Nara Buddhist statue cleaned before Bon festival

The Great Buddha statue in the ancient capital of Nara, western Japan, has undergone its annual cleaning ahead of the midsummer Bon Festival.

The 15-meter-high statue at Todaiji temple is dusted off every year on August 7. The cleaning is designed to prepare for the festival, when people pay respects to their ancestors.

On Wednesday morning, priests conducted a ceremony to temporarily remove the Buddha’s soul from the statue.

About 180 priests and worshippers then climbed onto the statue to clean and polish, using brooms and dusters.

Some were raised in baskets suspended from the ceiling of the hall housing the statue so they could clean parts those on the statue cannot reach, including its face and chest.

Many people came to watch the cleaning.

A student of cultural properties from neighboring Osaka Prefecture said it was her first time to see the process and she was very impressed that the work involves so many people.

5 minutes with… A Nepalese bronze figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava

Jacqueline Dennis Subhash, Head of Christie’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art department, explains how and why this sculpture was made, and recalls her visits to the bronze workshops of the Kathmandu Valley

Almost half a metre in height, this large, gilt-bronze figure of a buddha was made some time between the 17th and 18th centuries by the renowned Newari artisans of the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal.

‘The Newari have been making Buddhist statues since at least the sixth century, transmitting deep iconographical knowledge gleaned from sacred texts through the generations,’ explains Jacqueline Dennis Subhash, the head of Christie’s Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art department.

Twenty years ago, when Subhash was a Tibetan Studies undergraduate at university in Kathmandu, she regularly visited their workshops. ‘There are foundries everywhere throughout the valley, still alive and well,’ she says. ‘Even today you could walk into one and commission a gilt-bronze statue of your choice.’

A rare gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava, Nepal, 17th-18th century. Height 46 cm (18⅛ in). Estimate $700,000-900,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 11 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

A rare gilt-bronze figure of Buddha Ratnasambhava, Nepal, 17th-18th century. Height: 46 cm (18⅛ in). Estimate: $700,000-900,000. Offered in Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Works of Art on 11 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

The Newari create their sculptures using the lost-wax technique. It involves coating a wax model in clay mixed with dung and rice husks, then firing it to melt the wax and leave a hollow cast into which molten bronze can be poured.

In the Kathmandu Valley, craftspeople use a particularly high volume of copper in their bronze alloy, 85-95 per cent, which gives the metal a deep russet tone — visible here on the sculpture’s reverse.

‘This sculpture would have been a treasure from the moment it was made’

Like many Nepalese bronze sculptures, this figure has been fire-gilded — a process that involves washing the statue with gold and mercury. When fired, the mercury evaporates to leave a gilded film bonded to the surface.

‘Mercury vapours are very toxic,’ warns Subhash. ‘Mercury poisoning is still common in Nepal, but to help combat it, artisans practice an ancient technique of standing upwind with a mouthful of raw meat, which is believed to absorb the vapours.’

It’s the mudra or hand gesture that makes this figure identifiable as Ratnasambhava
It’s the mudra or hand gesture that makes this figure identifiable as Ratnasambhava

Subhash can’t think of more than ten bronze buddhas of this calibre that have gone under the hammer during the past decade. ‘And of those ten, only a third were Nepalese,’ she adds. ‘When you also consider the fact that this statue has been in the same private German collection since 1973, its sale becomes an exceptional moment.’

And if Subhash was to own it? ‘Can’t you just picture him on a Noguchi table in front of a Rothko?’ she says with a smile. ‘Timeless.’

Drought reveals lost temple in Thailand submerged by dam

LOPBURI, Thailand: Thousands are flocking to see a Buddhist temple in central Thailand exposed after drought drove water levels to record lows in a dam reservoir where it had been submerged.

As the reservoir reaches less than 3 per cent of capacity, the remains of Wat Nong Bua Yai, a modern temple submerged during the construction of the dam 20 years ago, have become visible in the middle of dry ground.

Some Buddhist monks were among the hundreds of people who walked through broken temple structures on cracked earth littered with dead fish last week to pay respects to a headless 4m-tall Buddha statue, adorning it with flowers.

A family prays near the ruins of a headless Buddha statue
A family prays near the ruins of a headless Buddha statue, which has resurfaced in a dried-up dam due to drought. (Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)

“The temple is normally covered by water. In the rainy season you don’t see anything,” said one of the visitors, Somchai Ornchawiang, a 67-year-old retired teacher.

He regretted the temple flooding but is now worried about the damage the drought is causing to farmland, he added.

The dam, with capacity of 960 million cubic meters, normally irrigates more than 1.3 million acres (526,000 ha) of farmland in four provinces, but the drought has cut that to just 3,000 acres in the single province of Lopburi.

The meteorological department says Thailand is facing its worst drought in a decade, with water levels in dams nationwide having fallen far short of the monthly average.

Yotin Lopnikorn, 38, headman of the Nong Bua village that used to be near the temple, recalls visiting it with friends as a child, before dam construction forced the villagers out.

“When I was young, I always came to meet friends at the elephant sculptures in front of the main building to play there,” Yotin said.

At the time, the temple was the centre of the community, used to conduct rituals, festivities and educational activities, besides functioning as a playground and recreational area.

Next to the temple compound are the remains of 700 households of the village.

The ruins have reappeared before, after a drought in 2015.

“This is the second time I have seen this temple in this condition,” said Yotin. “Now I think we need to save this place.”

Source: Reuters/ga

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda

By Phong Vinh
This colorful pagoda is a place of worship for Khmer people in Tinh Bien Town, the Mekong Delta province of An Giang.

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda

Moi Pagoda, built by the Khmer, is situated on Road 91, 2 km from the Tinh Bien International Border Market. It is home to Theravada monks and also a place of worship for Khmer people in the Xuan Hoa residential cluster.

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda - 1

Its architecture is a combination of the Khmer’s decorative art and the colorful designs of the Angkor culture. From its gates and roofs to interiors, there are numerous figures of birds, nymphs and Naga, the god of snakes.

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The main hall has a high ceiling. An idol of the Buddha seated on a lotus is in the middle of the hall. The year of construction is recorded on a wall: 2421 in the Buddhist calendar. We are now in 2563.

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda - 3

Surrounding the Buddha idol are sharp sculptural details in vivid colors.

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda - 4

Inside the main hall are paintings about the life and teachings of the Buddha.

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda - 5

Outside the main hall, under a canopy of palm trees is a long line of towers built by Buddhist followers. The towers are in many different sizes depending on the donation made by each family.

Chau Phol, who has been a voluntary worker here for more than 50 years, said the pagoda retains its original architecture. “We have just opened a new hall for welcoming guests and organizing festivals.”

An Giang’s 140-year-old Khmer pagoda - 6

The pagoda has a lot of greenery with many kinds of trees.

Despite his limited Vietnamese, Phol often tells visitors about the history of the pagoda.

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In Khmer tradition, local people and Buddhists come to the pagoda to help prepare for festivals and other special celebrations. This photo shows making of flowers for decoration during the inauguration of the pagoda’s new hall.

Rare Ancient Buddhist Text Discovered In Doomed Temple Super-Complex Near Kabul

Archaeologists in Afghanistan have discovered exceptionally rare pieces of an ancient Buddhist manuscript dated to around the seventh century AD at an ancient settlement near Kabul.

In the spring of 1963, a French geologist set out from Kabul to survey a large outcrop of copper-bearing strata in the mountains above the village of Mes Aynak, approximately 40 kilometers southeast of Kabul in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan. There, he discovered a vast religious settlement occupied between the third and seventh centuries located at a key location on the famed Silk Road connecting Asia and the Middle East.

Now, if you ask people to name the world’s oldest printed book the most common reply is Gutenberg’s Bible , but Buddhist texts, the Diamond Sutra for example, that was printed in AD 868, was compiled about 550 years before Gutenberg was born. Regarding these newly discovered texts the Japanese daily The Mainichi reported that an Afghan archaeological institute stated, “The sutras written in Sanskrit on tree bark and were discovered on a hillside a few years ago in Mes Aynak ,” and it is suspected that the manuscripts might have been “housed in an archive.”

A Saigon pagoda truly open to sentient beings – no doors, no walls

The entrance to the Ky Quang 2 stone pagoda is door-less, following the Buddha’s precept of welcoming all sentient beings.

Door-less stone pagoda in Saigon - 1

The Ky Quang 2 Pagoda in Saigon’s Go Vap District, built mostly of stone, has no doors. Instead, two statues of the Buddha stand and sit at the entrance.

Venerable Thich Thien Chieu, the pagoda’s abbot since 1975, said the architecture was a harmonious combination of Buddhist teachings and Vietnamese culture.

“The pagoda has no roof to see in every direction, no doors to welcome all beings, no walls and no pillars that separate and limit human beings.”

A Saigon pagoda truly open to sentient beings - no doors, no walls - 1

A three-meter tall gold-plated Buddha statue on a lotus is placed on top of the pagoda’s gate. The work is called Thien Tam Linh or Divine Spirit, which resides between heaven and earth.

Roof-less stone pagoda in Saigon

Built in 1926, the Ky Quang 2 Pagoda started out as a village pagoda in Go Vap District and was originally named Thanh Chau Tu. In 2000, it was completely rebuilt on an area of nearly 7,500 square meters. The complex was designed by the abbot.

A Saigon pagoda truly open to sentient beings - no doors, no walls - 3

Different Buddha statues are placed underneath the Bodhi tree inside the pagoda.

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The entrance to the main building is a series of steps inside a rock cave.

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Inside the hall of the main building is a series of marble Buddha statues. This is the place of chanting and meditation for monks, nuns and worshippers. The two sides of this dome are stylized in the shape of a lotus.

A Saigon pagoda truly open to sentient beings - no doors, no walls - 6

La Thi Xuan Ly, 82, a resident of Go Vap District, said: “I come here every week to pray. The pagoda looks beautiful and has a calm feeling as if it is our house.”

A Saigon pagoda truly open to sentient beings - no doors, no walls - 7

A shrine dedicated to worship the Hung Kings (2879-258 BCE), the nation’s mythical founders, and Mother Au Co, a mountain fairy honored as the mother of Vietnamese civilization.

The shrine is also decorated with banh chung (square rice cake) and banh day (round rice cake), Vietnam’s two traditional cakes.

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A section of the pagoda is decorated with Bodhisattva Buddha statue litted up with colorful lights.

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The pagoda also has Tran Nhan Tong, third emperor of the Tran Dynasty, reigning Dai Viet from 1278 to 1293 as a deity. The emperor and his father were supreme commanders who led the Tran Dynasty to final victories against the Mongol invaders, ushering in a long period of peace and prosperity in the country.

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The pagoda is also a shelter where abandoned and disabled children are cared for. The abbot said that this activity started in 1994 and the pagoda currently takes care of more than 240 children.

Feature: Candle Festival preserves Thailand’s tradition, craftsmanship

UBON RATCHATHANI, Thailand, July 18 (Xinhua) — Granny Nongyao takes her granddaughter to a temple to make wax carving every year when Thailand enters the Buddhist festival Khao Phansa.

The 70-year-old devout buddhist, together with 7-year-old girl who was enjoying a two-day public holiday from Tuesday, have been carving some intricate patterns on wax for several hours in the outdoor complex of the temple in the scorching Ubon Ratchathani, a northeastern province famed for its most elaborated and largest candle festival of the country.

“Working on the carving is a pleasure. We contribute these pieces to the giant wax sculpture of the temple. Everyone is welcome to join the work. This is the way we make merits in the Khao Phansa Day,” said Nongyao who invited Xinhua journalist to make the carving.

Khao Phansa marks the start of the three-month rains retreat period which is referred to as “Buddhist Lent.”

This tradition stems from a time long before electricity had been invented. During the period monks were not permitted to travel away from their own temple and relied on candlelight more than ever to study and carry on their daily routines during the darker days of the rainy season. Originally, the donation of candles to temples was a simple and practical way to make merit.

In some provinces in Thailand, this tradition nowadays evolved into friendly competition with local communities aiming to outdo each other by creating bigger and more elaborate candles to donate. In Ubon Ratchathani, wax sculptures are created to mark the arrival of Khao Phansa.

The light yellow carving pieces growing under the grandma and granddaughter’s fingers were passed to a young craftsman sitting on ladder polishing a five-meter tall wax sculpture.

The man, head of the 15-strong team, was sticking the yellow pieces on the surface of the 3-meter tall sculpture portraying an excerpt from the story of Buddha when Queen Maya of Sakya or mother of Buddha had a vision in her dream.

“It took about 60 painstaking days to make the sculpture. It’s the last process of the piece before it’s to be displayed on parade during the Candle Festival. It’s of great charm and a sacred job, ” said the man who works on temple architectures.

Skillful artisans working on wax carving are few in the country as wax sculpture is not a major in any institute. Craftsmen in Ubon Ratchthani, a province in Thailand’s poorest northeast, are usually paid less than in big cities like Bangkok.

Fifty-three ornately carved wax deities, angels, and animals depicting Hindu and Buddhist tales were paraded through town on floats on Wednesday. Each represented a local temple, district or institution and were accompanied by dancers and musicians in traditional costume.

At the end of the parade, a winner is selected and showcased for the rest of the year at its temple. The following year, the wax is recycled and used for new wax sculptures.

The Candle Festival culminated in celebrations on Wednesday.

Children pulled colorful balloons amid folk music. Groups of men in sun hats bang out the rhythm on the long drums as local musicians picked up the beat on their country-style electric guitars. All people there were enjoying the event – elegantly dressed women danced, teenagers snapped selfies and families had picnics.

“The town is usually quiet. Tourists flock to the festival every year, helping to boost the local economy here,” said Pat, a tourist van driver.

“Locals are delighted to join it, like a big party, from making candle carvings to parading, which helps to preserve the tradition and craftsmanship. It’s the charm of the festival, something more important than tourist revenue,” said the local driver.

Ancient statue found in Siem Reap

An incomplete piece of a statue measuring over one metre, thought to be an ancient remain, was found in the northeastern corner of Preah Ko temple in Siem Reap province’s Ov Lork village on Monday.

Ly Vanna, director of the Department of Conservation of Monuments and Preventative Archaeology with the Apsara Authority, said the statue was incomplete, noting that only the body was found, while the head, both hands and feet were missing.

“The statue is made of sandstone, and there are carvings that depict a short skirt with fishtail patterns that sits above the knee, along with a belt,” he said. “The kind of clothing is similar to that of Vishnu of Preah Ko style, as a Vishnu statue is currently displayed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh.”

“However, unfortunately the statue does not have a head or hands, which make it difficult to determine. If the statue had four hands, it can be confirmed as that of Vishnu,” he added. “But if it only has two hands, it could be Shiva. However, if we only rely on the outline of the statue, we can conclude that it is Vishnu from Brahmanism.”

He said that Apsara Authority would take the statue to clean and study for documentation before sending it for keeping in Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum in the future.

Thai Mech, a resident who found the statue, was quoted by the Apsara Authority as saying that he often crossed Preah Ko temple moat, but he did not notice the statue before. However, when he passed the area on Monday, he dug the ground and found the statue, which measures 1.14 metres.

“At first, I did not think it was a statue, but looking at the shape of the stone I continued to dig and found the statue,” he said. “Afterwards, I reported it to the Heritage Protection Police for safety.”

First Lieutenant Oun Yong, a heritage police in Angkor Archaeological Park’s Roluos, said people have discovered statues in the past and always reported it to the police for safe keeping and research.

“I would like to appeal to everyone who has found any statues or archaeological remains anywhere to please hand it over or report it to authorities for inspection,” he said.

A surprise sculpture, a book with a dark past and other treasures unveiled

Torrential rain did not keep them away. Well before the opening hour of 9 a.m. on June 8, more than 30 people were lined up at the Turner Lynch Campus Center at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven. Juggling umbrellas, they carried boxes, shouldered backpacks and pulled suitcases holding family heirlooms and antiques in the hopes of discovering hidden treasures.

They had braved the weather for “Hidden Treasures: Unveiled,” an appraisal event organized and hosted by Oglethorpe University Museum of Fine Art (OUMA). And some surprise treasures were discovered, ranging from a centuries-old Buddha bust to a book with a dark past.

Ellen Kierr Stein looks at the bust of Buddha she had appraised and then donated to the Oglethorpe University Museum of Fine Art. (Phil Mosier)

Specialists from Hindman, an internationally known auction house were on hand to appraise items. Five experts were at stations for Fine Art, Decorative Art, Asian Art, Jewelry and Books and Manuscripts. Appraisal fees went to help fund OUMA, and a portion of proceeds from any items discovered at the event and auctioned by Hindman will go to the museum as well.

Attendees came from all parts of metro Atlanta and as far away as Dahlonega and Cartersville. Two hundred people brought their treasures and 300 items were appraised, reported museum director Elizabeth Peterson, director of OUMA.

Jonathan Dickson navigated his way from East Cobb County with several heirlooms in tow, including a painting, porcelain pieces, German beer steins and a large book of Goethe’s writing. They are remnants of his father’s estate, he said. Most of them had been handed down by Dickson’s grandfather, who had lived in New York, Florida and Germany. His first stop was the Fine Art table, staffed by Kate Stamm, Hindman’s Fine Art specialist for the Southeast region.

Dickson unveiled a large full-length portrait of two young girls dressed alike in red, arms entwined. He had virtually no information on the painting, not even a title, only the artist’s last name, Hoffman.

The title may never be known, but Stamm dated the work in 1865. The piece had only minor flaws. She researched the painting after the event and sent Dickson a report four days later, identifying the artist as George C. Hoffman.

“The estimated value is in the low thousands.” said Dickson. “We will keep it as a family heirloom.” The mystery remains whether those children are on his family tree.

Dickson also visited the Decorative Art station with his porcelain pieces and German beer steins. The popular stop was manned by expert Jon King, Hindman’s senior consultant for the Southeast region, who has been in the field since the early 1980s, King has overseen collections from the estates of noted celebrities and has worked with the PBS series “Antiques Roadshow” and HGTV’s “Appraise It!”

The heirlooms Dickson laid out at the Decorative Art table are not of much value, he found out, but he said he learned some interesting information about them. His final stop was the Books and Manuscripts table, staffed by Gretchen Hause, who is a specialist in Hindman’s Fine Books and Manuscripts department.

The hefty book of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s writings was apparently given to Dr. Wilhelm Frick by the city in Germany where he lived, Hause told Dickson. Frick was Adolph Hitler’s minister of interior for 10 years and was hanged for war crimes. Another mystery for his family: Dickson said he doesn’t know how the book came into his grandfather’s possession. “Its is not entirely a happy story, but certainly a fascinating one.”

From left, Gary and Gloria Kubick present a glass lampshade to appraiser Jon King. The Kubicks were disappointed to learn the item was not a product of Tiffany. (Phil Mosier)

Gloria and Gary Kubik from Johns Creek set their large carton on the Decorative Art table with hopeful expectations. They lifted out a large Tiffany-style lamp shade that had long been in the office of Gary Kubik’s grandfather. His grandfather had shipped the lamp from Connecticut so the couple could bring it to the event.

“We’ve always been told it is probably a Tiffany lamp,” Gary Kubik said.

Specialist Jon King examined the shade carefully. Regretfully, he gave the Kubiks the news. It is a 1920s lamp, he told them. “But it is not an original Tiffany. Many Tiffany-style lamps and shades were made then and still are,” he said. Although there were other clues, the most obvious was the lack of a Tiffany signature or any indication that it was made in the Tiffany studio.

The Kubiks took the news well and said they would not be taking an extended vacation or retiring any time soon, but that the appraisal experience was “really fun.”

Ken Moorman of Brookhaven, accompanied by family friend, Trish Percival, stepped to the Asian Art station. Unwrapping two panels of Asian paintings, he explained to specialist Annie Wu that they had been owned by his wife’s aunt in California.

“All I ever heard about them is that they are Japanese,” he told Wu.

“No, they are Chinese, done between 1850 [and] 1870 and had been painted at a center in Jing De Zhen in central China,” said Wu. She explained that in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars were invited to the center to paint works of art, mainly for export.

The delicate, detailed porcelain paintings on individual tiles are of classic Chinese scenes and people. Few of the scholars became well-known, although each painting is signed with the artist’s signature “chop,” or seal, in red. The writing on the paintings are descriptions or poems about the scenes, and Wu offered to have them translated for Moorman.

From left, Trish Percival and Ken Moorman listen to appraiser Annie Wu’s explanation of Chinese artworks that Moorman owns. (Phil Mosier)

“The paintings and condition of the panels are important, and it is rare to find them in as good a condition as yours. Typically, they came in a set of four panels, which would likely be valued in the high thousands at auction,” said Wu, adding, “The market for Chinese art buyers is very active right now.”

Ellen Kierr Stein remembered her Buddha bust being a fixture in her parents’ homes as far back as the 1960s. It was part of an eclectic collection of artifacts from their worldwide travels, she recalled.

Wu, at the Asian Art station, filled in some details. The Buddha bust is a bronze Thai piece from the 16th or 17th century and is “very good condition,” she said.

“Buddha is an iconic image in Asian culture and the expression on his face is very important. This Buddha has a calm, benevolent expression, as is fitting.”

A highlight of the day was Kierr Stein’s surprise, on-the-spot donation of the Buddha bust to OUMA, made with her sister, Susan Kierr in memory of their parents, J.N. and Raymond Kierr.

“We were thrilled,” said John Tilford, OUMA’s curator of collections. “It’s a major contribution to our permanent collection and a wonderful addition to our Asian collection.”

–Judith Schonbak

On a scale of one to Zen: Buddha’s life, decorated by hand

Aidan Dunne
The consummate collector, Alfred Chester Beatty relied on the advice of several experts, but even so, how he managed to keep up with the development of his collection given its scope and depth is a mystery. Even now it is still being researched, evaluated and documented. Regarding evaluation, Beatty’s reputation for acquiring only the best examples from any field that interested him has been borne out again and again.

The latest instance is his holding of 18th- and 19th-century Thai Buddhist manuscripts. The collection includes about 60 of them, all substantial, which places it on par with many major institutional collections internationally, and they are known to be of exceptional quality.

A good proportion of these manuscript books are now on view at the Chester Beatty Library, at Dublin Castle, carefully presented so that multiple leaves are unfolded and visible. The books are made from either palm leaves or, later, paper leaves in accordion folds. Beatty had about 20 palm-leaf manuscripts. Incised with texts – and inked by the application of soot paste – they are quite austere, beautiful objects.

The words are teachings in the Theravada tradition, the Way of the Elders, possibly the oldest written record of Buddhist teaching

While the subsequent use of mulberry or kohoi-bark paper allowed more scope, especially enabling the generous use of illustration. The relatively long, narrow format followed on from the palm leaves. Still, the more flexible proportions meant that a central panel of text could be fringed by decorative borders and flanked by elaborately worked images, usually elegantly drawn and decorated with surprisingly rich, saturated colours.

Curator Laura Muldowney points out that a natural expectation that texts and images will be directly related, that the objects are effectively illustrated books, turns out to be largely unfounded. The words are mainly sacred texts transcribed in the ancient Indian language, Pali. They are teachings in the Theravada tradition, “the Way of the Elders”, possibly the oldest written record of Buddhist teaching. The images break free from scripture and represent the birth stories of the Buddha.
Thai Buddhist Tales: Detail from manuscript 1315, The Chester Beatty Collection Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1315, Chester Beatty Collection
Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1318, Chester Beatty Collection Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1318, Chester Beatty Collection
Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1323, Chester Beatty Collection Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1323, Chester Beatty Collection

Not alone the Buddha, Muldowney explains. “There are two main strands of subject matter in the Thai books. In the Pali canon there are about 550 stories of the Buddha’s past lives, “jatakas” or birth tales of the Buddha, charting his moral evolution through countless lives. In Thai Buddhism, particular importance is attached to the last ten tales.” They represent the culmination of the cycle of rebirth that led to the Buddha’s enlightenment. “In the concluding ten stories he consolidates, one by one, the ten virtues that lead to a state of perfection. So the illustrations tend to concentrate on these stories of the acquisition of virtue, especially the final and most important virtue: generosity.”

That is not the end of the story, though: “The other main strand, we find, has to do with stories involving the legend of the monk Phra Malai.” Manuscripts in which he features usually include verse accounts of his experience in Thai, following on the Pali scripture. As legend has it, Phra Malai had accumulated a level of merit that allowed him exceptional privileges. He was, for example, able to visit hell and heaven, and he was on speaking terms with the Buddha. “In hell, when he visited, he was beset by troubled souls who implored him to encourage their relatives on earth to live virtuously and avoid their unhappy fate.” On the other hand, heaven, he could report, was terrific and well worth the effort of getting there.

The disconnect between word and image arises largely through the books’ function. “Often they were commissioned on the occasion of a funeral, used in the ceremony (the monks chanted or recited the texts) and perhaps donated to the monastery. Some of them, you can see, were heavily used (perhaps as instructional texts, and in ceremonies other than funerals), others hardly at all.” Patterned embellishments are a common feature, including lavish gold work on the double-thickness covers. They were, after all, Muldowney observes, one of the ways one might accrue virtue, and the greater your investment the more virtue accrued.
Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1328, Chester Beatty Collection Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1328, Chester Beatty Collection
Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1328, Chester Beatty Collection Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript 1328, Chester Beatty Collection
Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript D0009724, Chester Beatty Collection Thai Buddhist Tales: part of manuscript D0009724, Chester Beatty Collection

There is an example, much more rare, that moves beyond the birth tales and the deeds of Phra Malai, and deals with the life of the Buddha, who abandoned his royal destiny and opted for a life of study, hardship and meditation. While stories of the life do feature in other forms, including wall paintings in Thailand, it is, she notes, unusual to find them in a manuscript.

The books are formidable artefacts, and, without question, a large part of their appeal lies in the quality of their images, which is generally very fine. It is interesting how it develops over time. The earliest examples – and, Muldowney points out, the climate was essentially against their long-term survival – are exceptionally beautiful and elegant.

Fairly quickly in the 19th century the impact of Western influence becomes apparent and the landscape settings, particularly, but also the figures, acquire a Westernised quality of naturalistic representation – not to mention changes in palette.

Historically, time was running out. Early in the 20th century, predictably, advances in print technology meant these labour-intensive, highly skilled artisanal products were quickly supplanted by relatively high-quality, low-cost alternatives. Nonetheless, preserved and displayed, they survive as a glimpse into a world that is much closer to our own than you might expect.

Thai Buddhist Tales: Stories along the Path to Enlightenment, curated by Laura Muldowney and supported by the Robert HN Ho Family Foundation, is at the Chester Beatty Library, at Dublin Castle, until January 26th, 2020