“A picture’s worth a thousand words” has never been truer with Siamese murals.
Seen in Thai temples, museums, and palaces, Siamese murals are packed with messages of morality and wisdom distilled from the Jataka tales, a collection of stories telling of the Buddha’s previous incarnations. Translating these fables into murals allowed for most people to access Buddhist values in artful ways that captured the imagination.
Still, the Jatakas are almost two millennia old and weren’t the most relatable material. To create a more enjoyable learning experience, artists began to inject unrelated imagery between the celestial figures, weaving together a network of scenes, both relevant and irrelevant.
Here, we decipher the scenes and symbolism of real murals and explain the thought process that went into creating ancient Siamese art.
Form and function
Initially temple murals were created as religious offerings. However, thanks to relaxing trade monopolies in the 18th century, a new bourgeoisie class emerged and wanted to invest in charitable projects.
As a result, these religious murals began to take on a more didactic function: teaching moral lessons to a largely illiterate population. The design and structure of the murals would therefore become more and more important for storytelling.
There was no single, widely accepted composition for these murals, leading to a period of experimentation. Eventually, the more effective compositions grew popular and would become standardized during the Rattanakosin (Bangkok) period.
Generally, painters composed their murals with the Jatakas at eye-level, in bays between windows, which provided a source of light. This example at the temple of Wat Bang Yi Khan in Thonburi has each scene or story take up one bay. When multiple scenes occupied a single bay, they were separated with characteristic zig-zag lines called sinthao. The entire mural was organized clockwise within the hall.
Above the windows, historic Buddhas and angels were marginalized to the upper registers, as they were mostly decorative.
One of the best-known Jatakas is the “Victory over Mara,” a turning point in the life of the Buddha. At Wat Bang Yi Khan, the scene is painted on the upper wall facing the principal Buddha statue or image.
The story goes that after several failed attempts at halting the Buddha’s process of enlightenment, Mara (the devil) descended on the Buddha with his army of demons. The Buddha called the earth goddess Dharani (Phra Mae Thorani) to witness his enlightenment. Seeing Mara’s armies, the earth goddess wrung water from her hair, washing them away in a tidal wave while their weapons were transformed into flowers.
Thus, the Buddha assumes victory over the devils, a metaphor for worldly temptations.
On the opposite end, behind the Buddha image, a similar-size mural depicts the “traiphum” (three worlds) of Buddhist cosmology. The traiphum was first described in the 14th-century text of the same name, which detailed the various heavens and hells of the Buddhist cosmos. Artists’ depictions of traiphum tend to be extremely dramatic.
This composition was only popular until the mid-19th century, at which point, Siamese murals had already begun to change drastically in the reign of King Rama III (c. 1824-51). While the most important stories were contained at roughly eye level, the visual language of the 19th century called for narrative scenes that expanded all the way up to the ceiling.
Faith with profanity
Being visible isn’t the same as drawing attention. To keep temple-goers interested, artists began introducing scenes of everyday life as a way to make the murals more relatable. These scenes became known as phap kaak or “art dregs.”
The contrast between the heavy themes of morality and art dregs gave the viewer room to breathe and helped to contemporize the murals. This is thought to create a stronger emotional connection between the viewer and the characters in the story.
Bangkok’s Wat Chong Nonsi has an interesting example, which depicts a typical setting of a rural residence. As per the Jataka tale, the renowned sage Vidhura bids his wives and children farewell and the demon Punnaka takes him away to be killed.
However, in the background, a couple can be seen fornicating while other members of the household nosily peek through the bed curtains. Near the base of the house, children are playing a prank on their parents as they pound rice. In essence, it’s people going about their daily life, uncensored.
Here, the viewer can picture a rural setting typical of the time period. The episode of Vidhura leaving his family is a sad one, but using the ordinary, familiar setting of Vidhura’s home helps to put viewers in his shoes.
Beyond the Jatakas
With form and function completely mastered by artists in the 19th century, Siamese murals became increasingly versatile. Stories other than the Jatakas were applied to the same compositions and underwent similar adaptations.
The Ramayana was a popular subject among royal patrons. This Hindu epic, known in Thai as the Ramakien, recounts the adventures of the Hindu god Rama and his fight against the evil Ravana (known in Thai as tossakan) to win back his wife Sita.
Rama is considered the ideal king, and therefore, depictions of the story were frequently used to legitimize royal power. Kings would project themselves as a mix of a bodhisattva (a person who is on the path towards Buddhahood) and an incarnation of Lord Vishnu in the form of Rama.
The most famous of the Ramakien paintings is the long and winding mural in the corridor of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The current paintings are from the 20th century, but paintings have existed here since the 18th century.
The style of these paintings are very modern, yet they retain a narrative clarity in their composition. The scenes, though heavily repainted, correspond to the classical Thai architecture and setting of the late 19th–early 20th centuries.
In the 1830s, King Rama IV’s reformed Dhammayuttika Nikaya or Thammayut sect of Buddhism was growing. Followers hail the Thammayut sect as reflecting a more rational approach, dismissing superstition and magical practices.
New art was needed to reflect this new direction, and the monk painter Khrua In Khong was the perfect candidate.
Khrua In Khong fused aspects of European and Chinese paintings with traditional narrative elements to create some of the most intriguing Siamese murals still in existence. Instead of Jatakas, the monk portrayed various scenes that were more metaphorical and philosophical in nature.
The horseracing mural at the royal temple of Wat Borom Niwat in Bangkok is accompanied by an inscription explaining that the jockey is like the Buddha who trains his horse to be steadfast and well mannered. The act of training the horse is therefore a metaphor for Buddha’s teachings (dharma) and the horse represents the Buddhist clergy (sangha).
Paintings of legends behind Bangkok’s important Buddha images (the Emerald Buddha and Phra Phuttha Sihing) were introduced in the 19th century. A prime example survives in Wat Bowon Sathan Sutthawat. They retell the legendary origins of the statue in Sri Lanka and how it, after swapping places several times between various kingdoms in Siam, ended up in Bangkok.
Though most likely fictional, the stories were used to boost Bangkok’s prestige as a center of divine administrative authority. In those days, precious and sacred Buddha images were vital to legitimizing a kingdom’s power.
Siamese murals have enjoyed almost three centuries as popular tools of teaching that flourished with the emergence of a merchant class looking to commission lavish, charitable projects.
Exploring a sudden interest in a religious medium, Thai muralists developed complex compositions and inserted irrelevant, even outright profane scenes meant to balance out the heavy moral fables.
Eventually, a shift in religious and political climate would push the envelope of Siamese paintings past literal depictions of the Jatakas into interpretations of Thai Buddhism, creating a precedent for Thai murals to broaden their subject matter. This style would become the core of a centuries-old tradition that can still be seen around Thailand today.