Eight Cultural Periods of Thai History have influenced the Periodic Religious Art and Sculpture in Thailand over almost 2 Millenia of Temple and Buddhist Sculpture, Carving, Painting and Sacred Amulet making.
Thai Buddhist Art Sculpture, and Amulet making, has a rich and varied history which is arguably the most varied and massive Pantheon of Buddhas and Deities of all Buddhist Cultures. There are Eight Major Artistic Periods which have Influenced the Classic Fine Sacred Arts as the Centuries have passed, each of which has its own particularities and personal beauty of its own. Historically, the Art of each Era represents Various Milestones in the changing History of Siam, as Kingdoms Rose, Fell and finally Intermingled to become the Kingdom of Thailand as we know it Today.
Before considering risking purchasing an a priceless artifact at high prices, one should know enough about the various periodic styles and methods of making Buddhist Artifacts, Votive Tablets and Sculptures. In order to be able to recognize the origins of an Ancient Amulet, sculpture or other Artifact, it t is important to gather some basic knowledge about the different artistic/historical styles and periods which have left their mark or influence on Thai Buddhist art, as they arose and came to pass. I hope that the synopses I shall give of the different Buddha statues will increase your enjoyment of Thai Buddhist sculpture, and that if you visit Thai temples, you will be able to experience a deeper interaction with the Buddhas in our temples, through your increased understanding and ability to recognize the identity and historical value of each statue.
Eight Historical Eras of Thai Buddhist Sculpture
Buddhism, Hinduism and Brahmanism, are three main sources of influence on South East Asian Religious Art, Ancient artifacts and Architecture, which has helped to shape the various Eras of artistic interpretation. In Thailand., there is very much evidence of the various Eras, both from before, and after the Thai Nation came into being. In this article , I shall present you with the Eight officially definable Eras of Thai Buddhist Sculpture. The eight Eras are split into 4 generations, which are categorized as follows;
- ‘Yuk Raek’ (First Era) – this was conducted purely by Hinayana (Theravada) Nikaya
- ‘Yuk Tee Sorng’ (Second Era) – Practitioners of the Mahayana Nikaya were responsible for the influence of artistic interpretation of sculpture and architecture.
- ‘Yuk Tee Saam’ (Third Era) – The influence of the Pukam Hinayana sect came into evidence
- ‘Yuk Tee See’ (Fourth Era) – Followers of the Lanka Wongsa sect inflected their influence.
The Eight Eras follow as such;
• Sri Vichay
• Chiang Saen
• U Tong
• Radtana Gosin
You can see the presence of these eight Cultural Eras when you examine Thai Buddhist sculpture and
architecture, and a basic knowledge of the traits seen in the sculpture of each Era, will allow you to
penetrate much deeper into the Historical aspect of Thai Buddhist sculpture when you visit Thai
temples or museums.
Twaaraawadee Era began around the 11th Century B.E., and lasted until around the 16th century B.E.
It was a Kingdom which was located around what is now central Thailand in the Present. Buddhist Sculpture of this Era was almost always made using stone, clay, or smelted metal. The
sculptures in this Era have large feet. Some statues wear long sleeved Civara robes, and others short sleeves, so both depictions
are evident in the Twaaraawadee Era.
The Twaaraawadee period is split into two halves, where the appearance of the sculpture changes, in as far as the facial structure is rounder and longer in the first half of this Era, whereas the faces become flatter and
wider in the second half of this Era.The lotus flowers used as bases for the sculpture normally feature large petaled lotuses, with small petals inserted between. You can find both ‘Bua Kwam’ (lotus facing downwards),and ‘Bua Hgnaay’ (lotus facing upwards) as pedestals for Buddha statues in Twaaraawadee period sculpture.
Sri Vichay Era
The Sri Vichay Era began in 1300 B.E. To 1800 B.E. Its seat of Rule was on the Western side of Sumatra island, in what is now called Indonesia., and reached past Java. right up as far as the Malay Peninsula, and even further, rising up to what is now the city of Nakorn Sri Tammarat in South Thailand.The Thai region here was then known as Korahi (now known as ‘Chaya’).
The people of this Culture brought their artistic influence from the Sri Vichai Kingdom, and spread it around the whole of the South of Thailand. Most of these artisans came from India, This can be seen in the slight plumpness, or evidence of more flesh on the body of the Buddha, which is typical of the Cultural conditioning of Indian Art. Each Country and Culture will portray their Deities according to the conditioned aesthetic values which have been placed upon them.
The Sri Vichay Era displays a very strong influence of Indian artisans who portray the Buddha in a very Indian style. Some of the more obvious signs of this are the sharper, more pointed nose, which reflects the Indian physique, whereas purely South East Asian sculpture normally depicts the sculpture with a short bridged nose (as in the case with Lopburi, Sukhothai, and later Eras). Another thing to notice instantly will be the rounded features and slight pudginess. This is influenced by Indian values of physical beauty, as well of being an artistic attempt to display the 32 physical signs of a Buddha which were observed to be present at Siddhartha’s birth.
The Lopburi period was between 1700 B.E. And 1900 B.E. This was in the time when the Khom empire was so powerful that it had already extended to the banks of the Chao Praya river. The constructed the city of Lopburi and extended their realm northwards to Sri Sachanalya, westwards to Sukhothai and even as far south as what is now Petchburi. Buddhist sculpture from this period were made by both Mahayana and Hinayana lineages. The sculpture of Lopburi period has both Budhas with straight arms,as well as some with the elbows pointing outwards. Ear lobes are often long and pierced. The faces are seen to be wide, showing the Khom influence. The bases of the sculptures have three variations;
1. Both upright and upturned lotuses
2. Single upturned lotus.
3. Single upright lotus
Chiang Saen Era
The Chiang Saen Era lasted a whole 600 years, from 1600 to 2200 (B.E.).The Chiang Saen Empire was in the Northern regions of Thailand, with Chiang Saen being the center of the Kingdom. The Thai race had been present in this Kingdom since generations, and it is assumed that it was Thai people who were the craftsmen who made the Buddhist sculpture of that Era.
The Buddhist Sculpture of the Chiang Saen Era is officially split into three generations;
- Run Singh Raek – 1st Generation – it is possible that the art of this first Generation recived influence from the Pala civilization of India; the torso is slightly tubby, and the arms are rounded and curved.
- Run Singh Sorng – 2nd Generation – The imagery in the second Generation is very similar to the first, with the slight difference that the torso is less plump, and the Civara robe is longer.
- Run Singh Saam – 3rd Generation – this Generation differs considerably from the art of the first Generation. The sculpture of Run Singh Sorng period is more similar to that of the Sukhothai Era, with flamed auras on the head of the Buddha, and curved edges on the ‘Thaan’ (Base of the statue).
The Sukhothai Era began in 1600 – 2000 (B.E.) and can be counted as of when Por Khun Bang Klang of the city of Bang Yang, and Por Khun Phaa Mueang of the city of Rad Dai joined forces and laid siege to the Kingdom of Sukhothai, and won it over. Independence from the Khom Empire was declared, and a long lineage of Kings of Sukhothai began.
The Sukhothai Kingdom expanded to a large size, and many Monks from Sukhothai, as well as the Mon people, and monks from Laos and Burma traveled to Sri Langka, which was enjoying its Golden Age, where they studied the Dhamma. For this reason, the Sri Langkan Buddhism affected the artistic interpretation of the Sukhothai Era to a great extent. Many Sri Langkan Monks traveled to Thailand to preach the Theravadan form of Buddhism. At first they settled in Nakorn Sri Tammarat, in the South of Thailand, and moved later up to Sukhothai, and even Chiang Mai. The sculptures have many features which show the influence of Sri Langkan Buddhist art; long protruding noses, plump torsos, long caped Civara robes, and rounded long faces.
The sculptures of the Sukhothai period have angled bases which curve up towards the center, completely contrary to the statue base designs of the Chiang Saen Era, Sukhothai period art is split into three categories;
- Run Raek – First Generation – the face is plump and rounded with a long face, as in Sri Langkan Buddhist sculpture.
- Run Tee Sorng – Second Generation – the sculptures have a very long face.
- Run Tee Saam – Third Generation – These were probably sculpted in the time of ‘Pra Tamma Racha’. His Highness sought evidence from the Tripitaka to build the statues with, and the result is the third style of Sukhothai scultpure, which has left us with some very beautiful and famous sculptures which have attained fame on an International basis, such as ‘Pra Putta Chinarach’, ‘Pra Putta Chinsih’. This style of sculpture portrays the Buddha with an egg shaped face (like Indian sculptures). The fingers of the hands are all the same length. In the third Era sculptures.
The U-Tong Era was between 1700 and 2000 (B.E.) – The U-Tong Kingdom was situated in Central Thailand. The styling of this Era of Buddhist Sculpture is a mix of three other artistic movements; Twaaraawadee, Lopburi and Sukhothai. The sculptures are categorized into three different Generations;
- Run Raek – First Generation – between 17 and 1800 (B.E.), was made by Thai people,
and was influenced by the Twaaraawadee period. The hairline and forehead will be equally partitioned. The ‘Rasamee’ (Aura) is styled as a topknot mostly.
- Run Tee Sorng – Second Generation – the second period occurred between 18 and 1900 (B.E.). This Genmeration received influence from the Khom movement. The face has a more angular square shape. The Rasamee’ on top of the head is depicted using flames.
- Run Tee Saam – Third Generation – this period happened between the nineteenth and twentieth century (Buddhist Era).
Influence from the Sukhothai period is very evident in the third Generation of U-Tong sculpture, with very tall bodies, egg shaped faces. The Rasamee is flamed, as in Sukhothai style. The bases of the statues are mostly notlotuses, rather square or angled bases, with a flat front side and a curved back side.
Ayuttaya had its artistic prime between 2000 and 2200 (B.E.). It is theorized that it was the U-Tong influence which helped to style the Ayuttaya sculpture, but that as of the 20th Century (Buddhist Era), artists from Sukhothai brought their influence to Ayuttaya, and artists began sculpting ever more like the Sukhothai style. The
Ayuttaya versions were however, not so graceful and beautiful in general as the Sukhothai sculpture was. In the reign of King Pra Jao Prasat Tong, artists began to sculpt using sandstone and granite like the Khom people. It was a preference to style the sculptures with much regalia and paraphernalia, in Mahayana style. There are also sculptures made by sculptors from the South (mostly Nakorn Sri Tammarat) which are also classed as Ayuttaya style, which are called ‘Samay Ayuttaya Baeb Nakron Sri’. These were styled slightly more similar to the Chiang Saen ‘Run Raek’ sculptures.
In these editions, the Rasamee on top of the head will be more like a closed lotus flower than flames.
The Radtanagosin period began from 2400 B.E. Onwards, right up to the present time. The artistic influence is a mixture of Sukhothai and Ayuttaya period styling. The main difference is that the rasamee and hair topknot is higher and more pointed, and the hairs are more detailed.
The sculptures developed through various periods;
- During the reign of Kings Rama 1 and 2 – Sculpted in Ayuttaya style.
- During the reign of King Rama 3 – More ‘Paang’ (postures and stances/mudras) were sculpted than had been in existence till then.
- During the reign of King Rama 4 – The Buddha sculptures were made to resemble real human beings more than before. The ‘Pra Gaes Mala’ was omitted from the sculptures, leaving only the rasamee in flames on top of the head.
- During the reign of King Rama 5 – The Pra Gaes Mala was reintroduced into the sculptures.
- During the Present Time – In the beginning of the 25th century (B.E.), standing Buddha sculptures were made, with the likeness of real humans, but the styling and ornamentation of the statues are styled in the Sukhothai method. His Majesty King Bhumipol Adulyadej (Rama 9) ordered the creation of two classic Buddha statues of this Era. Which will almost certainly become two of the most important figureheads marking this Era of Buddhist art and sculpture.