Temple Silver


Both sides of Wualai Road -- the so called "Silver Street" -- are little alleys packed with silver manufactories. The sound of hammering comes here from every house. Men sit packed tightly, shoulder to shoulder, at small working benches, hammering, soldering, rolling and polishing. The silversmiths are neither a guild nor a caste, but are united by the traditional feudal master-servant relationship -- smiths receive room and board plus a small stipend -- and, for those established in business, intermarriage. They are united enough to undertake joint projects such as lobbying for government subsidies and temple construction. This temple is covered head to toe (except for its roof tile), both inside and outside, with hand wrought aluminum.

The technique known in Thailand as "Lanna Silver" is really nothing but good old repoussé. It works even better with aluminum which is similar in color, far cheaper, softer, and does not need to be heated during hammering (unheated silver often cracks when hammered). Its only downside is that it does not tarnish with age, which is what some of the repousse designs call for, but this effect can be achieved by staining.

Below is a wall panel from the temple, showing half-life-size Rama leading the monkey army against Lanka. The panel is probably 2 meters high by 1.5 meters long.

Here is a three-panel window blind with stories from the Jataka.

Here is a Dutch silversmith (she works in one of the silver factories here) with the temple minder and a bit of outside wall decoration. The peacock is a mystical symbol in many religions. In Christianity he represents the glory of life after death, in Buddhism the sudden unfolding of the mind at the moment of enlightenment.

Here are two life-size heavenly guardians on the outside wall, each side of the window. They are wearing Burmese court dress (as only befits a city with such strong Shan influence).

And here is the entrance to the temple:

Take a look at the doors again: Indra on Erawan on the left, carrying Brahma on his shoulders.

And Vishnu riding Garuda on the right:

And a Ramayana scene in the tympanum:

In Khmer architecture (and all things Khmer are still the cultural model for Thailand), the tympanum is the triangular stone above the door opening, within the arch created by the two entwined nagas (heavenly snakes). In the one below there is a scene from the Ramakhien (the Thai Ramayana): Sita has been kidnapped; Hanuman arrives to tell Rama and Lakshmana of her whereabouts.

And in this, another scene from the Ramakhien, Rama and Sita, reunited, have taken refuge in Hanuman's mouth.

And here is a wall decoration: a man-sized Ganesha, Remover of Obstacles, with his rat vehicle and a bowl of gulab jamun (his favorite sweet).

And here is Indra again, in greater detail:

Uniquely, and perhaps a sign of things to come, this one has been signed. (Enlarge yourself and look on bottom right). Walking back along the main street I saw a similar panel being completed. "How many men did it take to make it?" I asked. "One", was the sly answer. "And how long did it take you?" "A year."

Typically of gender-confusing Thailand, about a fourth of the silversmiths are women.

And here is the tree of life again (a photo from the interior).


PS A friend asks how it is done: One places the sheet of metal (silver/aluminum) on a bed of warm tar, which then sets; and glues to it the desired picture in reverse. One then proceeds to hammer out the outline roughly by pounding with a hammer at the paper picture (and the underlying metal). One then warms the tar, detaches the sheet of aluminum, turns it over, places it on a bed of warm tar again, and, as soon as the tar has set, hammers out the details from the front.


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