Thursday, 1 October 2015

Crafts of Thailand: woodcarving

Thai woodcarving, a scene from Ramakien (Ramayana)
Wood carved scene from the Ramakien (Ramayana) 

If you are holidaying in Thailand and are seduced to buy one of the tours the local agencies offer I bet among "elephant riding" and "boat market experience" suggestions there will be a visit to a woodcarving centre too. All my photos of beautiful Thai woodcarving objects were made in one such centre near Bangkok.
Thanks to the rich forests that once covered much of territory of Thailand woodcarving became a major craft early in the kingdom's history. Until the late 19th century woodcarving was widely practised and entire temples and palaces were often wooden.
The preferred material for carvers was teak, because of its durability and resistance to insect damage, but other woods were used as well. The colour of the wood was not that important since it was usually gilded, lacquered or adorned with glass mosaics, tinsel or other bright material after carving was completed.

Thai woodcarving, a detail with animals
Detail of a wood carved picture

Thai woodcarving, a scene from Ramakien (Ramayana)
Wood carved scene from the Ramakien (Ramayana)

Thai wood carved figurines
Wood carved figurines at the souvenir shop 

Certain motifs and figures are traditional to Thai woodcarving. Many of them are derived from nature as for example is the kanok, a vegetal motif that also resembles a flickering flame. Among other popular motifs are a lotus bud and a cotton rose flower. Woodcarving may include figures from Hindu and Buddhist mythology such as Vishnu, Brahma, the singha or lion, the serpent naga. Also popular are scenes from Janaka tales and the life of the Buddha and from the Ramakien, the Thai version of the Indian Ramayana.

Wood carved Hindu deities
Wood carved Shiva, Parvati and Ganesha sculpture 

Wood carver at work
A wood carver at work

The earliest carvings were produced to adorn Buddhist temples. Of the many buildings in a monastery compound that are most decorated with carving are the bot, where ceremonies are held and the Buddha image is displayed; the assembly hall which is used for sermons and the library.

Wood carved decorations of a building. Photo courtesy Sonya Pongsavas  

Woodcarvings in Buddhist temple
Wood carvings in a Buddhist temple near Amphawa, Samut Songkhram. Photo courtesy Uwe Schwarzbach

Temple doors are often beautifully carved forming the symbolic separation between the outside world and the interior. Celestial guardians, sometimes holding swords, were a frequent feature in the early period and are also seen on some Bangkok temples. Intricate patterns later became more common than figures. During the early part of the 20th century natural scenes of forests and animals appeared on the door panels.

Sanctuary of Truth, Pattaya. Made entirely out of teak wood this building is filled with sculptures based on traditional Buddhist and Hindu motifs. The project was initiated as an idea of Thai businessman Lek Viriyaphant in 1981, and is scheduled to be completed by 2025. Photo courtesy Jagadeesh SJ

Wood carved ceiling at the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya
Wood carved ceiling at the Sanctuary of Truth, Pattaya. Photo courtesy Praveen

The skills of traditional wood carving survived and talented craftspeople of Thailand still produce furniture, boxes, sculptures and all variety of gift items imaginable.



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