Features on Asian Art, Culture, History & Travel

X Close





Story by Ron Emmons (October 2020)


Massive and minute, gleaming and battered, obese and wasting away - the many faces of Buddha in Thailand reflect the diversity of this ancient religion. Yet for most Thais, Buddhism is more than a religion - it is a way of life. The thousands of glittering wats (temples) around the country function as the hub of the local community, containing schools, health centres and hosting the frequent festivals on the Thai calendar.

While the Christian world is in the twenty-first century, Thailand is already in the twenty-sixth, according to the Buddhist calendar. This gives many visitors a feeling of 'stepping out of time', and the sensation is enhanced by the striking range of Buddha images encountered while travelling round this land. It is not uncommon to come across huge images towering over the plain or gazing down from a hillside. At the other extreme, many Buddhists wear amulets that are so small that they have to be examined with a magnifying glass to judge their protective power.

Images are made from a variety of materials - stone, brick and stucco, bronze and even gold - and their preparation is an act of religious devotion, performed under the auspices of monks within temple grounds. One of the most stunning images in all the country, the Golden Buddha at Wat Trimitr, near the main railway station in Bangkok, has an intriguing story behind it. It was discovered beneath a layer of stucco that cracked when it was being moved, revealing the exquisite image beneath. Apparently the covering was applied to conceal its value from Burmese invaders centuries ago, and was then forgotten. It consists of over 5000 kg of pure gold, probably the greatest volume of this precious metal that most of us will ever see, and gleams so brightly that it appears to emanate its own light.

Thais like to make merit when they visit a temple; one of the most common methods is to press gold leaf on to Buddha images, and with the more popular images this has the effect of gradually obliterating the Buddha's features. Perhaps unwittingly, such images bring to mind the Buddhist notion of 'non-self', the overcoming of selfish desires.

While most images portray the Buddha as an ideally proportioned example of humanity, wide variations exist. Chinese Buddhists, of which there are many in Thailand, frequently cast the Buddha as a jovial, chubby character, well fed to say to say the least. Some images, on the other hand, depict the stage of the Buddha's life when he sought to attain enlightenment through fasting. In such images, the gaunt figure seems nothing but skin and bone.

All statues of the Buddha reflect aspects of his life or his teaching. Many of them show the posture of sitting in meditation, while others depict the Buddha standing, walking or reclining, which are also forms of meditation. Reclining Buddhas can be enormous, as in the case of the 46-metre image in Wat Po, behind the Grand Palace in Bangkok.

The ancient capitals of the Kingdom of Siam at Sukhothai and Ayuthaya provide ample evidence of the people's devotion to Buddhism over the centuries. Now partly restored, these sites contain some beautifully crafted images, even if some of them are in various states of dismemberment. These fragments of the Buddha can be even more stimulating to the imagination than complete images, and the weathering of centuries is a reminder of the Buddhist notion of impermanence, the idea that 'nothing lasts forever'.

Ruins and nature can blend in uncanny ways. In a shady corner of Wat Mahathat at Ayuthaya, a serene Buddha's head is cradled in the roots of a tree, creating a magical fusion of spirituality and nature. In other areas, attempts have been made to re-assemble the massive jigsaw of body parts, an almost impossible task and one that invariably leads to incongruous sections being fitted together. The results of such actions add a surreal touch to the already impressive surroundings.

Apart from the four basic postures (sitting, standing, walking, reclining), Buddha images also assume 'attitudes' or 'mudras' (symbolic hand gestures). Perhaps the most common mudra among Thai images is 'calling the Earth to witness', in which the Buddha sits with the left hand upturned in the lap while the right hand stretches over the knee to touch the ground. This signifies the Buddha's struggle to overcome doubt as he sat beneath the bo tree at Bodh Gaya before attaining Enlightenment.

Door and window carvings as well as murals in Thai temples depict scenes from the Buddha's life - dwelling in the forest among animals, meditating and preaching to disciples. Yet Thai temples are not exclusive to Buddhism, and images from Hindu mythology are not unusual, showing the all-embracing nature of Thai beliefs. Hindu influences are also behind spirit houses, which are shrines to Brahma rather than Buddha, and can be seen not only in temple compounds, but also in gardens and on rooftops throughout the Kingdom.

The devotion and commitment of Thais in their casting or painting of exquisite Buddha images is reflected in the ongoing tradition of entering the monkhood. Most men don the saffron robes as a 'rite of passage' at some time in their lives, dedicating themselves to meditation practice and following the Buddha's teaching. As they go on their alms round, chant in the temple, or preside over births, marriages and deaths, they remind us of our basic interdependence, of our need to give as well as take.

Thailand's rapid modernization has brought with it many of the less desirable human traits - corruption, greed and selfishness. Set against this sinister background, the monks, who take on the role of the living presence of Buddha, continue to teach people the best ways to act. From the youngest novice to the oldest, wizened abbot, the many faces of Buddha convey a single message: do only good things, and be kind to the world.


Text by Ron Emmons; Photos by Ron Emmons and David Henley - CPA Media