By Stephen F. Beiner

Everything one associates with the exotic Orient--fabulous palaces, glittering temples, beautiful Buddha images and exceptionally ornate art--can be found in great abundance in modern Thailand. And, even better, most of the art is available for sale and readily exportable to the United States. Thailand has become a mecca for art collectors from all over the world to purchase treasures, both ancient and modern. Thai art is unique in its style. It is the product of a very ancient tradition, yet fits comfortably into a contemporary setting.

While many countries in the Orient produce Buddha images, those made in Thailand over the last thousand years are among the most desired by art collectors. Thai Buddha images range in size from miniatures to huge monumental sculptures. While they may be made of many different materials--stone, plaster, terracotta, crystal, jade, wood, ivory or iron--the overwhelming favorite for hundreds of years has been the Thai Buddha images made of bronze, an alloy of cooper, tin and other metals, to which silver and gold are often added. When the casting is completed, the image is nearly always covered with a coating of lacquer and gold leaf. Buddha images, particularly those that have been buried in the ground for long periods of time, additionally take on a beautiful variegated patina which gives added luster to the remnants of the gilding.

Buddha images were not originally made with the intention of creating works of art; they were made to be worshipped, to give comfort and protection. From the point of view of the modern Buddhist, they are "reminders of the Doctrine." During the long history of creating Buddha images, "artistic" considerations have always been secondary. The traditional Buddhist image maker had no desire to be original; any originality in the Budda image is probably in spite of the artist's desire to avoid it. The "artist" creating a Buddha image prided himself in being a faithful copyist, reproducing certain features and attitudes (the "supernatural anatomy") that were deemed essential, though not necessarily reflected in the image's outward appearance. The dress of the Buddha image is the monastic robe to which certain elements of the royal attire are sometimes added. The robe may be worn in the "covered mode," draped over both shoulders, or in the "open mode," leaving the right shoulder exposed. Buddha images may take one of four postures--walking, standing, sitting, or reclining. At least until modern times, every Buddha image was a copy of an earlier one, each believed to be part of a link in the chain to the first legendary portraits made during Buddha's lifetime by an artist who knew and saw the Buddha personally.

There are comparatively few examples of great Thai Buddha images of high quality to be found outside of Thailand. In spite of the deliberate lack of originality, many Thai Buddha images are true masterpieces. The best are today to be found in Bangkok in the National Museum.

Sukhothai beginnings. In the 13th Century the Thai race began leaving their homelands in China to establish settlements in neighboring countries. One such ancient Thai settlement threw off the Khmer yoke and declared itself to be independent. Known as the kingdom of Sukhothai, this settlement grew rapidly until it included most of what is today the kingdom of Thailand. It was at Sukhothai that the most beautiful and characteristic Thai art developed. The Thai adopted Theravada Buddhism from the Mons, and also incorporated their basic conception of image making; the art of Sukhothai is therefore closely linked to the art of Gupta, India. From the Khmer, the Thai learned not only many material skills and techniques, but also a deep affection for the great Indian epics, especially the Ramayana.

The Sukhothai artists accepted without hesitation those curious descriptions of the Buddha's appearance that appeared in the ancient Pali texts: the ushnisha (the protuberance on top of the head); the spiral curls and the distended ear-lobes; the arms "long enough for the Buddha to touch his knees without bending over"; and the flat foot soles and projecting heels. Some scholars believe that these attributes grew out of a series of misunderstandings of these ancient texts. But they were repeated so often that they took on a symbolic value of their own and their original significance lost its importance. The Sukhothai artists saw in them a deep spiritual meeting, a "supernatural anatomy" which is above and beyond the forms of the ordinary world and which serves to set Buddha images apart from mere human portraits. But the features drawn from Pali and Sanskrit literature were not in themselves a complete picture; they were merely marks and peculiarities that had to be fitted onto the anatomy of a human being. This the artist of Sukhothai did with consummate skill and poetic imagination.

The expression on Sukhothai Buddha images is often wonderfully spiritual, the modeling fluid and graceful. The hair is arranged in spiral curls with a tall jet of flame (the equivalent of a halo) springing from the protuberance on top of the head. The face is delicately oval, the eyebrows arching, the nose aquiline. The body, though suffused with inner energy, is softly rounded on its surface with bulging breasts and prominent nipples. The Buddha image's arms are "as sinuous as an elephant's trunk" and the Buddha's hands "like lotus flowers just beginning to open," long and slender. The monastic robe is thin and clinging. The finest invention of Sukhothai is the "Walking Buddha," a figure that seems to have come to a momentary pause mid-stride, one heel raised while the other foot is firmly planted on the ground, one hand lifted in a gesture of giving instruction or dispelling fear, while the other arm is naturally at its side.

U-Thong, Ayuthaya. In 1350 the prince of U-Thong founded Ayuthaya which became the strongest and most prosperous kingdom in the Southeast Asia peninsula. Around 1430 its armies invaded Cambodia and for a while captured Angkor. A few years later, Sukhothai, long since reduced to vassalage, was incorporated into the kingdom. The rulers of Ayuthaya thought of themselves as inheritors of both the Thai tradition of Sukhothai and the Khmer tradition of Angkor. Though they too practiced Theravada Buddhism, they also honored Brahmans and incorporated Hindu influences into their religion and their art. Generally, the U-Thong Ayuthaya bronzes are marked by a soldierly dignity and do not convey the sense of spiritual fervor of their Sukhothai predecessors. Westerners particularly appreciate U-Thong bronzes because the human anatomy, though stylized and simplified, is far less influenced by the supernatural considerations than are the Sukhothai images. The Ayuthaya Buddha images are strong and decisive, though frequently softened by a ritually variegated patina giving them an other-worldly quality.

While the guidebooks suggest devoting at least three hours to the National Museum in Bangkok, on our recent trip to Thailand we set aside an entire day to explore the riches of this museum, arguably the most comprehensive in the region. The antiquities collection of King Mongkut, known as Rama IV (1851-1863), the king made famous in The King and I, forms the core of the museum's collection. The Museum was originally founded on the grounds of the Royal Place by his son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1874, and moved to its present site in 1887. Much of the charm of the National Museum lies in its graceful traditional galleries and pavilions, though the modern galleries are better suited to display its treasures. Through the galleries one can trace over a thousand years of the development of Thai art and, more importantly, appreciate the deep reverence that the Thai feel for their history and for their royalty, and the fact that Thailand is the one country in Southeast Asia that was never colonized by Europeans; Thailand means "home of the free people." Not to be missed are the upper galleries devoted to the Sukhothai and Ayuthaya periods. The National Museum can be an overwhelming experience, but as a survey of the art of Southeast Asia and in particular that of Thailand, the Museum's collection is unsurpassed and will amply reward the attentive visitor.

A visitor to Bangkok wishing to explore the full range of Thai art should also see the art in private collections, such as that belonging to Khun Prasart Vongsakul, a successful real estate developer. Housed in a serene five-acre compound on the edge of Bangkok, the Prasart Museum is truly unique, delightful, and unlike any other in the country, perhaps in the world. The brilliant gardens surrounding the Museum building are a blend of traditional and contemporary Thai garden design (half of the staff of the museum, 25 gardeners, tend to the gardens with loving care). Khun Prasart's collection ranges from the very early Ban Chiang pottery and prehistoric metal work to many 19th and 20th century royal household objects. But some of the best pieces in the Prosart collection are the objects from Sukhothai and Ayuthaya, which are of exceptionally high quality.

Just one or two brief observations about visiting Thailand today and purchasing ancient art there. Thailand is an absolutely incredible place to tour, a "must-see" for every adventurous traveler. The food is exceptional, the people are friendly and beautiful, and the sights are charming and often breathtakingly exciting. Visiting Thailand is also quite a bargain compared to prices in Europe today. We stayed at the Peninsula Hotel, which was just voted the world's best hotel by Travel and Leisure Magazine, paying approximately $200 per night. You should not hesitate to go to Thailand, explore Bangkok in depth, and anticipate having a truly unique experience. But Bangkok and the rest of Thailand are not places to be seen on your own. Having a knowledgeable and experienced guide will make all the difference. We were able to make the most of our five days in Thailand because of the devotion and expertise of our very experienced and professional guide, Tananchai (Tan) Sithikasorn, who made every moment an exciting experience for us.

And finally one word of caution. There seem to be more shopping malls in Bangkok than you can count. The very modern River City shopping complex, the first modern air-conditioned shopping mall built on the Chao Phraya River, houses tens of galleries displaying ancient art. Some of it is of exceptionally fine quality and is offered at competitive prices, but much of it is what is known in the trade as "instant antiquity." Thailand is very much a place where the buyer must beware and must heed the warning that I have continuously given in other articles and speeches: know the person from whom you are purchasing. Heeding this simple warning will open all of the treasures of Thailand for your perusal and make many fine pieces of ancient art available to the discerning collector.

Stephen Beiner practices family law; wills, trusts, estates, and probate law; and art law in Boca Raton, Florida. Together with his wife, Judith, he owns the Griffin Gallery of Ancient Art, located at 5501 North Federal Hwy., #4, Boca Raton, Florida.

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