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286th Meeting - Tuesday, March 13th 2007 

Traditional Thai Mural Painting: The Thai Cosmos and the Jakatas

A talk and presentation by Carol Stratton

Present: 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 script for Carol's talk and presentation

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 become Enlightened.

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.

The Thai Worldview or Cosmos

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 Erawan.

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 pure reason.

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.

Painting Conventions : Composition - Bird's Eye View

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 zig-zag line.

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 divisions.

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.

The Artist

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.

Common Conventions for Portraying Humans & Mythical Beings, Divinities

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.

Hermits and Ascetics

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 genre scenes.

SLIDE: commoners or attendants at the Birth of the Buddha

Mythical or important animals: Monkeys

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

Real Animals

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

Genre Scenes : Setting - Relevant to Intended Viewer

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

The Ten Lives of the Buddha in Thai Mural Painting

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 Prince"

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 king, dies,

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 and hells

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 him

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 nagas.

SLIDES: naga prince captured with a special charm; made to perform at the market.

7. Forbearance: Patience: Canda-Kumara "the Honorable Prince."

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 Sage."

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 eloquence.

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 Buddha.

A knowledgably enlightened question and answer session brought to a conclusion what had been a most interesting, informative and entertaining evening.

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