Isan Murals

The title of the new book "The Democratic, Erotic, Moral, and Fun-Loving murals of Isan" says it all. Historian Chris Baker reviews this new book.

A new book on Isan art has just been published. Buddhist Murals of Northeast Thailand: Reflections of the Isan Heartland was written by Bonnie Pacala Brereton and Somroay Yencheuy, published by Mekong Press and sells for 695 baht.

An extract from a long and engaging book review by historian Chris Baker follows. See the full article here.

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The Democratic, Erotic, Moral, and Fun-Loving murals of Isan by Chris Baker

Isan mural
…The murals tell a handful of stories which are used in preaching and other forms of moral education. They include three key scenes from the life of the Buddha; selected episodes from the distinctive Isan versions of the Rama (Phra Lak Phra Lam), Phra Malai, and Sangsinchai (Sin Sai) stories; and especially the Vessantara Jataka, known in Isan as Pha Wet.

While these same stories are depicted in the murals of other regions, here they take on a very different character. Above all, the atmosphere of the paintings is homely, intimate, and fun. The main characters are not transformed into semi-divine beings by elaborate costume, loads of jewellery and elegant dance poses. Phra Vessantara is signified by a simple rosary. The Buddha is even shown throwing up.

Scenes of everyday life are not confined to the lower registers, as in most central wat, but swarm all over the scenes. Indeed, in many of the paintings, scenes of everyday life and abundant nature almost overwhelm the depiction of the story. Men and women are shown working hard and playing hard - nicely reflecting the northeasterners' view of themselves. Women stand bent double, hacking at the earth with hoes; men wade through water, plunging fish traps; women truss up bundles of firewood; men plough behind buffaloes; old ladies glean the rice fields with their naked, droopy dugs dangling. In the many scenes of processions, you can hear the swirl of the khaen, and feel the abandon of the dancers.

The eroticism of these scenes is also more disarmingly open than the rather furtive portrayal in central-region paintings. Men grope the women and fondle their breasts, perhaps more intimately than would be possible in everyday life. Mara's warriors, being consumed by fish, have had their genitalia pencilled in. In a scene of the Buddha's Great Departure, one attendant deity is caressing a half-naked concubine with his toes. But, as the authors note, the effect is more playful than pornographic. These scenes are "attention getters" that hold the viewer's interest. The erotic content is also related to fertility rites, which form a major part of the region's festivals…

(Source: Bangkok Post, Outlook Section, The Democratic, Erotic, Moral, and Fun-Loving murals of Isan, 20-09-10, Chris Baker, link

murals - very large paintings (on buildings, for example) (See Wikipedia)
distinctive - easy to notice and recognize as different พิเศษ, มีลักษณะเฉพาะ
handful - a small number (could fit in your hand) จำนวนน้อยมาก
preach - to talk about a religious subject to many people at a religious meeting
moral - about what is right and wrong, about how people should behave
key - important คนสำคัญ
episodes - an event or short period of time when something unusual happens
distinctive - easy to identify and recognize becasue it is different from other things of the same kinds
epic -
a long poem that tells a story about ancient people and gods 
Ramayana - an ancient Indian epic written in Sanskrit (See Wikipedia)
Phra Lak Phra Lam - the Lao version of the Ramayana (See Wikipedia)
Ramakien -
the Thai version of the Ramayana, considered the definitive national epic (See Wikipedia)
Phra Malai -
a Buddhist monk who is featured in stories  written in Thailand and Laos, "an arhat from Sri Lanka, who achieved great supernormal powers through his own merits and meditation. He is also honored as a successor to Maudgalyayana, the Buddha's disciple foremost for his supernormal attainments. In the story this pious and compassionate monk descends to Hell to give teachings & comfort the suffering hell-beings there. He also learns how the hell-beings are punished according to their sins in the different hells" (See Wikipedia, Muang Boran, and book by Bonnie Brereton)
Sangsinchai (Sin Sai) -
a Thai folk tale
Vessantara Jataka -
one of the longest and probably most popular Buddha birth stories (Jataka) of Theravada Buddhism, it "tells the story of one of Buddha's past lives, about a compassionate prince, Vessantara, who gives away everything he owns, including his wife and children, thereby displaying the virtue of perfect charity" (See Wikipedia)
depict (verb) - describe something using pictures or words
the character of Y - the qualities that make Y different from other things
take on a very different character - change in a very big way, become very different
atmosphere - the mood or feeling that exists in a place บรรยากาศ
homely - makes you relaxed and "feel at home", simple and pleasant
intimate -
relaxed, very personal and private
transformed - changed
divine - like a god, or relating to a god เกี่ยวกับเทพเจ้า ที่สูงส่ง เกี่ยวกับพระเจ้า, เกี่ยวกับวิญญาณ
semi-divine - part god, part human
elaborate - containing a lot of careful detail or many detailed parts ประณีต, อย่างรอบคอบ,ซับซ้อน,ละเอียด,ที่บรรจง
elegant - looks high-class (with grace and dignity) ที่สง่างาม ที่หรูหรา
simple - easy to understand; not complicated ง่าย,ไม่ยุ่งยาก, ไม่ซับซ้อน
rosary - a necklace of small beads for counting a series of prayers
pose - stand or sit in a fixed position (in order to look good to people watching you) 
throwing up - food passing from stomach out of mouth, vomit

confined - limited จำกัดในวง ในกลุ่ม
lower registers - the lower parts
wat - a Thai Buddhist temple (See Wikipedia)
swarm - to fly or go somewhere together with a large group or crowd
abundant - exists in large amounts มากมาย
nature - the physical world and all the things in it such as plants, animals, trees, forests, mountains, rivers and seas...etc
overwhelm - to great affect someone's emotions ท่วมท้นไปด้วยความรู้สึก
depiction (noun) - describe something using pictures or words
double - to become twice as big, twice as much or twice as many เพิ่มเป็นสองเท่า
hacking - hitting at something over and over again repeatedly
hoe - tool for turning the soil over in a garden before planting
wade - to walk with an effort through something, especially water or mud (see photo above) ลุย เดินท่องน้ำ หรือ โคลน
plunging - having a deep curve at the neck to show part of the breasts คอเว้าลึก
plunging - fall quickly by a large amount (ราคา) ร่วงหรือตกลงอย่างมาก Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij said last week that the government would push forward four mass-transit projects as part of the 1.7-trillion-baht megaproject scheme. These projects are the extended routes of the Green, Purple, Blue and Red lines in greater Bangkok, as well as the long-awaited landbridge project, which includes a
naked - not wearing any clothes
processions - lines of people who are all walking or travelling in the same direction, especially in a formal way as part of a religious ceremony or public celebration ขบวนที่เคลื่อนไป
abandon - do something without controlling your yourself (example: dance around the house so happy, in gay abandon)
swirl - to move around and around in circles
khaen - "a mouth organ of Lao origin whose pipes, which are usually made of bamboo, are connected with a small, hollowed-out hardwood reservoir into which air is blown, creating a sound similar to that of the violin" (See Wikipedia)  แคน

erotic (adjective) - involving or depicting sex
eroticism (noun) - being erotic, some activity involved
open - not hiding anything, being honest about everything
disarmingly open - making a person more friendly and less angry by talking to them in a certain way
furtive -
secret, hidden
portray (verb) -
to show or describe something in a certain way
grope - to feel with your hands, especially in order to find or move towards something when you cannot see easily คลำหา, เสาะหา
fondle - to squeeze or rub gently (in a sexual sort of way)
intimate (adjective) - related to very personal and private things
intimately (adverb)
Mara - 
a "demon who tempted Gautama Buddha by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who, in various legends, are often said to be Mara's daughters," symbolizing the end of spiritual life, the Buddhist version of the devil (See Wikipedia)
Mara's warriors -
Mara's daughters, the beautiful who Mara used to tempt the Buddha
genitalia
- genitals, the outer sex organs of a human or an animal
Buddha's Great Departure -
the even of the Buddha leaving his family early in his life (See Wikipedia)
deity -
god
attendant deity -
a god who accompanies an even greater one (here: the Buddha)
caress -
to move hands slowly and gently over a person's body 
concubine -
a woman in the past who had a sexual relationship with an important man (e.g. Chinese emperor) but was not married to them 
caressing a half-naked concubine
- [self explanatory]
pornographic -
(negative meaning) showing or talking about sexual activities in order to make people sexually excited 
attention -
being interested in and noticing something, actively watching or listening to something
attention getters -
something thing that causes people to notice and be interested in something
content - the subject, ideas, or story in a piece of writing, picture,  radio or television programme เนื้อหา,สาระ
rites - a traditional ceremony, especially a religious one พิธี
fertility - a woman's ability to have a baby
fertility rites -
magical or religious ceremonies to help a woman to have a baby

About the author

columnist
Writer: Jon Fernquest
Position: Online Writer