Friday, March 8, 2019

Decoration and Edification: Chiang Mai Temple Murals

                                            by Jim Goodman

social life in a Lai Kham mural
       When travelers come to Chiang Mai they have usually prepared a list of attractions they wish to see and appreciate.  Besides the markets, daytime, nighttime and weekend, the riverside and the nearest mountains, their program will include an extensive exploration of the old city.  Surrounded by a moat, with picturesque wooden bridges crossing it, it features the ruins of the original ancient bastions at each corner, some restored wall fragments, five reconstructed city entry gates and many old temples.
       From its founding in 1296, Chiang Mai was a consciously Buddhist city.  Its first temple, Wat Chiangman, was built at the same time as the king’s palace and city walls.  Others soon followed and today dozens of temples lie within the boundaries of the old walled city.  Naturally then, a tour of Chiang Mai inevitably includes visits to several of the more famous ones.
Jataka Tales illustrated at Wat Buak Krok Luang
       These may be notable for their architecture, as outstanding examples of the classic style.  Wat Lokmolee, Wat Lai Kram in the Phra Singh compound and Wat Inthakin, with their dark sloping roofs, fit into this category.  Or it could be for their unusual chedis, the bell-shaped reliquaries behind the main viharn, or assembly hall, such as the gigantic ruined one at Wat Chedi Luang, and those with elephants around the base, like at Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiangman.  And it could be for their rare and ancient Buddha images, like at Wat Chiangman. 
       For travelers experiencing their first exposure to Buddhist arts in situ, these sights can be appreciated only to a certain degree.  Not having been raised in a Buddhist environment, nor specializing in the religious arts, visitors find themselves admiring the basic aesthetic attractions of a building or a statue, without connecting to it any other way.
lai khram-style mural at Wat Chiangman
portrait of a farmer, Wat Chiangman
       But there is one Thai temple art that can go beyond aesthetics and draw them right into the culture—wall murals.  Not every temple has them and the quality varies in those that do.  They mainly depict religious subjects, such as well-known scenes from the life of the Buddha, plus incidents from the Jataka Tales, a compilation of stories of the Buddha’s previous incarnations.   They decorate the walls with imagery that enhances the spiritual atmosphere of the building.
religious and secular activities, Wat Chiangman mural
       In many cases the imagery, particularly involving scenes from the Buddha’s life, is rather ordinary, looking much like mass-produced Indian posters.  The painters did not see themselves as Renaissance-style individualist artists, but more like ordinary artisans producing imagery according to fixed prescriptions written down in books.  In Bangkok and the central provinces painters worked according to Court-directed styles and formulas.
       This was much less the case in the north, allowing for individual styles and an altogether livelier rendition, especially in the details.  Scenes from the Jataka Tales provided more scope for a painter’s own ideas, such as choosing which little everyday life vignettes to include.  It did not extend to portraits, for the faces of both men and women are all alike.  The overall general style also seems fixed.  There are no shadows, no shading, no sense of perspective and the size of individuals in the murals depends upon their importance.  Royalty, spiritual beings and Buddhas are larger than mere mortal commoners.
how the murals were made--exhibition at Lanna Folk Life Museum
       Besides decoration, temple murals also served as aids to preaching.  Temple murals originated centuries ago when literacy was mostly restricted to men and even those who could read did not spend much time reading religious texts.  Devotees did gather at temples to hear the monks preach.  And in their discourse the monks frequently referred to the paintings by way of illustrating their remarks.
       Religion was more closely integrated with everyday life back then.  In addition to religious motifs the murals also depict scenes from the daily life of the community, to make the worshipers feel the temple was just another part of domestic life.  These vignettes, especially in the older murals of Lai Kham Viharn in the Wat Phra Singh compound and Wat Buak Krok Luang, constitute a graphic illustration of Thai culture and history that can be appreciated by foreign visitors even if they knew virtually nothing about Thailand or Buddhism before they came here.
18th century soldier, with spear, City Pillar Shrine
detail from a mural inside the City Pillar Shrine
       Wall murals are of two main types.  The simpler one, called lai khram in Thai, consists of just two colors—gold or yellow figures on a red or red-brown background.  The best example of this is at the main viharn of Wat Chiangman, where the imagery comprises scenes of everyday life, set back centuries ago.  We see the clothing and hairstyles of the time, with the women in striped sarongs and wraparound breast cloths, hair tied in a bun, the men shirtless for the most part, and soldiers riding horses or elephants, the nobility in their palaces and the commoners in simple stilted huts.
Burmese delegates, Lai Kham mural
       The scenes include rituals in front of chedis that resemble Chedi Liam in the pre-Chiang Mai capital of Wiang Kum Kam, modeled on those in Haripunchai (ancient Lamphun).  There are also vignettes of farmers leading buffalo carts, carrying loads on balance poles, reaping rice, tying a buffalo to a stake for its slaughter and cooking over a log fire, all of them subjects that can still be witnessed in the countryside today.  Only the military scenes, and the Court vignette of scribes writing in palm-leaf manuscripts cannot be witnessed anymore, but are interesting insights into the life of times past.
everyday life vignette, Lai Kham mural
       The other, more common type of mural is full color.  Painters first outlined all the figures in the mural and then filled in the outlines with different colors.  Sometimes one artist did all the outlines and others, often his students, filled in the colors.  Unlike fresco painting, in which the pigments are applied to wet plaster, Thai temple painters applied the colors to dry plaster.  This made them more vulnerable to the effects of a climate that was very damp several months a year.  The paint flecked off, especially on the lower parts of the walls.  The usual solution was to simply remove the rest of the painting and make a new one. 
       Even when the intention was to recreate the original, mistakes could mar the result.  The City Pillar was originally kept in Wat Inthakin, but when Kawila re-established Chiang Mai at the end of the 18th century he moved it to a new shrine in the compound of Wat Chedi Luang.  The small shrine’s walls were covered with typical classic-style murals.  These decayed over time and early this century temple authorities decide to restore them. 
court scene, Lai Kham mural
daily life, Lai Khan mural
       The artists did a fine job recreating the original themes, but for some reason depicted the warriors next to the doors, while dressed in Kawila period style, carrying M-16 rifles or submachine guns.  After the grand re-opening, someone pointed out this anomaly and soon the modern guns were replaced with spears.
boys on buffaloes,Lai Kham mural
       Fortunately, in two of Chiang Mai’s temples the authorities opted for preserving the originals.  At Lai Kham Viharn in the Wat Phra Singh compound, the murals date from the early 19th century, the oldest extant in the province.  Lai Kham is one of the most beautiful examples of Buddhist architecture in the city.   After Kawila restored the Kingdom of Lanna, its interior walls became covered with murals of Jataka Tales and other subjects.
       Time and weather corroded the paintings, but fortunately, instead of painting new murals over the old ones, in this case the goal was restoration, beginning a couple of decades ago.  It was a long and painstaking process, but nowadays most sections of the murals have been restored to their original vivid colors.  Except for a few men with moustaches, the shape of the heads, faces and facial expressions of the humans in the murals are all very similar, though their clothing, while in the same general classic style, is very individualistic.  No two sarong patterns, for example, are exactly alike,
Jataka Tales at Wat Buak Krok Luang
       A few celestial beings appear on the walls, but the primary concentration is on secular themes.  We see traditional houses with their sloping, arched roofs, the sides open to reveal the people inside or on their balconies.  They could be preparing food, minding the children or just socializing.  Several vignettes depict courtship scenes and both young men and young women smoke cheroots while they chat.
       Other daily activities include carrying bowls of food or other things, market scenes, presenting offerings or just lounging around.  One cute picture depicts young boys riding buffaloes.  Another shows a contingent of Burmese men, wearing the most colorful garments of all.  Their lungyis reach to the knee, revealing some of the dark tattoos that used to cover the thighs of the males of those times, both in Burma and in Thailand.
=grieving scene,Wat Buak Krok Luang
The second oldest set of classic temple murals graces the interior of the viharn of Wat Buak Krok Luang, about two km west of the PIng River off the Sam Kamphaeng Road.  Though the temple dates its construction three centuries ago, the murals were added after renovation in the late 19th century.  They are the work of a Shan immigrant and not quite the same style as those at Lai Kham.  The subject matter may be similar, mainly several Jataka Tales, but the details can differ.
       Human figures have the same kind of bodies and largely expressionless faces, except for the smiles of courting couples.  But there are scenes of grief and very poignant weeping figures.  The elephants look realistic, but some of the horses have disproportionately longer bodies and spotted skin.  To illustrate a military episode the artist included a rank of Shan soldiers in red helmets and jackets.  And on the right rear wall is a picture of two demons torturing a sinner in Hell.
the torments of Hell,Wat Buak Krok Luang
       These murals cover more space than those at Lai Khan, but restoration has been slow.  Some are still in excellent condition, while others have a strange red hue over them and streaks and blotches where the pain has peeled off.  Nevertheless, they are valuable for the cultural and historical insights they offer, as well as appreciation of the art itself.  Inevitably, too, the visitor will spend much time lingering over fascinating details.
       The classic mural style of these two places did not prevail in later temple paintings, which affect a modern style of more or less realistic portraiture.  One of the buildings in Wat Bupharam, in the heart of the city, did adopt the style, but the subjects are not taken from the Buddha’s life or the Jataka Tales, but instead illustrate scenes from contemporary life. 
Thai kick-boxing, Wat Bupharam mural
       They are mostly crowd scenes or festival processions.  The women wear the traditional blouses and striped sarongs, but most of the men, and especially the children, dress in modern fashions.  It’s like what one sees at the festivals nowadays.  A few vignettes of domestic life are included, looking more like the classic at-home and flirting scenes of the old murals.  There’s also a unique portrayal of the modern Thai sport of kick-boxing.
       Contemporary secular life and religious stories characterize most temple murals.  But local history can provide other themes.  One such story is that of Queen Chamadevi, the first ruler of the Mon state of Haripunchai (ancient Lamphun).  She was a real historical person, but her life story has been augmented by legend.  Murals portraying the episodes of the city-state’s foundation cover the walls of the viharn of Wat Chamadevi and the ordination hall of Wat Prayeun in Lamphun.  They are also the subjects of murals in two of the buildings of Wat Doi Khan, a hilltop temple 11 km south of Chiang Mai.
the hermit Wasuthep raising young Chamadevi, Wat Doi Kham
       Doi Kham was the home of Pu Sae and Ya Sae, former cannibal ogres whom the Buddha converted and who were the parents of the hermit Wasuthep, who lived on the mountain later named after him--Doi Suthep.  When Chamadevi was born near Lamphun, a huge bird abducted the baby and flew to Doi Suthep.  There the hermit frightened it enough that it released the child, who fell into an instantly created lotus. 
       Wasuthep raised the girl himself and even taught her martial arts.  When she reached puberty he divined her future, learned she was destined to become a queen and sent her downriver to Lopburi and its royal Mon family.  When she matured, Wasuthep laid out the city of Haripunchai and she came up to rule over it.  These tales and the subsequent history of Haripunchai’s establishment are the subject of murals in one of the viharns and the separate shrine to Chamadevi.
       Whether the topics are religious, narrative or simply portraits of everyday activities, temple murals greatly enhance the experience of a visit.  The statues and furnishings may be of high artistic quality.  But only the murals will engage the eye for closer examination and relishing of surprise details and make a simultaneous appeal to the eye, mind and heart.

Shan soldiers on a mural in Wat Buak Krok Luang

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