Unravelling mythical creatures

Unravelling mythical creatures

Learn about dragons, nagas, makorns and heras with this one-of-a-kind itinerary

Unravelling mythical creatures
Artefacts at the National Museum Bangkok.

To celebrate the Year of the Dragon, the National Museum Bangkok created number of night tours at the end of December. Those who were unable to attend previously can utilise a similar itinerary to create their own mission. There are three routes, which focus on fine arts and mythical creatures like a naga, dragon, makorn and hera.

Winding around the Front Palace's historic grounds, visitors can open a map and put themselves in Prof Robert Langdon's quest to decipher the iconic symbols of the dragon zodiac, which represent Buddhist beliefs and Thai culture.

"While Thai people may think of nagas, Chinese people associate the Year of the Big Snake with dragons. Therefore, we invited people to discuss the difference between a naga and a dragon. We also highlight mystical animals and the religious significance of the dragon and naga at the same time," said Suphawan Nongnuch, a curator with the Fine Arts Department.

"It's where the East and West converge. Buddhist influence reached Siam through maritime commerce with China, India, Persia, Europe and Japan that continued for centuries. In Thai tradition, the Year of the Big Snake originally had a connection with a makorn, an elephant-crocodile hybrid that eventually gave rise to nagas. This combines local, Chinese and Indian ideas while reflecting on the arts."

According to folklore, nagas once looked like snakes, but they lived a long time before sprouting red crests on their heads. A naga who lived on Lanka island (present-day Sri Lanka) transformed into Lord Buddha in order to serve as a model for the statue of Phra Phuttha Sihing. This led to the creation of a Buddha statue shielded by a naga in honour of their devotion to Buddhism.

"Indian beliefs also had an impact on the mythical makorn, which lives in water. They were used as architectural components in various historical sites dating back to the Dvaravati period. One example is a makorn-like staircase in front of Prasat Si Thep that descends to a sacred pond. After that, Chinese merchants gave Thai artisans a superstition about dragons. Nagas have no legs, while dragons have legs and three to five nails, which may signify their social status in Chinese culture. This is how a dragon, naga and makorn vary from one another," Suphawan added.

Visitors can start a sightseeing tour at Issara Winitchai Throne Hall and view an intricate mural over the towering centre door. It is believed to have been created during the reign of King Rama III using gold leaf and traditional techniques to recount a Chinese fable in which numerous carp swim upstream against the tide to make their final leap over a waterfall and transform into a mighty dragon.

A stone statue of Xianglong Luohan stepping on a dragon.

In addition to a school of carp, it depicts the Eight Immortal Weapons and eight auspicious symbols from Mahayana Buddhism, such as Li Tieguai's gourd which can cure illness and bring happiness to humanity, and Han Zhongli's fan made of horsehair which is waved to bring the dead back to life, as well as the banner of victory and eternal knot.

"The blend of Thai and Chinese architectural styles was valued by King Rama III. While viewing this beautiful mural, visitors can receive blessings. It also honours Viceroy Maha Sakdi Polsep, who, despite being a commoner, put in a lot of effort and took on responsibility until King Rama III designated him a deputy monarch. This painting will inspire people to keep striving to achieve their goals," Suphawan said.

Walking further, visitors can visit the ceramics gallery in Phrommetthada Hall, and see a clock and incense holder shaped like a dragon boat. It was made in the 20th century and was part of Prince of Nakhon Sawan's private collection.

This incense clock set was incomplete since it lacked a metal plate, a pendulum, a scale and a time track. It is assumed the dragon boat-shaped clock originated in India, where incense was used for Mahayana Buddhist rites. Around 700-800 years ago, China embraced this idea and later spread it to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

"Based on the technique of marquetry, we have assumed that this art piece came from Vietnam. In order to explain how this clock functions, we are drawing a picture. Long incense sticks are set along the tracks, while a scale and pendulums will be strung from each point of the scale. As the incense burns to each point, a pendulum that shows the time in minutes or hours will fall into the tray, depending on the length of the scale," Suphawan said.

A monk pulpit with a staircase that resembles a naga.

The next stop is the Mukdet Room's wooden works gallery, where a circular monk seat displays top-notch Ayutthaya-era craftsmanship. This pulpit was given to the National Museum of Bangkok by King Prajadhipok after he obtained it from Wat Kangkao in Nonthaburi.

On top is a three-layer castle roof, while on the bottom are elaborate wood carvings of nagas and gatekeepers. Nagas, which can transform into humans, decorate a stairway and snakes take on the form of lengthy handrails behind them.

"Because nagas are considered beasts in Buddhist doctrine, they cannot be ordained. Legend has it that a naga once transformed into a man and became a monk. One night, it was found that he was not human as he was sleeping and his body transformed into a naga. A naga cannot change into human during birth, death, sleep and mating," Suphawan explained.

"This is the reason why males must undergo ordination as nak before they can attend an ordination ceremony. The preceptor will then inquire, 'manussosi', which translates to 'Is it human or not?'. "

Outside, visitors can see the stone sculpture of Xianglong Luohan, also known as the Taming Dragon Arhat, one of 18 Chinese arhats. It steps on a dragon and holds a holy bell to serve as a guardian for the Spirit House of the Front Palace. Perched on a small peak, the hallowed Chinese-style shrine was built by Viceroy Maha Surasinghanat in 1782 and visitors can offer prayers for protection and good fortune.

"Only 16 arhats are listed in Mahayana Buddhism, which originated in India. However, two additional Chinese historical personalities were added to the list of 18 arhats after Buddhism was introduced to China in the late Tang Dynasty. Those are Fuhu Luohan and Xianglong Luohan, who defeated the tiger and the dragon," Suphawan said.

The golden lacquer doors of Issara Winitchai Throne Hall.

A short distance, Praphat Phiphitthaphan Building displays a gilded lacquer wood platform of King Taksin to transport visitors back in time when the monarch was travelling to the eastern town of Rayong. Made in the early 19th century, its legs were crafted to resemble suanni stepping on a globe or crystal ball. Suanni is one of nine dragon sons, which is a hybrid of a lion and dragon.

"Suanni enjoys sitting and is sedentary by nature. For this reason, incense jars and benches supporting valuable objects in temples are frequently adorned with the suanni design," she said.

Also on view is the ancient folding chair that King Rama I used in military camp and the royal procession. Its leather seat was supported by gilded lacquer wood frames, which were shaped to resemble suanni and adorned with plants.

Ascending upstairs, visitors will discover a Sukhothai-style bronze statue of Shiva that was made in the 14th century. Shiva stands on a square lotus-like base and wears a naga-like breast chain that he acquired during the 1,000-year process of angels and demons churning the Milky Ocean.

"Shiva came up with the idea of churning the Milky Ocean to create eternal nectar in response to the deaths of several angels and demons in battle. In order to tie Mount Mandara, the naga king Vasuki sacrificed himself as a churning rope," Suphawan said.

The tour ends at Maha Surasinghanat Building, home to an ancient Baphuon-style lintel which was found in Prasat Ku Suan Taeng in Buri Ram. It depicts Vishnu seated on makorn in the Milky Ocean, with a lotus bloom sprouting from his navel, symbolising the creation of the universe in Hinduism.

"The Cambodian style is distinct from Southeast Asian art. In Thailand, ancient lintels portray Narai sitting on a makorn and nagas swimming in the Milky Ocean. However, Narai stands atop a naga in Cambodia, reflecting the lost native customs," Suphawan explained.

The National Museum Bangkok is on Na Phra That Road. It's open from Wednesday to Sunday, 8.30am to 4pm. Call 02-224-1402 or visit finearts.go.th/museumbangkok.

The dragon-boat incense holder.

An ancient Baphuon-style lintel illustrates Vishnu sitting on a makorn.

A Sukhothai-style Shiva statue is adorned with a naga-like breast chain.

King Rama I's folding chair.

King Taksin's wooden platform.

The golden lacquer doors of Issara Winitchai Throne Hall.

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