Classical Thailand Arts and Culture

Classical Thai art has been almost exclusively produced in the service of Theravada Buddhism, and it is the Thai temple that both defines the culture and provides a showcase of sculpture, painting and the decorative arts.

Temples are rightly at the top of any sightseeing list, and a little understanding of their form and significance helps an appreciation of Thailand's artistic heritage.

The word 'temple' is largely unsatisfactory as a translation of the Thai word wat. It implies a single structure, as is the case with a Christian church, but this is not so with a Buddhist wat.

Besides monks' residential quarters, which are commonly , though not always, found at a wat, a Thai temple complex comprises several distinct religious buildings.

The principal structure is the bot, the most sacred part of the temple and the place where ordination ceremonies are conducted. The building is identified by eight boundary stones, called sima, placed outside at the four corners and the four cardinal points.

A temple will probably also have at least one viharn, a hall virtually identical to a bot but without the sima. This building is used as a sermon hall for monks and lay worshippers. Both the viharn and the bot enshrine Buddha statues, a presiding image and commonly several smaller attendant statues. Many of these images are of great antiquity, and some possess individual fame, revered as possessing unusual spiritual power.

Both bot and viharn follow identical architectural styles, being rectangular buildings with sweeping multi-tiered roofs covered with glazed brown and green or blue tiles. Each end of the roof's peak terminates in a gilded finial known as a cho fa, or 'sky tassel'. A gracefully curved ornamentation, it looks like a slender bird's neck and head, and is generally believed to represent the mythical garuda, half bird, half man.

Along with the bot and viharn, the most characteristic of temple structures is the chedi or stupa. Dominating the compound of a wat, this is a tall decorative spire constructed over relics of the Buddha, sacred texts or an image. Essentially, they are of two basic forms. Bell shaped, raised on square or round terraces of diminishing size and tapering to a thin spice, or a round, finger-like tower. The latter, derived from Khmer architecture and symbolic of the mythical mountain abode of the gods, is known as a prang.

Other buildings in a temple compound can include a library for sacred texts, and a mondop. Traditionally the former was built on stilts over a pond to protect the fragile manuscripts from ants. The mondop is a square shaped building with tapering roof enshrining some relic, often a Buddha footprint, a decorated stone impression far larger than lifesize. These, like the chedi, are not merely architectural features. They also serve as monuments in the true sense, objects to instruct and focus the mind.

Some larger wats may also have cloisters, open-sided galleries perhaps displaying rows of Buddha images, which bell towers and various pavillions can be additional features. Wats further have a cerematorium, identified by its needle like chimney, and, usually, a school for monks and perhaps also for lay children.

Most fascinating from the visitor's point of view is the temple as art centre. Unlike the wat's other functions, this role was unwittingly assumed. Until the modern period of all Thai art was religious art. It had no conscious aesthetic function and served purely didactic and devotional aims. Thus sculpture, painting and the minor arts, such as gilt on lacquer, mother of pearl inlay and woodcarving, found expression almost exclusively in temple decoration.

Sculpture was largely limited to images of the Buddha. These are not idols but rather reminders of the teachings and, in theory at least, are all modelled on the same attributes of the Enlightened One. In practice, of course, sculpture did develop different styles during various art periods and Buddha statues do vary considerably in form and expression.

The wat is also a showcase of Thai classical painting, the artform achieving its finest expression in murals. Typically these were painted on all four walls of bots and viharns, though owing to the fragile nature of the medium and the ravages of the climate, few surviving examples predate the 18th century.

All murals were purely didactic in purpose and the classic formula was to decorate the side walls with episodes from the life of the Buddha or his previous incarnations, individual scenes being separated by registers of praying celestial beings. The black wall generally showed a graphic interpretation of the Buddhist cosmology, and the front wall was covered with the scene of Buddha's victory over Mara (forces of evil).

Typically, murals lack any attempt at perspective and figures tend to be small, while the entire picture area is filled with detail. Because of the latter convention, artists often completed backgrounds with scenes and episodes from Thai daily life. These are fascinating both for their content and as areas where the painters display greater self-expression.

Doors and window shutters also sometimes have painted scenes, while all flat surfaces are commonly brilliantly adorned. Especially notable among the decorative arts are mother of pearl inlay and gilt on lacquer work, which frequently have a high pictorial quality. Coloured glass mosaic is also quite often used and adds to a temple's lavish overall decoration.

Also to be seen in temple compounds are statues of various mythological beings. While high-art sculpture was limited to images of the Buddha, craftsmen had scope in creating minor statuary, representations of creatures which play familiar roles in Thai myths and legends. Among those most commonly seen are the garuda, the mount of the god Vishnu, the naga, king of serpents, frequently fashioned in the form of balustrades flanking stairways at temple entrances. Yakushas, giants charged with guarding a temple against evil spirits. Kinnaris, graceful beings half woman and half bird. Apsaras, or celestial nymphs, who dance for the delight of the gods.

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