Wat Phra Kaew is the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. Wat Phra Kaew’s importance as a Buddhist temple in Thailand owes to its association with the kings of Thailand, but also because it houses the Emerald Buddha statue.
This temple is also home to a famous set of mural paintings that depict a Hindu narrative. The Ramakien, the Thai version of the Ramayana was written by King Rama I (1737-1809) and his court poets. The reigns of Rama the First and his son Rama the Second are a golden age in Thai literature and art – with the completion of the epic Kung Chang Kung Phaen – and it’s also the time when Sunthorn Pho – the great Thai ‘Chaucer’ – was writing. It is a period where the influence of Western art and literature was merging with the South East Asian tradition: a merger epitomised by Sunthorn’s writing. In the murals one can also sense this awareness of European landscape painting as well as the influence of Chinese art.
The Ramakien centres on Prince Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, who is banished from his father’s kingdom at the request of his stepmother. To avoid creating discord in the kingdom and in his father’s household, Rama leaves Ayodhya and lives in exile with his wife Sita and devoted brother Lakshmana. In focusing on Rama as an ideal king rather than a Hindu god, the placement of the Ramakien murals in the cloisters surrounding the temple seems appropriate. The kings of the Chakri Dynasty, who adopt the title of Rama for themselves, want to be seen as ideal kings. The placement of the murals outside of the main precinct of the temple rather than at its centre ensures that they do not detract from the Buddhist nature of Wat Phra Kaew.
I would guess the mural is one, maybe two kilometres long! Each section, separated by wooden rafters, was painted by a different court artist, whose name is inscribed below, as well as the date and the name of any artist who may have restored it. It is a work of mutual art; a project that is over two hundred years old, and, because of its restorations, an ongoing creative work. I worry about the gold restoration, which looks as if it has been done with ‘white’ gold rather than the ‘red’ gold of the original which merges better with the entirety of the picture. Sometimes the restoration seems heavy-handed or unfinished. But these are uninformed observations. Comments welcome. Inscribed on the pillar next to each section is the verse of the Ramakien that is being shown us on the panel. Each panel merges with the work of the next panel, painted by another artist, and so it seamlessly unscrolls – not always as seamlessly as it might – one senses times of artistic rivalry between one painter and his neighbour.
But to my mind, the work is a masterpiece, for all my caveats. As well as giants, demons, angels and armies, there are acutely observed moments of ordinary life: women chatting, wives weeping at the knowledge of husbands killed in action, gardeners with watering cans, a child poking his tongue out at a guard who must stand to attention. My friend came here every day from school and could never get to the end of discovering startling new little scenes – scenes that are utterly charming.
See also Don’t Poke the Bear!