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Beautiful Patterns, Common Threads

THAILAND--Part Three

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Bangkok--City of Temples

Back in Bangkok, I decided to avoid traffic by walking around the city. (It meant changing my shirt twice a day because of the heat, but I figured it was worth it.) One of Thailand's great art forms is its public architecture, whether in temples, palaces or government buildings. Beautiful buildings are everywhere in the country. One of the characteristic features of the temples are these jaofaos, or "sky lords", which are designed to protect the temple from any evil spirits that might fall out of the sky. [Note: I saw these later in my trip in Laos]

It's hard to believe that I haven't yet mentioned that Thailand is a Buddhist country, since it's so central to life here. Buddhist temples are everywhere, and are a center of community activity. Many have schools that teach hundreds of monks, some very young, and even non-ordained schoolchildren (many elementary schools are located on temple compounds) . Much Thai art, such as sculpture, is connected to the world of religion, as you can see in these beautiful bronze sculptures of the Buddha at Wat Suthat (a wat is a kind of monastery).

This larger Buddha sculpture at Wat Suthat again shows the beauty of Thai religious sculpture. The position of the Buddha's hands in this sculpture show that he is in the position of meditating under the famous bodhi tree, as Mara (a sort of Buddhist Satan) tried to distract him by offering him different temptations. Other sculptures show the Buddhas hands in different positions, representing other stages of his life story. Also, this Buddha is in a sitting position; other Buddha images may be walking, standing, or reclining.

Walking further, I came across Sao Ching-Cha, the "Giant Swing". Until about seventy years ago, a huge Brahman festival (again, of Indian origins) was held here honoring the god Shiva. During the festival, competitors would tie themselves by a rope from the top of this structure and swing in higher and higher arcs in order to reach a bag of gold that was hanging from a 50-foot-tall bamboo pole. Many died trying!

At the end of the road, I came across a famous alley (called "Monk's Bowl Village") where six families of smiths forge bowls that monks use on their daily rounds gathering donations of food. Religion, as I said, is a regular part of daily life, and it is a common site to see monks in the early morning walking from house to house for these donations. (It's considered a very good deed to make a donation of food to the monks, even if it's only a small bit.) Here, the smith is hammering together a bowl from eight separate pieces of steel (which represent the Buddha's eightfold path to enlightenment)...

...after which his fellow worker fuses together the segments in a wood fire using small dabs of copper. Later, the bowl is polished and then coated with several layers of black lacquer to achieve its final look. The work is intensive: a bowl-maker will make only one bowl a day, on average!

While Thailand is predominantly Buddhist, practicing a form called Theravada, it does not force its beliefs on people. Chinese culture has had a large influence on Thai culture, and many Chinese people live around the country (indeed, Chinese people form the largest minority group in the country). Most (but not all) have assimilated into mainstream Thai culture, so that young Chinese Thais in particular use Thai names, dress like their Thai friends, and usually don't speak any Chinese. In Bangkok, there is a thriving Chinatown. This Chinese temple is in Chinatown. The type of Buddhism practiced by most Chinese people is called Mahayana, and is quite different from the Thai form -- but, again, it is found wherever Chinese people live. (I wanted to speak to some Chinese Thai people about their lives in Bangkok, but I unfortunately couldn't find anyone around who spoke English.)

Near Chinatown is another area called Pahurat, which is primarily Indian. This fabric merchant reminded me of the couple I told you about from Denpasar, Bali. Many merchants from India (many of whom sell textiles, one of India's great exports) have traveled throughout Southeast Asia and settled in different places, bringing with them their own unique beliefs and practices. It's not hard to find Indian food anywhere in Bangkok!

Another major religion from India also shows its face in Bangkok here. This is a Sikh temple in Pahurat. Sikhism is centered in the city of Amritsar in the Punjab, in northern India and Pakistan, and all Sikhs trace their ancestry to that area. While there are not very may Sikh people in Bangkok, they form a very tight community, as they do in the many other places they've migrated to and settled in around the world.

But, Tai people do form the majority in the country, and their culture dominates what you see. ("Tai" is the spelling for the ethnic group that is the majority in the country; many Tai live in other countries, too, from Myanmar to Laos to Vietnam. "Thai" is the spelling for the country and commonly refers to all the people, majority or minority, who comprise it, ALTHOUGH several minority groups with strong senses of self-identity say that it refers only to the Tai people who live in Thailand.) Wandering along the river, you come to the major temple complexes that celebrate Tai Buddhism. (Buddhism is the official national religion of Thailand.) Here is another beautiful Buddha, from Wat Traimit.

This detail from Wat Arun shows the level of detail put into the art works at Thai temples. Many materials are used to create this art; at Wat Arun, much of the color comes from broken pieces from porcelain dishes that were being imported from China.

The biggest and maybe the most "important" temple complex in Bangkok is Wat Phra Kaew. This wat is quite special because it is the royal wat; while most are quite beautiful, they are not as spectacular as this. That also means, however, that Wat Phra Kaew is not as much a part of the community as are other wats. But it's certainly worth visiting for its wonderfully colorful works of art, all part of its religious function.

Thai temples belong to the whole community, not to the monks who live in it nor to the Buddhist "church". In part, this is because members of the community are usually involved in building it and paying for its construction. Besides their religious role (as places to house and educate monks and for "ordinary people" to meditate, to seek advice and, upon death, to be cremated), temples also serve many other functions. They are community centers, where special events can be held; they are schools; they are cultural centers, where you can come to enjoy art and even train in art techniques; their yards become sports fields, their grounds become places for village fairs, for concerts or even for movie shows. They're homeless shelters and soup kitchens as well. So when you see a Thai temple, you might think only of religion -- but know that it's much more!


When you enter Wat Phra Kaew from any entrance, you will immediately encounter an altar like this one where you can make offerings, pray and meditate.

The chedis at Wat Phra Kaew come in a variety of shapes, each influenced by a different tradition from the peoples who have lived in and around Thailand throughout the past. (A chedi is a structure like these that contain special objects or the remains of important monks or other leaders.) Some are inspired by Burmese architecture; others by Sri Lankan; and yet others by the Mon people, who leave in a swath of land stretching from Myanmar through Central Thailand and into Cambodia. The style of the gold bell-shaped chedi in this photo originally came from the shape of ancient Indian burial mounds.

More great art: the murals around the walls portray the story of the Ramakian. In fact, if you walk around the entire inner perimeter, you can see the complete story in painted form! These mural paintings are extremely complicated to make, and take a great deal of time to create. The older ones are colored entirely from natural materials such as clays and plants. Brushes are also made from natural materials such as tree bark and roots and, for the best ones, the inner-ear hair of a cow. One of the best things to me about these murals is that they don't show one particular point in time, as do Western paintings; different parts of the same piece can happen at different times, so you can see the same character fighting, sleeping, crossing a river and riding an elephant, all in the same painting!

Just another beautiful area...

...and more...

...and more...

...and more! This motif is very common not only in Thai temples but also in traditional painting and sculpture. If you look closely and use your imagination, you might be able to see that it portrays an image of the opening bud of a lotus flower merged with a dying flame. This represents how Buddhist teachings (the lotus bud) cool off the "fire of passion" (the flame), leading you along the even road that takes you to enlightenment (if you follow the eightfold path!)

Another common sight in temples is the kinnari, a human/bird princess that is half-ostrich and half-human. She represents love and compassion.

I was exhausted on leaving the temple, and decided to take a tuk-tuk (a three-wheeled motorcycle taxi) home. Some tuk-tuk drivers are crazy; it's an essential Bangkok experience to take one. I once met a "lumber baron" on a plane to Indonesia who told me you can judge how much a country is developed by the relative numbers of bicycles, motorcycles and cars on city streets. (He also told me the number of golf courses is a great indicator.) Less developed countries have mostly bicycles; at an intermediate stage, you see lots of motorcycles, and fewer cars and bicycles; by the advanced stage, you see almost all cars with only a few bicycles and motorcycles. By that rating, Bangkok's somewhere in the middle -- and DEFINITELY heading towards the "developed" end.


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