01 September, 2017 – 28 February, 2018
Full of colorful, vibrant scenes depicting local people and everyday life, Lanna temple mural paintings provide a wealth of information about the beliefs, customs and culture of northern Thai people in the past. Although there is evidence to suggest that a temple mural tradition was in place as far back as the 15th century, no examples of this early vintage remain and most existing murals date back no more than 150 years.
Temple murals fulfilled the two-role function of decorating the space and educating those who came to worship by depicting Buddhist stories with moral messages. Lanna murals are almost always found in the temple’s viharn (prayer hall) where monks chant their daily Buddhist verses and proselytize to the local community. The murals themselves drew their inspiration from events in the life of the Buddha, as well as from the jataka stories (tales of the Buddha’s previous lives) and from a number of popular local stories taken from Northern Thai religious texts. Buddhist monks would relate these stories time and again to their congregation, and the paintings, which could be viewed from the floor where worshippers sat, provided visual accompaniment to the monks’ Dhamma (Buddhist teaching) discourses.
Lanna murals are characterized by their spontaneity, down-to-earth descriptiveness and strong local flavor. An intriguing mix of Burmese, Shan, Lao, Thai Lu and Siamese influences, these murals reflect the multi-ethnic makeup of the north and it is this blending of outside influences with local traditions and sensibilities that gives them their distinctive charm.
In the 19th century, large communities of Shan and Thai Lu people from Burma’s neighboring Shan State and southern China settled in Chiang Mai helping to repopulate the city after many years of warfare with the Burmese. At the same time, Chinese ‘Haw’ (Muslim traders) came on the scene, carrying goods such as tea, medicinal herbs and pickled vegetables overland from YunnProvince to be sold in the markets around Chiang Mai while another group of Chinese arrived from Bangkok and settled in the towns along the rivers to start small businesses. Westerners also arrived at this time with a keen interest in the very profitable teak logging business. Christian missionaries soon followed.
Lanna mural paintings often depict this diverse mix of ethnic groups with figures shown wearing typical Chinese dress of the period next to others wearing Burmese attire or dressed in the local paa sin striped cotton skirts of the north. The architecture of the buildings also shows the influence of neighboring styles. Westerners are depicted in a number of murals as well, often in military uniform. In addition to appreciating the cultural diversity of the north, one can learn a great deal about the everyday lives of Lanna people in the past through these murals as they depict everything from courtship rituals and war to children’s games, to dance and music traditions.
Unlike the formal style of painting one finds in Bangkok temples, where artists followed carefully prescribed formulas approved by the court, Lanna murals are very individual in approach with each temple’s murals boasting their own unique characteristics. Regional styles can also be detected with places like remote Nan province offering examples of some of the finest Lanna murals ever painted at Wat Phumin and Wat Nong Bua while Lampang is characterized by its paintings drawn on the prayer hall’s wooden side board panels. Murals also reflected the ethnic background of the artist himself, with a number of temples such as Wat Bua Krok Luang in Chiang Mai city and Wat Pa Daet in Mae Chaem, Chiang Mai, revealing the Shan origins of its painters in many of the details.
The technique of painting with natural pigments on top of dry plaster that artists employed in Thai mural paintings (versus the fresco technique of applying pigment to wet plaster found in Europe) made the murals particularly fragile and they have deteriorated over time in Thailand’s hot, moist climate; a process sped along by poor temple maintenance due to lack of funding and expertise, along with a lack of appreciation for their historical and cultural value. Many murals that could be viewed just 20 years ago are now gone, and along with them, a part of northern Thailand’s precious cultural heritage. Thankfully growing awareness and interest in them has meant that efforts to restore and preserve important mural sites have been undertaken in recent years. Hopefully this trend and growing interest will continue far into the future and help to guarantee the safe keeping of these ‘windows’ onto Lanna’s past.