The eminent art historian Piriya Krairiksh is a famous iconoclast. He brazenly proposed that the Ramkhamhaeng inscription, the Magna Carta of Thai history, had been faked by King Mongkut (Rama IV).
The Roots Of Thai Art By Piriya Krairiksh River Books (Bangkok), 725 baht ISBN 978-616-7339-11-5
He suggested that the early greats of Thai art history, from King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) to George Coedes, had got just about everything wrong. Most of all he objected to the writing of art history within a political frame _ imagining a sequence of kingdoms and empires (Dvaravati, Chiang Saen, Sukhothai, etc) and then pigeonholing every object into this sequence.
He has spent 30 years evolving a different approach and this magnificent book is the first part of the result.
Piriya's first step of revision, many years ago, was to propose replacing the political classification with an ethnic one, with Mon in the west, Khmer in the east, Tai arriving from the north, and a mishmash of "Southern people" on the peninsula. But that framework was problematic and sometimes just resulted in the reassignment of objects from "Dvaravati art", say, to "Mon art".
In this book, this ethnic division is there in the background, but Piriya has added another critical layer to the analysis. As most of the art objects are religious, especially depictions of the Buddha and Indic deities, then the primary classification must be religious.
Piriya first divides the analysis into Buddhism and Brahmanism, but then goes much further. Instead of pushing modern terms like "Theravada" and "Mahayana" bluntly back into the past, he has researched the contemporary currents of thought about the philosophy of existence and the nature of worship, using Indian texts, the memoirs of itinerant Chinese monks and other sources. He identifies new beliefs and practices which gelled into various sects of both Brahmanism and Buddhism and shows how these resulted in distinctive forms of iconography _ poses of the Buddha, variants of Siva and Vishnu images and so on.
Armed with this approach, Piriya subjects art objects found within the current borders of Thailand to disciplined art-historical scrutiny, analysing the details of pose, dress, body type, accoutrements, framing and so on. He then cross-references the information with his personal mental database of objects known in China, Cambodia, Indonesia and (especially) various regions of India.
Finally, he presents us with a rather precise identification of the image and its sectarian context and a rather precise dating of its origin. The scholarship is simply stunning. Consider the famous Chaiya bronze in the National Museum. In Prince Damrong's classic, Monuments Of The Buddha In Siam, it is captioned "Bronze statue of a Bodhisattva, found at Jaiya. Srivijaya period". Piriya's caption runs "The bodhisattva Padmapani... the two-armed Avaokiteshvara who with Vajrapani and Vairocana form the Garbhdhatu Mandala. The image is believed to be the one for which the king of Srivijaiya built a brick temple in 775 AD".
This volume runs from the mid-5th century, the date of the earliest significant finds, to the end of the 13th century, the eve of the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms. Piriya divides this period around 900. The first part, "Preparing The Ground For Thai Art", focuses on the range of outside sources and influences for ideas and iconography, especially coming from eastern and southern India, but also from Sumatra, Champa, Cambodia and China. The second part, "The Forging Of Thai Art", traces the establishment of some dominant beliefs and the emergence of distinctive local iconography (especially the maravijaya mudra). Piriya repeatedly stresses how much of Thai style and artistic convention was established in this early era.
There is enough in this book to spark controversies for the next 30 years. Probably the main lightning rod will be Piriya's account of the early evolution of Buddhism in Siam where he disrupts the standard account of the irresistible rise of Lankan Theravada in multiple ways.
Piriya argues that from the mid-8th to the mid-13th century there were many groups of Tantra practitioners who have left a distinct mark on the iconography. He traces the philosophical basis of this trend back to Nalanda University in India and to a range of texts that appeared between the 2nd and 10th centuries. He argues that the sexual practices associated with Tantra did not travel to Southeast Asia (quite why they didn't is unclear), but mantra verbal formulae and yantra designs were deployed to attain special power. He suggests the usage has survived to the present in the practice of saiyasat. Piriya's analysis of the Tantric iconography of Phimai is one of the climaxes of the book.
Piriya also stresses the dominance of Mahayana-type beliefs and practices from the 6th to the 10th century and identifies many rather well-known images as the Amitabha Buddha.
In this account, Theravada surfaced early, but only as one of many Buddhist sects, and then seems to have died out completely before reappearing in the 9th century, first in the Northeast, and later in Lopburi and Lamphun. Piriya argues that this revived form seems to have had nothing to do with Lankan Theravada (and he hardly mentions Pagan at all). Rather, he suggests it evolved locally, especially in Lopburi, developing some distinctive iconography as well as a focus on the use of jataka tales. Piriya has many equally novel things to say about Hindu imagery, especially about the impact of the bhakti form of worship. He revises the dating of many well-known pieces and, in particular, suggests that many of the pieces found in the crypt of Wat Ratchaburana in Ayutthaya are rather early. Unfortunately, he pays little attention to spirit beliefs and other local forms that are visible in the iconography of many sites.
Besides religious imagery, Piriya covers early imported Chinese ceramics and some decorative work from weapons, battle standards and palanquins.
The book has over 400 beautiful colour plates, many photographed by Piriya, including some objects hidden away in private collections and others that have since been looted or defaced. Many of the objects in museums or sites have here been newly and finely photographed by Paisarn Piemmettawat of River Books.
Over the last 20 years, Piriya has published only a handful of articles in English, though many more in Thai. Here we are lucky that Narisa Chakrabongse has not only published this book in both languages, but has translated the very long text into English. The appendices include a very useful illustrated glossary of religious and artistic terms.
Piriya promises second volume which will bring the story of Thai art through from the 14th to the 20th century. Great. But first let's have some controversy.
About the author
- Writer: Chris Baker
Position: Freelance Writer