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260th Meeting - Tuesday, April 7th, 2005

THE 'SINGHALESE' BUDDHA: Thailand's Highly Revered Guardian Image in the National Museum Bangkok.
Is This Image the Original? Two Others Claim the Title. A Detective Story

A talk and slide presentation by Carol Stratton

Present: Thianchai Ahsrondit, Paul Ardern, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, Paul Barber-Riley, Thomas Baude, Mark Bleadon, John & Martha Butt, Guy Cardinal, Bernard Davis, Brian DeBenedetti, Klaus Berkmüller, Brian Doberstyn, Allen Dubbs, Ron Emmons, Lorenz Ferrari, Louis Gabaude, Laura Godtfredsen, Judy & Dale Harcourt, Reinhard Hohler, Harry Kraft, Deborah Nester, Thomas Ohlson, Suresm Patel, Jeanette Pembroke, Nicolas Revire, Jennifer Salisbury, Samy Ridq, Lamar & Chongchit Robert, Carl & Keiko Samuels, Bob Stratton, Jay Thirst, Celeste Tolibas-Holland, Barbara Tyrell, Valerie Veres, Renee Vines, Monica Weber, Bill Woodruff. An audience of 42.

About the speaker

Carol Stratton has been working on the art history of Thailand for over thirty years. She and her family lived in Bangkok for six years during the early 70's where she worked extensively for the National Museum Bangkok
Volunteers as guide, researcher and writer. With a colleague, Miriam McNair Scott, she wrote "The Art of Sukhothai: Thailand's Golden Age" published by Oxford University Press in 1981. With the aid of several major US grants (the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, Asian Cultural Council) she has been researching and writing on the art history of Northern Thailand. Her second book, "The Buddhist Sculpture of Northern Thailand" was published last year by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai.

Carol's abridged version of her talk and presentation: 

The Phra Phuttha Sihing is one of the most revered Buddha images in Thailand. The Singhalese Buddha, as it is also named, along with the Emerald Buddha are the two foremost palladia or protector/guardians of the Chakri Dynasty and thus of all of Thailand.
While the Emerald Buddha is located in its own wihan at Wat Phra Kaeo, the Phra Puttha Sihing is now ensconced in a place of honor in the Phuttaisawan Chapel of the National Museum. This chapel was especially built to house the image in the Palace of Wang Na or Second King, Today this palace is an integral part of the National Museum Bangkok.

Many claim that the image shown here is THE Singhalese Buddha, but there are two other major Buddha images claiming the title. More on them later. As for the name Phra Phuttha Sihing: Phra is an honorific, Phuttha is Buddha in Thai and Sihing means Singhalese or from Sri Lanka. The same word is also pronounced "Singh" and means both "Singhalese" and "lion", a situation which can cause great confusion, as we shall see. To distinguish between "Singhalese" and "lion," I have used a slightly different spelling and pronunciation for the Sihing meaning Singhalese and Singh meaning lion.

So why is the Phra Phuttha Sihing so important? It is not because this image is beautiful, although it certainly is a stunning example. It is not just because it is "old", although this one boasts an ancient lineage. It is because the image is widely perceived as having GREAT MAGICAL POWERS

Just as a hierarchy exists from common peasant to the exalted king, so too do Buddha images have relative status. While to most Buddhists, all Buddha images are objects of respect, some are considered to have more intrinsic power and are thus more important than others. The ones of the highest stature are palladia, defined as sacred objects having power to preserve the cities or states possessing them. The Emerald Buddha is the chief palladium of Thailand while the Phra Phuttha Sihing is conceivably the second.

These highly revered images are believed to have PROVEN their power by insuring its possessor wins in war and politics, thus enhancing the ruler's political authority. In turn the ruler pays respect to the image by
providing it a special setting like an elaborate altar in its own hall, by bathing it in lustral water, by making offerings of flowers, incense and candles, and bestowing gifts of precious material.

So specifically, why is the Phra Phuttha Sihing considered so powerful? For one thing, this image is used in the rainmaking ceremonies where the Phra Phuttha Sihing (and now an exact replica) is carried out of the Museum during Songkran in mid April and paraded around Sanam Luang. There it is bathed in lustral perfumed water, thus insuring the coming beneficent rains and the continuity of the agrarian cycles. The Phra Phuttha Sihing and the Emerald Buddha have been linked together several times in their history and are considered by many to be symbiotic: the Phra Phuttha Sihing is concerned with watery realms, rains, the serpent emblem while the Emerald Buddha is solar, aerial, the bird emblem.

Moreover, the Phra Phuttha Sihing is also extremely important because it boasts a long venerable history. According to its chronicle its lineage can be traced back to Sri Lanka, the home of the purest Theravada sects of Buddhism. The Sihing chronicle, like others histories, such as that of the Emerald Buddha, combines myths, tradition, and verifiable history. Both chronicles written in the 15th century have many similarities.

As there is no time here to go into all the Phra Phuttha Sihing's peregrinations, a brief synopsis of the chronicle is as follows:

  1. The "original" or "Ur" Sihing was purportedly cast in bronze in Sri Lanka in the second century B.C. by local artisans copying a wax model.
  2. This wax model had been formed by some holy men upon seeing an apparition.
  3. The apparition, an exact copy of the Buddha, complete with all his unique anatomical characteristics, had been provided by a helpful naga, a semi-divine snake, who had known the Buddha personally.

The chronicle further relates that the image stayed in Sri Lanka for many centuries until it was brought to Nakhon Si Thammarat on the Peninsula of Thailand by King Rocaraja (sometimes identified as King Ram Khamhaeng of Sukhothai) and thence carried to the Sukhothai Kingdom in the late 13thC. In one account, the image floated on a raft from Sri Lanka, perhaps symbolic of the new "pure" sect of Theravada Buddhism that came from Sri Lanka to the south of Thailand at that time.

Here is Nakhon Si Thammarat, here is Sukhothai (on the map). From there the Singhalese Buddha was seized by Ayutthaya, removed to Kamphaeng Phet, installed in Chiang Mai, heisted to Chiang Rai, taken to Chiang Saen, back to Chiang Rai then returned to Chiang Mai. Most of these last wanderings were within the Northern kingdom of Lan Na. Thus, during the course of its early history, kings and princes from three great Thai kingdoms (Sukhothai, Ayutthaya and Lan Na) vied for its possession.

Later, authoritative history for the Museum Phra Phuttha Sihing has the image taken from Chiang Mai to Luang Phrabang in Laos, back to Chiang Mai, again to Ayutthaya, back to Chiang Mai and finally to Bangkok.

At any point in the Singhalese Buddha's travels, a copy could have been substituted and if the copy had been cast correctly, it might have the same powers as the original. However, neither the Singhalese image from Sri Lanka nor the Singhalese image from Sukhothai can be identified today. They are lost.

This not withstanding, currently there are three claimants to being THE Singhalese Buddha. They are quite different from each other in style and iconography AND they are quite different from Sri Lanka Buddha images.

The first contender is the National Museum's Phra Phuttha Sihing on the left. Please compare it with a medieval Sri Lanka Buddha on the right. The basic iconography is the same: both are seated in virasana, right leg folded over left, hands in the meditation mudra, have a long shawl and a flame finial. Further the legs lie very flat against the base. But stylistically the two are very different especially the shape of the flame, the eyes and the robes.

Perhaps this is the place to briefly review the difference between Iconography and Style. The iconography, in the case of Buddha images in Thailand, consists of the posture of the Buddha (seated, standing, walking or reclining), its hand gesture (the meditation and the hand pointing to the earth Calling the Earth to Witness are the two most common), the way the monk's robe is worn, and the shape of the finial on top of the head. A flame finial is the most common and is emblematic of the fiery spiritual energy of the Buddha spurting from the top of his head. Another very distinctive iconographic feature is the ushnisha, the bulge on top of the
Buddha's head indicating a personage of uncommon wisdom.

Still other iconographic factors in creating a Buddha image are the Anatomical Conventions or 32 major lakshanas taken from Sanskrit poetry with similes such as a nose like the beak of a parrot, eyes like lotus leaves, chin like a mango stone, arms like the trunk of a young elephant, chest like a lion, etc.

While the iconography is proscribed and chosen by the patron, be he king, monk or laymanŠ. the style, or how these elements are depicted, can vary substantially and the details are often left up to the artisan. Certain combinations of iconography and style in a given locality make a Type or School. Thus the Museum Sihing is not from the Sri Lanka or Singhalese School because of the style of the monks robe, the style of the flame finial, and the lack of an ushnisha on the Sri Lanka image.

The second contender for the title of The Singhalese Buddha is the image called the Phra Singh. This image is one of the palladia of Chiang Mai, the old capital of Lan Na, and is located at Wat Phra Singh in this city. But it has a very different iconography from either the National Museum Phra Phuttha Sihing or the Sri Lanka image. Here Number 2 contender has the legs doubly crossed in vajrasana, the hands in Calling the Earth to Witness, a short shawl and a gem as versus a flame finial. This combination of iconographic details places the number 2 contender in a group called "Lion Lord" by Griswold (the word "singh" in this case is "lion" and the honorific "Phra" is "Lord") and called "Phra Singh TYPE" by others. In style, Contender 2 is a Golden Age, late 15th Century image from Chiang Mai.

An example of excellence is another Golden Age product with the same Lion Lord/ Phra Singh iconography and was also probably cast in Chiang Mai during the late 15th Century. Ignoring the head of Contender 2, which is a replacement after the original was stolen in the 1920s, one can see how similar they are with their "lion-like" torsos and strong legs. The number 2 contender is said to have appeared in Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai (which was specifically built for the Singhalese Buddha) sometime during the absence from Chiang Mai of contender number one, the Museum Phra Phuttha Sihing. On the right we have another Buddha image which is the earliest dated example of the Lion Lord/ Phra Singh Type. The iconography is the
same as Contender number 2 in Chiang Mai. The inscription on the base states: "this Phra Singh Buddha" and it gives the astrological data that can be deciphered as 1470. So it appears that the inscription is referring to a Phra Singh Type, not a second century B.C. image from Sri Lanka.

The third contender for the title is an image in Nakhon Si Thammarat on the southern peninsula of Thailand. It is called "Phra Khanom Tom" after a southern dessert, because of its sweet round face. Although number 3 has the same leg and hand position, short shawl, gem finial as the Lion Lord type, its torso is shorter and the shawl over the shoulder is pleated identifying it as a peninsular/Ayutthayan version of the Lion Lord / Phra
Singh Type from perhaps a century or more later. When comparing Contender 3 from the Peninsula at left with another Sri Lanka image at right, we can readily see the former did not come from Sri Lanka. The Peninsular Singh does not even have the meditation hand gesture or the long shawl. The Peninsular Singh's claim to the title is the belief that the Singhalese Buddha stayed in the south of Thailand and did not travel North with the Sukhothai king in the 13th century. Thus because of the foregoing analysis, I think we can say with confidence that NONE of the three contenders are the original "Singhalese" Buddha from Sri Lanka either from the second century B.C. or even the thirteenth century A.D.

Some say that the National Museum Phra Phuttha Sihing is a Sukhothai image brought from the Sukhothai kingdom to the Lan Na kingdom during the 1380s. Let's compare a 14/15th century Classic Sukhothai image with the Museum Sihing. Let's take the profile first as that is quite distinctive in the Sukhothai School.

The Museum Sihing is at left, the Sukhothai one at right. The two look very similar - the expanded chest, the muscle-less arms, the sheer monks robes.

As many of you know, the historic Buddha of the 6th Century B.C.E. India has traditionally been portrayed as an idealized ascetic with certain special anatomical conventions and wearing monk's robes.

How about a profile of the heads which also looks good: hooked nose, jowls, rounded ushnisha, flame finial. The hair however in our Sihing at left consists of small SPIKY CURLS while the hair of the classic Sukhothai image at right is usually small flattened coils. Both cases represent the shaven head of the Buddha as a monk whose hair, according to legend, grew back in such tight coils that he never had to shave it again.

What about hands and feet? Especially associated with Lan Na are the extraordinary long and abstracted fingers as well as the elongated flattened feet seen at left on the Museum Sihing. These are notable, especially as compared to the more natural renderings of a classic Sukhothai image at right.

Now let's try of a full frontal. On the outset, except for the hand position, it again looks like a pretty good comparison. 

The shawl of our Sihing is wider but that's a minor difference. 

But for the art historian there are two major differences. 

First the Base of the Phra Phuttha Sihing at left. Utterly diagnostic of a Northern Lan Na kingdom image is a base decorated with lotus leafs in a row along with the stamen and anther (the stem and bud) above. This type of plinth is supposed to represent a fully opened lotus flower upon which the Buddha rests. A typical base of a classic Sukhothai image, shown at right, is a plain plinth.

Further, the outer edges of the knees of a Sukhothai image such as at right hang past the edges of the plinth or are directly aligned with the sides whereas the knees of Lan Na images end within the plinth, with the plinth extending past the knees such as is the case with the Museum Sihing.

Even more important is something you can't see, and that concerns the flame finial on top of the head - in a Sukhothai image the finial is cast right with the rest of the body, while in Lan Na the finial is cast separately. This convention enables relics to be placed within a Lan Na image. The Museum Sihing has a finial that CAN be removed. Thus the Phra Phuttha Sihing is NOT a Sukhothai image.

So now I will try and prove that our Phra Phuttha Sihing was made in Lan Na during the last half of the 15th C.

First: VERIFIABLE history of the Museum Phra Phuttha Sihing begins in 1481 when King Tilok of Lan Na has the Sihing image in Chiang Mai along with the Emerald Buddha. These two superstars, together with other important images, undoubtedly confirmed Tilok's POWER status during his long and eventful reign in the last half of the 15th century. But later in 1547 another King - Jetta - left a weakened Lan Na (translated as the Land of a Million Rice Fields) and took the two sacred images to Laos when he became King of Lan Chang (translated as the Land of a Million Elephants). The Sihing and the Emerald Buddhas made a triad with the local palladium, the Phra Bang, (after which the old royal capital Luang Phrabang was named). A bit later a new king back in Lan Na asked for the Sihing and Emerald Buddhas back but was given only the Sihing because rumor had it that its powers were depleted.

In 1661, following the invasion of Lan Na by King Narai of Ayutthaya, Narai asked a sage if the Sihing could really fly. He was informed that indeed the statue could fly - before the two gems in its eyes were stolen. Narai took the image anyway. In 1767, after the Burmese invaded Ayutthaya, the Sihing was reportedly returned to Chiang Mai. In any event, in 1795 the Sihing was brought from Chiang Mai to Bangkok and placed in the Phutthaisawan Chapel. The Emerald Buddha was brought by King Rama I from Laos where it had resided for two hundred years, and eventually placed in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The two images have been reunited.

Thus the Phra Phuttha Sihing we see today in Bangkok is probably the one that was in Chiang Mai at least by the second half of the 15th C. during King Tilok's reign. This was the Golden Age of Lan Na arts and culture. Lan Na has been home for a thousand years to a plethora of Buddha images of multiple Types exhibiting many combinations of styles and iconography, a number of them co-existing. To sort them all out is an art historian's nightmare. But very helpful to us art historians is the appearance during Lan Na's Golden Age in the late 15th century of some Buddha images with inscribed dates. These inscriptions, usually found on the base, often give the name(s) of the donor and the auspicious astrological date of its casting, along with hopes, vows, or some sacred Buddhist texts.

What is the purpose of making all these Buddha images and inscribing them? It is believed by most Thais that by donating towards the making of a Buddha image, whether a statue in the round or on a votive plaque, individuals, whether royalty or commoner, monk or lay person, male of female, can "make merit" and thus enhance their karma so that they might be reborn in better circumstances - or - to counteract bad actions (in this life or previous ones) so as not to spiral backwards along the chain of rebirths. Over many lives, by following the Buddha's teaching, the individual hopes to progress along the path laid out by Buddha to complete understanding and Nirvana, the ultimate goal of all Buddhists. Thus a Lan Na inscription often records the donor's hope for a good rebirth. Examples of these hopes can be seen on two metal votive tablets from Phayao, perhaps from the 14th or 15th Centuries.

The first, on the left, is made of gold and expresses the wish of a high-born lady underneath an embossed picture of the Buddha with a recumbent elephant. To paraphrase her wish: "As a fruit of my action of making this Buddha image, wherever I am reborn, may I remember my previous lives. May I be reborn in good circumstances and not suffer poverty. And let me have a good husband, and good children, and good servants, precious as gems." In the same vault was another made of tin, shown at right, donated by a man named Chiang Phiu, who was probably a guard or retainer of the lady's household. His wish is simpler:
"Let me not go to Hell - in every life."

These two inscriptions tell us a lot about two lives in two strata of ancient Thai society. As for Buddha images with inscribed dates, they can tell the art historian some about the society but a lot about the Buddha images themselves ... what Type of image was preferred, when, by whom, and in what place. The study of art history has a double significance. Not only does it help one appreciate the beauty and significance, it uses art as a means of defining history. Although Art History is not a science, it uses scientific methods and thinking. Of course it is always preferable to work with verifiable data, but this, in art history, like quantum physics, is not always possible. So theories must be developed based on the best verifiable information available. Thus the images with inscribed dates are major tools for the art historian. Using these dated examples as the armature, we can group the undated ones that have similar iconography and styles. Placing the images into categories and naming them is what we art historians like to do best.

The Museum Phra Phuttha Sihing is a Lan Na Mixed Type mingling Lan Na, Sukhothai and Sri Lanka characteristics. As we have already discussed, the Sri Lanka or Singhalese characteristics are primarily the meditation gesture but also the flattened legs close to the plinth, the rounder face, and a flame finial. Sukhothai's hand can be seen in the style of the flame finial, hooked nose, full jowls and silhouette. Mon Hariphunchai gets a brief nod with the spiky curls, the urna dot between the eyes and the two bulges on the lower lip. Lan Na distinctive characteristics are that the flame finial that was cast separately and the lotus leaf base that extends past the knees. Further Northern details from the 15th - early 16th century are the wider shawl, the hooked nose with bridge line and the two ball nostril flaps, outlined mouth with prominent corner ticks, two slight swellings on the lower lip and the distinctive Lan Na impressed circle on the checks around the mouth as well as the style of crimped topped lotus leaves overlapping on the base.

Among the most outstanding attributes of the 15th century Lan Na workshops is the over-all quality of the casting, the luminosity of the burnished bronze, and the careful attention to detailing. Not all Lan Na images are as expertly cast. The late 15th century date for the Phra Phuttha Sihing can not be definitively proven until the bronze is analyzed for the chemical components of the metal and of the clay interior mould, or until a new test to determine the age of bronze material (currently impossible) can be devised. Until that time, the old-fashioned analysis of the style and iconography, using dated images as the framework, is the tool of the art historian.

While many superb pieces were cast in Lan Na during the Golden Age, at the apex of them all we place the revered Phra Phuttha Sihing. With a reminiscent look to Sri Lanka, it combines the most profound and beautiful features from Sukhothai and Lan Na - these two early Thai kingdoms so important to the history of Thailand. This magnificent image with its dual heritage is a fitting guardian/palladium not only for the present Chakri dynasty but for the united kingdom of Thailand as a whole.

After a thought-provoking question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where, over copious amounts of drinks and snacks, members of the audience engaged Carol in more informal

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