Monday, November 27, 2017

Strange Creatures in Thai Temples

                                  by Jim Goodman

mom images at Wat Umong Mahatherachan
       At some point in ancient India, certain individuals had the leisure time and intellectual curiosity to wonder about the nature of the world around them. They began speculating on the elements of the universe, both on what could be seen and what could not.  No record exists as to what kind of debate ensued over the interpretation, but eventually a consensus emerged.  The self-styled philosophers of that era came up with a description that would underline all the myths of the Hindu religion as well as, centuries later, Buddhism, both in India and in Southeast Asia.
       They were living in the Gangetic Plain, a broad swath of the heart of India, bounded on the north by the Himalaya Mountains, the earth’s tallest.  It’s doubtful whether any of these mythographers explored these mountains, but they were always visible from the northern edge of the plains.  They reckoned the center of the universe was Mt. Meru, the highest of the 84,000 peaks that made up the northern mountain range.  The sun, moon and planets all revolved around Mt. Meru.
naga at the foot of Wat Doi Suthep stairway
nagas at Chedi Luang
       Thousands of years later, when Buddhism gained ascendancy in northern India its adherents also subscribed to this world-view.  The Buddhist heavens were supposed to be just above Mt. Meru, while all around the mountain’s base lay the Himmapan Forest, home to a wide assortment of ethereal creatures.  Some were totally fanciful, others based on real animals, still others hybrid varieties.  Some preyed on others in the forest, but in general, Himmapan residents, experiencing no suffering and therefore no aging, were eternally youthful.
dragon-headed lion at Lamphun's Wat Haripunchai
Lion Capitals of Ashoka, Wat Bupharam
       Thai people converted to Buddhism, via Sinhalese missionaries, long after the religion died out in India, when it was already heavily influenced by Hindu concepts.  As a result, the imagery associated with Thai Buddhist temple compounds includes that of Indian Hinduism and Buddhism, along with the weird denizens of Himmapan.  Some of these creatures represent protectors and guardians of the sacred space and buildings of the compound.  Others are decorative sculptures enhancing the walls or standing freely in the courtyard.
       The most striking of the guardian animals are the serpentine nagas.  A pair of them flanks the staircases to the main temple buildings.  They were originally modeled on the king cobra, but have heads and fangs more suggestive of a dragon.  Thai versions have anywhere between one and seven heads.  According to Buddhist mythology, after his Enlightenment the Buddha was seated in meditation one day when a violent rainstorm broke out.  The king cobra Mucalinda rose up behind him and spread the hoods of his seven heads to shield him from the rain. 
elephant-headed lion, Wat Lamchang
elephant-headed horse, Wat Muensan
       The naga image evolved from the Mucalinda tale, became associated with the protection of Buddhism, and thus guards the entrances to the assembly hall (viharn), ordination hall (ubosot) and, at Chiang Mai’s Chedi Luang, the staircases climbing up the sides of the ruined chedi. The naga’s color varies from all white to mostly yellow to a variety of colors on one sculpture, such as the ones at Wat Doi Suthep.  The fangs are always bared and a crest rises upward from the top of its head.
       The lion is another guardian animal, usually seated at the compound entrance or beside a chedi.  As the King of the Beasts it represents power and strength, ready to repel any spirit attack.  But it doesn’t always play that role.  At the entrance to Wat Bupharam four lions stand back to back on the columns on either side.  They are replicas of the famous Lion Capital of Ashoka, originally created in the 3rd century BCE, named after Emperor Ashoka of Maurya, who promoted the spread of Buddhism all over the Indian sub-continent.
elephant-headed nagas, Wat Chiang Yeun
elephant-headed bird, Lamphun lamp post
       In this case, the four lions symbolize the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism:  suffering exists, craving causes it, the end of suffering comes with the end of craving, and the way to achieve that is to follow the rules of the Eightfold Path.  The other distinction of the Lion Capital of Ashoka is how closely they resemble real lions.  The animal was quite common in India back then, so one can safely assume the sculptor’s rendition was based on observation in the wild.
       Nowadays lions have vanished from all over India except for one preserved area in the Gir Forest of the western province of Gujarat.  They were never in Southeast Asia, though, so the usual Thai or Burmese rendition of a lion is quite different.  The body shape is close, but the head is much fiercer, more like that of a dragon.  Like the naga, the guardian lion has to look properly frightening to deter evil spirits.
bird with elephant and naga heads, Wat Srisupoan
thep norasri, Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang          
       An animal closer to home, that also plays a protective role in Thai temples, is the elephant.  Quite reduced in numbers now, elephants were abundant in past centuries.  Artists didn’t even have to go out to the jungles to see what they looked like, for kings rode them in processions and armies had stables of war-elephants. Consequently, their sculptures of elephants are generally realistic, even when they are just the front half, like the ones around the chedis of Wat Chiang Man and Chedi Luang.           
mermaid at Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
       Admired for its strength, majesty, intelligence and good nature, the elephant is also associated with Buddhism through another ancient story.  Accordingly, the Buddha was out walking in the countryside one day when an elephant approached him.  While the Buddha stood in the path, the elephant sank to its knees and bowed its head and trunk to the ground to pay respect and obeisance, acknowledging the Enlightened One.
       A Chiang Mai temple specifically honors the elephant.  Called Wat Lamchang, Temple of the Tethered Elephants, it stands on the spot where King Mengrai temporarily kept his stable of royal elephants while he oversaw the construction of Chiang Mai in 1292.  Elephant statues flank the stairways of the buildings, surround the chedi and stand in the gardens.  They can be white, black, brown or terracotta red, from near life size down to the size of a flowerpot.  They can be very realistic, with trunks raised, or small, smiling, almost cartoon-like.  They can also be half-elephant, like the pair of elephant-headed lions that stand before the rear building in the compound.
crocodile-headed flying horse, Wat Saen Muang Ma Luang
       These are called kochasri and are creatures from the Himmapan Forest, where nothing dwelling there is visible to mortal eyes.  So their depictions are up to the imagination of the artist.  At Wat Lamchang they are standing sculptures, while at Wat Meunsan they are gilded low relief images on a gate panel and at Wat Phra Singh carved in stone on the base of the library.
       Elephant-related Himmapan hybrids include the sinta pakuchorn--a green, elephant-headed horse, the kunchun uneu—front half elephant and back half fish, the nok hussadee—an elephant-headed bird, and the karinpuksa—an elephant body with the wings and tail of a bird.  Bigger than an ordinary elephant, it can soar, fly and hover in the air. 
      Elephant-headed nagas are the main motif decorating the shrine in front of the chedi at Wat Chiang Yeun.  Embellishing the roof corners of the Silver Temple at Wat Srisuphan are sculptures of a large bird with two heads—the lower one elephant, the upper one naga.  And the creatures on the roof corners of the ubosot at Wat Chedi Liam have an elephant head on the breast of a bird, with what looks like a serpent’s tail rising high up behind and over the head.
flying horse on the base of the library at Wat Phra Singh
       A final example of the elephant head theme is that of Ganesh, the Hindu god with a human body and an elephant head.   Some Ganesh sculptures have three heads, like the god Indra’s elephant mount Erawan.  The other Hindu deity adopted by Thai Buddhism is Brahma, the creator god, whom the Thai know as Phra Prom and who has four heads, one in each direction.   
       The mythical menagerie of the West has nothing like an elephant-headed naga.  It has dragons, but very different from those in the East.  But a couple of the Himmapan creatures look familiar.  One is the mermaid.  Except for the facial features it is just like the famous statue in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Another type of Himmapan mermaid, though, has wings, unlike any Occidental mermaid.  An equally familiar being is the flying horse, no different from the Pegasus of Greek myth.
       Western myths have other hybrid creatures, such as the half-man, half-bull Minotaur, but nowhere near as many as Himmapan.  The forest is also home to the unique Naruphon tree.  Its fruits produce female, human-like beings called makaleepon, though if the fruits are not plucked within seven days they die.  Not all the animals are hybrids, either, for two kinds of lion live there, one red, one black, both herbivores.
aquatic hybrids from Himmapan Forest
       Other kinds of lions and part lions dwell in Hammapan.  The ghilen is a lion with deer antlers and scaly skin.  It lives a thousand years, represents virtue and punishes the wicked.  The to is a lion with two horns, while the loto is a lion with a flaring head and eagle claws on its feet.  Lion bodies with the head of a dragon, a bird, the head and tail of a naga and one with the upper torso and feet of a monkey also roam around Himmapan and appear in decorative temple sculptures.
       Horses are also part of temple imagery, particularly at Wat Kun Kha Ma, the ‘Value of Horses Temple’.  In the early centuries of Lanna’s history, this site was a horse farm, providing the nobles with their favorite transportation vehicle and military officers with their mounts.   Then one day a disease swept through the herd and killed most of the horses.  The distraught owner, wanting to commemorate his beloved animals, had a temple constructed here in the early 16th century.  Its most outstanding feature is the row of golden horse sculptures, 64 altogether, that line the walls of the compound.
winged anthropomorphic Himmapan creature
       These figures are modeled on real horses, but some horse hybrids, besides the winged one and the elephant-headed type, exist in Himmapan, too.  The durong kraisorn is a horse with a dragon’s head.  The hemara ussadorn has a bird’s head.  And the ussadorn hayra is half-horse, half-crocodile.
       Always a scary animal, the crocodile is also the inspiration for the body of the mom, though the head is more dragon-like.  Quite common and usually in pairs, they flank the stairways of subsidiary buildings in the compound, sloping downwards, the head at the lower end, raised and baring its fangs.  The mom is also associated with rain and when the monsoons are tardy, farmers take mom images to the fields and implore them to make the rains come.
       Yet more oddities populate Himmapan.  The mungkorn vihak has a dragon’s head, cow’s body and bird wings and tail.  The sintu puksee has a bird’s body and a fish’s fins and tail.  The upper part of the greenish colored panom masuek is a monkey, while the lower part is a deer.  The sagoon hayra is a bird with the head of a crocodile, sometimes with deer antlers.
sphinx-like man-lion, Wat Mahan
kinnara playing a drum, Wat Mahan
       A special Himmapan category comprises those creatures that, like the elephant-headed Ganesh, are part human and part animal.  Garuda, the mount of the god Vishnu, is one example.  It has an eagle’s head, beak, wings and talons and the body and limbs of a man.  Garuda is considered the King of the Birds, is a sworn enemy of snakes and has the license to devour bad men (except the ones who are Brahmins).
       On other anthropomorphic beings the human part is the upper portion.  The lower half of an upsom sriha is a deer or a lion.  The thep norasri stands on deer’s legs and has a lion’s tail.  Other creatures resemble a sphinx or a centaur.  The most popular in this category is the half-human, half-swan creature called the kinnara, especially its female counterpart the kinnaree. 
kinnaree--half-woman, half-swan
       One type has human legs as well as the swan’s wings and tails.  The more common rendition has a human upper torso, with arms, and a swan’s legs, wings and tail.  The female form—kinnaree—is particularly graceful and has a reputation as a wonderful singer and dancer.  The kinnaras, like the ones on the viharn exterior of Wat Mahan on Tha Pae Road, are often depicted playing musical instruments like the drum, lute, horn, viol and flute.
       The rules for making Buddha images, as well as those for the Hindu pantheon in India, follow standards set centuries ago.  In depicting Himmapan creatures the artists have more leeway, which is why one sees so many different kinds of lions, nagas, kinnarees and other beings.  They have the precedents of previous generations, but can embellish them with personal touches.  And since the creatures of Himmapan are invisible and myriad, they can even come up with new hybrid combinations if they choose.  From Himmapan, anything is possible and everything is plausible.
hybrid Himmapan creatures on a roof at Wat Chedi Liam
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1 comment:

  1. Amazing post!!!
    ps. Btw, the Thep Norasri is in fact a Panorn Maruek I believe.