Art Without Borders: Murals of Phumin Temple, Nan, Northern Thailand

I love maps! I’ve always been fascinated by them, probably because they drew me into an imaginative world of travels. My parents had subscribed to National Geographic since time immemorial, and I loved getting the magazine in the mail, wrapped in brown paper, special issues bearing the prize of a folded map inserted in the pages—it was more exciting to me than pulling out the prize in a box of Cap’n Crunch! But what I understood as “boundaries”…those little solid lines on our two-dimensional representations of a multi-dimensional world, were less solid and real than I could have imagined. If you Google a map of southern China and continental Southeast Asia, you’ll see something like this:

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Source: https://www.google.com/maps/

What you won’t get from this Google map, though, is the fluid nature of people, culture, language, and art. You miss the incredible stories carried in the minds of wandering peoples, the innumerable ways of looking at and drawing the world. Sure, in the world of taxes and security and welfare states—who gets benefits and who pays for them–boundaries are important; but in the world of ideas, the boundaries are fluid, and much to the benefit of the human race. Look again at the map above, and find the small area in the most southern part of Yunnan Province in China. You’ll see a long place name called Xishuangbanna (西双版纳 สิบสองปันนา). Now, erase in your mind those lines separating China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, and imagine a verdant, undulating mountain landscape of networked villages filled with wooden houses on long stilt columns, with groups sharing many similar cultures, languages and lifestyles. One broad categorization of these groups is the Dai, or Tai peoples (傣族 ไท), and this group accounts in large part for the wonderful and uniquely beautiful mural art style in several temples of Nan province, in the northern part of Thailand. The genius of one particular mural painter from the late 19th century delights one with its creativity and blending of multiple influences, while creating a style found only in Nan.

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Author with a mountain ethnic group member in the Thai province of Mae Hong Son. 2010.

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Nan Province, Thailand, highlighted. Source: NordNordWest (self-made, using  Thailand location map.svg) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The most accessible and well-known example of Nan’s unique mural art style is located in the heart of the small community situated on the right (West) bank of the Nan River, in Phumin Temple. Phumin Temple, like nearly all temples of the Tai people, is of the Theravada Buddhist tradition, linking Tais more closely to the Buddhist tradition of Southeast Asia, rather than the predominant Mahayana Buddhist tradition of China. Established around 1596, it’s a modest-sized structure, forming a cross pattern with entrances from the four cardinal points, with fearsome snake-like Naga creatures protecting the north and south approaches.

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Views of the exterior of Wat (Temple) Phumin

Source: Robert Cummings

The most interesting features of the temple are the enchanting murals covering the inner walls from top to bottom. Fortunately, we know the name of the talented artist who created these wonderful images of Tai people’s life—Nhan Buaphan, an ethnic Tai Lue (one of the subcategories of Tai people), who was commissioned to complete the renovation of the temple from 1867 to 1895. His handiwork exhibits a sense of eloquence, playful romance, and appreciation for the art and tradition of the region. As in some other Thai temples, the murals are split into various levels

–a heavenly realm telling stories of the Buddha

–a princely realm detailing royal deeds, including military accomplishments, often casting actual contemporary rulers in the roles of ancient heroes and spiritual figures

–a lower level relating local peoples and their customs, often extolling their hard work or depicting them in an idyllic natural setting of contentment with life

–an area portraying the tortures of the underworld as a warning to disobedient people

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Views of the upper levels with various pictures of the Buddha and a heavenly realm.

Source: Robert Cummings

The murals depict stories of the Buddhist tradition, in this case a series of stories known as Jataka tales from a Bhodhisattva predecessor to the Buddha, named Khattha Kumara. According to local Nan artist Winai Prabripoo, this “pre-incarnation” of the Buddha traveled around to help suffering beings.  On one of his travels, accompanied by two friends, he came upon a desolated city of Khwangtha Buri. A previous ruler of the city had been so full of vice and disrespect for the ten kingly virtues that the gods sent venomous snakes to kill all but the king’s daughter, Nang Kong Sing, who hid in a large wooden drum. Khatta Kumara serendipitously discovered this woman when he hit the drum with a stick and noticed the unusual sound. The lovely young lady let Khatta Kumara know that if smoke were to reach into the sky, all those vicious snakes would descend to earth from the sky, prompting the heroic character to light a huge fire to bring down the snakes and kill them. He then rebuilt the city, giving the young princess to one of his friends, who would stay behind and rule the reborn community. As Khatta Kumara traveled on to his next adventure, he found a similar deserted city of Chawathawadi. Again, he discovered a beautiful young princess hiding in a pillar in the palace, who told of the folly of her father that brought about tragedy to the city. Out hunting, a bird defecated on him, causing the king to become so enraged that he ordered all the birds to be killed. Again the gods were affronted, sending a great swarm of vicious birds that killed all but the hidden daughter. The hero repeated his bold act to bring down the murderous birds, dispatching them just as he had the snakes, and handing this beautiful maiden to his second companion to rule the city. Thus, the religious story is imbued with not just one, but two romantic unions of heroic leaders and virtuous beauties, which is reflected in many of the mural scenes of couples, princely warriors, and beautiful women.

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The Whispering of Love

Source: Robert Cummings

By far the most well-known of the couples is a scene that artist Nhan Buaphan captioned with the words “poo marn yar marn,” or literally “Burmese man Burmese woman.” Reproductions of this touching painting, or some creative version of them, are ubiquitous throughout Nan; it has gained the moniker “Whispering of Love” and become a visual symbol of the city. The shirtless, tattooed man tenderly rests one hand on the shoulder of the woman, an act that would only be allowed between husband and wife. His other hand seems to conceal a whispered secret between the two, while the wife touches his knee and thigh and gazes lovingly into the eyes of her partner. Local guides will recite a love poem translated from the local northern Thai language to tourists to complete the ambiance, roughly translated as the following:

“This love of mine, I would keep in the river’s water, yet I fear it would be cold.

I would keep it in the sky, but I fear the clouds would cover it and make it disappear.

If I kept it in a royal palace, I fear the prince would discover it and steal it away.

Then I will keep it in the depths of my heart, so that I will think of you every waking and sleeping moment.”

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A reproduction of the mural, cheerfully promoted by a smiling monk, for sale just behind Phumin Temple. Source: Robert Cummings

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This painted teak door panel has a more erotic version of the “The Whispering Love” with the poem written in Northern Thai dialect. Source: Robert Cummings

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A coffee shop with the whispering love. Source: Robert Cummings

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One of the best coffee and breakfast shops in Nan, Sweety 9, displays a version of Whispering Love. Source: Robert Cummings

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You can even find 3-dimensional replicas! Source: Robert Cummings

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And two thoroughly modern versions by artist Winai Prabripoo, whose works can be seen at the Nan Riverside Gallery, a worthwhile visit about a 19 km drive from the city. The top picture is titled, “Poo Farang Ya Farang,” or “Foreign man Foreign woman,” and the bottom is “Foreigners at Phumin Temple.” Source: Robert Cummings

The following gallery, all taken from my trip to Phumin Temple on 25 January 2017, depict five categories of mural paintings:

Couples and Beauties

Heroes and Military Exploits

Foreigners

Local People and Their Customs

The Underworld

Couples and Beauties

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Khatta Kumara finds the beautiful princess hiding in the pillar.

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Likely another scene from the Khattha Kumara Jataka story, perhaps one of Khattha Kumara’s friends receiving his wife?

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An amorous man catches this beauty sitting at a type of spinning wheel. Colorful woven cloths are a hallmark of the Tai ethnic minority clothing. In Nan courtship rituals, women prepare cotton thread in the evening while serenading young men come to woo them with love songs.

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IMG_5775.JPGIt’s possible that this depiction of two couples on a stairwell is intended to be homoerotic, as the two men intently gaze at one another.

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The artist indulges in some naughty depictions of copulating monkeys, which, juxtaposed with the numerous couple images, projects an image not normally associated with temples.

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Note the similarity of the women’s costume, as if it may be a story of the same woman as she seems to peer back at an intimate session with a strong tattooed male.

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This bathing beauty by artist Nhan Buaphan is a lovely image of one of the princesses discovered by Khatta Kumara, Nang Sii Wai.

img_5739The detail of this particular woman, one of many in a royal cohort scene, struck me as sublimely beautiful, with a mesmerizing, wistful look in her turned face, as if thinking of a lover.

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Heroes and Military Exploits

The following murals depict heroes, such as those fighting snakes from the Khatta Kumara story. The weapons, however, along with some of the costume details, indicate that the figures represent real-life rulers cast into the role of ancient heroes.

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This is a scene of one of Khatta Kumara’s friends, Nai Kwienroilem, ascending the throne of Chawathawadi.

img_5715img_5719img_5720img_5723Note the cannon and illustration of its effect on brick fortifications.

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Foreigners

Although the Nan River is not navigable for foreign ships coming from the Gulf of Thailand, the artist Nhan Buaphan spent time studying in Bangkok, including at a very well-known temple, Wat Pho. During the latter part of the 19th century, under King Rama V, what was then known as Siam was opening to many foreign influences. The following mural paintings show the fascination with these foreign elements. The warships would be French, which patrolled the Chaophraya River in Bangkok in a tense political standoff. Westerners weren’t the only foreigners, either. Many of the people, both men and women, in the pictures are from Burma and beyond. The presence of these foreign elements fits in with the Khatta Kumara story, as the Bhoddisatva traveled to many foreign lands to do good.

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img_5700A Chinese boat plies the waters of the Chaophraya River in Bangkok, with a French warship drawn belching smoke from its steam engines, recording an incident from 1893.

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Local Customs

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Beautifully composed gathering of young men and women in traditional clothing, and consistent with the playful flirting motif.

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A traditional musical ensemble.

img_5732This male sports a traditional hairstyle, a Chinese style shirt, a Burmese style skirt, and a pierced ear decorated with a flower, smoking the local herbal kiiyo cigar, demonstrating the multiple cultural influences in the region.

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Traditional weaving of the distinctive local cloth.

img_5765The hard toil of the people shows through strongly in this pose of weariness.

img_5766According to a description in the Nan Riverside Gallery, “This image narrates a scene from Khattana Kumara Jataka, when the prince sees the hole from an elephant footprint, from where his mother drinks water for survival. This is the departure for the adventurous searching for his father. The topic of orphanage considerably intrigues Professor David K. Wyatt. According to his book Temple Murals as a Historical Source: the Case of Wat Phumin, Chao Ananta [the ruler who commissioned the renovation of Phumin] commanded for this Jataka narrating an orphan boy’s life because it connects to the king’s personal life himself as well as the status of Nan as a dependent isolated state.”

The Underworld

Many temples include frightening images of a Buddhist hell in order to encourage people to do good deeds and avoid evil.

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These may be demons from the underworld, but also may be intended to resemble foreign invaders, such as Burmese, who invaded Thailand several times.

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This scene probably relates to the attack of the ferocious birds in the Khattha Kumara story.

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That ends our tour of the murals at Phumin Temple. Although Nan province is not often on the itinerary of travelers, it really is a treasure to discover, and more so when one appreciates the connection with cultures and histories that transcend borders. Nan, even with a small population just over 21,000, is served by a small airport, and can be reached by car from Chiang Mai in about four and a half hours, through some lovely mountain scenery.

Author: CummingsRL

Lt. Col. Robert Cummings, completed his PhD dissertation on the Thai-Chinese community in Hat Yai at Chulalongkorn University. He has an MA-International Studies and MBA. A retired US Air Force command pilot and Asian Affairs specialist, he served as assistant professor of history at the Air Force Academy and assistant air attaché in the US Embassy, Bangkok, Thailand. Conversationally fluent in Chinese and Thai, he currently resides in Thailand.

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