Traditional mural painting is alive in Thailand

I think it was in 2003 that, by complete accident, I stumbled upon this book. While perusing it, I was suddenly seized by a powerful desire to go and see all the mural paintings reproduced in it. The next morning I rented a car and set out on the journey. It lasted four weeks, covered perhaps 4,000 kilometers, visited seventeen different establishments, and culminated in a ramshackle temple in Thonburi, Bangkok, where a small crowning epiphany descended upon me like a fine spring shower.

Everywhere I went I was struck by how much the murals had deteriorated in the fifteen years since the book's publication. They all had, but those in Thonburi especially so. As I looked at them with love and the sweet heart-breaking sadness of regret -- and monks around me chanted their sutra -- I experienced one of those sudden revelations of Dharma: of course the monks do nothing to preserve the murals: that is the very essence of Buddhism, is it not, to know that everything is an illusion, everything passes, and that one must not try to hold onto illusory ephemera. It is well to admire a flower, but it is foolish to regret its wilting.

But, luckily (for us aesthetes), there is a cognitive dissonance at the heart of Thai Buddhism: while the monks know that all art is impermanent, all ritual is waste of time, and all temple building a pain-begging exercise in vanity; they do not teach these facts strenuously. (That, too, is the essence of Buddhism, is it not: to want to teach would mean to strive. This is why Thai monks are generally Savakas (Śrāvaka), that is, they are assumed to receive instructions directly from Lord Buddha himself: not even their teachers bother to teach them).

Thus untaught, ordinary Thai lay believers continue to strive; and, in particular, to strive to build and decorate temples. All of Thailand is abuzz with the noise of construction machinery. A full tithe, in my estimation -- one in ten sites -- is a temple going up.

One is going up nearby. I have been visiting it over the last four years to watch the progress of the work. Currently a Burmese style chambered stupa is being decorated. It has two halls, one lower and one upper. It is dark in the upper hall, and photos mostly do not come out as a result, but here are a few taken recently to give you a flavor of what is going on.

The temple is associated with the royal family and is therefore both richer and more gorgeous than most. Most temples in Thailand are pretty kitchy; but this one, well, this one shows that mural art is not dead in Thailand. Old murals rot, fade and fall away, but what is the big deal with that when new beautiful murals are painted afresh every year?

Here is a view of a section of the upper room.

The hall has entrances in the northern and southern walls; while the eastern and western walls are decorated with full-wall murals. (The view above is of the south-eastern corner of the room: a full painted wall is on the left and the southern entrance just to the right).

The eastern wall, which hosts the main image (its eyes have not yet been "opened" so it is OK to photograph it in any old way), features a view of the Buddhist cosmos: the stupas, floating in the clouds of fragrant ether, each represent a different universe, of which one is ours (with all its eight billion light years and all); and in the center of this multiverse grows the great tree of life. It is, of course, golden.

The western wall represents another heavenly scene: Hindu divinities (including Erawan (in Thai, Airavata in Sanskrit, the thousand-headed white elephant who is the vehicle of Indra, the old god of war) disporting themselves in the flying palaces of the Western Paradise. (Note that the picture is not complete yet and there are still blank spaces).

And here are a few details from the sides. These two are sections of the eastern wall -- they are found under the small side windows located to the right and left of the main mural.

And this is a panel next to the northern door.

The next (and last) photo is different. This one is executed in gold dusted-paint and gold-leaf on black lacquer base. It is a leaf of a double-door leading into the hall. (As it is the external surface of the door, it is covered with sturdy plastic to protect it against gold thieves). Around new year's, I watched the painters -- it was a husband and wife team -- both of them in their fifties, fat, squat, indifferent looking, poorly dressed; for their looks you could have thought they operated a fermented-pork-sausage and booze stand in the village night market-- he painted the images freehand in black; she colored them in gold. The dissonance between their less than ordinary looks -- and unassuming demeanor -- and the incredible work they turned out was really very thought provoking. What is it like to make stuff like this all day? What is it like to then return home to the hovel one lives in and look at oneself the mirror?

Then there the old saw, too: do not judge a book by its cover, though obviously, in this case, you would not go wrong judging the hall by its entrance.


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