Thaeng Yuako banana stalk carving is an ancient Thai wisdom that has been forgotten by many. In the old days, this kind of art was decorated for funerals, as well as auspicious ceremonies like a wedding, ordination, and house warming. At present, it is more widely used to adorn the funeral pyre, especially for the funeral of venerated monks and respected persons.
The banana tree is a multipurpose plant commonly used in every Thai household as well as thaeng yuak art. In creating an art piece, each banana stalk is precisely cut and carved according to intricate designs, reflecting not only the unique craftsmanship, but also the true dedication of the artists.
This custom probably originated since the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The oldest evidence in existence is reflected in Khun Chang Khun Phaen, a folktale poem from that period, referencing thaeng yuak art at the funeral of Wanthong, one of the leading characters. In the story, the poet elaborated that the funeral pyre of Wanthong was decorated with marvellously carved banana stalks depicting mountains, waterfalls, animals, and fairies.
Banana stalk carving is not only used for decoration. It also has a practical advantage thanks to the stalk’s porous and heat-resistant property. In the past, when there was no permanent crematorium like nowadays, the cremation for people of high social status was usually done in a temporary pyre made from wood. The urn or coffin would be placed in a platform for cremation in the middle. These banana stalks would be assembled around the platform and serve as insulation to help control the heat and flames.
Thaeng yuak was once widespread across Thailand. But due to the diminishing number of craftsmen, the knowledge is now limited to some craftsmen in certain provinces, which have supported the preservation of this cultural legacy. Phetchaburi province, for example, has adapted its own style and technique until the art became famous for its outstanding and unique features. The Ministry of Culture of Thailand has registered Phetchaburi’s banana stalk carving as a national wisdom. Besides Phetchaburi, thaeng yuak masters can still be found in Bangkok, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, and Sa Kaeo provinces.
Pure talent may not suffice to become a well-recognised banana stalk carving artist. The expertise demands hard work and patience through a tedious learning process and long years of practice to perfect one’s skill as well as speed because the job has to be done before the sensitive banana stalks wilt. Most craftsmen start by becoming an apprentice at a young age, learning from family members or from monks at their local temples.
Although thaeng yuak is not as well-known as it used to be, one can rest assured that this art will not disappear as several art institutions have included this art form in their curriculum. The Royal Craftsmen School in the Grand Palace, for example, offers banana stalk carving as an elective subject. Many craftsmen are ready to teach and share their knowledge to the new and younger generation who are interested.