Woodcarving – A Famous Thai Art Form

Woodcarving can be regarded as a characteristic decorative Thai art form. It reflects the fertility and vitality of nature in technique and subject matter. Wood has been primarily used for furniture and religious objects, and thus not so much for creating Buddha statues. Hence, woodcarvers have sought their inspiration primarily in nature and mythology since they have been free of restrictive iconography.

Thai Woodcarving

Carved facade at Thawan Duchanee's Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu)

Carved wooden facade at Thawan Duchanee’s Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, photodharma.net)

Woodcarvers have employed a composite technique that allowed them to carve single parts of a work separately and later assemble them. Thus, the art work appears spontaneous and effortless, hence paralleling the creativity of nature.

In tropical countries like Thailand, wood is an abundant material that is also considered to have a kind of spiritual quality. Therefore, trees are considered to house spirits. Among these spirits, the most well-known to Thai people are Phra Sai (the spirit of the banyan tree) and Phrase Pho (the spirit of the pipal tree). These are frequently mentioned in Thai literature and are included in the group of heavenly spirits. The other two famous spirits are Nang Tani (the woman spirit of the banana tree) and Nan Takian who is the female spirit of the hopea tree. Nevertheless, teak wood is preferred to other wooden material because it is easy to carve and relatively resistant to the elements and insects.

Large Carving on Wall at the Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bikkhu)

Thai woodcarving from the most recent past: large carving on wall at the Black House Museum (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, photodharma.net)

The earliest Thai woodcarving pieces date from the 16th century. The high-point of this Thai art form is found in images of lesser religious figures which date from the late Ayutthaya period, i.e. the 17th to early 18th century. For instance, the collection of the National Museum in Bangkok includes such fine pieces like the mythical dancer and celestial swan Kinnari (in Thai: กินรี).

Kinnari statue at the National Museum in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

Kinnari statue at the National Museum in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

The Kinnari is a mythological figure, an inhabitant of the Himaphan (Himalaya) forest, that is half-human and half-swan. It is a symbol of feminine beauty, grace and cultural accomplishment. The Kinnari statue at the National Museum in Bangkok is 110cm high and dates from the 17th to early 18th century. Its tail is in a stylized design which is called ‘kranok’. It is often found in Thai art.

Peaceful head wood carving by Thawan Duchanee at Baan Dam (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu)

‘Peaceful head’ by Thawan Duchanee at Baan Dam (photo credit: Anandajoti Bhikkhu, photodharma.net)

In fact, there had been a rich developing tradition of woodcarving in Thailand over prior centuries. However, earlier works, before the 17th century, did not survive. Nonetheless, this amazing workmanship continued into the early Bangkok period. Nevertheless, in the most recent past, Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee also created stunning wall and façade carvings at Baan Dam, the Black House Museum in Chiang Rai.

Even today, woodcarving is a prominent art in Thailand. Thus, the finest wood sculptures have been closely associated with architecture, animals being a favourite subject. You can buy objects carved from wood at special markets like the cultural and craftsman’s market in Chiang Mai. The following video shows you which kind of objects are created and available at these markets. In addition, it also relates something about the history of this art form (in Thai).

By the way, there is also a new privately-owned museum named Woodland in Nakhom Pathom Province. The presentation is about a fantasy land and Grandfather Teak who relates the story of the woodmen in thousands of elaborate woodcarvings. These sculptures are from a collection owned by Narong Thewphaingarm and his father. There are three areas in the exhibition: firstly, the Story of Woodland, with over 5,000 wooden objects, secondly, Woodland Village where you find restaurants and souvenir shops, and thirdly, the Resort, which is the former residence of the owner’s family.

Woodmen room at the Woodland museum (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Woodmen room at the Woodland museum (photo credit: bangkokpost.com)

Finally, we may say that Thai woodcarving has a great tradition in Thailand. It is a very elaborate, amazing and stunning craft that requires a lot of skill by the craftsman.

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference: Treasures from The National Museum Bangkok, Selected by The National Museum Volunteers Group, 4th reprint 2006)




Thawan Duchanee’s Buddhist Art Works

By painting the world with its different forms and images, I became a part of God! (Thawan Duchanee)  

Maybe you remember my article about Thawan Duchanee’s Black House Museum that is called ‘Baan Dam’ in Thai. Apart from creating the Black Houses in Chiang Rai, Thawan (1939-2014) was also a great Thai and Buddhist artist who from a very young age had the inspiration and intuition to paint. In fact, the artist was called “as pure Thai as glutinous rice and mangos” by the former Thai prime minister M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Even though Thawan lived a secular life, he was very much in harmony with his Buddhist matters. In addition, he looked like a sage and wise man with his long white beard.

Thawan Duchanee

The artist at work (photo credit: Facebook, Thawan Duchanee)

The artist at work (photo credit: Facebook, Thawan Duchanee)

Thawan saw his art works as an intense interpretation of the Buddhist dharma. Hence, he was primarily concerned with human beings. However, he used animals as medium, vehicles and symbols to voice his concern. Thus, on the one side he presented predatory animals like tigers to stand for lust or the desire for pleasure. On the other side, he portrayed victimzed or attacked animals that represent fear or the desire for escape.

Animals as symbols, tiger attacking a boar (photo credit: ponlavit.com)

Animals as symbols, tiger attacking a boar (photo credit: ponlavit.com)

In a metaphorical sense, Thawan Duchanee used animals to symbolize the lower traits or animal natures inherent in human beings. These lower traits are for instance, fear, greed, lust and the ego. These animal instincts interfere with human spiritual growth. The aim is simply to conquer undesirable personality traits. Similar to Buddha’s victory over Mara symbolizing ‘Samsara’, the circle of  life and death.

Battle of Mara (1989), oil on canvas (photo credit: rama9art.org)

Battle of Mara (1989), oil on canvas (photo credit: rama9art.org)

However, the artist also pointed out that humans are different from animals because they have the power of thinking and creating. In this sense, human beings are able to create civilization, culture and art. This is exactly what the artist did. In the following video, Thawan talks about the different phases of his art works and his general intentions.

Thawan’s artistic works are indeed complex and versatile. We may say that he created a unique Asian artistic expression by combining Thai, Chinese and other Asian traditions like Japanese calligraphy. Hence, the artist also did Sumi-e painting which is a kind of Zen ink-brush painting.

'Horse' Sumi-e painting, 1991 (photo credit: rama9art.org)

‘Horse’ Sumi-e painting, 1991 (photo credit: rama9art.org)

The special feature of such Zen brush painting is that the artist needs momentary concentration and speed to create the work with no intention or doctrine of mind. Thawan described this technique as “a wild boar running forward to attack, my brushstrokes show the same speed and strength as the running boar” (T. Duchanee, Modern Buddhist Artist, p. 111).

Finally, there still remains so much more to say about his Buddhist art. Thus, I recommend you read Russell Marcus’ book about the artist for more detailed information, if you are interested in the subject. You might also want to check out my book review about Thawan Duchanee: Modern Buddhist Artist in this context 🙂

What do you think about Thawan Duchanee’s art? Do you find it representative of Thai and Buddhist art generally?

Yours, Sirinya




White Temple and Black House of Chiang Rai

I’ve recently written an article about ‘Baandam’ the Black House which was designed by Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee. The Black House is located 10km north of Chiang Rai. In point of fact, in Chiang Rai there is also a White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) created by the Thai architect Chalermchai Kositpipat. Thus, White Temple and Black House form a strange of juxtaposition to each other since they are both located near Chiang Rai.

The White Temple and Black House in Contrast

White Temple and Black House in Chiang Rai

White Temple and Black House in Chiang Rai

(photo credit: southeastasiabackpacker.com)

The Black House can be described as dark, macabre and mysterious whereas the White Temple seems to be ethereal, pure and even other-worldly. Thus, the White Temple and the Black House are indeed opposing buildings. In addition, another peculiar coincidence is that the White Temple was built by Chalermchai Kositpipat who was the student of Thawan Duchanee who built the Black House.

In order to demonstrate the juxtaposition of these two places to you, I’d like to show you the following videos:

Here you see a video of the art installation of ‘Baandam’, the Black House in Chiang Rai. I think it captures the macabre glory of the Black House very impressively.

The following video captures the spirit of the White Temple, it shows how visitors pass over sculptures representing the desire to reach the main building of the temple in order to pay their respects to the Buddha image. Adorned with sparkling mosaics, the structures gleam in the sunlight. There are also other areas which allow visitors to make merit and write their wishes and hopes on medallions to hang around the White Temple.

Which one of the two places do you find more appealing? The White Temple or the Black House?

I find both, the white temple and black house, are very impressive and fine examples of Thai architecture. What is more, they also reflect aspects of Buddhist art in different ways and that is what makes them so special in my opinion.
Yours, Sirinya



‘Baandam’: The Black House Museum by Thawan Duchanee

“In my imagination and dreams, time and space become one; they vibrate with an irrational quality attributable to the dream although I know they have the original beat of reality. Artwork is my love made visible; it represents everything in the infinite universe materialized through my imagination”  (Thawan Duchanee)

‘Baandam’ is the Black House Museum designed by Thai National Artist Thawan Duchanee (1939-2014). ‘Baandam’ is a complex of over 40 houses which are situated 10km north of Chiang Rai.

Thawan-DuchaneePicture of the artist Thawan Duchanee, from his site

Thawan Duchanee is a prominent representative of Thai and Asian art. He started his artistic education at the Poh Chang Arts and Crafts College. Thawan Duchanee then studied at Silpakorn University under the Italian painter Corrado Feroci (Silpa Bhilasri) who is known as the father of modern Thai art. Thawan Duchanee is also familiar with Western artistic traditions since he also studied at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam.

Returning to Thailand, Thawan Duchanee developed a signature style of artistry using predominantly black and red tones. This is based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art and is supposed to symbolize the darkness immanent in humanity.

Black House Museum

Baandam Triple Building, Black House Museum

White Temple and Black House in Chiang Rai

Baandam Main Building‘Baandam’ main building*

Baandam Tiered Building‘Baandam’ tiered building* Baandam Tiered Roof Building‘Baandam’ tiered roof house*

This tendency is also reflected in the Black houses of ‘Baandam’ in Chiang Rai. Thus, the Black Houses are designed in different styles and what is special about them is that their colour is predominantly black. Hence, there are also some white buildings but their only function is to bring out the Black Houses even more distinctly. Most of the Black Houses of the ‘Baandam’ Museum serve as a kind of ‘showroom’ for various artefacts, curiosities and oddities.

Baandam Cylindrical Building‘Baandam’ cylindrical white building*

In fact, Thawan Duchanee’s estate is an interesting collection of bizarre, surreal structures including a zoo’s worth of animal skeletons 😉

Baandam Hides and Eggs‘Baandam’ collection of hides and eggs* Baandam On Skeletons‘Baandam’ On skeletons*

Nevertheless, ‘Baandam’ a special kind of museum because the objects and artefacts of the Black House Museum are all related to death, mortality and impermanence. In other words, one may also say that they highlight the negative side of nature.

Baandam Snake Skin‘Baandam’ snake skin* Baandam Skull and Egg‘Baandam’ skull and egg*

Hence, there are many skulls from different animals as well as skins (e.g. snake skins), hides, eggs and carvings of more traditional demons. In addition, ‘Baandam’ also has interesting furniture and special collectors’ pieces to offer.

Baandam Carved Facade‘Baandam’ carved façade* Baandam Carved Pillars‘Baandam carved pillars*

(*Photo credits: Anandajoti Bhikkhu)

I am very much impressed by Thawan Duchanee’s art and the Black House Museum in Chiang Rai, in particular. I think it is the mixture between traditionalism, curiosity and oddity and makes it so special. Considering Western artists, I think the Swiss surrealistic artist H.R.Giger would have loved ‘Baandam’ and its oddities!

Finally, I’d like to close this article by inserting this short video about ‘Baandam’, the Black House museum in Chiang Rai so that you can get some more impressions. In this video, Thawan Duchanee’s son Doi-tibet Duchanee explains something about the art and the intentions of his father. It’s worth watching! 🙂

Have you been to ‘Baandam’ and do you like this museum complex?

There is also a comprehensive book about Thawan Duchanee called ‘Modern Buddhist Artist’ written by Russell Marcus. Perhaps you’d like to check this out and my review to this book 🙂

Have fun exploring! And if you have the chance, visit ‘Baandam’ 🙂

Do you know that there is also a White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) in Chiang Rai that serves as a kind of juxtaposition to the Black House museum? If you want to learn more, check it out here 🙂
Yours, Sirinya