Siamese Altar Table Decorations: how Worshipping Ancestors Became a Competition

Altar Table Decorations

Siamese altar table. Blue and white dragon pattern. Exhibited in ‘111th Anniversary of the Great Remembrance’ at Thawornwatthu Building on 21 – 24 October, 2021. Collection and display of Thanaphan Khajornphan.

During the reign of King Rama I (1782-1809), and Rama King II (1809-1824), Chinese ceramics arriving at the Siamese court represented wealth and luxury. Inside the royal palace, Chinese art aesthetics influenced interiors, and their tables were decorated with luxurious Chinese-made porcelain. This was particularly true for the altar tables, which the Thai court emulated from Chinese-style altars. Ancestor veneration practices are fundamental to Chinese culture, it refers to numerous rituals of honoring and praying to deceased family members.   In China, there are several types of ancestor veneration rituals, one of the regularly performed rituals is centered around the household altar. Incense and food offerings are placed in worshipping vessels in front of the altar and ancestor tablets. Perpetrations of worship can be costly, and more affluent households may favor using porcelain vessels.

Although worshipping ancestors by placing worshipping vessels and food offerings in front of altars is a sacred tradition in many Siamese homes, the Siamese have relatively different worshiping customs and their own Thai-style altar table. Therefore, the Siamese purely imitated Chinese-style altar tables for decorative functions. Over a period, the Kings of the Chakri Dynasty continued decorating Chinese styles altars to display their Chinese porcelain collections.

By the reign of King Rama IV (1851-1868) and Rama V (1868-1910), Chinese porcelain was more accessible to the masses. Both kings’ patronage for Chinese porcelain is well recorded, as a result, the desire for Chinese porcelain grew in royal circles, and collecting porcelain became a fad. So much so, decorating competitions arose as a way for the elite to showcase their prized collections. Competitions were held on special occasions such as funerals and birthday celebrations. And the competitors were required to arrange Chinese porcelain centerpieces on an altar table before a panel of judges. This tradition started near the end of King Rama IV’s reign and continued onto its golden years during the reign of Rama V.

 

The Rules and Scoring System

As outlined from royal records, the scoring system for Siamese altar table decorations is very complicated, but here’s a simplified overview. The judges were well versed in the scoring system and were chosen by King Rama V because they were famous for having the best porcelain collections.

At least eight forms of porcelain must be displayed on the competing altar table. If they were not present, the table would not be scored.

  1. Porcelain screen
  2. Flower vase
  3. Tall cylindrical vase
  4. Joss stick holder
  5. Incense burner container
  6. Offering fruit bowl
  7. Small flower vase
  8. A pair of candlestick holders
Altar Table Decorations

This altar displays the eight forms of vessels required for contest. Blue and White Buddhist Lions pattern. Exhibited in ‘111th Anniversary of the Great Remembrance’ at Thawornwatthu Museum on 21 – 24 October, 2021. Collection and display of Samat Wesuwan.

Other forms of porcelain or duplications of the same kind can be added and would be scored accordingly. For instance, a competitor may add teapots, tea sets, stem dishes, and figurines, among others.

Each vessel is scored individually, to its condition, age, rarity, and beauty. Aside from the essential scoring, there are many ways to gain additional points. For instance, if a certain lord presents one porcelain screen on his table, but he possesses many identical porcelain screens of the same patterns in his private collection, the score of his porcelain screen on the altar table would gain more points. Furthermore, if a vessel on a completing table was awarded a prize in past competitions, the overall score of the vessel would also increase. A wax seal near the bottom of the vessel with King Rama V’s initials ‘Jor Por Ror’ would indicate to the judges that it was a prize-winning porcelain.

All vessels must be in the same color palette and pattern, this was not an easy feat and costly for many lords. However, clashing decorative patterns were also allowed, with the rule that a single pattern can only be repeated twice. Additionally, the quality of the glaze and its uniformity to each vessel would have warranted a higher score.

As for the presentation of the table, each ceramic piece should be arranged at an equal distance from each other, so the table looks as symmetrical as possible. Supplementary items like fruits, candles, flowers, and incenses should be placed in the proper vessels.

There are multiple winning categories, such as the table with the most accumulated points and awards for best compositions.

Further Reading

Bhujjong C. (2015) Blue-and-White Chinaware and Siamese Ceramics. Bangkok. Amarin Printing and Publishing Public

111th Anniversary of the Great Remembrance (2021) Thawornwatthu Building. Bangkok, Thailand. 21 – 24 October. Link

Hu A. (2016) ‘Ancestor worship in Contemporary China: An Empirical Investigation’. The China Review.  Vol. 16, No. 1 pp 169-186.