02 January 2013

Wat Suthat & the Cosmology of Square-headed People

This afternoon, Ajahn Pei asked Ajahn Duang to accompany us to Wat Suthat. It is technically just a few blocks from Pohchang, but because its hot we took a tuktuk.

The first thing Ajahn Pei does is ask me what style these statues are made in. As I've been working in the Sukhothai style, which is known for its minimal ornamentation, I say Sukhothai (13-15th CE). He says, "We look some more." I obviously failed the test.

Later, he explains that the statues are in fact in the Ayutthaya style. Although well-known for crowning buddha statues with jewel-encrusted ornaments and garb, Ayutthaya also has an a tradition of un-ornamented statues such as these. What differentiates them from Sukhothai style is their ornate platform, the small size of hair ringlets, and their feet, which are more flat.

They are more square than Sukhothai buddhas, which are worked over until every surface is as evenly rounded as possible.

 The emperor who build Wat Suthat was very fond of Chinese art and architecture, so there are Chinese statues and pagodas sprinkled throughout the temple complex.

 Wat Suthat is a major reference for Thai mural paintings of the mythical forest called "Himaphan". Here many fantastic hybrid animal forms can be seen--women with bird lower bodies and wings "Kinnaree", elephant-headed lion "Rachasee" (Chang is elephant, Rachasee is mythical lion) it is the leader of the four-legged animals. Kochasee is a Rachasee with an elephant head. "Kunchonwaree", is an elephant-headed fish.

Naga, giant water serpent, is the leader of the water animals. Hong, a bird with a very long mouth is the leader of flying animals. "Hayra" is a mix between a naga and a dragon.

According to Ajahn Duang, the incredible forms serve to inspire the imagination. They shake us out of our everyday concepts of reality.

This is the same for the cosmology of people who live in different worlds. In each world, people have different shaped heads--square, round, long, and half-spherical.

Perhaps it's not unlike the purpose served by the visualizations of other lineages of Buddhism like the Mahayana, where deities take on fabulous proportions and postures to blow our mind out of its dull complacent state.

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Thanks, appreciate the mindful comment! - Minette