In Thai handwritten paintings, tanks are more than just transport vehicles

Chariots feature prominently in the art and architectural decoration of South and Southeast Asia. Borrowed from the Sanskrit word ratha, the chariot is called to rot in Thai and has special significance in religious traditions in Thailand, especially those related to royal ceremonies and funerals.

Impressive four-wheeled funeral chariots have been reserved for kings and members of the royal family since the time of Ayutthaya (1350-1767). Representing Mount Meru, whose tip reaches the heavens according to Thai Buddhist cosmology Traiphum, these ornate and richly gilded funeral carts carried equally ornate urns containing the body of the deceased to the place of cremation.

Four-wheeled chariots or chariot-like vehicles are also used in ceremonies to parade Buddha statues during Songkran (New Year) processions, as shown in the picture below.

Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand, commissioned by James Low, Penang, 1824. Photo credit: British Library

The color drawing of a procession of a Buddha statue in southern Thailand was commissioned in 1824 by Captain James Low who was based in Penang as an officer of the English East India Company. It depicts a realistically drawn four-wheeled cart with a chariot-shaped superstructure on which a statue of Buddha parades through the city.

The vehicle is pulled by twelve men and accompanied by monks and chariot drivers seated next to the statue, as well as other men, women and children dressed in various ethnic outfits seen in southern Thailand at the time.

Illustrations of Jatakas

Depictions of four-wheeled chariots are rare in Thai manuscript paintings, however, two-wheeled chariots are frequently found in illustrations of scenes from the last ten Buddha’s birth tales (Jataka) in which the Bodhisatta, or future Buddha, uses the vehicles. They can also be seen wearing Lord Sun and Lord Moon (below) in Thai Buddhist cosmologies.

While some European influence is evident in the illustration of Lord Moon traveling in a chariot – for example in the simplified representation of the wheels – parts of a typical chariot in the style of Thai painting are visible: the tree with a decorative element in the shape of a naga (snake) head and a banner, a very decorative seat and a “tail” in a popular design called kranok.

Illustrations of scenes from the last ten Jataka were often added to a Buddhist text on the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Pali: Mahābuddhagunā) and collections of short extracts from the Pali Buddhist canon. Each of the last ten Jataka symbolizes one of the great perfections of the Buddha.

These texts and images were often included in funeral and commemoration books made in collapsible format. (samut khoi) 18th and 19th century mulberry paper. In some of these Jataka stories tanks play an important role.



Scene from Nemi Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 18th century. Photo credit: British Library

The painting above depicts a scene from the Nemi Jataka in the style of the end of the 18th century. Although the Nemi Jataka – which symbolizes the perfection of resolution – is not included in this manuscript, the illustration appears in the context of the Mahābuddhagunā. In front of a bright red background with floral decorations, one can see King Nemi (Pali: Nimi) on a two-wheeled chariot pulled by two horses.

The chariot wheel has eight spokes, similar to the Dhammchakka whose spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way of Buddhism. On a horse kneels the divine chariot driver Matali, who was sent from the heavenly realm of the god Indra to fetch Nemi for a visit to the Buddhist skies and Nemi is seen here sitting in the carriage with a small superstructure in the shape of a flag. However, Nemi ordered Matali to take him to the Realms of Hell first – shown in the lower part of the image – so that he could teach his subjects about the horrors that await evildoers.



Scene from Nemi Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 18th century. Photo credit: British Library

Although the illustrations of Jataka the stories were relatively standardized in Thai manuscripts, there is always variation in the choice of colors and the execution of details. The example above has a bright orange background with a deity hovering in the air.

Two horses jump over a skeleton, but apparently the painter had some difficulty with perspective since the hind legs and tail of a single horse are visible. The chariot, harness and clothing of the deity and charioteer are decorated with gold leaf.

In the 19th century, Thai painters seem to have enjoyed greater freedom to alter details or include their own ideas in their works. The illustration below shows King Nemi in a glorious chariot drawn by one horse.

For the background, the artist chose solid black, perhaps to emphasize the fact that hell is a dark and hopeless place. An interesting element in this illustration is the charioteer’s conical white hat it is a traditional headgear worn by Thai nobility and royal brahmins.



Scene from Nemi Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 19th century. Photo credit: British Library

The features of the horses appear more realistic in 19th century illustrations, and often some Western influence is visible in the painting style. The image below has a bright blue background with white clouds executed with simple brush strokes.

In the clouds, however, there are heavenly palace roofs painted in the traditional Thai style. The tank does not have a superstructure, but a wheel with a unique spoke arrangement. Matali is depicted with green skin, perhaps to emphasize the fact that he is a divine charioteer sent by the god Indra.



Scene from Nemi Jataka in a folded paper book, central Thailand, dated 1894. Photo credit: British Library

Another popular Jataka involving a chariot scene is the story of Prince Temiya, who as a child claimed to be “crippled and dumb” so as not to have to become king, a role in which he might have to commit cruel acts leading to negative karma. Ignorant Brahmins advised the king to send the apparently disabled child in a chariot to a cemetery and bury him there.

Upon arriving at the cemetery, the young prince lifted the chariot with one hand to show off his power and abilities. The frightened charioteer released Temiya immediately, realizing that he was a Bodhisatta, who then chose a life in meditation as an ascetic. Temiya lifting the chariot is the most popular scene of this Jataka, shown in the illustration below in an 18th century painting style with a distinctive rocky landscape and a crooked tree. The scene is made particularly animated by the shocked horses which escape.



Scene from Temiya Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 18th century. Photo credit: British Library

Another illustrative example of the Temiya Jataka, from a 19th century manuscript, is illustrated below: the chariot waiting to pick up Prince Temiya, seated motionless in meditation in front of a white stone building.

The charioteer is depicted with green skin, possibly to indicate that he was under the influence of Indra’s deities when they guided him to lead the chariot carrying Temiya through the victory gate instead. from the door of death. The heavily decorated float is also equipped with two monastic fans (Thai: talaphat) and a gold offering bowl.



Scene from Temiya Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 19th century. Photo credit: British Library

The Vessantara Jataka, Where Great Jataka, also contains important episodes involving tanks. It tells the story of the Buddha’s last existence before attaining Buddhahood as a generous prince who showed great compassion for the needy and the poor.

A well-known episode is depicted in the painting below, from a 19th century manuscript: When Prince Vessantara was banished from the kingdom, he left with his wife and children in a horse-drawn chariot for establish a hermitage in the forest. However, on the way, some Brahmins asked for the horses which Vessantara gave them as a gift. The deities sent by the god Indra immediately transformed into a deer to replace the horses and pull the chariot.

Prince Vessantara is seen on the chariot which is only half depicted. The realistically painted deer that pulls the chariot has a golden harness, similar to those worn by the white horses which are led by the Brahmins. This excellently executed illustration in the style of 19th century painting has a calm light pink and light green background.



Scene from Vessantara Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 19th century. Photo credit: British Library

Another popular episode of the Vessantara Jataka is the return of the prince and his family to the royal palace, followed by his ascension to the throne. Unlike two-wheeled tanks in most Jataka illustrations, the scene below depicts an extravagantly decorated glorious chariot with four wheels and a golden pavilion-shaped superstructure in which Prince Vessantara is seated.

Also kneeling on the chariot are his wife Maddi with their two grandchildren, as well as the parents of Prince Vessantara who welcomed them back to the palace. They wear a golden headgear as a sign of royalty. At the back of the chariot we can see two golden monastic fans. Below, four attendants in commoner attire accompanying the procession.



Scene from Vessantara Jataka in a folded paper book, Central Thailand, 19th century. Photo credit; British library

Symbolic functions

In all these Jataka illustrations, tanks are more than just transport vehicles: they also fulfill symbolic functions. In the Nemi Jataka the chariot is a means of traveling between the Three Worlds (Traiphum) of the Thai cosmos – human realm, heavens and hell.

In the story of Prince Temiya, the chariot is used to express the hero’s physical power and metaphorically his mental strength and moral stature as a Bodhisatta. The tanks that appear in the Vessantara Jataka are vehicles in which the future Buddha goes through crucial changes, from a life of luxury and convenience in the royal palace to a life of sacrifice and hardship as a hermit in the desert and then back as a hermit to become a righteous Buddhist king.

This article first appeared on the British Library website Asian and African Studies Blog.

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