In Focus

Buddha

In 1281, King Mengrai captured the north­ern Mon city of Lamphun and established the kingdom of Lan Na, which lasted until the 16th century when the Burmese invaded. Isolated inland, this northern kingdom developed independently from the central Thai principalities of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, though both were influen­tial artistically to it, as were Burma and Sri Lanka.

The most common Lan Na image, the Buddha with his hand held in bhumisparsha mudra (earth-touching gesture), represents an episode in the life of the historical Buddha, the maravijaya (victory over Mara). The Buddha vanquished the evil Mara on the night of his enlightenment and placed his hand to the ground, as he called the earth to be his witness.

Throughout the history of Buddhism, images of the Buddha follow a specific iconography. He wears monk’s robes. His earlobes are distended to indicate that he once wore jewels, and an ushnisha (cranial protuberance, signifying his advanced intelligence) sits atop his head. According to Buddhist texts, the Buddha’s body represents the Dharma (the Buddhist teachings). Elements of his physique—such as his chest like a lion, his nose like a parrot’s beak, a chin like a mango pit—allude to the lakshanas (signs) of a mahapurusha (great person).

Lan Na Buddha images of the 15th century can be categorized into two dif­ferent types. One, the sihing or lion type, draws inspiration from a specific image brought to Lan Na from Sri Lanka in the 15th century. The other mixed type relates to images created in the central Thai kingdom of Sukhothai and ultimately refers back to characteristics of the Pala-Sena imagery of northeast India from the 12th to 13th centuries. This Buddha, with his legs in half lotus, the flap of his robe extending down to his navel, and his benign expression, appears to belong to the second group.

Excerpt from

Nancy Tingley, "Buddha," in The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 235.