Buddhist Sculptures in Thailand
From India to China, Asia is marked with the rich history and art of Buddhism. RCB Auctions identifies the iconography of Buddhist sculptures in Thailand. Explained with items offered at RCB Auctions.
History of Buddhism in Thailand
The history of Buddhism in Thailand traces back to a culmination of Buddhist beliefs and teachings adopted from India. Siddhartha Gautama later known as Buddha was born to the royal family of Kapilavastu, around the 6th century BC. He lived a life of luxury but soon questioned true happiness when he witnessed suffering and death. He decided to reject luxury to seek the meaning of life and to end human suffering. He spent the first six years enduring poverty and practicing extreme asceticism. After realizing asceticism was impractical, he proposed a path of moderation or ‘The middle way’. Religious texts indicate he practiced meditation under a bodhi tree until he achieved enlightenment and spent the rest of his years as a religious and philosophical teacher.
Buddha’s teachings may have been known to reach the Southeast Asian region as early as the first century AD, where the presence of Hinduism and was already prevalent. With multiple kingdoms emerging and falling in the region, each sovereign state contributed to the artistic and cultural representations of Buddha. As Buddhism interchanged with local beliefs and respective traditions, it became the most dominant religion in Thailand from the 12th century to this day. With an estimate of 95 % of the citizens practicing Theravada Buddhism (one of the schools of Buddhism).
History of Thai Buddhist Sculptures: Cultures and Styles
The earliest Buddhist sculptures can be traced back to the 1st century BC in Central Asia and India, the style took some influence from Greco-Roman art. Eventually, as Buddhism expanded, it assimilated to distinctive styles of presentation depending on location, cultures, and periods. In Thailand, an acumination of pre-Thai buddhas such as Mon-Dvaravati and Khmer types first appeared around the 7th and 9th centuries BC and 11th and 13th centuries BC respectively. Although their legacies remain in present-day Thailand, their prototypes were not produced in Sukhothai (1238-1438).
Early Sukhothai images of the buddha were more closely influenced by the Pala, Lanna, and Chiang Saen styles. Later Sukhothai would enjoy an artistically brilliant period, as a result, new emerging Buddhist iconography appeared in some combination with pre-existing styles. The Sukhothai buddha is depicted with arched eyebrows, downcast eyes, a slightly smiling mouth with a border outline, an oval face, and elongated ears. A majority are representations of the Buddha seated in subduing Mara posture (hands in Maravijaya gesture). But the most recognized iconography of the Sukhothai Buddha is the free-standing Buddha in walking posture, it is perhaps Sukhothai’s most brilliant artistic creation of sculptural art, inspired by early paintings and carved reliefs from India and Burma.
On the other hand, Buddhist imagery in Ayutthaya (1350- 1767) demonstrates influence from Khmer art and culture. Buddha images in the early transitional period between the end of the Khmer occupation and the founding of Ayutthaya are classified as Sankhaburi (U-Thong) style. The 14th-century U-Thong style is mostly influenced by Khmer art which led directly into Ayutthaya art. In the middle period after enduring influence from Sukhothai, its art became a dominant inspiration in Ayutthaya. Popular images produced in Ayutthaya are the standing buddha, with hands in pacifying the ocean gesture.
At the beginning of the Rattanakosin period, Buddhist sculptures were like the images in late Ayutthaya. But during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851), new influences came from Chinese Buddhist sculptures. As a devout Buddhist King Rama III commissioned many images, since commissioning a Buddha is also a means to accumulate merit. Mass production of buddha images continued to the late Rattanakosin period. The images commissioned were influenced and copied from a plethora of styles. But, while the facial features of a Buddha may reflect many other styles, the body is almost always heavily decorated with detailed robes and intricate patterns, such as flowers and geometric designs, a feature of Rattananoksin’s art.
Buddhist sculptures such as the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, and other related deities are fashioned from many different materials like stone, bronze, gold, stucco, and terracotta. Bronze and gilt bronze are the most sought-after medium among collectors today. Form is also a topic to look at when considering an image, such as posture and hand gestures (Mudra). For instance, some regions and periods have perfected a certain type of posture that is not made elsewhere. There are over 100 recorded postures, but the most characteristic is mediation, walking, and reclining posture. So, rarely produced postures may be more valuable in the market. In Thailand, postures are also auspicious to the day of the week one was born. Smaller sculptures are commonly purchased for ritual and worship in the home. Not only do religious collectors lookout for artistic design, and materials but also the measure of stratified sacredness of the buddha image (sakit). Ultimately the best thing to look out for is the craftsmanship and how well it is preserved.
Behrendt K. (2007) “The Mon-Dvaravati Tradition of Early North-Central Thailand” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Link
Dehejia V. (2007) “Buddhism and Buddhist Art” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Link
Khan Academy (2021) “Development of the Buddha image”. Khan Academy. Link
Krairiksh P. (1979) The Sacred Image: Sculptures from Thailand. Museen Der Stadt Koln
Mart J. (2020) “Buddhism”. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Link
RCB Auctions (2021) “Chronology of Key Empires and Kingdoms: The Greater Mekong Subregion”. RCB Auctions. Link
Sukhasvasti S. (2003) จิตต์. Rian Boon Press
Related Sculptures Offered at RCB Auctions
A Bronze seated Buddha on a double Lotus base
Style: Burmese, Shan. 18th century.
A wooden seated Buddha in subduing Mara posture
Style: Thai, Rattanakosin. 19th century.
A gold standing Buddha in pacifying the ocean decorated with silver at base
Style: Thai, Rattanakosin. Early 19th century.
A Bronze Seated figure of a Bodhisattva on a lotus base
Style: Chinese, Qing. 18th century.