Blended Media: Symbolic Storytelling in the Thai Temple
The Thai temple faces formidable challenges in its symbolic interpretation. The physical destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, including a large portion of the country's textual legacy, created a major historical break. Frequent wars, repeated restorations, and the fierce weather have impacted the physical fabric of the country’s older buildings. More curiously the quirks of recent scholarship, conjoined with the nature of Siamese artistic practise, have been equally problematic to architectural interpretation. In spite of the distinctive nature of its architecture the symbolic aspects of the Thai temple have been either misunderstood or effectively ignored within architectural culture; treated academically as a conventional expression of a traditional society or, more often, as a derivative version of earlier constructions such as Angkor Wat. Yet these prejudices understate both the individuality of Thai architecture and the creative richness of its many expressions. One aspect of this critical tradition is seen in the general, and even casual, acceptance of a cosmological analogy. This tendency relies on the tradition of assuming a pictorial model for architectural inspiration. Following studies of Angkor Wat and Borobudur, Thai temples such as Wat Pho are seen to represent an image of the heavenly Mount Sumeru (Meru), the centre of each Hindu/ Buddhist world system. Yet this interpretation misplaces the specific nature of Siamese architecture. It also demands an apology for the architecture’s deviation from the assumed source (Angkor), with any indigenous specificities of form and experience considered as problematic rather than provocative. As a result the particular character of the Thai temple has been critically obscured by this assumed congruence with its better known neighbours. The challenge is to view the architecture as an amalgamation of different representational means, with a particular focus on the idea of a biographical expression. It will be argued that it is only by approaching the temple as a story that its full meanings can be understood. Cosmological concerns are indeed central to the temple. It is necessary, however, to explore the idea of cosmological symbolism in a different way; one which is specific to Thai sacred architecture. This approach is centred not on the architecture as a geographic or heavenly image, but as a narration of an event; the story which brings the Buddha’s miraculous powers to a public, and enduring, architectural visibility.
Keywords: Architecture, Religion and Symbol, Buddhism, Symbolic Interpretation
Dr. John Barry Bell
Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Architecture, Dalhousie University