Dvaravati, sources of Buddhism in Thailand

Thursday April 9 2009

Proceedings of the Guimet Dvâravatî museum exhibition at the Buddhist sources in Thailand, commented by Anne-Colombe Launois-Chauhan, lecturer at the Guimet and Cernuschi museums.

We first stopped in front of the three large photographs in the introduction to the exhibition that contextualize the sculptures. The big Buddha of Wat Na Phra Men, VII-VIII ° century, (Ayuthaya), archetype of the Buddha of the time of Dvāravatî. He is seated on a throne, his legs hanging in the position wrongly called "European", his feet not touching the ground. This statue transported in the fourteenth century Nakhon Pathom is still subject to great devotion as highlighted by the many offerings. A lacquered and gilded stoneware stele that was embedded in the base of the great Buddha of Wat Suthat of Bangkok. This typical work of the art of Dvāravatî illustrates two episodes of the life of the Buddha: at the top he sits on a throne surrounded by royal symbols (fly-catcher, banner, fan) and making the gesture of teaching (vitarka mudrâ ), in the lower register is represented the miracle of Sarasvati. Finally, the great seated Buddha, in quartzite, ninth century, from Nakhon Pathom, now at the Bangkok Museum, also seated dangling legs, but reconstituted from elements of four different statues.

Sitting Buddha. IX ° s. Nakhon Pathom. National Museum Bangkok. (Cl M. Colas)

Dvaravati's culture seems to have come from urban kingdoms developed in the central plains of Thailand inhabited by a population of mounts from the 6th to the 13th century, and even up to the 13th century in the north of the country. It must have been a mosaic of small kingdoms rather than a single entity. The important cities of which we have many vestiges would be Nakhon Pathom, U Thong, Khu Bua and Si Thep. These cities were built near the rivers or the sea which served as waterways and sea routes. Very few inscriptions have survived and a small silver coin has the particularity of bearing a text written in Sanskrit mentioning "meritorious work of the lord of Dvāravatî". This object is the smallest of the exhibition but also the most valuable because it is in Thailand the only explicit mention of the name of this kingdom.

The art of Dvāravatî is influenced by the Indian art Gupta (small sandstone sculpture standing Buddha, V ° -VIII century, in the style of Sârnâth), Amaravati and Pâla (bronze standing Buddha doing the double gesture Education). Dvāravatî's wealth was due to international trade, as evidenced by a clay seal mark showing an ocean-going ship, an oil lamp of a Byzantine style, or that brick engraved with the profile of a stranger (may -being a Sogdian from Iran).

Only the foundations of the monuments built at that time remain, because the superstructures have disappeared. Laterite, brick and wood seem to have been the preferred materials for the constructions, but the intensive use of stucco for decoration is one of the characteristics of Dvaravati. A reduction of terracotta architecture gives an idea of ​​the appearance that these missing buildings could have. A sandstone stele of the seventh century shows the Buddha in meditation, during the meditation of his Enlightenment, sitting on the rings of the naga (snake) Mucilinda which protects him from his hood with multiple heads. It is framed by two ganas (atlantes dwarfs) each carrying a stupa that illustrates a form of religious architecture common in Thailand, the chedi, characterized by the stack of parasols of decreasing sizes that form a cone.

If Buddhism seems predominant, Hinduism was also practiced in the Dvaravati, as evidenced by three objects of the seventh and eighth centuries: a ritual tablet in limestone showing the goddess of Fortuna Lakçmi waved by elephants, a statue of Viçnu, of which whether it is pre-Angkorian or Dvâravati style, and finally a stele depicting Siva supported by the bull Nandin in front of Mount Kailaça. The adornments, the costume and the belt of Siva, tied high on the torso are part of the characteristic repertoire of the art of Dvaravati.

The wheel of the law (dharmaçakra), symbolic image of the Buddhist law, seems to have been widely disseminated in the kingdoms of Dvâravati. Like the pillars of Ashoka from the third century BC in India, it was placed on an abacus at the top of a high pillar. At the four angles of the abacus could be recessed small sculptures of lying gazelles to evoke the first sermon of the Buddha in the gazelle park at Sarnath. These wheels, whose spokes evoke balusters with ionic capitals, are adorned with a rich vegetal decoration. There are two types of wheels: those that are "openwork" and whose spokes are treated in three dimensions and "full" wheels where both sides are carved in bas-relief. Some wheels have a triangle-shaped vice, sometimes going up to the hub like a bicycle fork, which gives the impression that they can rotate around their axis, adding a radiant solar dimension.

Wheel of the Law. Limestone. VII. Nakhon Pathom. National Museum Bangkok. (Cl M. Colas)

Almost all the wheels have a hub with an unpolished mortise and in the upper part of the hub a perforation. This peculiarity would explain the association with the Dharmaçakra of a Buddha standing on a fantastic animal, Phasnabodi (winged body, sometimes human and raptor's head, sometimes horned or man-made), holding two lotuses on which two characters holding a fly hunt or parasol. This hypothesis could not be verified yet because one never found a Buddha on Phasnabodi associated with a wheel but the perforation of these sculptures returns to that of the wheels. This representation is in any case specific to the art of Dvāravatî and emphasizes the diffusion of the law by the Buddha himself.

Another feature of this art is illustrated by a lotus petal stele depicting the meeting of Buddha Sakyamuni and Brahman Sotthiya. He appears, dressed in a loincloth and wearing the bun of ascetics, holding a sickle. After obtaining Brahmin's Kusa grass, the future Buddha went under the pippal tree that appears in the background where he attained Enlightenment. These stelae, named sema in Thailand, are ritual pillars perhaps inherited from a fungal megalithic tradition. They can be isolated or grouped, aniconic or carved, but always seem to delimit a sacred area. Another sema, partial, illustrates the Kulâvaka Jâtaka with, in the center, Indra, richly dressed and holding vajra, seated between his mount the elephant Aîravata and three women that deserves to be reborn in the entourage of the god, while a fourth, though of a higher condition, but less virtuous, was reincarnated in the form of a bird.

As in India, votive plaques molded in terra-cotta have had great success at Dvāravatî: they often represent Buddha representations with a wealth of detail. Did they serve as a foundation deposit, as a meritorious practice during a pilgrimage or perhaps only as amulets?

The decor of the monuments of this period was generally made of stucco or terracotta for some sites.

At Nakhon Pathom, many elements of stucco sculptures were discovered at the base of Chedi Chula Pathon. In addition to elements of architectural decoration (lion's heads or yakça) there are many bas-relief plates that illustrate the Jâtaka (past lives of the Buddha). Generally figures are molded and finished by artists with the help of a gouge to give them a greater personality: the face is made of a finer stucco than the one used for the body.

An elephant carrying his broken defense to offer it to a hunter illustrates the Chaddanta Jataka, two characters praying in front of an elephant illustrating Hastin jataka where the animal (future Buddha) gives his flesh to eat to the two hungry. A Surûpa Jataka scene shows King Surûpa offering his child, his wife and himself to a yakça. The resignation of the Queen is remarkably expressed by the inclination of her head, her hands crossed and her pose full of restraint. AU Thong we find both stucco and terracotta elements. The style is more expressive as these two terracotta dancers take the iconic pose of the dancers of Southeast Asia with a retroflexion of the elbow found in Champa (ancient Vietnam). A seated Buddha in meditation still has traces of polychromy.

De Khu Bua come from many elements of terracotta decoration (arcatures, balusters, balusters, decorative plates with vegetal decoration), but also fragments of large sculptures of male characters richly trimmed (bodhisattvas?) That take the Indian models that can see in the 5th-6th century in Adjanta.

Princely characters. Terracotta. VII-VIII. Khu Bua. National Museum Bangkok. (Cl M. Colas)

Some elements are also in stucco such as this female court orchestra where the instruments are perfectly individualized: zither tube of Indian influence, cymbals, lute of Chinese influence. The musicians are wearing conical chignons, the ears lengthened by heavy earrings typical of Dvâravati. Another relief shows two female figures kneeling. The first is richly adorned with bracelets, armbands with fleurons in addition to the necklace with chest plate and rings of ears evoking a princess accompanied by his following.

The representation of the Buddha as a double gesture of teaching or argumentation (vitarka mudrâ) is a singularity of the art of Dvāravatî and is illustrated by numerous bronze statuettes.

Buddha in double vitarka mudrâ. Bronze. VIIIth century. National Museum Bangkok. (Cl M. Colas)

The great standing Buddha, VII-VIII ° century, of Wat Na Phra Men of Ayuthaya in limestone is an exceptional work. The Blessed is dressed in the monastic robe covering both shoulders and letting the body appear in transparency. Even if the influence of Gupta art is evident (Sârnâth school), the face here presents all the characteristics of Dvāravatî's art: rounded contour, high cheekbones, fleshy lips, eyebrows drawing a continuous and undulating line in V as well as the half-closed eyelids with elegant curves.

Buddha standing. Limestone.VII ° -VIII ° s. Ayuthaya. National Museum Bangkok. (Cl M. Colas)

The monumental lacquered and gilded limestone head from the province of Ratburi has the same features although the eyes look a little more globular.

Monumental head of Buddha, golden lacquered limestone. VIIIth century. Ratburi Province.
National Ratburi Museum. (Cl M. Colas)

A Buddha seated in meditation and taking the earth to witness presents the symbol of the wheel engraved on the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet.

A standing Buddha in stone making the double gesture of teaching still presents traces of polychromy. An unfinished image of the Standing Buddha of Singburi Province shows how the pieces were only sided in the quarry before completion on the site for which they were intended.

A very beautiful end of bedside in limestone originally decorated the file of a throne. He recalls the first photograph of the exhibition. Richly decorated with foliage, pearls and geometric patterns, it ends with a head of makara (protective aquatic monster, symbol of the creative forces of water) spitting a lion.

A sandstone votive stupa base is adorned with gana (dancing dwarfs).

Hariphunchai (present-day city of Lamphun) is a northern kingdom, founded in 661 according to the legendary tradition, which culminated in the 12th-13th centuries. Some monuments at Lamphun still have superstructures adorned with stuccos of this period.

Ratana Chedi. Wat Kukut. XII ° s. Lamphun. (Cl M. Colas)

If the sculpture is an extension of that of Dvâravati it impregnates new influences, especially Khmer (this is reflected in the faces more squares) but also Burmese (fine bead but very salient waist in fact belt) while creating his own style (bifurcated chin, globular eyes, wide mouth with hemmed lips, curls of hair that stand in cones).

If the Buddha's head on a stone sandstone stele of Lamphun's Wat Phra That Hariphunchai is a fine example of the style of the first Môn art (VIII ° -IX ° century), the tall standing Buddha in bronze (XII ° century), coming from from the same temple, is typical of the heyday of Hariphunchai's art. This fragmentary sculpture is of remarkable technique and perhaps heralds the monumental bronzes of the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayuthaya.

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