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INTG 309th Meeting – Tuesday, February 10th 2009


"Buddhist Murals from the Isan Heartland"
A talk and presentation by Bonnie Brereton

Present:  Celeste Holland, James Bogle, Carol & Bob Stratton, John Thomson, Fran Decoster, Bill Feetham, Pallop Changkaocha, Sarunya Dhamagul, Carol Grodzins, Patricia Cheesman, Jody & Dale Harcourt, Duenpen Chaladlam, Maria Piotrowski, Donna Durbin, Layle Wood, Spencer Wood, Sebastien Tayac, Mark & Dianne Barber-Riley, Mike & Rose Dean, Christine Mougne, Ricky Ward, Hans Bänziger, Peter Kunstadter, Patricia Rishi, Bodil Blokker, Rebecca Hall, Winnie Tan. An audience of 31 plus a few more.

Summary of her presentation prepared by Bonnie

Isan's traditional Buddhist murals are little known to art historians and even to many people in the Northeast. Most are found in village monasteries outside of and often far from provincial capital cities. My research is focused on those in what I call "the Isan heartland" of Khon Kaen, Maha Sarakham, Roi Et, and Kalasin provinces, an area that was less impacted by external influences than were other parts of the region. These murals are truly folk art in that they were sponsored and created, not by the elite, but by ordinary folk whose primary occupation was rice farming; consequently they are markedly different from the murals one usually sees in Bangkok and even in other parts of Isan.

The folk in this case were the Thai of Lao ethnicity, whose cultural forms were long devalued and even ridiculed by central government administrators. As a result, local people often failed to see the value of their work and many traditional unique temple buildings were torn down and replaced by standardized ("Mc Wat") models designed in Bangkok.

Isan murals are painted on the exterior walls of ordination halls known in the Lao language as sim, a word derived from the Pali "sima," the boundary markers used to delineate the hall's sacred space. (Ordination halls in other parts of Thailand are known as ubosoth or bot). External murals are a distinctive feature of the Isan heartland and are not found elsewhere in Thailand. Some sim have interior murals as well. Sim come in diverse architectural styles, but Isan heartland sim all have several features in common, the most distinctive being a wide gabled roof, extending outward to shelter the murals on the walls below.

Isan heartland murals are filled with myriad forms of local plant and animal life-wild and domesticated, real and mythical, food source and friend. Banana, bamboo, banyan, bodhi, palm, papaya, jackfruit, tamarind, and other types of real and imaginary trees provide the background to many scenes. Jungle-dwelling deer, tigers, hogs, monkeys, peacocks, owls, and vultures are found alongside royal elephants and horses as well as village dogs, ducks, chickens, and water buffalo.

Extraordinary creatures derived from Hindu-Buddhist cosmology include the naga, the kinnari,; the singha, and the khotchasi. An amazing botanical species is the nari phon tree, whose fruits are nubile young maidens who emerge from the flowers feet-first and sway delicately from its branches.

For the most part, Isan mural compositions are tightly packed with details, but at two of the wats I have studied, the use of space is open and uncluttered. At all wats humans and animals are drawn as flat, outlined figures with no concern for realistic proportion or scale, but disproportionately large in comparison to their background. Horses and elephants resemble carousel figures ridden by toy soldiers; palaces look like doll houses, and forests are clusters of bonsai plants. Most of the characters depicted, whatever their species or status, have a benign quality to them. Spiritually evolved characters such as gods, heroes, and heroines (including bodhisattvas and their families) are especially sweet and gentle. Even villainous and demonic characters are not entirely intimidating. Scenes depicting their battles with heroes are iconographic and stylized, with no evidence of blood and gore.

The stories depicted most frequently are the Vessantara Jataka, Sin Sai, Phra Lak Phra Ram (the Lao version of the Rama epic) and three key events in the life of the Buddha (leaving the palace, victory over Mara, and parinirvana). The Totsachat, or last ten Jatakas, are seen less frequently in the Isan heartland than in other parts of the country. Hell scenes, with or without the arhat Phra Malai, appear at most wats.

The Vessantara Jataka is in many ways the most important story in Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. It tells of Prince Vessantara, who gave away not only his royal belongings, but also his children and wife. It exemplifies generosity, which can also be construed as non-attachment, the ultimate Buddhist value. Listening to the Jataka's recitation is considered a way of making sufficient merit to enable one to be reborn during the era of the next Buddha, Maitreya, and thereby have a better opportunity to attain nirvana. This teaching is one of the main points of the Phra Malai sutta (in the local version, Malai Muen Malai Saen) which is read before the Vessantara Jataka. In it, the arhat Phra Malai travels first to the Buddhist hells and then to Tavatimsa Heaven, where he meets the future Buddha Maitreya, who gives him a message to take back to the human realm: those who wish to be born when he is born in the human realm should follow the Five Precepts, practice generosity, and listen to the entire Vessantara Jataka in one day and one night. The significance of this story and its relevance to Isan murals can be seen in the relationship between mural composition and celebration of the Vessantara Jataka merit-making festival in Isan.

Regarding the murals' composition, most walls are divided into a series of registers or rows, each comprised of human figures and animals moving in a direction opposite to those in the registers above and below. Compared to those in other parts of Thailand, Isan heartland murals are freer, more spontaneous, and less predicable. Each sim is unique in terms of the location of stories and themes, individual renderings of certain characters, and artistic skill. Yet, at the same time, Isan painters shared a vision of the world that differed significantly from that of painters in and around Bangkok.

In Central Region murals there is a spatial hierarchy dividing the walls into registers, from upper to lower, with celestial beings at the very top, high-born humans in the middle, and servants and other lower class humans at the bottom. Isan heartland murals, by contrast, portray not only religious stories, but also the participation of the Buddhist faithful in the reenactment of these stories. Ordinary people are found at all levels of the composition and their role in rituals is an integral part of the composition.

It is at first difficult to decipher the relationship between one register and another. While the component parts of a mural can be identified, fitting them together into a comprehensible whole is at first difficult. The key to decoding central Isan murals lies in seeing the movement of the horizontal panels or registers around the exterior of the sim. This can be seen by comparing the murals with the horizontal cloth scrolls (pha phra wet) on which are painted scenes from each chapter of the Vessantara Jataka. The scrolls are carried in annual Vessantara Jataka (known as Bun Pha Wet) processions by laypeople to the local wat; in this ritual they are inviting Vessantara to return to the city after his long exile in the forest. When the procession reaches the wat, the scrolls are hung around the interior of the preaching hall, where the story is recited later. The scrolls and murals resemble each iconographically and stylistically.

Both replicate the movement of the congregation during Vessantara Jataka processions. Virtually every Isan wat holds an annual festival at some time between February and April. The scrolls' final scene depicts Vessantara's triumphant procession back to the capital after performing ultimate acts of nonattachment. At the same time it reflects fertility and rain-making rituals: figure after figure of musicians, palace officials, and merry-makers dance, play music, drink local brew, and flirt with abandon. Murals are filled with similar scenes, and both reflect the actual celebration of the Bun Pha Wet festival in thousands of wats throughout the region. In this way the murals, the scrolls, and the ritual re-enactment of this Buddhist story - because of its indigenous magical efficacy - occupy a place integral to the lives of the local people and their belief system.

Most Isan mural painters will never be identified because their names were usually not recorded; those who are remembered are known only by their first names and titles, which indicates that they included both laypeople and monks. Sponsorship was generally a community effort and villagers contributed to the extent that they could, either in cash, kind, or labor.

Insight into the contributions of donors can be found in a rare list of names on the walls of Wat Udom Pracha Ratchadon, in Kalasin that provides the names of twenty-five individuals who contributed a total of twenty-seven baht for the creation of the murals. This extraordinary list provides a valuable record of both the dynamics of communal support and the value of the Thai baht when the building was completed in 1938.

Artists in the Isan heartland, like all those throughout South and Southeast Asia, used not only their imagination but also their personal experience in creating scenes from Buddhist narratives. While the stories depicted are based on classic Indic models, they are set within the context of local terrain, foliage, architecture, social behavior, and material culture. Consequently murals serve as ethnographic catalogues of various aspects of Lao/Isan village life in the early twentieth century, including the activities and antics of ordinary people, their dress, rituals, celebrations, and forms of livelihood.

Sex is a topic of interest to people of all cultures of the world, and no less so to the peoples of Thailand. A considerable part of folk literature throughout the country includes references to sexual activity. Nidhi Eoseewong, a well-known Thai scholar, notes that various forms of singing which accompany ordinary activities like harvesting and boating are filled with sexual innuendoes; he suggests that they once may have been connected with fertility rites. Thai court poetry is also famous for its references to sexual encounters, ranging from rather explicit descriptions to narrative passages referred to as "wondrous scenes." The latter are poetic descriptions of natural phenomena, including earthquakes, storms at sea, lightning, rainfall, and the interactions of bees and flowers, as codified metaphors for erotic activity.

In the same vein, Buddhist murals in every part of the country usually include scenes of flirting, courting, and more-or-less explicit depictions of love-making that take place on the periphery of the drama being enacted. In Central Thailand such activities are generally confined to the lower registers, where genre scenes of the common people, usually depicted as dark-skinned bumpkins, are found. However, minor deities are sometimes seen cavorting in the heavens.

In Isan heartland murals such activities are not confined to the lower registers but can be found at any level, and sometimes even on the sim's interior wall directly behind the main Buddha image. Moreover, while candid, they are not so much erotic or pornographic as they are bawdy, fun-loving, and aimed at communicating certain attitudes toward the subjects depicted. Bawdy details can frequently be found in portrayals of the enlightenment scene. The future Buddha, seated beneath the bodhi tree, is besieged by Mara, the lord of delusion, and his warriors. Below, the earth goddess Nang Thorani wrings out her hair into a torrent that sweeps away Mara's demonic-looking warriors who are gobbled up, head-first by gigantic ravenous fish. A particularly robust example can be seen at Wat Khon Kaen Nua, Roi Et province, where the warriors are being consumed head-first, while their lower bodies, drawn with exaggerated genitalia, protrude from the mouths of the fish. This sort of bawdiness is a ubiquitous part of Isan village entertainment, celebrations, and festivals. Traditional molam singing and shadow plays are laced with earthy humor in the form of word play and ribald interchange.

The dry season rocket festival, which includes processions of dancers, naga-shaped floats, and villagers carrying pairs of copulating dolls with exaggerated genitalia, is a prime example of an agricultural fertility rite based on sexual symbolism intended to bring rain. On this occasion and at processions for ordinations and other religious merit-making festivities, participants (mostly male, but some female as well) generally drink home brew or cheap commercial whiskey as they dance and sway, with fluid hip and hand movements, to the rhythm of drums and gongs.

Scenes like this appear in countless murals. They often exhibit sexually bold behavior that would be unacceptable in everyday life-the men sometimes wrapping their legs around the women or fondling their breasts-with the women resisting, acquiescing, or sometimes reciprocating. Do such portrayals represent actual behavior, as inversions of customary inhibitions that actually occur during certain merit-making occasions? Or are they the hyperbolic expression of the full fun and joy that participants feel during these times of exuberant celebration as they experience relief from the drudgery of everyday life and hope in the effect of their merit-making? What is certain is that these spirited scenes are attention-getters that sustain the viewer's interest. The element of surprise is always present; when perusing a mural, one is never sure when such details might occur.

Bawdy scenes occur in numerous other contexts as well. An example is related to the relationship between Chuchok and Amittada. The old Brahmin truly loves his lovely young wife and treats her so well that their conjugal bliss evokes envy and disharmony among neighboring couples. The tensions come to a head when the other wives retaliate by taunting Amittada. While in Central Region murals the neighbors' antics are limited to pinching the unfortunate young woman, in Isan they go much further. At Wat Ban Yang they insult her by "mooning" her, lifting their phasin (skirts) to expose their bare buttocks. At Wat Sanuan Wari they not only lift their skirts, but even urinate at her. Such portrayals evoke sympathy toward Amittada and Chuchok, who rather than being monochromatic icons of good or evil, are tinged with a range of moral, human hues.

On the other hand, Chuchok's demise is often depicted with great fun and gusto. Isan painters seem to relish portraying how his uncontrolled craving leads him to consume such a huge amount of food that his stomach bursts open, causing him to die. One way to do this is to draw a bystander pointing to the Brahmin and his bulging midriff. A clever caption can add even more emphasis to this crucial incident, as seen in the enthusiastic use of alliteration at Wat Sanuan Wari. It reads: "...thong phram tuum taeg taai," a rough approximation of which might be, "and the Brahmin, his belly bursting open with a bang, bit the dust."

The examples above illustrate the Lao/Isan love of bawdy, slapstick humor in every aspect of life, including the teaching of Buddhist stories and ideals. I hope that some of you will be interested in visiting these wats in the future and experiencing these robustly expressive murals first hand.

In addition to the energy that she put into enthusiastically delivering a presentation that was both informative and entertaining, we must also express our gratitude to Bonnie for spending most of the afternoon and evening, up until minutes before her talk began, working with computer technicians to persuade her laptop to work with the Alliance's LCD projector to show the images in all their true glory. Many thanks Bonnie for your dedication.

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