e. Sukhothai Style, Lanna Style, Lopburi Style, Ayutthya Style, etc. However, in Thai they often have proper names given during their "opening of the eyes" ceremony in which the image in chanted over, has its eyes painted, and is bathed with holy water. These rituals are very elaborate and are well described in Donald Swearer's Becoming the Buddha . These proper names include: Phra Sri Sakyamuni, Phra Buddha Chinarat, Phra Kaeo Morakhot, Phra Buddha Sihing, Luang Pho To, Luang Pho Yai, and the like. These names either describe the size of the image ("yai" means "big" for example), their supposed place of origin ("sihing" is connected to Sri Lanka or "singhala"), or are epithets of the Buddha like "Sakyamuni." Besides their names, Buddha images can be carved or cast with up to 43 different mudras or hand postures. These include the "earth-witness," "holding back the ocean of evil," "calling the rain," "meditation," "preaching the dhamma," etc. Buddha images are generally found in four positions or stances ( iriyapadas ): a seated position, a standing position, a walking position and a reclining position. Unique local styles blossomed in the Sukhothai period (13th-14th centuries).
The first truly unique Thai Buddha images began to be cast and carved in Sukhothai (although there are excellent examples from Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Nakhon Pathom, Chiang Saen made before the rise of the kingdom of Sukhothai in the 1200s. Buddha images from the Sukhothai region and era have distinctive aquiline noses, long and graceful fingers, and are often depicted walking which extenuates their languidness.
Architecture from this period is distinctive as well and would have great effect on later periods in Northern and South-Central Thailand. This the first period in which the extended eves of monastery roofs, long wooden lintels, wide wooden gables with glass mosaics and intricate carving, and long and sinuous roof-edge finials ( chaofa ) became common features. On top of the roofs, which eventually became multi-tiered, there is often a wooden (or brick) mondop as well. This style was adapted in the kingdoms of Lanna, Lanxang, and Ayuttya. Furthermore, the types of buildings found in most major monasteries became more standard. For example, royal sponsored monasteries usually included a reliquary ( chedi , prang, or stupa), ordination/ritual hall ( bot or uposatha ), a sermon hall ( wihaan or vihaara ), as well as open-air pavilions ( saalaa ), walls, and monastic cells ( kuṭi ).
In the Sukhothai period, inside the sermon halls and ordination halls there began to appear extensive floor-to-ceiling painted murals. As a new study on Wat Sri Chum shows, these murals depicted scenes from the previous birth stories of Buddha ( chadok or jaataka ) and later scenes from historical events, the Traibhumikatha (Thai cosmological text), and the Raamayaana (Thai: Ramakian ). Most often these are long rectangular rooms with an altar (holding several Buddha images) in a nave. Tall, glassless windows have heavy wooden shudders and wide front doors. Occasionally there are square prasat (palace or castle) have tall spires with four entrances at the cardinal points. These can enclose a throne, precious objects, or an image of a monarch. In the North, it was also common (and later throughout Thailand) to find ho trai (libraries or "Tipitaka Halls") on wooden stilts or high stone bases with narrow and steep staircases. In the Northeast and Central parts of Thailand, these libraries were often built on stilts in ponds (to protect the palm-leaf is manuscripts from insects). Some monasteries (as is especially common in Laos) also have ho rakhang (bell tower/belfry). An often overlooked aspect of Sukhothai art are the wonderful, so-called, "sangkhalok," glazed ceramics. There were two forms, the monochromes in brown and white and the celadon and painted wares. The later have dark brown or black designs and have a clear glaze. During the 15th – 16th C these were popular in South East Asia and exported to Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere.
The best examples of the richness of Sukhothai art and architecture are seen at Wat Yai Chaimongkon which, although in ruins, still holds several large Buddha images. Wat Phra Si Sanphet has a line of well-preserved chedi and Wat Phra Monkol Bophit contains the best example of a colossal bronze Buddha image of the period. Wat Na Phra Meru has a royally attired Buddha image, a style which flourished in Ayutthya and the Shan speaking regions. Two museums in Sukhothai are also homes to some of the best examples of fourteenth century Buddhist art in all of Southeast Asia. Some of the best examples of Sukhothai art are no longer in situ. For example, the very large cast bronze Buddha image known as Phra Sri Sakyamuni made in 1362 was moved to Wat Suthat in Bangkok in the late eighteenth century. The image was so large and important that a new pier (Tha Tian) was prepared in Bangkok to accommodate the barge carrying the image. Another bronze walking image is now at Wat Benchamamophit in Bangkok, a bronze image with a naga snake formerly at Wat Mai is now in the Ramkhamhaeng Museum and the National Museum holds a number of images, inscriptions, and pieces of ceramics.
Outside of Sukhothai, in Si Satchanalai, is one of the most interesting monasteries artistically—Wat Sri Chum. Besides its large image, its extensive depiections of Jataka tails on the walls are some of the oldest and best examples of Thai narrative art. A new book on Wat Sri Chum: Past Lives of the Buddha – Wat Si Chum and the Art of Sukhothai, edited with contributions by Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, Pierre Pichard, Peter Skilling, Pattaratorn Chirapravati and Santi Pakdeekham. Well-preserved decorative floral art of the period is also seen at Wat Nang Phraya close by. Another satellite city near Sukhothai is Kampaengphet which has extensive ruins of red laterite monasteries and fortresses. The famous Phra Buddha Chinarat image at Wat Yai in the city of Phisanulok 45 minutes from Sukhothai dates from the 1400s and is the second most sacred image in Thailand (after the Emerald Buddha).
In Lanna, in what is today Thailand's far north, particular regional art and architectural styles emerged in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Waralan Punyasurat, Saraswati Ongsakun , Donald Swearer, Carol Stratton, Na Na Paknam, Justin McDaniel, Hans Penth, Daniel Veidlinger, Chirasak Dechawongya, Sommai Premchit, David Wyatt, among others have worked extensively on the styles of images, inscriptions, monastic architecture, and manuscript design. The earliest Northern Thai artistic styles are generally gouped under the rubric: Chiang Saen Style which designates Buddha images with lotus flower shaped halos, large hair curls, and prominent chins. However, by the sixteenth century new image styles were emerging with influences from Shan, Burmese, Mon, Lao, Tai Leu, Sinhalese, and Sukhothai images. Unique Lanna style images with flame-like halos, slender bodies, and arched eyebrows began being cast and carved throughout the region. There were also hundreds of wooden and lacquer Buddha images being made. While most of these have disintegrated overtime, the Tai Leu and Tai Khoen style small standing wooden images with black and gold lacquer continued to be made into the nineteenth century. Most often they are in the "calling the rain" pose ( bang ha fon ) which is relatively unique to the provinces of Nan, Phayao, Phrae, Uttaradit, and parts of Laos. These small images and are some of the best examples of local art.
The center of much of the artistic production in the North was in Chiang Mai, known in tourist magazines as the "Rose of the North" or the ancient capital of Thailand's Northern kingdom, Lan Na (The Kingdom of One Million Fields). Chiang Mai was the largest city in the region and many of its large monasteries had attracted the best monastic students, teachers, and artisans for centuries. Wat Suan Dok, Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Chiang Man, and Wat Phra Singh had run large monastic schools since the fourteenth century and all had large libraries of palm-leaf manuscripts. Many Sri Lankan, Burmese, Shan, Khoen, Leu, Lao, Siamese, Mon and Yuan monks had studied or taught in the city over time. Burmese occupation from the 1550s to the 1770s brought Burmese influence to the art in the region. British teak merchants also brought Shan forestry workers into the region (especially Phrae and Lampang) in the 1850s and Shan architecture and art had a brief flourishing as well. Wat Chedi Luang has been the crown jewel of Chiang Mai monasteries for almost 700 years. It lies in the center of the city and the spire atop its main stupa , even after it partially collapsed after an earthquake, was the highest point in the city until very recently when high rise hotels were built along the river. The stupa / chedi was built under the sponsorship of King Saen Meuang Ma in 1391. King Sam Fang Kaen deposited a relic of the Buddha brought from Sri Lanka in 1423. The chedi was enlarged in 1481. This was the year that the most honored Buddha image in the Tai world, the Emerald Buddha, was installed there. In 1511 the chedi was covered in gold leaf. The "city pillar" of Chiang Mai is also on the grounds of the monastery. This makes Wat Chedi Luang the ritual and cosmological center of the city. This cosmological axis mundi is reinforced by a local belief that the God Indra had two mythical god-man creatures bring the pillar from the 33 rd heaven to Chiang Mai. Every May tens of thousands turn out for a seven day celebration held at the monastery in honor of the pillar and the chedi. All of these aesthetic, ritual, and royal accouterments effectively made Wat Chedi Luang the center of at least the Yuan-speaking world, if not the entire Tai-speaking religious world that covers present-day Northern Thailand, Eastern Burma and Laos in the early sixteenth century. In 1546 the King of Lan Xang (centered in Luang Phrabang) was invited to rule the city of Chiang Mai and its tributaries. His first order of business when he entered the city was to bring his retinue, which included many newly ordained monks, to Wat Chedi Luang. Like Burmese, Shan, Siamese, Khoen and Yuan monks, these Lao monks studied at the monastery. Famous scholar monks studied and taught at Wat Chedi Luang as well since there was a regular exchange of monks between different monasteries in the region. Moreover, these scholar monks would have been compelled to visit the Emerald Buddha and the relic held in the great chedi to pay obeisance. Artisans folked to the region and were hired by patrons to build monastic buildings, cast images, paint murals, and inscribe stone throughout the city and in Lampang, Lamphun, Fang, Phayao, Chiang Rai, Nan, and Phrae particularly. Of particular importance were the establishment of a golden preaching chair was donated by the king of Chiang Mai at Wat Chedi Luang. A new ordination hall was also consecrated at this time. Wat Suan Dok is home to the other great secondary school and monastic university of the North. Wat Suan Dok is one of the oldest monasteries in Chiang Mai. It was built in 1371 under the direction of Phaya Keu Anasong. Within five years, Phaya Keu Anasong added a reliquary ( chedi ) and a protective surrounding wall and brought relics from Sri Sachanalai to the south. The report of a famous monk's (Phra Sumana) auspicious dream of deities visiting the region and bringing relics only increased the fame of the monastery. Phaya Kaeo who ruled Chiang Mai from 1495 to 1525 was perhaps the greatest supporter of Wat Suan Dok. Despite constantly raising armies to attack Ayutthya and Chiang Tung he built several new structures at the monastery. He also promoted the study of Pali at Wat Suan Dok and in other monasteries in the city and sponsored another copy of the Pali canon ( Tipitaka ) based on King Tilokarat's 1477 "edition." We do not actually know the content of either set or even if they were completely in Pali. We have very few manuscripts from that period, by some ritual Kammavaacaa manuscripts have ornate carved wooden covers covered in red, black, and gold lacquer. This covers reveal a Burmese influence that was adapted for local use. Manuscripts have almost no illustration or color on the actual palm-leaves unlike the extensively illuminated mulberry manuscripts and libretto books of Ayutthya and early Bangkok.
Architecturally, the vihaara at Wat Suan Dok is the largest in the city and one of the largest in the Buddhist world. It is well known as a popular place to deliver sermons to crowds of hundreds. Wat Phra Singh, founded in 1454 became a center of pilgrimage throughout Southeast Asia because of the Buddha image, Phra Buddha Sihing, popularized by texts such as the Jinakaalamaaliipakaran.am , Tamnaan Muulasaasanaa and the Tamnaan Phra Buddha Sihing . Sacred relics and images were the main form of advertisement for monastic schools. It is a common theme in canonical and extra-canonical texts from all schools of Buddhism that studying or even sitting in the presence of the Buddha can lead to enlightenment through little self-effort. The myths attached to images and relics in the region, like the Phra Buddha Sihing, the Emerald Buddha, and the relics in Lampang, Haripunchai (Lamphun), Chiang Mai, Nan, Phrae, etc. (like the Phra Bang Chao and Phra Ong Teu in Laos) emphasize that being in the presence of the relic or image is like being in the presence of the Buddha. It can be said as a standard fact, that virtually all regional monasteries first become ritual centers through their possessions of certain images, relics, royal seals. In this way art can drive other activities at a monastery. These ritually powerful objects enabled these monastic schools to attract charismatic teachers, skilled scholars, and draw large audiences to sermons and students to lectures. This ritual legitimacy allows them texts and funding needed to become educational centers. The chronicles describing the origins of these relics and images offered a monastery (and the monarch who patronizes it) temporal and spatial authenticity and can be seen as having a similar function to the brochures and pamphlets published by modern schools. This image and the Buddhist school at Wat Phra Singh drew the famous teacher, Phra Maha Agyachulathera and ten of his students to the monastery from Haripunchai, further making Chiang Mai the center of Buddhist education in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The abbot at Wat Phra Singh was one of the first to pay homage to the Burmese King Hongsawadi and there Burmese monks took up residence. King Kawila, the new monarch of post-Burmese Chiang Mai, acknowledged Wat Phra Singh as the center of Buddhism in the North and built the main uposatha hall. In 1821 the main vihaara was given a new Buddha image. Later the monarch made his residence next to the monastery and in 1827 the main vihaara was repaired and consecrated by the king. One of the most ornate libraries ( ho trai ) in the region is on the grounds of Wat Phra Singh. It has a tall stone base, steep stairs, and a flowing tapered roof. The library, the finest example of its kind in the North, was built in 1811 replacing the former library built in 1488.
Other notable monasteries, images, architectural features, and mural walls in Chiang Mai include the murals in the Lai Kham Vihaara at Wat Phra Singh and Wat Buak Khrok, the stucco façade at Wat Prasat, the U Thong style Buddha at Wat Sri Kret, the gilded inlaid decorations of zodiac signs and red lacquer ceiling at Wat Phan Tao, the stunning teak and inlaid glass library at Wat Duang Di, the golden chedi and standing Buddhas of Wat Chiang Man. The Burmese style monastery of Wat Sai Mun is one of the most unique in the city. The 94 year old Burmese abbot was kind enough to show me around and point out the Burmese teak and lacquer. North of the city, there is the popular tourist and pilgrimage site of Wat Doi Suthep with its angular golden chedi and impressive stairwell. Wat Pa Daeng, one of the most important forest monasteries in Northern Thai history is notable for its Mon style chedi and bot which dates from 1452. Wat Ku Tao, Wat Rampoeng, Wat Chedi Chet Yot, Wat Chedi Liam, Wat Chang Pheuak, Wat Chiang Yeun, and Wat Chai Sri Phum have a diverse array of chedi . For example, the series of five globular levels that make up the chedi of Wat Ku Tao is a style not found anywhere else in Thailand. The Burmese chedi and library at Wat Pa Po also reflect the cacophony that is Northern Thai Buddhist art.
Outside of the great monasteries of Chiang Mai there are other particularly beautiful Buddhist architectural examples. In Lamphun, Wat Haripunchai has a large golden chedi and ornate gable. Its ornate wooden library was not built until the nineteenth century, but is important because it reflects a mixture of styles characteristic of the period. The bell tower reveals Burmese influence with a strange Lanxang style spire. Dvaravati style chedi are also common in the North. Perhaps the best examples are seen at Wat Ku Kut and Wat Phaya Wat, the former which dates from the early 13 th century and the latter from the eighteenth. Often missed by visitors, because of its rural setting, is the great reliquary of Wat Phra That Sri Chom Thong. Here we see the used of copper plates instead of gilt which has turned the chedi into a patina tower. Wat Pa Daet in the Mae Cham Valley has unique local murals and depict daily scenes from the life of the Buddha. The library at Wat Buddha En is on stilts in a pond, a common form of library architecture in Northeast and Central Thailand. Wat Doi Suthep on the Northern outskirts of Chiang Mai have long (over 300 yards) stone staircases with carved naga snakes as banisters. Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in Lampang has a bronze balustrade surrounding the main reliquary. The chedi is gold with bronze tiles. The main vihaara is the oldest wooden structure still standing in all of Northern Thailand and was built in 1434. The entire monastery sits on a hillock and has a formidable wall surrounding its large grounds. The main gate is intricately carved. Its bot (ordination hall) has stone walls and a tapered wooden roof and several saalaas contain murals of Burmese soldiers marching alongside depictions of well-known Buddhist jaataka stories. Wat Phra That was one of the twelve most important pilgrimage centers of the region. Traditionally important monks and members of the Chiang Mai ruling family were supposed to visit Wat Phra That Lampang Luang in the Year of the Tiger. These twelve temples, each with an important relic, formed an ephemeral barrier around the region. Controlling these reliquaries enabled the Burmese to ritually control the pilgrimage cycles and symbolic and ritual centers of the region. Four kilometers from Wat Phra That Lampang Luang is another famous monastery. Wat Lai Hin possesses the second largest collection of palm-leaf manuscripts in all of Northern Thailand. Hundreds of manuscripts were copied and composed there and many more were stored there and used for the many monks and lay people who studied in the immediate area. It was founded in 1693 and had its period of greatest intellectual activity in the late seventeenth century the eighteenth century. Its founder, Phra Kesarapañño was from Kengtung (in modern day Eastern Burma). This is one of the smallest monasteries in Thailand and one has to bend down to fit through the main gate. However, there is a beautifully carved stone arch over the gate, a glass mosaic on the gable of the vihaara , and a large library. At Wat Phra Kaeo Ton Tao Suchadaram, the largest temple in the city of Lampang there is a large Buddha image and a Shan style saalaa . Another Shan style saalaa and library are close by at several monasteries in the city. In Phrae, Wat Sung Men, Wat Luang, and Wat Sri Chum have good examples of three different styles of Northern Thai libraries. However, the most stunning wooden library in Shan style is seen at Wat Chiang Kham in Phayao. In Nan, Tai Leu art and architecture dominate the city. David Wyatt has written about the murals of Wat Phumin which depict European visitors, Muslim traders, dancers, and loving couple serenading each other in unique Tai Lue poses. The best examples of these murals are in the main vihaara which has a unique square shape with four entrances each with a wide stone staircase and naga banisters. Outside of the city of Nan there are two notable monasteries – Wat Cho Hae and Wat Nong Bua. The former is the main reliquary and pilgrimage center of the city. A covered colonnade containing dozens of large seated Buddha images surrounds a golden chedi with clear Northern Lao architectural features. In the latter, some of the most elaborate Tai Leu murals (with a unique emphasis on blues and silvers) and ornate Tai Leu script cover the walls and pillars of the small vihaara . The main image is the best preserved example of Tai Leu Buddha statues. The face is square with very long earlobes and straight fingers in the earth-witness ( bhumisparsa ) pose.
Other notable images, mural walls, monasteries, and chedi in the rural North include the large eyed Buddha image at Wat Kong Kan, the multi-tiered vihaara at Wat Tha Kham, the colorful flags ( tung ) at Wat Chang Khao Noi Neua, the heavy and wide chedi at Wat Chang, the Luang Phrabng stlye vihaara of Wat Suchataram, the lacquer pillars of Wat Hua Khuang, the Shan style mondop at Wat Pong Sanuk Tai, the gold inlaid ceiling at Wat Pa Fang, and the Burmese style Buddha image at Wat Mon Phuyak.
The Burmese, Lao, Shan, and Tai Lue styles that were adapted and innovated in the North are quite different from the Buddhist art and architectural styles of Ayutthya and early Bangkok periods (also seen in Lopburi, Supanburi, Singburi, Angthong, Nakorn Sawan, Pichit, and other cities of the central Chao Phraya River Valley). Ayutthya and surrounding cities were originally Angkorian outposts connected both ethnically and politically to the center of Angkorian power in Northeast Thailand and Cambodia. Even though Angkorian power was never strong in what is now central Thailand, Khmer art and architecture was a dominant influence and even long after the fall of Angkor in the mid-fifteenth century, there continued to be periods of Khmer aesthetic revival. The great Angkorian style monasteries and palaces of Northeastern Thailand reveal the extent of the Khmer power in the region. Phimai, Khao Phra Vihan, and other sites in Nakhon Ratchasima, Sisaket, Buriram, Ubon Ratchathani, Surin, and Khon Kaen are particularly interesting for what they can tell us about the Angkor, but no similar Angkorian complex was ever built in a large scale in Ayutthya. Manuscripts were composed in Pali or Thai (and rarely Khmer), but the Khmer script was the would common in Ayutthya. The Ayutthya kings, especially King Narai, King Naresuan, and King Ramathobodhi (check) sponsored many Angkorian style prang and to a lesser extent Khmer style images. However, Khmer artistic styles (which are diverse and varied as well) were also mixed or set side by side with artisitic influences from Sukhothai, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Mon, and local designs. Furthermore, in the seventeenth century, as Pattaratorn Chirapravati and John Lipostad have noted, there are influences from the palace as Ishfahan in Iran (brought by Persian traders and artisans) and European influences (especially Portuguese, Dutch, Greek, and French).
From 1350 to 1767, Ayutthya was one of the great cities, in terms of art and architecture, in the world. Its size and wealth dwarfed most cities in Europe in the fourteenth century. Innovations in Ayutthya included more woodcarving, mother-of-pearl, jade, and bronze cast sculptures. While Buddhist art dominated, there were also developments in household decorative arts and jewelry. While much was destroyed or stolen during two Burmese invasions (including many Thai artisans being enslaved and moved to Mandalay to work there), there was a large cache of items found in the base of the great chedi at Wat Ratchaburana. Pattaratorn Chirapravati has worked extensively on this collection. These pieces, which all date before 1424, include small votive Buddhist tablets, 600 Buddha images, Chinese style murals, royal attire, ritual implements, and jewelry.
The cache found at Wat Ratchaburana reflect the styles of the first dominant style of Buddhist art is referred to as "U Thong," named after a royal dynasty. Statuary from this period (1350-learly fifteenth century) includes early influences from Srivijaya and Lopburi, as well as Angkor. The Buddha images are mostly stone and murals are relatively simple with red and black paint. Buddha images with naga snakes are very common as they are in Southern Thailand. Lopburi images reveal the greatest Angkorian features with cranial protuberances and hair in the form of a circular crown. Thick lips and a wide nose make them distinct from Sukhothai images. Over the fourteenth century the use of sandstone seemed more common (although it is difficult to date many images) and the faces of the images became more angular with straight eyebrows. This is a strong contrast to the oval faces of Sukhothai style and the elongated faces of Lanna. However, by the late fourteenth century Sukhothai style seems to have had a bit of a revival in Ayutthya especially in terms of Buddha images. By the late U Thong period, mural paintings started to incorporate blues and yellows as well. Ayutthya grew into a trading, military, and ritual center, the art and architecture began to reflect the opulence of the kings. Buddha images were cast in a unique style which reflected the serenity of the Sukhothai Buddhas and the power of the Lopburi images. Many were covered in gold leaf and dressed in royal attire replete with jewels and crowns. They were also colossal. Some images measured over 20 meters tall (although several have been so damaged that we only can reconstruct them digitally). By the seventeenth century, the Ayutthaya Style of Buddha image had reached its pinnacle with square faces, a flame-like finial on top of the head, a straight back, and marked line of hair edge on the forehead.
Alongside these Buddha images are found European pieces like swords, bowls, oil lamps, and candle holders. Wat Thammaikkarat was built during the reign of King Borom Trai Lokkanat (1448-1488) and although partially destroyed, the lion sculptures surrounding the base of the main chedi are some of the best examples in the country. The monasteries and palaces of Ayutthya are numerous and massive. Although all were partially or completely destroyed by the Burmese in 1767, a visitor can walk around the ruins, which now are designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. There one will see Wat Mahathat, Wat Ratchaburana, Wat Chaiwatthanaram, Wat Si Sanphet, Wat Na Phramen, and many others. Wat Chaiwattanaram was built in 1630 under the reign of King Prasat Thong. It has clear influences from Angkor Wat in Cambodia and has nearly 120 Buddha images in its main courtyard. Wat Yai Chai Mongkol contains a large reclining Buddha liked those found at Phra Pathom Chedi and Wat Chetuphon . Dating from 1357 it is the oldest of large monasteries in the city; however, its main chedi dates from 1592 when King Naresuan built it to commemorate a military victory over the Burmese. Wat Phra Si Sanphet built under the reign of King Boromatrilokanat is the largest monastery in the city and also was next to the grand palace. It has three distinctive chedi in a row and like Wat Chetuphon and Wat Phra Kaeo in Bangkok it was the traditional place for the ashes of Ayutthyan monarchs to be placed. The largest bronze image (bronze casting became common in Ayutthya after the fourteenth century) in Ayutthya is found at Wat Phra Mongkon Bophit. It the earth-witness pose it stands alone under a red lacquer ceiling. Wat Phanam Choeng is a unique monastery which, although outside the main city, is a popular place to visit. Although scholars do not know what religious practices took place there, the large Buddha image known as Luang Pho To, is entreated today to help businesspeople. If you are a small business owner as it is believed that making merit there will ensure financial success. Another King U Thong reign monastery is Wat Phutthai Sawan which is known for being a place for terminally ill people to make merit. Wat Kasatthrathirat is artistically significant for its 16 stone carved sima (boundary) stones. Wat Phra Na Men has an exquisite royally attired Buddha image. Artistically it is important as it was not destroyed by the Burmese (as it was outside the city) and was later used as a military base by the Burmese. Another significant piece of art is found at Wat Nakhon Luang -- the Buddha Phrabat (footprint) built in the early 1600s. Virginia McKeen Di Crocco has written extensively on this topic. Other significant artistic and architectural sites in Ayutthya and Central Thailand include the murals at Wat Bang Phra in Nakhon Chaisi, Wat Bang Khaw Yai in Samut Songkhram, Wat Ta Phon Noi in Chantaburi, the wood carving at Wat Kuti in Petchaburi, the sima stones at Wat Lum Din in Ratchaburi, and the walls of the city of Lopburi.
Most illuminated manuscripts from Ayutthya were burnt or stolen by the Burmese or bought later by foreign collectors. The manuscripts we do have are mostly large libretto books made of a type of thick mulberry paper (unlike the mostly palm-leaf manuscripts of Northern Thailand and Laos). The mulberry paper allows the scribe or artist (it seems that in most cases the person who painted the various scenes in the manuscript and the author/scribe of the manuscript were not the same person) to paint elaborate scenes from the j aa takas (often the Dasaj aa taka collection), story of Phra Malai , life of the Buddha, decorative nature scenes, animals (especially animal husbandry manuals for elephants, horses, and cats), and cosmological scenes from the Traibhumikatha . These manuscripts were often produced for funerals and the text includes the Abhidhamma-atthasa ṅ gaha or Abhidhamma Chet Kamphi liturgy with illustrations from narratives like Phra Malai . Henry Ginsberg and Na Na Paknam have written about these manuscripts. These manuscripts were often kept in beautifully carved wooden cabinets ( tu phratraipidok ). Good examples can be seen at Wat Sala Pun, Wat Choeng Wai, and Wat Anongkharam. These cabinets were either black lacquer with mother-of-pearl inlay, or carved and painted with gold. They are strikingly different from the hip (manuscript boxes) of Northern and Northeastern Thailand which are often in red lacquer and have a removable top versus front doors and drawers. Some scenes carved on these cabinets depict European and Near Eastern visitors to Ayutthya. Now the best source text for the study of Ayutthyan art is
The Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350-1800 edited by Pattaratorn Chirapravati and Forest McGill with contributions by Hiram Woodward, Santi Leksukhum, Henry Ginsberg, Dhiravat na Pombejra, Natasha Reichle, and Tushara Bindu Gude.
The art of the last two centuries in Thailand is a mixture of many styles from Sukhothai, Lanna, Isan, Pattani, Nakhon Sri Thammarat, Chantaburi, Angkor, U Thong, Lopburi, Ayutthya, to other traces of Shan, Burmese, Japanese, Mon, Dvaravati, French, Greek, Persian, Portuguese, and Chinese, and British art. It would be impossible to sum it up or even give general characteristics. Monasteries built in the last 150 years in Northeastern Thailand and Southern Thailand are so diverse that no general modern rural Thai style can be identified. Bangkok itself has over 1200 monasteries (plus mosques, churches, Chinese shrines, etc.) and each is distinct. In each of the reigns of the kings of the Chakri dynasty there are distinct artistic and especially architectureal styles. The Krom Chang Sip Mu (Organization of the Ten Crafts), originally founded in Ayutthya, helped support traditional Thai art and architecture. This organization helped guide artists working under the Chakri dynasty. This organization was aided by the opening of the National Museum, the National Gallery, and Silapakorn (Art) University in the first half of the twentieth century. King Rama I was a Ayutthyan revivalist (see Wat Rakhang and Wat Sangwet for example), King Rama II and King Rama III oversaw the construction of monasteries with many Chinese features (see Wat Ratchaorot, Wat Thepdhitaram, Wat Nang Chi, Wat Indraram), King Rama IV attempted to elevate the art of Sukhothai (see Wat Boworniwet, Wat Sraket, Wat Indravihan for examples), King Rama V and Rama VI were enamored with European styles as seen in the Wimamaek Palace, Wat Benchamamophit, and parts of Bang Pa In Palace. The present king, Rama IX, has eclectic tastes and has worked hard not only to preserve the best examples of Thai art and architecture, but sponsor new monasteries and monastic schools especially in rural Thailand. New forms of monastic architecture can be seen at Wat Thammakai in Pathum Thani, Wat Bang Rai in Nakhon Ratchasima, and Suan Mokh in Suratthani. However, he also is very interested in secular and public art and architecture as is seen in the explosion of public pavilions, parks, stadiums, universities, and the like. These secular styles have in turn influence Buddhist art. Now there are even Art Deco influences on modern Buddhist art in Thailand. Some murals have been aided by photographic technology, some paintings incorporate found materials, chemical luminescence, avant garde depictions of the Buddha's life, and abstract sculptures abound in meditation centers throughout the country. The art of manuscripts has not flourished since the rise of the printing press, but modern printing quality and innovation has helped Buddhist books in Thailand be some of the most beautiful in the world. Several modern Thai artists incorporate Buddhist themes into their abstract and even political paintings. See the work of Chalermchai Kositpipat and Thaweesak Srithongdee, Manop Suwanpinta, Santi Thongsuk, Montri Toemsombat , Surojana Sethabutra for example. This website will focus on a number of individual monasteries to try to offer a glimpse of the diversity of modern Thai Buddhist art. Please see the "monasteries in detail" section and the "image library" for examples and descriptions.