Out Of The Shadows

By Aree Chaisatien, The Nation/ANN), Jan 30, 2007

Bangkok, Thailand -- Even on weekdays a constant stream of Bangkok tourists pours through Wat Pho, a not-to-be-missed attraction within walking distance of the Royal Grand Palace.

It is usually the gigantic gilded reclining Buddha that first takes the breath away; it's said to be the third biggest in Thailand, but the most beautiful, being a product of the golden age of Thai Arts.

No less fascinating are the murals that adorn the walls of the vihara, or shrine hall, of the temple, which was originally built in the reign of King Rama I, and is officially known as Wat Phra Chetuphon Vimolmangklararm Rajwaramahaviharn.

Both the reclining Buddha and the murals were created in the reign of King Rama III, who wished to promote the benefits of dharma to his people.

A century and a half on and cracks in the roof, decaying walls and high humidity had taken their toll, with 70% of the paintings left in a dilapidated state.

But with the work initiated by present abbot Phra Dhamma Panyabodee, the paintings currently on show in the vihara have undergone restoration for the first time since the reign of Rama III.

With the help of the government's Fine Arts Department and financial support from the Sirivadhanabhakdi Foundation, the renovation began in 2000 and has only just been completed, says assistant abbot Phra Ratwatee.

For almost 7 years, more than 20 professional craftsmen from all fields worked together to preserve the cultural treasures of Wat Pho, the major task of the mural renovation alone costing around THB15m.

Drafts were created based on the stories recorded on the marble plaques on the walls of the vihara, coupled with knowledge from experts, especially the assistant abbot, says Somyod Thasaneeyakul, head of the renovation team of the Bureau of the Royal Household and the man in charge of the project.

"To make the new drawings look as similar to the old ones as possible, we needed to pay attention to the colour tones of the old murals, the actions of the characters and the detail in elements like trees and rocks," explains Somyod, whose 25 years of experience includes time looking after the "Ramayana" Mural Gallery at the Grand Palace.

The renovation involved a combination of traditional and modern techniques. A layer made of tamarind glue and Thai white mud (din sor pong) was created to give a smooth and even surface for the drawing and painting.

Meanwhile, a new technique from Italy which uses fine vertical lines was employed to differentiate the newly renovated spots from the untouched ones.

According to Somyod, imagining the lost parts of the murals was the most painstaking part of the process. To avoid this problem in the future, the murals have been photographed then reproduced using a hi-tech Epson digital printer to capture their subtlety of light and shadow.

The resulting images are currently being exhibited at the National Gallery in Bangkok.

Many of the original murals at the temple are positioned so high up on the walls that they can hardly be seen.

"The photo exhibition offers the public an opportunity to view some of Bangkok's unseen marvels," says Prof Nitikorn Kraivixien, a member of the photo exhibition's organising committee.

The images will go on to form an archive that accurately records the original artistry of the painting for another 200 years, says Nitikorn, who was also responsible for taking the photographs.

The exhibition gives visitors a chance to see the murals up close and learn about them from the easy-to-read explanations with English translations, which can't be found in the temple.

Two murals in reproduction hold centre stage--one titled "Atadagga Disciples" and the other "Mahawong."

The Atadagga depicts the lives of the Buddha's disciples, including female monks and male and female lay people, "Atadagga" referring to the various honours conferred on them.

For example, there's the tale of Phra Mahapajapati Gotami Theri, the Buddha's aunt who took care of him when he was a child. Phra Mahapajapati had to beg permission for women to be admitted into the sangha; in return she was given the Atadagga of the first female monk.

Another scene illustrates the life of Utara Mandamata, a wife who hired a prostitute to serve her husband so that she could be free to make merit and listen to the Buddha's sermons.

As a result, she became Phra Sotapanna, or a Stream Enterer--one who has attained the first stage of holiness. She was honoured with the Atadagga of Goodwill-Ecstasy.

The Mahawong, or historical annals of Ceylon, has scenes depicting the transfer of a branch from the Sri Maha Bo (the bhodi tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment) from the Indian subcontinent to Ceylon.

Visitors to the exhibition can see just how much work has gone into the restoration of the murals, and perhaps appreciate these treasures of Thai artistic heritage all the more.

"The main obstacle to the mural renovation was not the lack of professional craftsmen, but the lack of appreciation of Thai arts in Thai people," announces one photo's caption in the exhibition.

The exhibition, which pays homage to His Majesty the King on the occasion of his 80th birthday this year, continues until this Wednesday.

Nitikorn adds that people who live outside the capital will get the chance to see the mural art as it tours the country for the rest of the year.