23 May 2024

A rare collection of manuscript storage cabinets is now on view at the Thawornwatthu Building, the heritage building and exhibition hall just a short walk from Bangkok’s Grand Palace.

Organised by the Fine Arts Department (FAD) and the National Library of Thailand, the “R.E. 242: View Lai Rod Nam Cabinet, and Appreciate the Works of Art” exhibition brings together 47 antique manuscript storage cabinets in different exhibition rooms. The showcase, an impressive and wondrous display of religious art, expresses the belief and devotion of the artisans and the nation to Buddhism.

These manuscript storage cabinets were traditionally given to the Buddhist temples to house and preserve sacred scriptures written on palm-leaf manuscripts, as well as Buddhist texts, which were written on khoi paper. In a technique recognised as Lai Rod Nam, these manuscript storage cabinets were crafted by the finest Thai master artisans of the Rattanakosin period (1782–1932) and are richly decorated with gold on a lacquer base.

The “R.E. 242: View Lai Rod Nam Cabinet, and Appreciate the Works of Art” exhibition is divided into eight rooms inside the historical building of Thawornwatthu – the red building on the western side of Sanam Luang square. It features rare and valuable collections of antique manuscript storage cabinets.

“Sai Ew” recounts the legendary pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang who travelled to the “Western Regions” to obtain Buddhist sacred texts. (Photo by FAD)

The exhibition begins with an introduction to a manuscript storage cabinet, whose form, function, and timeline span the periods of Ayutthaya, Thon Buri, and Rattanakosin. Back then, Thai people kept their clothes and belongings in a large strongbox or chest, with the cabinet only used to keep books and Tripitaka manuscripts.

The manuscript storage cabinet, like a classic Ayutthaya period ordination hall, has a narrow upper section and a wider lower section. There are 2-3 wooden shelves with double doors inside the cabinet. Some are equipped with drawers; others are not. However, one of the most distinguishing features of the manuscript storage cabinet are its legs, which range from square pig legs to Singha (cabriole) legs.

Depictions of combat scenes from the Ramakien, Thailand’s version of the Indian epic, the Ramayana are typical, as are the Buddha’s present and past lives. Some manuscript storage cabinets might have viewers scratching their heads in amazement over the last thing you’d expect to see at a Buddhist temple – a love scene.

The “Sang Wat Cabinet”, for example, is decorated with details of the Himmapan forest – a faraway magical land full of mysteries and wonders. To add little more mystery to the forest, the artisans depict a carnal act of animal, human, angel and yogi on the twentieth-century manuscript storage cabinets. To solve the puzzle, you need little more time in the Himmapan exhibition room.

A rare collection of manuscript storage cabinets is now on view at the Thawornwatthu Building in Bangkok. (Photo by FAD)

One of the exhibition’s standouts is the red “Sai Ew” cabinet, which is painted with scenes from the popular Chinese novel “Journey to the West”. It recounts the legendary pilgrimage of Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Xuanzang, who travelled to the “Western Regions” (Central Asia and India) to obtain Buddhist sacred texts and returned after many trials and much suffering. Unlike lacquer works, the upper edge of the cabinet has inscriptions in Chinese characters referring to the eighteenth year of Chinese Emperor Xianzhong’s reign, which is the same reign as King Rama III of Siam.

Inspired by faith and belief in Buddhism, the  “R.E. 242: View Lai Rod Nam Cabinet, and Appreciate the Works of Art” exhibition is worth a visit to witness the union of art and religion.

If you go …

The manuscript storage cabinets are currently on display at the Thawornwathu Building (Red Building) on Na Phra That Road. It’s open Wednesday to Sunday (9am-4pm).

The exhibition at the Thawornwatthu Building. (Photo by FAD)