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Materiality and death: Visual arts and Northern Thai funerals

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 September 2015


Visual arts maintain a colourful presence at Buddhist funerals in Northern Thailand. These arts are not made for mere decoration but serve an active and essential role in the ceremonies that take place after death. They echo funerary themes of the impermanent nature of life and the importance of a life filled with merit. This article examines cremation structures and funeral banners of Northern Thailand and argues that these arts not only hold significance for the living and the dead, but that in giving form to abstract concepts they have the power to guide observers in their beliefs regarding the dynamics of life and death.

Research Article
Copyright © The National University of Singapore 2015 

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1 For the purposes of this article the funerals referred to, unless otherwise noted, are the typical set of ceremonies for someone who has died a normal death.

2 The agency of objects and their makers has become an increasingly important component of material culture and art historical studies, inspired by Alfred Gell's groundbreaking Art and agency: An anthropological theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998).

3 Other well-known examples of art embodying the Buddhist concept of impermanence include Tibetan sand mandalas and the wabi sabi aesthetic of Japanese tea houses and gardens.

4 Karen M. Gerhart, The material culture of death in medieval Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2009), p. 1.

5 On the role of beauty and splendour in the arts of the Buddhist world, see, for example, Anne Nishimura Morse and Samuel Crowell Morse, Object as insight: Japanese Buddhist art and ritual (Katonah, NY: Katonah Museum of Art, 1996); Rebecca Hall, ‘Beauty and merit: Woven banners in Northern Thailand and Laos’, in Textile traditions in contemporary Southeast Asia, ed. Michael C. Howard (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2012), pp. 51–6.

7 Buddhist funeral cultures of Southeast Asia and China, ed. Paul Williams and Patrice Ladwig (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline Stone Ilyse, The Buddhist dead: Practices, discourses, representations (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2007).

8 Gerhart, Material culture of death, p. 2.

9 See Cassaniti, Julia, ‘Toward a cultural psychology of impermanence in Thailand’, Ethos: The Journal of Psychological Anthropology. The Condon Prize for Best Graduate Essay in Psychological Anthropology 34, 1 (2006): 5888CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

10 For a detailed examination of the texts chanted at Northern Thai and other funerals in the Theravada world, see Rita Langer, ‘Chanting in “bricolage technique”: A comparison of South and Southeast Asian funeral recitation’, in Williams and Ladwig, Buddhist funeral culture of Southeast Asia and China. For a discussion of the incorporation of Phra Malai into funerals, see Bonnie Pacala Brereton, Thai tellings of Phra Malai: Texts and rituals concerning a popular Buddhist saint (Tempe: Arizona State University Program for Southeast Asian Studies, 1995), pp. 129–37.

11 Langer, ‘Chanting in “bricolage technique”’.

12 Ibid., pp. 21–3.

13 For an excellent description of a similar Shan funeral in Mae Hong Son province, as well as the villagers’ views on death and funerals, see Nancy Eberhardt, Imagining the course of life: Self-transformation in a Shan Buddhist community (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2006), pp. 46–71. See also B.J. Terweil, Monks and magic: Revisiting a classic study of religious ceremonies in Thailand (Copenhagen: Nias Press, 2012), pp. 248–60.

14 Konrad Kingshill, Ku Daeng–The red tomb: A village study in northern Thailand (Chiang Mai: Prince Royal's College, 1960), pp. 164–5; Anusaranasasanakiarti, Phra Khru and Keyes, Charles F., ‘Funerary rites and the Buddhist meaning of death: An interpretive text from Northern Thailand’, Journal of the Siam Society 68, 1 (1980): 22Google Scholar.

15 For example, the incorporation of wrestlers, shadowplays, and dancers at royal funerals in Bangkok in the nineteenth century is well documented. These performances reflected the sense of celebration and entertainment, but were frowned upon by visiting European dignitaries and missionaries, resulting in the more sombre tone of the royal funerals seen in Bangkok in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. See Karl Döhring, ‘Cremation in Siam’, in Phramerumat Phra Meru lae Meru: Samai Krung Ratankosin พระเมรุมาศ พระเมรุ และเมรุ สมัยกรุงรัตนโกสินทร์ [Phra Merumat, Phra Meru, and Meru in the Ratanakosin Period] (Bangkok: Samnakphim Amarin), p. 419. See also M.L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, ‘Funeral scenes in the Ramayana mural painting at the Emerald Buddha Temple’, in Recent studies in Southeast Asian archaeology, ed. Marijke Klokke (Amsterdam: IIAS series, Amsterdam University Press, 2013), pp. 228–9.

16 Donald K. Swearer, The Buddhist world of Southeast Asia (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2010), p. 69.

17 Brereton, Thai tellings of Phra Malai, pp. 131–7; Keyes, Charles F., ‘Tug of war for merit: Cremation of a senior monk’, Journal of the Siam Society 63, 1 (1975): 54Google Scholar.

18 The making of merit during a funeral often includes the ordination of a male relative of the deceased.

19 Interview with Khun Nipphan, tung maker, Chiang Mai, July 2013.

20 The bangsakun (paṃsukūla in Pali, ‘refuse robe’) is an important component of the funeral ceremony and can be traced to the early Buddhist practice of monks taking cloth from abandoned corpses. The bangsakun is another example of the agency of material objects in Buddhist funerals, but it is not explored here because it has roots outside of local practice. See Gregory Schopen, ‘A well-sanitised shroud: Asceticism and institutional values in the middle period of Buddhist monasticism’, in Between the empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE, ed. Patrick Olivelle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Erik W. Davis, ‘Weaving life out of death: The rag robe’ (pp. 59–78) and M.L. Pattaratorn Chirapravati, ‘Corpses and cloth: Illustrations of the paṃsukūla ceremony in Thai manuscripts’ (pp. 79–98), in Williams and Ladwig, Buddhist funeral cultures.

21 Interview with the abbot of Wat Koh Klang, July 2013.

22 Many monks and prasat makers interviewed in July 2013 explained the firecrackers and smoke as being noisy alerts to the fact that a funeral is taking place. However, in a discussion about funerals with Waewdao Sirisook in July 2013, the fireworks were described as being a reference to the winyan of the deceased crossing the Himaphan forest to get to heaven. In this case, the different firework noises mimic the sounds of various animals in Himaphan: cicadas, elephants, etc. See also Sommai Premchit and Pierre Doré, The Lan Na twelve month traditions (Chiangmai: Faculty of Social Sciences, Chiang Mai University [CMU]; Paris: CNRS), p. 108.

23 Vithi Phanichphant, Withi Lanna วิถีล้านนา [Lanna ways] (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2005), p. 147; Premchit and Doré, The Lan Na twelve month traditions, p. 100.

24 Kingshill, Ku Daeng, pp. 171–2.

25 The Thai word ‘winyan’ comes from the Pali word viññāna meaning ‘consciousness’ and refers to the consciousness we take from one life to the next. In the context of Northern Thai funerals, the winyan is conceptualised as having form, thus the English word ‘spirit’ seems a more accurate translation and is used throughout this article.

26 Mani Phayomyong, Kreuang sakkara nai Lanna Thai เครื่องสักการะในล้านนาไทย [Objects of worship in Northern Thailand] (Chiang Mai: Thanakhan Thai, 2006), p. 103.

27 Arjun Appadurai, The social life of things: Commodities in cultural perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

28 See Premchit and Doré, The Lan Na twelve month traditions, pp. 91–2; and Phayomyong, Kreuang sakkara, pp. 116–17, which discuss three kinds of funeral structures: maeo, lang klai, and prasat; however, I have yet to see maeo or lang klai in use. Furthermore, the names of the different prasat sop styles as described by Premchit and Doré were not used by four prasat makers I interviewed in Chiang Mai and Lamphun provinces in 2013 and 2014.

29 The reasons for the odd-numbered roofs is unclear, though the same odd numbers can be related to Buddhist cosmology and texts and to neighbouring Burmese traditions that have been influential on Northern Thai arts.

30 See Carol Stratton, What's what in a wat (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2010), for a brief description of the architectural components of Thai religious architecture.

31 See for instance, Shway Yoe [J.G. Scott], The Burman: His life and notions (London: Macmillan and Co., 1896), pp. 583–8; Max and Bertha Ferrars, Burma (London: Sampson Low, Marston and Co., 1900), pp. 192–200; Father Sangermano, A description of the Burmese empire (London: Susil Gupta, 1893), pp. 174–7; Manning Nash, The golden road to modernity: Village life in contemporary Burma (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1965), pp. 151–6; Isaacs, Ralph, ‘Rockets and ashes: Pongyibyan as depicted in nineteenth- and twentieth-century European sources’, Journal of Burmese Studies 13 (2009): 107–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

32 See McDaniel, Justin, ‘Two bullets in a balustrade: How the Burmese have been removed from Northern Thai Buddhist history’, Journal of Burmese Studies 11 (2007): 85126CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Green, Alexandra, ‘From gold leaf to Buddhist hagiographies: Contact with regions to the east seen in late Burmese murals’, Journal of Burmese Studies 15 (2011): 305–58Google Scholar; and Hall, Rebecca, ‘Onward to heaven: Burning the Nok Hatsadiling’, Ars Orientalis 44 (2014): 187CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

33 Royal Meru structures in Bangkok and Phnom Penh are built using the finest materials and are not burned with the body. Instead, the central mountains are deconstructed after the funeral concludes and the materials saved. The chariots are stored for future use, with a select few displayed to the public at the National Museum in Bangkok. For a discussion of early royal funerals in Bangkok and the works of art associated with them, see Chirapravati, ‘Funeral scenes in the Ramayana mural painting at the Emerald Buddha Temple’.

34 See Hall, ‘Onward toward heaven’.

35 These interviews took place around Chiang Mai province in July 2013 and December 2014.

36 Keyes, ‘Tug of war for merit’: 52.

37 Jason A. Carbine, ‘Care for Buddhism: Text, ceremony, and religious emotion in a monk's final journey’, in Cuevas and Ilyse, The Buddhist dead, pp. 438–56.

38 Himaphan is the name of the forest that surrounds the base of Mount Meru. Many mythical animals reside in Himaphan, including the nok hatsadiling. Of these, the nok hatsadiling is only one of a few beings that has the ability to fly up and access the heavens atop the mountain. Hall, ‘Onward toward heaven’, pp. 186–8.

39 Frank E. Reynolds and Mani B. Reynolds, Three worlds according to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist cosmology (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1982), pp. 218–19.

40 In recent years tung have been displayed at a variety of businesses, including spas, tourist centres, and the Chiang Mai airport. Tung are one of many regional art forms that Northern Thai display as a way of asserting local identity, which is seen as having its roots in the Lanna kingdom (1292–1775/1873). See Rebecca Hall, ‘Of merit and ancestors: Buddhist banners of Northern Thailand and Laos’ (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 2008).

41 In interviews with monks and laity, everyone insists that the tung sam hang is burned with the corpse, but I have observed several cremations in which the banner is not burned. I have yet to uncover a specific meaning or purpose for this practice.

42 The strict adherence to a tung sam hang being made only by a male who had previously ordained was emphasised many times in interviews with tung makers and monks in Chiang Mai and Lamphun in December 2014.

43 Chamaipon Phonphenphiphat, Tung: Moradok Phaendin Lanna ตุงมรดกแผ่นดิน้านนา [Banners: Heritage of Lanna] (Bangkok: TJJ Publishing, 2003), p. 139; Wilak Sripasang, ‘Tung’, in Saaraanukrom Wattanatham Thai Phaak Neua สารานุกรมวัฒนธรรมไทยภาคเหนือ [Encyclopedia of Thai culture, Northern Thailand] (Bangkok: Thai Encyclopedia Foundation, 1999/2542), p. 2834.

44 Kingshill, Ku Daeng, p. 162.

45 Interview with Khun Nipphan, Chiang Mai, July 2013; Sripasang, ‘Tung’, p. 2834.

46 Anusaranasasanakiarti and Keyes, ‘Funerary rites and the Buddhist meaning of death’: 23–4.

47 Phra Niran Apiwthano, Tung Lanna phuum panyaa khong banphachon ตุงล้านนาภูมิปัญญาของบรรพชน [Tung: Wisdom of the Lanna ancestors] (Chiang Mai: CMU, 2004), pp. 84–5.

48 Kingshill, Ku Daeng, pp. 159–60.

49 It is unclear whether tung lek tung thong are unique in the funeral setting because they are used with the body but not burned. Nor is it clear why a new set is not created for each funeral. Perhaps this is because of the intrinsic and symbolic value of the metal pieces.

50 Kingshill, Ku Daeng, p. 160.

51 Anusaranasasanakiarti and Keyes, ‘Funerary rites and the Buddhist meaning of death’: 14.

52 Roadside shrines to victims of accidents are common in many places in the world and have been the subject of many studies. See, for example, Catherine Ann Collins and Alexandra Opie, ‘When places have agency: Roadside shrines as traumascapes’, Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 24, 1 (2010): 107–18.

53 Apiwthano, Tung Lanna phuum, p. 82.

54 Sripasang, ‘Tung’, p. 2829.

55 Ibid., p. 2829; Yuphin Khemmuk, Cho lae tung: Silpa haeng sratha phum panya thongthin ช่อและตุง : ศิลป์แห่งศรัทธา ภูมิปัญญาท้องถิ่น [Flags and banners: Art of faith and local knowledge] (Chiang Mai: Institute for Language and Art, Chiang Mai Rajaphat University, 2010), pp. 100–101.

56 This was brought to my attention during an interview with a monk at Wat Nong Bua, Nan province, Feb. 2006.

57 Hall, ‘Of merit and ancestors’, p. 214.

58 Within non-Buddhist Tai groups in Northeast Laos, boats are also connected to the hong bird. Flying boats that are used in shamanic ceremonies are echoed in motifs in ‘shamanic’ textiles and are called heua hong or heua phii. Shamans use these boats to travel to other worlds and to send bad luck away from the sick. Bamboo models of boats are made and hung from shaman trees during healing ceremonies. On the third and final day of the Lao New Year in April, shamans also use boats to send the ancestors back to the afterworld. Patricia Cheesman, Lao–Tai textiles: The textiles of Xam Neua and Muang Phuan (Chiang Mai: Studio Naenna, 2004), pp. 266–7.

59 Prangwatanakun Songsak, Cultural heritage of Tai Lue textiles (Chiang Mai: Faculty of Humanities, CMU, 2008), p. 24.

60 Eberhardt, Imagining the course of life, p. 67.

61 Richard B. Davis, Muang metaphysics: A study of Northern Thai myth and ritual (Bangkok: Pandora, 1984), p. 121; Premchit and Doré, The Lan Na twelve-month traditions, p. 120.

62 Davis, Muang metaphysics, p. 122.

63 David Morgan, The sacred gaze: Religious visual culture in theory and practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 73.

64 Keane, Webb, ‘The evidence of the senses and the materiality of religion’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, ns1 (2008): S124CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

65 See Anusaranasasanakiarti and Keyes, ‘Funerary rites and the Buddhist meaning of death’.

66 Daniel Miller, ‘Materiality: An introduction’, in Materiality, ed. Daniel Miller (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), p. 20.

67 Morgan, ‘Materiality, social analysis, and the study of religions’, in Religion and material culture: The matter of belief, ed. David Morgan (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 56.

68 Miller, ‘Materiality: An introduction’, p. 2.

69 Keane, ‘The evidence of the senses’: S124.