The earliest works of art produced on the soil of present day Thailand date from the period of the Kingdom of Dvaravati (6th – 11th century), whose main centres lay within a 100 mile radius of Bangkok, the capital being probably Nakhon Pathom. The Thais had not yet settled in the country, then occupied by the Mons. Other Mon Kingdoms stretched westwards as far as Thaton in Burma. From the 8th century onwards the Khmers pushed forward into the Menam plains until, at the beginning of the 11th century, they annexed the whole Kingdom of Dvaravati. Soon after this, the western Mons were conquered by King Anawratha of Pagan (Burma). Only in the north could the small Mon Kingdom of Haripunjaya (Lamphun) maintain its independence until the end of the 13th century.
Of the architecture of the Dvaravati period only a few foundations and some fragments of buildings in Lamphun have been preserved, but we know various early forms of the stupa from stone models and carvings. A comparatively late Mon stupa is preserved at Wat Kukut, near Lamphun. It was restored in its present form in 1218 after an earthquake. It was a slender pyramid composed of five storeys; the top, with the spire, is now missing.
The main object of Thai sculpture during the whole course of its history has always been the creation of Buddha images. As in other Asian countries, these followed the canons of the traditional iconography which had been worked out in India (Mathura and Gandhara) in the 2nd century. Of the 32 major and 80 minor physical signs of a Buddha mentioned in the texts, only a few principal features are actually represented in art. The bodily proportions are perfectly harmonious, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. The arms are smooth and rounded like an elephant’s trunk, the legs like those of a gazelle, the hands like opening lotus-buds with the finger-tips bent back. The hair falls into short locks curled to the right, the lobes of the ears are long, and the face has the oval shape of a mangoseed. On his palms and soles the Buddha has the sign of the “Wheel of the Law”. As a sign of Enlightenment he has a hemispherical knob (ushnisha) on top of his head. In Thai figures this is almost always topped by a lotus-bud or a pointed flame.
Of the four positions (sitting, standing, walking or reclining) in which the Buddha can be represented, the seated posture is the commonest. The posture (legs crossed or one above the other) and the various positions of the hands (mudras) have symbolic significance. The hands in the lap, with open palms, one above the other, denote meditation (samadhi-rnudra). in the dharmacakra-mudra (“Turning of the Wheel of the Law”) the hands are raised to the breast, and one describes the motion of the wheel. This symbolises the Buddha’s first sermon in the deer-park at Benares. The raised hand with the palm outwards is the protective or “fearless” gesture (abhaya-mudra), while in the varada (“favour-granting”) mudra the hand is turned downwards with the palm inwards.
The favourite form in Thai art by far is the bhumisparsha (“earth-touching”) or maravijaya (“tempter-conquering”) mudra, with the right hand on the knee, the fingers pointing to the ground. This means that the Buddha is calling on the earth to bear witness to his Enlightenment.
The Buddha is shown standing or walking, “taming the mad elephant” which his jealous cousin Devadatta had sent against him, or “descending from the heavens” on a mythical ladder after preaching there to his mother and an assembly of deities.
The reclining figure shows the Buddha “passing into Nirvana”. The base of the sculpture is frequently a lotus-flower, the symbol of man’s “Buddha-nature” which is untarnished by the mud of the transient world.
Sometimes the Enlightened One is seated on the coiled body of a snake whose seven heads are spread out protectively above him. There are several legends to explain this: according to one, the Buddha sat under a tree after his Enlightenment while it rained for seven days and nights till the earth was flooded. Then a snake (naga) appeared, lifted him with its coils above the surface of the water, and protected him from the rain with its seven heads.
It is strange to the western way of thinking that all Buddha images, whether they are mere casts or masterpieces, are copies. The intention is to preserve the special strong healing or magic power associated with certain famous cult images. But though in this way certain stylistic features of, e.g., Gupta sculpture became widespread, it is clear that such “copies” were never exact imitations or reproductions; otherwise there would have been no development such as we in fact find in Buddhist sculpture.
The Dvaravati figures are still close to the Indian originals, but a number of statues are found which differ from their models in posture and gestures. One of the most impressive sculptures of this period is the colossal seated figure (3.70 meter high) in Wat Phra Pathom at Nakhon Pathom. Bronzes from this period are widespread: being fairly small they are easily portable.