Informal Northern Thai Group

325th Meeting – Tuesday, August 10th 2010: 19.30 at the Alliance Française  

"Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand: Reflections of the Isan Heartland"

A talk and book presentation by Bonnie Brereton

Present: David Engel, Pierre Chaslin, Gaëlle Courtois, Anthony Irwin, John Cadet, Nance Cunningham, Renee Vines, Jennifer Davis, John Butt, Sebastien Tayac, Sumanatsya Voharn, Hunter Marston, Klaus Bettenhausen, Angela Srisomwonowathana, Rusaya Abhakorn. An audience of 19. 


The summary of Bonnie’s talk is taken from a book review published in the Bangkok Post Outlook section on 20/09/2010


The Democratic, Erotic, Moral, and Fun-Loving murals of Isan

A window on some distinctive and little-known temple paintings

Two ladies are being carried in procession to see a prince. Close behind, their lady attendants have elegantly flared lower cloths, and uppercloths so slight their breasts peep through. The menfolk ride elephants, five per mount. Behind come boar, anteater, tiger, deer, serow, and monkey. One monkey plucks a flower from a rain tree. Beside the road, one man plays a jolly khaen (pan pipe) and another dances with abandon. The picture bursts with life, colour, energy, nature and movement.

The wat murals of the north and central regions have become quite familiar through many books and magazine features in English. But those of Isan are very different and much less well known. For a start, they are usually painted on the outside rather than inside of the building, seemingly to make them more public. They were not drawn by professional artists but by farmers and other local people, and have a wonderfully direct folk naivety. The composition is not constrained by rules of hierarchy, which always place the gods and princes at the top, but has a very democratic disorderliness.

This book is as delightfully unpretentious as its subject matter. It offers no high-flown academic theories but tempts the reader to hunt down the originals, provides detailed maps to find the locations, and offers basic advice on how to read the stories. A perfect guide.

Bonnie Brereton is a long-resident scholar of Thailand's religion and culture. Somruay Yencheuy is an enthusiast and prolific writer about the arts and culture of the northeast. For this book, they concentrate on a handful of wat, mostly in Khon Kaen and Maha Sarakham, as these have been largely untouched by the cultural imperialism of the central Thai.

The murals tell a handful of stories which are used in preaching and other forms of moral education. They include three key scenes from the life of the Buddha; selected episodes from the distinctive Isan versions of the Rama (Phra Lak Phra Lam), Phra Malai, and Sangsinchai (Sin Sai) stories; and especially the Vessantara Jataka, known in Isan as Pha Wet.

While these same stories are depicted in the murals of other regions, here they take on a very different character. Above all, the atmosphere of the paintings is homely, intimate, and fun. The main characters are not transformed into semi-divine beings by elaborate costume, loads of jewellery and elegant dance poses. Phra Vessantara is signified by a simple rosary. The Buddha is even shown throwing up.

Scenes of everyday life are not confined to the lower registers, as in most central wat, but swarm all over the scenes. Indeed, in many of the paintings, scenes of everyday life and abundant nature almost overwhelm the depiction of the story. Men and women are shown working hard and playing hard - nicely reflecting the northeasterners' view of themselves. Women stand bent double, hacking at the earth with hoes; men wade through water, plunging fish traps; women truss up bundles of firewood; men plough behind buffaloes; old ladies glean the rice fields with their naked, droopy dugs dangling. In the many scenes of processions, you can hear the swirl of the khaen, and feel the abandon of the dancers.

The eroticism of these scenes is also more disarmingly open than the rather furtive portrayal in central-region paintings. Men grope the women and fondle their breasts, perhaps more intimately than would be possible in everyday life. Mara's warriors, being consumed by fish, have had their genitalia pencilled in. In a scene of the Buddha's Great Departure, one attendant deity is caressing a half-naked concubine with his toes. But, as the authors note, the effect is more playful than pornographic. These scenes are "attention getters" that hold the viewer's interest. The erotic content is also related to fertility rites, which form a major part of the region's festivals.

The text of this book is short, clear, and very easy to read. It quickly sketches the cultural background of Isan and the special character of the region's sim or ordination halls. It summarises the main stories found in the murals, and gives pointers on recognition. Most of the artists are unknown except for one who drew a fetching self-portrait with a caption announcing he was not yet married. The paints were made with natural dyestuffs, especially indigo and a reddish ochre, which give the paintings a mellow mood. The authors draw attention to the associations between these murals, the pha pha wet scrolls used as decoration at major festivals, and the region's continuing enthusiasm for processions.

The real joy of the book, however, lies in the pictures, mostly taken by the authors themselves, and beautifully capturing the vibrancy of the originals. The paintings are not very old, probably all painted in the last century. After Bangkok took firm control of the northeast in the 19th century, local culture was repressed or neglected. Many old, Isan-style ordination halls with paintings have since crumbled away. Only a few have been subject to some kind of restoration. The paintings are a record of the time, not so long ago, when the northeast was still densely forested, and its local culture very distinctive and strong. This book is both a valuable record and a cry for help.

BUDDHIST MURALS OF NORTHEAST THAILAND: Reflections of the Isan Heartland Bonnie Pacala Brereton and Somroay Yencheuy Mekong Press, 84 pp, 695 baht ISBN 978-6169005315