Perhaps the most famous temple murals in Thailand are at Wat Phumin in Nan in the North. This is a quick look at the history and at some of the enticing scenes that can be found there, taken on our visit to Nan in January of 2014.
The temple murals were one of the features of Northern Thailand temples that most intrigued me when we visited there this past January. Most temples had murals and some of them were quite fascinating (as were the murals at Wat Phumin).
(Click images to see larger version.)
Much of the information in this blog comes from the book Reading Thai Murals by David K. Wyatt; copyright 2004 and published by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai. (Reading Thai Murals – offsite, opens in new window.) Rather than being comprehensive (you can read Wyatt for that), I’m going to quickly go over some of the history and then include a slideshow of images that caught my eye as I wandered around the interior of the temple (for quite some time).
Seen here, to the left, is, perhaps, the most famous of all the images from Wat Phumin. Anyone who has visited Nan has seen it on any number of souvenirs, t-shirts and posters. Local tradition has it that this image shows the artist, Thit Buaphan, himself with a female companion.
The main building at Wat Phumin is both the “ubosot” (ordination hall) and the “viharn” (meeting hall). (At some temples these will be two separate buildings.) It’s in the shape of a cross (cruciform) built on the back of two giant nagas (the naga is a mythical serpent, much like a water dragon). The main entrance is guarded by two “singh” (mythical lions).
In the center of the building there is a 4-sided Buddha statue, with a Buddha facing in each of the 4 directions (towards the doors). The statue is in a posture known as “Subduing Mara” or “Calling Earth to Witness” and represents the Buddha at the moment of his enlightenment. At that moment, Mara mocks Buddha and asks how he can claim to be enlightened, who is there to witness his enlightenment? The Buddha takes one hand and points to the earth, indicating that the Earth Mother Goddess will bear witness.
Really, though, the main attraction in this temple is provided by the murals. The picture to the right shows how entire walls are completely covered with murals. These murals were painted beginning in 1894 by a Thai Lue artist named Thit Buaphan, who was well known for painting the murals at Wat Nong Bua (also in Nan Province). He had many assistants and the work continued into the 20th century.
The main story represented here is a story of one of the Buddha’s past lives – one of the so-called Jâtaka stories. There are roughly 550 “official” stories and, in addition, another 50 or so stories about previous lives that are included in a collection called the Paññâsajâtaka, known mainly in Burma, Northern Thailand & Laos.
At the time the murals were painted, Nan was a separate kingdom that was a vassal-state to the Kingdom of Siam. In 1893, Siam made Nan give half of its kingdom to the French to become part of French Indochina, in order to appease the French. One of the reasons that Thailand was never colonized was because, on several occasions, they made gestures such as this to appease the western powers. Obviously, this move was not popular in Nan.
The main story depicted at Wat Phumin is a story that (according to David Wyatt) is found in just a few manuscripts and most likely only published in Laos. Wyatt knows of no other temple where this story is portrayed. The story concerns an orphan, Gaddhana, who went searching for his absent father (said to be the god Indra, disguised at an Elephant). As Wyatt says (on page 21):
. . .The theme of orphanhood thus is repeated, acted out in the panels of the mural at Wat Phumin, though the orphanhood is the condition of lacking a father and not lacking a mother.
The message that viewers were reading off the walls was from a cautionary tale of persistence through adversity, in a world suffused with evil in which virtue was rewarded eventually.
Wyatt says the story was chosen as a subtle criticism of Siam’s actions in giving Nan’s land away, chosen because more overt criticism was impossible.
Along with another Jâtaka story on the walls, and interwoven as part of the stories, we see the portrayal of ordinary, day-to-day life in the late 19th century; it is these depictions that set the murals apart and account for their fame. Amongst numerous individuals in the midst of daily activities, we also see representations of Europeans, hill tribe people, animals and lovers, both heterosexual and transgender. It is a marvelous celebration of life.
Rather than point out slides and themes, I’m going to insert below a slideshow of some of the wonderful images that you can see at Wat Phumin. Where I’m able, I will point out what is being portrayed (often relying on David Wyatt); otherwise, I’ll let the slide speak for itself.
Rather than setting the slideshow to run by itself, you may want to simply click on each picture to see the next image, so that you can go as slowly as you might like to enjoy the images.
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=open include=”7401,7407,7408,7409,7410,7411,7412,7413,7406,7414,7415,7416,7417,7418,7419,7420,7421,7423,7424,7425,7426,7427,7428,7429,7422,7430,7431,7432,7433,7434,7436,7437″]
Written by Michael Babcock, July 2014