Categories
Buddhism Travel

Wat Nantaram in Chiang Kham

Wat Nantaram – วัดนันตาราม – is a quite beautiful Tai Yai (Shan-style) temple in Chiang Kham, which is in Phayao province, Thailand. Thailand has so many temples that at times you can get “temple fatigue;” then you come across one such as Wat Nantaram and all fatigue is forgotten.

Windy Road
The road to Chiang Kham
View
A view along the road

We drove to Chiang Kham from Nan up twisty, windy roads (such as the one to the left) through the hills and mountains. Although it is only 400 or so meters above sea level, it seemed higher. We stopped many times to enjoy beautiful views such as the one above right.

Note: There is a slideshow of all of the images at the bottom of the blog.

Entryway
Entryway to Wat Nantaram
Deva
Celestial being on a pillar

(Click images to see larger version.)

We arrived about mid-day and, after having lunch right next door, we approached the temple compound on foot. Through the gate was a long driveway lined with pillars topped by statues of celestial beings. We lingered a while to take some pictures of these statues.

To the left of the driveway there were a number of Sai trees, popularly known in the U.S. an the cannonball tree, with their lovely blossoms. These trees are often found on temple grounds, for the Buddha was born under a Sai tree, which lowered one of its branches to help support his mother.

The Exterior of the Viharn

Temple Front
Wat Nantaram viharn
Temple Door
The entryway to the viharn

When I first saw the main building, the viharn (sermon hall), it literally took my breath away. It’s a golden teak wood temple in Burmese (Shan) style, with the distinctive roof architecture. It was built in 1925.

In the picture upper left you can see that two singh (mythical lions) flank the entryway as protectors while two (presumably celestial) beings wai (clasp hands in the front) in greeting.

Celestial Greeter
Celestial greeter
Roofs
Some roofs of the temple

It took us awhile to even enter the viharn. First, the two lovely greeters called out for our attention. Then there were the interlocking roofs to admire along with the lovely juxtaposition of the carved wooden scrollwork on the various roofs with the decorated wooden shutters on the windows.

Temple Front
Close-up of the front
Entry Detail
Further detail at the front

We took some time to admire the lovely details of the front, some of which are shown above.

Inside the Viharn

Temple Interior #1
Inside the viharn
Temple Interior #2
Another view of the interior

I found the interior of the viharn to be immensely calm – a sacred space. Dark and somewhat mysterious, there is a feeling of quiet devotion here, of goodness, of peace. There are golden pillars, decorated ceilings and varnished, dark wood floors. The room compels silence and reflection.

Buddha Statue
The main Buddha image
Buddha Statue
Close-up of the Buddha statue

The main Buddha image is very appealing. It portrays a younger Buddha with a luminous smile. (Do click on the image to the right to see a larger version.)

Buddha Statue #2
Another of the Buddha images
Statue Close-up
A close-up of the second Buddha

On the left side of the main Buddha image are two Burmese-style Buddha statues. For some reason the Burmese-style Buddhas are often (always?) white. The statue is resting on a lotus blossom and, like the middle image, has a radiant smile.

2 Buddhas
The statues from the side
Buddha Statue #3
Another Buddha statue

In temples I like to walk around the entire area and look at the statues from all angles.

The picture on the left shows the two Buddha statues mentioned above as photographed from the side.

On the right is another one of the Buddha statues, this one found to the right of the central Buddha statue (as you face the altar).

Temple Ceiling #1
Part of the ceiling
Temple Ceiling #2
Detail of the ceiling

At any temple in Thailand it pays to look everywhere, even at the ceiling. The ceiling at Wat Nantaram is quite elaborate, as these two pictures of separate details show.

Other Buildings at Wat Nantaram

Other Buildings
Other building on the temple grounds
Building Interior
Inside one of the other buildings

We spent quite a bit of time inside the main building (viharn) before exploring the rest of the temple grounds. Above left are two of the other buildings. The picture to the right shows the interior of one of the more interesting remaining buildings.

The altar here has a distinctly Chinese character. It shows three representations of Quanyin, the Goddess of Compassion. In the middle (see picture above right) is a statue of Quanyin in her guise as Avalokiteshvara, a many-armed Bodhisattva personifying perfect compassion and who refrains from entering the bliss of Buddhahood in order to help all beings attain enlightenment. The two flanking statues in back, looking very Chinese, are also representations of Quanyin showing her holding a vase with the dew of compassion.

Many-armed Statue
Close-up of the center statue
Wood Carven
Close-up of a wooden carving

On the left is a close-up of the center statue, Quanyin as Avalokiteshvara with her many arms.

To the right is a close-up of the wooden carvings that surround the room.

This temple is definitely worth a special trip from Nan when you are in the region.


Slideshow of Wat Nantaram

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

[portfolio_slideshow size=full togglethumbs=true togglestate=closed]


See also Information on Wat Nantaram (GT Rider Maps) (offsite, opens in new window).


Written by Michael Babcock, May 2014

Categories
Thai Culture Travel

Black House (บ้านดำ) Museum in Chiang Rai

In Chiang Rai we visited one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever experienced anywhere. The Baandam Museum – พิพิธภัณฑ์บ้านดำ – บ้าน (baan) meaning “house” and ดำ (dam) meaning “black” – is actually (also) the residence of National Artist Thawan Duchanee. And what a residence it is!


Spoiler alert: When I visited here I had no preconceptions of what I was going to see. The experience was probably much stronger because of that. If you’d prefer an experience unfettered by knowledge, you may want to skip this blog.

Here’s a link to practical details about the museum (hours, location). There’s also a slideshow of images from the museum (with many more images than in the blog).


2 Houses
The front two buildings

The “museum” or “house” is actually a compound with over 40 buildings spread across a wide area. The house of the artist is one of the buildings, one of several not open to the public. The other buildings vary in degree of access: some are open and you can go into them; on others the doors are locked and fettered; others are closed but you can see into the windows; others are covered spaces easily visible and accessible.

(Click images to see a larger version.)

At the entry there are two beautiful buildings: a smaller one in front with a larger one behind, both reminiscent of (echoing? based on?) temples or of buildings you’d see on a temple ground. At this point, I though that these two buildings were the entire museum.

Small Building
Smaller building in front
Wood Carving
Wood carving on the small building

From the very start, encountering the front building, the eye is arrested by details: glorious and detailed wood carvings flanking and on the doors and above the lintel; statues in front; crushed rock enclosing the base of the building; triangular wooden carvings of nagas supporting the upper sides, just as they do at most temples in Thailand.

Carved Door
The front building’s carved door
Carving Detail
Detail of front door carving

To the left is the entryway to the smaller, frontmost building: a carved door  with a fanciful scrollwork of leaves and branches above the door.

To the right we see the carving on the door itself up close: an array of courtiers or celestial beings.

This frontmost building is not open to the public.

The second building, from the outside, could be a viharn, an assembly hall for the laity at a temple, which usually houses the principal Buddha image. It’s plainer on the outside (by comparison to the first building) and has some lovely wooden carvings on the facade. The lower portion is all natural wood.

As you enter the building, the interior is mostly dark, lit only by light through the doors and windows. It is a vast, open space with beams, filled with objects everywhere you look. The architecture of the building may resemble a Thai Buddhist temple but the interior of a temple was never arrayed like this room.

Here’s some of what I saw.

Columns
Columns of wood carvings
Carving Detail
Close up of a carved Garuda

Carved wooden pillars in groups.

(Do click on the pictures to see a larger version with more detail.)

Long Table
The long table
Hornbill
Hornbill head surrounded by feathers

A long table laid with two long snake skins and statues, the table surrounded by large black chairs with legs made from buffalo horns.

A hornbill head mounted in the middle of a circle of peacock feathers.

And more.

This building is just the beginning of Thawan Duchanee’s world.


Exit the back door to the rest of the compound. There are at least 40 other buildings, each one compelling attention in a different way. There are: many temple-like bulidings; open air structures (salas); circular white buildings (which echo certain temple structures as well); a building like a giant whale; an open building with huge drums; skulls lining a building’s perimeter.

Rock Garden
Rock garden in front of a building

Although there was a great deal of black, there was also quite a bit of natural wood in the buildings, with salas and a few white buildings acting as a counterpoint. Very little feels modern here. Rather than plastic or shiny metal (with an exception or two), there is wood (lots of wood), stone and clay tile – materials that call to mind the world of nature.

One of the most striking features for me were the stones. Many buildings are preceded by areas with crushed stone of various sizes, often with other large stones, reminiscent of a Zen rock garden.

Wooden Carving
Wooden carving, scrollwork

And everywhere there are the wooden carvings: lovely, detailed depictions of nagas, devas and courtly figures with exuberant scrollworks of leaves and branches.

With all the differing structures and the differing features there is still a coherency to the compound, the indication of a single vastly creative mind at work, a mind fascinated with natural objects: bones, skulls, snake skins, horns, wood, shells, crocodile skins, rocks and stones.

It was fascinating to wonder through the compound, a bit dreamlike and almost outside of normal time and space – going from structure to structure, first caught by an entire building, then focusing in on a whole carving, then captivated by a detail and then drawn into a further detail.

Statue
Statue guarding the door

There are many temple motifs: nagas on buildings and doors, carvings of celestial beings, here and there a Buddha statue. There also is an erotic component, such as the statue with the stiff phallus guarding a white circular building or in the arrangement of a row of conch shells.

I’ve heard the opinion that the museum is very dark or even “creepy” (because of all the black and the bones, the skulls). I disagree. I found it incredibly life-affirming. The whole of life is arrayed here: the sublime and the earthy, heaven and hell. Always, the natural objects return you to this world.

Entering some of the buildings is like entering a shrine more than a museum. To enter one of the small, white circular buildings you first must pass the phallic guardian. The room is surrounded by chairs made from water buffalo horns resting on animal skins with an animal skin on the seat. Some chairs are interspersed with statues. The center of the room is filled with a huge alligator skin surrounded by hundreds of large shells.

Interior Shot
Inside a small circular building

You tread softly here. There is a stillness that you hesitate to break. You are careful not to change the position of anything: everything is just where it belongs. Why the chairs? What kind of a assemblage would take place here?

Traditionally, round buildings such as this on temple grounds house depictions of Buddhist hell. Certainly, the Thais who visit the room have this context for what is inside. In such a building at a temple there might be statues or paintings depicting the horrors of hell and often a deva or spirit in a chair sitting in judgment: in (some) Buddhist cosmology when you die, you are sent to a place where your entire life is appraised.  In this room there are animal elements (the horn, the animal skins), a strong element of the sea and water (the shells and alligator) and the chairs: perhaps they are an invitation to sit, to examine the totality of one’s life from a different, wider perspective.


Thawan Duchanee was born in Chiang Rai in September 1939, making him 74 years old in 2014 (when this is being written). In appearance the artist looks like a Taoist sage. You can see a photo of him here. He studied both in Thailand and Europe (at the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam).

When he returned to Thailand, he became controversial. According to The Nation, “Thawan developed a unique style of artistry using black and red tones, based on the styles of traditional Buddhist art to explore the darkness lurking within humanity.” (The Nation article on “The 40 Most Internationally Acclaimed Thais”.) The Black House was begun in 1976. He was named a National Artist in 2001.

A blog devoted to him explains his work like this:

He then began to explore and reexamine the insanity, degeneration, violence, eroticism, and death lurking in the heart of modern man as they are involved with religion. Mr. Thawan expressed these concepts with a startling technique utilizing a black tone, drawing from the wellspring of traditional Thai Buddhist art and Buddhist thought.”

                          – Quote from thawanduchanee.blogspot.com (offsite, opens in new window).

Some of his exhibits were so controversial that they were attacked.

Talking of his home and the museum, the artist said:

The Black House evokes the past Thai civilization in a contemporary manner. I try to bring the spirit, heart and soul in their life [into the pieces]. (From Time Magazine’s The Dark and the Light Side of Thai Art – offsite, opens in new window.)

The Black House Museum contains almost no paintings or drawings: it is composed of buildings, objects and sculptures. The whole compound is a three-dimensional work of art.


I’ve put together a slideshow that details some of my wanderings that day at the Baandam Museum. I hope that some of the numinous nature and sense of wonder comes through, some of the sense of wandering and discovering yet another unique vision. What the slides can not convey is the solidity of the objects, the visceral reaction to bone, shell and skin.

Details about the museum (hours, location) are found after the slideshow.

I’ll close with this quote from the artist, taken as printed (no punctuation or line breaks) from  thawanduchanee.blogspot.com – offsite, opens in new window):

Do not seek for understanding, in the temple of mysterious Feel them my friends from heart to heart Do not ask the meaning of the stars in the constellation Smile of the baby in the cradle of mothers Sweet fragrance in the pollens of flowers It is the work of art !

my friends… In the deepest of my mystic mind, come closer to my spirit Listen to my heartbeat, without word.


Slideshow of บ้านดำ (Black House)

Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow.

Clicking on a slide will take you to the next image.

[portfolio_slideshow size=full togglestate=closed togglethumbs=true”]


Details About Black House

Baandam Museum
414 Moo 13 Nanglae
Muang, Chiang Rai, 57100 Thailand
Tel/Fax : (66) 53 – 776 – 333
Mobile: (66) 83 – 336 – 5333
Open Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (closed from noon to 1 p.m.)

Leave plenty of time to wander.

Here is a map on Google:

It is found 1.9 kilometers pas Chiang Rai University by turning left on Soi 13. After nearly half a kilometer turn left note a small soi and you’ll soon see it on the left.

Links to Other Sites


Written by Michael Babcock, April 2014