Rethinking Buddha Images in Thailand


A review of The Social and Religious World of Northern Thai Buddha Images: Art, Lineage, Power and Place in Lan Na Monastic Chronicles (Tamnan), by Angela Shih Chih Chiu.

Buddha images are everywhere in Thailand, and they can wield a substantial amount of power. In her dissertation, Angela Chiu asserts that the common art historical approach to understanding these images is limited and that greater comprehension of the reasons why such images were commissioned and how they were used is needed. Chiu’s study examines tamnan, which are chronicles of local histories, in order to gain insight into the connection between sculptures of the Buddha and place, religions, and the elite in the Northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na. The dissertation is a thorough analysis of its sources and it has a lot to offer in improving our ability to contextualize Lan Na Buddha images and our understanding of the function of Buddha images as part of a cultural-religious network. It also situates Lan Na Buddha images within the larger framework of images and relics meant to maintain the Buddha’s presence, which are in turn tied through literature back to the Buddha himself.

This dissertation comprises six chapters plus an introduction and conclusion. It relies on a thorough reading and comparison of chronicles that trace the history of many important Buddha images. Chiu notes that such texts were inseparable from monks in that monks wrote them and carried them when they traveled, thus perpetuating and spreading Lan Na culture in the face of many obstacles. In her introduction she points out, importantly, that Buddha images functioned as much as social and political devices as they did religious ones, and that these meanings are embedded in the chronicles that form the center of her study. The bulk of the introduction provocatively lays out the foundation for the rest of the dissertation, its connection to previous studies, and the methodology employed. Chiu looks to Gell’s Art and Agency as a guide for placing art in its social context, understanding art as a system of action, and looking at social relationships for the purposes of determining agency.

Chapter 1 is an examination of the biographies of some of the best known and most powerful Buddha images from the Lan Na kingdom: Sihing, Emerald, Sikhi, Sandalwood, and Setangkhamani. Each has a story associated with its creation and its travels, and each has connection to kings of Lan Na. Tamnan for individual images detail the stories of their creation, while the 16th-century Lan Na chronicle, the Jinakālamālīpakaraṇaṁ, includes the images within its narrative. Studying these chronicles, Chiu extrapolates that while their connection to specific patrons is important, they typically have wider associations and function as an “outcome of group cooperation, in which monks and a variety of lay patrons including kings, nobles, commoners and gods make contributions” (p. 71). These images connected people and places with the Buddha and deities and thus legitimated religion and power in Lan Na.

The second chapter of the dissertation looks specifically at the sangha (monkhood) and its relationship to Buddha images and elite patrons. Chiu recounts the lessons from monastic history texts about the importance of following rules set by monasteries, and uses these examples to explain the agency of monks in creating a strong role for themselves in the creation of Buddha images. These lessons are recounted in stories chronicled in the tamnan that tell of tragedy and death befalling kings who disobeyed monks and donated at the wrong time or to the wrong monastery. Conversely, the tamnan also tell of great rewards for properly executed donations or patronage at the correct monasteries. The stories were important ways that monks were able to assert their power and control their relationship to the monarchy and to Buddhism. The sangha saw itself, and rightfully so, as a protector of the Buddhist religion and its followers and, through control of the tamnan, it was able to assert influence over Buddhism and its practice.

Chapter 3 compares the stories of Buddha images from Chapters 1 and 2 with tamnan accounts about the Buddha’s relics. This chapter explores the connection between relics and images from a northern Thai perspective, making a comparison between the Lan Na accounts and those from other Buddhist kingdoms, including Sri Lanka and Burma. In a very interesting retelling of several relic-stories, Chiu determines that both relics and images function as representations of the Buddha, yet are treated differently in Lan Na chronicles. They both have connections to place, but whereas an image travels to places of power to show connections to monarchy, a relic’s location is often chosen by the relic itself and is more about the power of place than the power of people. The relic has power and its choice of location for veneration ties that place directly to the Buddha. Location of a relic within a kingdom such as Lan Na creates local pilgrimage, which has been central to Buddhism since Ashoka’s time. Relics also emphasize the specialness of a specific place and connect it to events both in the past (the Buddha) and the future (future monarchs and pilgrims), “thereby drawing the Buddha, ancestors and descendants into a multi-temporal interplay centered around the site of the present-day cetiya” (p. 182).

Chapter 4 discusses “relic-like images,” or Buddha images that take on roles similar to relics and that have a direct connection to the place where they are enshrined (as opposed to those images discussed in Chapter 1 which have a connection to places where the images were said to have been made or to where they traveled). These are site-specific images whose narratives connect them to the Buddha and to their respective locations. Their value as powerful images brings great rewards for their veneration and protection during tumultuous times. For example, the Buddha image named Phra Chao Ton Luang, located in Phayao, is associated with the Buddha’s visit to Phayao and his foreseeing of the establishment of Buddhism in the area. This chapter adds yet another layer of understanding to the function of representations of the Buddha in Lan Na. In concluding the chapter, Chiu sums up her argument well by writing that “through these stories, Buddha images, both the relic-like and the travelling, were seen to generate, and embody, new configurations of history and community” (p. 215). Once again we are presented with ways the monks who controlled the tamnan found ways to bring localities into the larger Buddhist world, legitimizing Buddhist religious practices and maintaining support of the sangha.

Chapter 5 focuses on inscriptions from the bases of Buddha images. The inscriptions that are the focus of this chapter are from Hans Penth’s well-known catalog of 312 Buddha images from Chiang Mai, Khamcharuek thi Than Phra Phuttha Rup nai Nakhon Chiang Mai (Inscriptions on Bases of Buddha Images in Chiang Mai, 1976). Chiu has worked through these inscriptions with a fine-toothed comb, creating a valuable, detailed spreadsheet (included with the dissertation as an appendix) that presents the translation of the inscriptions “into English and/or romanizing the data on donor names, dates, monasteries, image heights, weights, postures, materials, and donor wishes” (p. 218). The inscriptions record the wishes of the donors, who were mostly elite members of Lan Na society, namely nobility and government officials. Her conclusion, after working through the data, is that donation of these images was motivated primarily by the desire of the laity to ensure the continuation of Buddhism for “at least 5000 years.” In this role the Buddha images embody Buddhism itself, as if their existence ensures the successful continuation of the religious practice. Chiu also notes the importance of materials to the donors of the images, as the materials utilized in the creation of an image werewas understood as a reflection of its efficacy.

In the final chapter of the dissertation Chiu sets up perhaps the most challenging task for herself by examining the significance of copying – how and why it was done and what significance it had for the image and its audience. In this she returns to her assertion in the dissertation’s introduction that art historians’ study of iconography, style, and dating is limited and perhaps not consistent with how the Lan Na people themselves viewed the images. As Chiu states: “From a disciplinary perspective, it would seem to be very important for art historians to attempt to understand copying, a key assumption upon which our academic enterprise is founded” (pp. 250-251). She examines the work of A. B. Griswold, Stanley J. Tambiah, Piriya Krairiksh, and M. L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, and then turns to the tamnan and inscriptions for answers. In so doing, we learn that several interests and perspectives are involved with the copying process: donor, monk, and artist. This “interplay of agencies,” when successful, results in a potentially prestigious and powerful Buddha image. A complex process, copying of Buddha images can be either conceptual or actual, and often is not related to an image’s physical features.

Angela Chiu’s dissertation is an impressive accomplishment that makes use of a great number of largely underexplored and underutilized primary sources. It adds a great deal to our understanding of Buddha images in Lan Na. Her goal of changing the conversation in how art historians approach Thai Buddha images is thoroughly presented and convincingly achieved. Through discussions of agency, Chiu shows the complex relationships that result in the development of Buddha images and her ability to look to a number of scholars working in similar fields assures that this dissertation will hold its appeal within a variety of disciplines. This dissertation encourages readers to think beyond the object and its appearance to reasons for its very existence and, perhaps, why it is found in a certain location.

Rebecca S. Hall
Department of Art History
Virginia Commonwealth University

Primary Sources

Tamnan Phra Phuttha Rup Chao Nang Din (Chronicle of the Buddha Image Seated on the Earth), Wat San Pa Kha, Ton Pao, Sankhamphaeng, Chiang Mai, EFEO 025 001. Inscription date unknown.

Tamnan Phra Chan Phra Sing Phra Kaeo (Chronicle of the Sandalwood Buddha Image, the Singh Buddha Image and the Emerald Buddha Image), Wat Nantharam, Amphoer Mueang, Chiang Mai, EFEO 006 003. Inscription date unknown.

Tamnan Phra Chao Ton Luang (Chronicle of the Phra Chao Tong Luang Buddha Image), Wat Phra Luang Sung Men, Sung Men, Phrae, EFEO 003 007. Inscription date unknown.

Tamnan Phra That Chao Lamphun lae Tamnan Wat Ton Kaeo (Chronicle of the Sacred Relic of Lamphun and Chronicle of Wat Ton Kaeo), Siam Society, Bangkok, EFEO 001 005. Inscription date 1275 CS (1913 CE).

Tamnan Wat Suan Dok (Chronicle of the Flower Garden Monastery), Wat Pa Sak Noi, Sankhamphaeng, Chiang Mai, EFEO WPSN 003. Inscription date 1309 CS (1947 CE) 323.

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies. 2012. 334 pp. Primary Advisor: Elizabeth Moore.

Image: The Sihing Buddha image, Wat Phra Sing, Mueang district, Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photo by Angela Chiu.

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