Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Re-Visioning Buddhist Art in Thailand

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Re-Visioning Buddhist Art in Thailand

Article excerpt

Enlightened ways: The many streams of Buddhist art in Thailand By HEIDI TAN; with contributions by PETER SKILLING, JOHN LISTOPAD, AMARA SRISUCHART, JUSTIN MCDANIEL, ALEXANDRA DENES, BENJAMIN CHIESA, THERESA MCCULLOUGH and DISAPONG NETLOMWONG Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012. Pp. 267. Map, Notes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index.

Buddhist story telling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Jataka scroll at the Asian Civilisations Museum By LEEDOM LEFFERTS and SANDRA CATE; with WAJUPPA TOSSA [trans.] Singapore: Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012. Pp. 162. Map, Notes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index.

The Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore, is to be congratulated for organising a splendid exhibition of Thai Buddhist art entitled 'Enlightened ways: The many streams of Buddhist art in Thailand', which ran from 30 November 2012 to 17 April 2013, and for publishing the exhibition catalogue as well as a separate monograph, Buddhist storytelling in Thailand and Laos, which elucidates the long cloth scroll depicting the story of Prince Vessantara on display at the exhibition.

The scope of the exhibition was extremely ambitious, attempting to include all aspects of Thai Buddhist art in every medium, from the courtly art of the capital to folk art of North and Northeast Thailand. The organisers included ceramics for architectural uses, dishes and bowls, ritual furnishings--such as candleholders, elephant seats, textiles--and different types of amulets. Such a scope has not been seen since 'The Art of Thailand' exhibition that toured the United States in 1960, (1) which moreover did not include popular or folk art. To their credit, the organisers have acknowledged that the folk art of the Thai-Lao people of Northeast Thailand, such as the long Vessantara cloth scroll, is worthy of inclusion in a national museum and an international exhibition of Thai art. Hitherto such surveys have consisted solely of masterpieces of Buddhist and Brahmanic art illustrating the different periods of art in Thailand.

For the benefit of readers unfamiliar with Thai Buddhist art, the organisers of the 'Enlightened ways' exhibition assembled a number of scholars to provide background on general as well as on particular themes. Peter Skilling, an expert on Buddhist art and literature, classifies Buddhist art into two groups, after the two bodies of the Buddha, namely his 'form body' and his 'dharma body'. The former is represented by the images and relics of the Buddha; the latter by his teachings as expressed through written scripts, such as on diagrams and manuscripts. According to Skilling, 'These two corpora constitute both the materiality and the spirituality of Buddhism: they are inseparable traces of the same coin' (p. 18). He reminds both viewers and readers that 'Buddhist art was not made to be viewed in a museum. The devotee's gaze is never disinterested; he or she physically engages with the sacred objects by praying, supplicating, thanking and rewarding' (p. 31).

John Listopad, who specialises in Thai art, writes on the art historical background to the Walking Buddha images. Iconographically, this type of Buddha image represents the Buddha in the attitude of 'walking back and forth in meditation'. He surmises that 'these images were created as visual aids to assist both monks and the laity in conjunction with a new emphasis on the practice of meditation and ascetic devotion. These were introduced from Sri Lanka during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries when Thai monks travelled there to study religious practice and reconfirm their ordination in the orthodox Theravada monastic tradition' (p. 32). Listopad states that the Walking Buddha images were popular in the 'Thai kingdoms throughout the fifteenth century, although in later centuries the number of images declined dramatically especially in the central Thai kingdom of Ayuthaya' (p. 39). Contrary to Listopad's assertion, this reviewer maintains that the large stucco images at Sukhothai and Sri Satchanalai Historical Parks were made in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when these cities came under the suzerainty of Ayuthaya. …

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