The Buddha Image in Thai Culture

Representations of the Buddha can be found throughout Thai temple compounds. The Buddha occurs either as statue or in mural paintings. Hence, they are idealized images of the Great Buddha who lived in the sixth century BC in northeast India. He is commonly shown in either of the following four positions: seated, standing, walking, and reclining (as the following pictures illustrate). The Buddha’s hand gesture and posture refer to important events in his life.

The Buddha Image

The Buddha statue of Wednesday (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66))

The Buddha Image of Wednesday (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

Siddhartha Gautama of the Sakya clan, who was to become the Buddha, was born in a small Hindu kingdom neighbouring to Nepal. First he became an ascetic before reaching enlightenment. Afterwards, he taught the truths he had learned and hence gained many disciples. He died around the age of 80.

Walking Buddha performing the gesture of Dispelling Fear (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

Walking Buddha Monthon performing the gesture of Dispelling Fear (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

The Buddha put forward the Four Noble Truths concerning man’s condition and the Eightfold Path that should lead to enlightenment, perfection, absence from rebirths and finally to nirvana which is to be understood as the extinction of the ‘three poisions’, namely passion, aversion and ignorance. When these poisons or ‘fires’ are extinguished, freedom from the cycle of rebirth (samsara) is attained.

Wat Yai Chai Mongkon, Reclining Buddha, Ayutthaya

Wat Yai Chai Mongkon, Reclining Buddha, Ayutthaya (photo taken by myself)

In the Reclining posture, the Buddha is also referred to as being in the ‘Sleeping Lion’s’ position which is the state in that the Buddha died. Buddha lies on the right side with knees slightly bend and the left hand on the thigh. In Buddhism, the ‘Sleeping Lion Posture’ is also the traditionally recommended mode for dying. A well-known Buddha Image in this position is the Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho in Bangkok.

Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, Bangkok (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho, Bangkok (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

For example, a Walking Buddha is the Buddha Monthon (Phutthamonthon) which is created in the Sukhothai style. The image performs the abhaya mudra, the gesture of Reassurance and Dispelling Fear. Characteristic of the period are the broad shoulders and pendant arm. The flat feet and projecting heels are part of the anatomy characteristic of a Great Being.

Great Buddha Monthon - Great Being (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

Great Buddha Monthon (photo credit: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan, Instagram @knack66)

It is also important to note that there are Buddha statues for each day of the week, each in different pose. They are often lined up in a row at a temple. Many Thai people know the day and hour they were born thus paying respect to the Buddha image presiding over their day of birth.

Buddha images representing each day of the week (photo credit: chiangmai.chiangrai.com)

Buddha images representing each day of the week (photo credit: chiangmai.chiangrai.com)

The Buddha of Monday is the one preventing calamities. The image for Tuesday is in the reclining posture. Wednesday, in fact, has two Buddha images, in the morning it is the Buddha holding an alms bowl and in the evening he is in the posture of retreating in the forest. The Thursday image is meditating and on Friday the Buddha is in reflection. The Saturday statue is sitting in meditation while being protected by Muchalinda’s cobra hood. Finally, the Sunday Buddha is in pensive thought.

The Buddha's hand (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

The Buddha’s hand, the Great Buddha of Wat Muang (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

The most prevalent posture and gesture in Thailand is the Buddha in sitting position with his right hand pointing down to the earth. By doing so, he calls on the earth to be his witness that over many lives he fulfilled and accomplished himself thus being able to reach enlightenment. For example, the Great Buddha of Wat Muang is a seated image pointing with his right hand to Mother Earth. Another famous example of the seated statue is the Golden Buddha at Wat Traimit in Bangkok’s Chinatown.

The Golden Buddha image*

The Golden Buddha image (photo credit: Amporn Konglapumnuay)

Summing up, we may claim that the Buddha image in Thai culture is very prominent and prevailing. Next time you visit a Thai Wat, check out what kind of images there are and find out which Buddha presides over your birthday 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference, Carol Stratton, What’s What In A Wat, Silkworm Books, 2010)

 




Mythical Creatures in Thai Culture

If you’ve been to Thailand, you’ve probably come across some representations of mythical creatures in Thai temples. These beings are said to be living in the Himaphan Forest on the mythical Mount Meru which is considered the centre of the Buddhist and Hindu cosmos. For instance, there is the mythical snake, the lion, crocodile and swan.

Thai Mythical Creatues

Naga, the Mythical Snake

Naga the semi-divine snake (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

Naga the semi-divine snake (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

The Naga is a semi-divine serpent who is a Wat guardian. As a being of the waters and the underworld, the snake is used as a decoration on barge boards, eave brackets, windows, doors, gates and arches. The legends say that Naga can also transform into a human being. In addition, the Naga can control the rain and thus affects the prosperity of a region. Therefore, it also guards the hidden wealth of the earth and protects Buddhism.

Naga-Makara, the Mythical Snake & Crocodile Composite

Naga emerging from mouth of Makara (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

Naga emerging from mouth of Makara (photo: Siwaphong Pakdeetawan)

On balustrades, the Naga is often combined with the Makara which is a crocodile-like being. It is interesting to note that the open mouth of the Makara often disgorges the angry Naga. The head of the Makara frequently resembles an elephant trunk while the neck is encircled by three ruffs.

The Mythical Mom, an aquatic being

Mythical creatures, the Mom, an aquatic four legged guardian (photo credit: unseenthailand.org)

Thai mythical creatures, the Mom, an aquatic four legged guardian (photo credit: unseenthailand.org)

Apart from the Naga and Makara there is another similar creature called the Mythical Mom which is a mighty aquatic creature with scales and four legs. This representation can be occasionally spotted at the entrance of temples in Northern Thailand.

Singh, the Mythical Lion

Singh, the mythical lion (photo taken by myself)

Singh, the mythical lion (photo: Sirinya’s Thailand Blog)

Another common guardian is the mythical lion that is referred to as Singh or Singha. This figure usually comes in pairs at the entrance to a temple or another sacred structure. In the Chinese-Thai version, the female lion is on the left side with her cub while the male lion is on the right side having a ball under his paw.

Khochasi, the Mythical Lion & Elephant Composite

Khochasi next to Buddha statue (photo credit: jeffenjane.com)

Khochasi next to a Buddha statue (photo credit: jeffenjane.com)

This creature, the Khochasi, is a composite of a lion with an elephant’s trunk, ears and tusks. It guards sacred places and in particular portals in the North of Thailand.

Hong, the Celestial Swan

Sao Hong, the mythical swan (photo credit: Saad Akhtar, Flickr)

Sao Hong, the mythical swan (photo credit: Saad Akhtar, Flickr)

The Hong (or Hamsa) is a celestial swan with a long and graceful neck, an extended beak, wings, and a gorgeous flowing tail. Many Thais believe that when the lotus-leaf clapper of the bell (that is held on a long string from his beak) is moved by the breeze, prayers are lifted to heaven. The Celestial Swan often occurs on the roof ridges in northern temples.

Kinnara & Kinnari, the Mythical Swan & Divinity Composite

Kinnara at Wat Phra Kaew (photo credit: Michael Janich, wikimedia.org)

Kinnara at Wat Phra Kaew (photo credit: Michael Janich, wikimedia.org)

In the female (Kinnari) and the male (Kinnara) form, this creature is a half celestial dancer and a half celestial swan (hong). They occur in architectural decoration and mural paintings. The female Kinnari symbolizes feminine beauty, grace and cultural accomplishment in singing and dancing. There is also the Shan dance of the Kinnari and Kinnara which is the Thai Yai (Shan) bird dance. The following clip shows you an example of the Kinnari & Kinnara dance.

Garuda, the Mythical Bird

Garuda detail at the Grand Palace in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

Garuda detail at the Grand Palace in Bangkok (photo taken by myself)

Garuda is a mythical bird. It is the king of the birds and natural enemy of the Nagas. It has a human body but the wings, legs and beak of a bird. It is the vehicle of the Hindu god Vishnu.

Finally, we can say that Thai mythical creatures show how intricately the strands of Buddhism, Hinduism and animism are intertwined in Thai culture and tradition. What is more, mythical beings are also a popular subject in classical Thai art and painting. For instance, Thai National Artist Chakrabhand Posayakrit created amazing pictures of the Kinnari. In this context, I also suggest you check out my Thai Art Motifs Glossary for more general information, if you like 🙂

Yours, Sirinya

(Reference, Carol Stratton, What’s What In A Wat, Silkworm Books, 2010)