6 June 2024

For the first time, 81 Buddha images created over a period 1,300 years can now be admired in a spectacular exhibition at the Bangkok National Museum that combines beauty with faith.

The show, which runs until September 10, casts a gentle light on the superb carving of 81 Buddha images as well as shines a spotlight on early kingdoms such as Sukhothai, Lanna, Ayutthaya, and Rattanakosin. These kingdoms, with their own spiritual practices, sculptural traditions and royal patronage, created the images in order to contribute to Buddhism.

All the Buddhist sculptures in the exhibition are masterpieces and national treasures gathered from national museums throughout Thailand. And the stories of Buddhist sculpture in Thailand will transport visitors back to the sixth century, when Indian Buddhist art was in full bloom.

Like Buddhism itself, the Buddha sculptures arrived in what is now Thailand via ancient trade routes. Indian merchants and Buddhist monks braved the high seas to cross the Bay of Bengal to Suvarnabhumi (“Land of Gold”), where they contributed to the local economy and philosophy by connecting them to the wider world.

The spectacular exhibition combines beauty and faith through more than 1,300 years of Buddha sculptures discovered and created in early Thai kingdoms. (Photo by Fine Arts Department of Thailand)

The oldest Buddha sculpture found in Thailand is the Standing Buddha Statue in Teaching Posture. Carved in Lanka’s Anuradhapura style (1,400 – 1,500 years ago), the bronze sculpture, which measures about 30 centimetres, shows the Buddha with his right hand in the teaching posture, while the left hand clasping the end of the robe, evoking the influence of India’s Amaravati style (2nd to 4th century). Prince Damrong Rajanubhap, a half-brother of King Chulalongkorn and a respected historian  – received the statue from north-eastern Thailand. Similar bronze Buddha images, however, have been discovered throughout Southeast Asia. Most likely, these Buddhist sculptures were brought to the region by sailors, merchants, or Indian priests to protect themselves and avoid danger while reaching out to the mystic land of Suvarnabhumi.

Sukhothai Buddha Statue in Subduing Mara Posture, 15th century. (Photo by Fine Arts Department)

The very first made-in-Thailand Buddha sculpture is also on display. A standing Buddha created between the sixth and eighth centuries, it shares similar traits with the Buddha sculpture brought here earlier from overseas by merchants and Buddhist monks.  The left hand is clasping the hem of the robe, but the right hand is in the Dispelling Fear Posture rather than the Teaching Posture. With a round face, large curls, and a diaphanous robe, the standing Buddha is influenced by Gupta art.

These and many more can be found in the Earliest Buddhist Sculpture Gallery. Visible just beyond them are many seated Buddhas carved in the styles of different schools of art: Sukhothai, Lop Buri, Lanna, Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin.

There’s beauty everywhere – in Sukhothai art with a serene smile and a low gaze and in Lop Buri sculptures with thick lips and a stern face. (Photo by Fine Arts Department of Thailand)

To the untrained eye, it’s probably hard to tell the Sukhothai Buddha from the Lanna and others. Leave the complicated details to an art historian and an archaeologist, and let beauty and style carry you through the exhibition. There’s beauty everywhere here, in Sukhothai art with the serene smile and low gaze, in Lop Buri sculptures with the thick lips and a stern face, or in Ayutthaya and Rattakosin Buddhas with elaborate robes and crowns.

When you walk through the exhibition a second time, as you may find yourself doing, you might want to pay close attention to details and find out how the sculptures from different kingdoms related to one another.

A crowned and bejewelled Naga-enthroned Buddha Statue, 12th century, is a pride of Lop Buri art. (Photo by Fine Arts Department)

IF YOU GO

The exhibition “The Important Buddha Statutes in National Museums” is on display at the National Museum Bangkok until September 10, 2023. The museum is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 9am to 4pm.

By Thai PBS Feature Desk