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BUDDHA from Laos and Cambodia

Lao Buddha
Somkiart Lopetcharat
The Image And Its History
Siam International Book Company Limited
Bangkok, Thailand 2001

Post Angkorian Buddha
Khun Samen
Phnom Penh, Cambodia 2000

Laotian Buddha
Folk Buddha
Buddha amulet, midget Buddha
Khmer art: pre-Angkorian period, Angkorian period, post-Angkorian period.

Laotian Buddha


The post-Bayon khmer style influenced early Lao Buddha images as in the Pra Bang, which was the prototype. latter this model became the principal Lao style, especially with respect to the form of the head and hair shape and lasted until the late era, being influenced by the Lanna and Sukhothai styles especially in Buddha seated with folded legs in the Maravijaya posture, the art of Luang Prabang's craftsmen. Later when Laos further developed its relationships with Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin, the two styles appear in combination with Vientiane craftsmanship. The Ayutthaya and Rattanakosin styles were closely interrelated and were in the same cultural line as Lao art, as were Lanna and Sukhothai. The adjoining styles from the neighboring states of Cham and Vietnam had almost no influence on Lao art because they were distant from the Lao style and derived from a different cultural basis. The art of the Lao Buddha image is conservative and traditional, adopting only influences that blended rather than clashed with it. Thus, present-day Lao Buddha images differ little from those created in the past. A distinctly Lao identity still prevails, and it can be classified into two main periods: the Early and the Late Eras of the art of the Lao Buddha image.

Folk Buddha from Laos (same analyze for Folk Khmer or Thai Buddha)


THE FOLK ART OF THE LAO BUDDHA IMAGE: A great number of wood Buddha images have been found in central and southern Laos and northeast Thailand, the latter area once being part of the Kingdom of LAN Xang (Laos). Southern Laos bordered Champa and Cambodia, but they were far distant from the capitals of the two Lao states. The wooden images found in these areas that are thus different in style from those of the Luang Prabang and Vientiane Schools. The reason why such a large number of wooden images was found demands further analysis and study. In writing about folk art and primitive art, I wish to make a distinction between what might truly be characterized as being in the latter category. Over 90% of wooden Buddha images are not very old, the oldest found having been made not later than the 18th century. Lan Xang craftsmen started to cast Buddha icons about six hundred years ago, and therefore, the word "folk art" will be used instead of "primitive art" for images less than six hundred years old.

Primitive art means primary man-made object created in ancient times by craftsmen. This art later developed into a fine art, becoming beautiful, refined, and attractive to the majority of the population. In the beginning, both the style and technique of primitive art objects look coarse and stiff. These underwent continuous development over a long period until they became refined.

The folk art of Lao Buddha images is young compared to the exemplars of primitive art. Although they resemble one another, these objects differ greatly in age. The differences between these two styles are discussed below.

"Primitive" images developed and matured stylistically and technically until a unique identity emerged and underwent refinement. "Folk" images, by contrast, are unique or particular in style, the techniques rarely developing or evolving. This school of art, to call it such, survived for only a brief period.

Primitive Buddha images were cast to meet the social and environmental demands of each epoch, responding particularly to the requirements of the powerful and elite class that ruled the country. Their creation become an occupation for skilled craftsmen and later developed commercial potential.

"Folk" Buddha images were created to meet specific requirements for a short time period and possess naturalistic looks. This school of art stemmed from a faith that was a social tradition that became a culture inherited by later generations. The makers of these images were not professionals and did not develop and improve an art as did the craftsmen who produced primitive art. The images were made from available materials such as wood, sandstone, or clay. They were very seldom-worked in metal. The techniques were already familiar ones to village folk and drew on their ability to combine various materials. Parts of the image that were difficult to make were molded from lacquer, for example, the curls and ornaments of adorned images. Some Buddha was decorated with colored stones, glass, and mother-of-pearl. The motives for creating folk Buddha images lay in the traditions that provincial people believed in. If a wish was made or was granted, the person who made it would have had to make an offering of a Buddha image to show gratitude. Some people would offer Buddha images as an auspicious gesture for them of to gain merit for the dead. Some would offer images to put an end to a jinx; if they wished to obtain the expected result, they were supposed to make the image with their own hands.

Folk Buddha images were thus made by individuals who were neither craftsmen nor artisans, and each image thus displays its maker's craftsmanship, skill, and mood. They differ widely due to the varied techniques involved in their marking. Folk Buddha images are usually not very old, are made of rather simple materials and by simple methods. They were not intended to last long.

Natural factors combined to give these images a short life: they were invariably placed under Boh or other large trees, near abandoned temples, or inside humid caves. They were all placed facing north or east, but the most essential point in their placement was that there be a canal, river, or pond in front of the location. Such factors caused decay and erosion.

The images have a special charm owing to the very basic techniques used to make them. Their rough and unpretentious look impresses viewers differently, creating a mood contrary to the way people feel when they look at exquisite and refined icons cast by skilled craftsmen working within and identifying national and traditional styles. It is a commonplace beauty created to serve the needs of the social majority not those of an elite. Above all, folk art is a pure and specific art with innocence rarely found in refined and sophisticated Buddha images. They were created from the heart of the people who produced them and radiated with this purpose.

The present book argues for the intrinsic beauty of Lao Buddha art, emphasizing its originality and unique identity. The folk art of Lao Buddha is a separate field that should not be confused with the general art of the Lao Buddha image. The art of any nation and cultural group begins in primitive and archaic styles. The word "Lao" as interpreted by Buddha images collectors means "not beautiful" or "of lesser quality." As interpreted by people from countries bordering Laos and now spread throughout the world, the word suggests Buddha images created by craftsmen of lesser skill such as in the Chiang Saen Lao Buddha, the Khmer Lao Buddha, the Burmese Lao Buddha, or even the Ayutthaya Lao Buddha. I disagree with the view that "Lao" means something not beautiful, not cultured, and unrefined. It is unfair to interpret the word in this manner, even when it is used without contempt. I hope that the meaning of "Lao" will, as the result of the present work, be reviewed and altered in the future.

LAO MIDGET BUDDHA IMAGES (same analyze for Khmer or Thai Buddha amulets)

Since ancient times people of many religions have cast midget or miniature idols including Buddha. A vast number of midget icons have been discovered in India and Sri Lanka, dating to the 8th-9th centuries. Tibetan Mahayana and Chinese style Buddha images have also been found, and these are highly popular in Thailand.

The oldest midget Buddha discovered in Suwannaphum, both in alloy and of terra cotta, was created by the Pyu of the Burmese prehistorically period. Images in the Pagan style of the early Burmese historic period dating to the early 11th-14th centuries have also been discovered. The oldest midget Buddha amulets discovered in Thailand is in the Dhavaravati style, dating to the 9th-10th centuries. Midget images cast later are being discovered all the time. Most ancient midget Buddha found in Thailand are of a poor quality alloy of lead and mixed with a small quantity of silver. This is called the "chin" texture.

The erosion of the face and of the upper part of the eyes of used midget images suggests that in ancient times, people kept their idols with them while travelling for ling distances. Monks in Sri Lanka record that Sri Lankan people would take midget Buddha with them, displaying them and praying before bedtime. They would perform an eye-opening ritual by anointing clean water to the eyes of the Buddha after finishing their prayers. Brahmans performed a similar rite but simply washed and rubbed the faces of their gods with holy water. Used Sri Lankan and Indian ancient midget idols thus have eroded faces.

It is not known and there is no definite evidence indicating when necklaces began to be worn with Buddha images as pendants. But the Suwannaphum people wore charms such as amulets and talisman in the form of animal teeth on which magic spells had been cast.

In ancient times midget Buddha were always wrapped up in a piece of cloth and tied about the head above the ears while people were at work or in battle. A king would pin Buddha images around his hat, as did King Naresuan the Great in the 16th century (Ayutthaya period) fighting in the battle of Phra Mala Bieng or King Buddhayodfah Chulaloke the Great (King Rama I) during the 18th century (Rattanakosin period). It has been assumed that the tradition of wearing Buddha image pendants began in the reign of King Rama IV during the 19th century as an adaptation of European style. Priests wore crucifixes, as did Europeans who also wore lockets that contained devotional images or had pictures of family member.



Ancient Cambodia has been influenced by the Indian civilization probably since the beginning of the Christian era. The two main religions of India, Hinduism an Buddhism, were practiced by Cambodians. Jean Boisselier noted that "the oldest records indicate the presence of Buddhism in Fou-nan did not date not earlier than the V Century."1 As much as Cambodians were inspired by this influence, they also modified it according to their own character. With regards to religious practices, whether in Hinduism or Buddhism, the ancient Khmers have left behind many works of arts as well as temples, sculptures and household utensils. Some of the temples are in Cambodia, while others are outside the country, mostly in Thailand. These temples are magnificent; such as the temple of Angkor Wat humans built that we have trouble believing. All these creations are concrete proof that ancient Cambodia already had a glorious civilization in the angkorian period.

Before beginning, let us highlight three important relevant characteristics that we describe briefly below:

1- History

a- Pre-Angkorian Period (Ist-XVIII Centuries)
At this time Cambodia was called "the country of mountains" or Nokor Phnom. The Chinese called it Fou-nan. Afterwards, Chen-La, the vassal of Fou-nan, conquered it and divided the country in two: the Chen-LA of Land (that did not flood) and the Chen-La of Water (that flooded).

b- Angkorian Period (IX- XIII Centuries)
At this period Cambodia became an empire extending to today's Thailand. Historical, archeological and literary evidence proves that at that time Cambodia was a high civilization whose influence extended to other countries in Southeast Asia.

c- Post- Angkorian Period (XIV-XX Centuries)
The period is marked by the decline of the grand Angkorian era. Angkor was abandoned in 1431. The most important events are internal crises and invasions from neighboring countries. Thailand occupies part of northern Cambodia until 1907.

Because of these crises, the capital is moved on various occasions: from Angkor to Kompong Cham, to Long Vek, to Uddong and finally to Phnom Penh. These events weaken Cambodia and almost result in the country's disappearance from the world map.

2- Religion

it is not clear which of the great religions - Hinduism or Buddhism - arrived first in Cambodia.

a- Pre-Angkorian Period
According to the inscriptions and archeological findings, Hinduism and Buddhism played the same role. Many brick temples were dedicated to Hindu gods and Buddhist Mahayana divinities.

b- Angkorian Period
Hinduism and Buddhism remain important religions for Cambodia. At the end of this period (XIIIth Century), a great Cambodian King, Jayavarman VII, followed the Buddhist Mahayana faith. One of the most important events during his reign was the birth of Theravada Buddhism (Singhalese Buddhism), which has made Cambodia what it is today. This event is marked by this king who sent his son, Tamalinda, to study Theravada Buddhism in Ceylan.3 Historians mentioned that Tamalinda brought Theravada Buddhism to Cambodia for the first time and developed it. This Buddhism is based on the pali cannon. Tcheou Ta-Kouan, a Chinese envoy who came to Cambodia in 1296, mentions this Buddhism at the time. Based on the inscriptions of Wat Nokor, Jean Filliozat notes that the presence of Theravada Buddhism probably occurred at the end of the XIII Century.

c- Post-Angkorian Period
The most important events of this period are the abandonment of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism, which had been replaced by Theravada Buddhism. The influence of this new religion pushes the Khmers to build vihara(Temple), Pagodas and Buddhist statues.

Moreover, they modified some of the Hindu temples to turn them into Buddhist temples. These temples include Angkor Wat (north gallery), Preah Palilay, Baphuon, Banteay Kdei, and North Thnot Chum (Kompong Thom). The process of transformation is marked by the construction of a vihara next to or within the Hindu temple enclosure.

3- Art

The ancient Khmers left many masterpieces of sculpture and archaeology highlighting Hindu and Buddhist religious practices. These are considered Khmer art. In this sense, Khmer art is a religious art. For this text we study only statuary.

a- Pre-Angkorian Period

Different names have been assigned to the various styles of classical Khrmer art. For this period, there are four: Phnom da, Sambor Prei Kuk, Prei Khmeng and Kompong Preah. The national Museum of Phnom Penh has Hindu and Buddhist statues in the collection in the Phnom Da style, Lokesvara for Mahayana Buddhism, and the Buddha for Hinayana Buddhism. The statues are carved in sandstone.

b- Angkorian Period (IX-XIII Centuries)
There are ten styles: Kulen, Preak Ko, Bakheng, Kok Ker, Pre Rup, Banteay Sri, Khleang, Baphuon, Angkor Wat and Bayon. Khmer angkorian and pre-angkorian art are classical arts. In angkorian art there are two important styles that stand out: the Angkor Wat and Bayon styles. These are the basic styles for this study of post-angkorian Buddha statues. We have not discussed Hindu divinities or Mahayana Buddha statues, only certain Hinayana Buddha statues.
The Angkor Wat style Buddha statues in the Museum's collection are for the most part adorned. These are usually made of stone or bronze. There are only two wooden sculptures. We note that the adorned Buddha of this period wears many accessories: mukuta, ear pendants, pectoral collars, armbands, bracelets on the wrists and ankles, etc.
One of the most important items for a comparative study is the mukuta. It is composed of a broad wide diadem adorned with pearls, diamond shapes, and a serrated design interspersed with blue lotus flowers. These play an important role in the decorative pattern. The cone-shaped hair cover is decorated with layered lotus petals. Altogether these comprise the basics elements of the evolution of the tip of the mukuta. The characteristics of the Angkor Wat style are rigidity and a frontal perspective. The main characteristic of the Bayon style is naturalism: the face shows a semi-smiling expression and rounded cranial protuberance. We note that classical Khmer art emphasizes naturalism and rigidity (Buddha), for example the length of the fingers are unequal.

c- Post-Angkorian Period
This period dates from the abandonment of Angkor in 1431 to the XX century. For structures that do not require hard materials like sandstone (vihara, kuti, pagoda, image of the Buddha) or in case of lack of sandstone, Cambodians used wood as a substitute. This does not mean that there are no pieces made of stone - these do exist, but there are very few.
Other masterpieces include the bas-relief of temples where an art style inspired by Theravada Buddhism begins to appear. Despite its hardness, wood is much more delicate than stone and is easily damaged by nature and other factors. As a result, very few wooden sculptures remain today.
In addition, during the Pol Pot Regime, there was a general destruction of artworks in the Pagodas, considered centers of cultural heritage because Cambodians do not usually keep art objects in their home. Because of this, the lack of post-angkorian art creates many challenges for researchers.

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