The introduction of Western style art to Thailand is often attributed to the Italian Corrado Feroci who established Silphakorn University in 1932 and is now known to Thais as The Father of Modern Art. But in fact nearly 100 years earlier a Thai monk named Khrua In Khong was painting large temple murals using Western themes and techniques. His work can still be seen at Wat Boromniwat and Wat Bowonniwet where his murals are quite unlike those seen in Bangkok’s other major temples. Using a palette of dark blues and greens he paints scenes of people in European dress, grand buildings and modern technology. So who was this monk painting scenes of the modern Western world yet to be seen in Bangkok at that time and how were such murals appropriate in a Buddhist temple? This is the story of Khrua In Khong, a Thai Buddhist artist who painted futuristic riddles.
A Very Influential Patron
Little is actually known about Khrua In Khong himself. It is believed that he was born in Bang Chan, Phetchaburi, but his date of birth is unknown as is the date and place of his death. He ordained as a monk at Wat Ratchaburana (Wat Liab) in Bangkok where he started painting murals. He was reputed to have been very reclusive, supposedly often locking himself inside his “kuti” or quarters to avoid other people. Nevertheless it would seem that during the 1830’s his artistic talents came to the notice of a very influential monk and patron, Phra Vajirayan Bhikkhu, the abbot of Wat Samorai (Today Wat Ratchathiwat).
Phra Vajirayan is better known today by the name bestowed upon him in 1851, King Mongkut (Rama IV). In 1824 Mongkut’s father Phra Phutthaloetla (Rama II) had died and his half-brother ascended the throne as Phra Nangklao (Rama III). Meanwhile Mongkut, at that time known as Chao Fah Yai, entered the monkhood with the ordination name Vajirayan and remained there throughout the 27 year reign of his half-brother. On the death of Phra Nangklao in 1851 Phra Vajirayan left the monkhood to be appointed King Mongkut.
Mongkut came of age at the start of a period when Europe and America were engaging with Asia more forcefully than ever before. Westerners were arriving in Siam to trade, bringing with them technology far beyond what was known locally. Trade negotiations based on European notions were backed by military technology unmatched by local powers. Whereas the older generation of Rama III held the Westerners off with extreme caution, the younger Mongkut was fascinated by the new scientific ideas and the technology that these Westerners brought with them.
During Mongkut’s 27 years in the monkhood he set about synthesising his Buddhist beliefs with the new rationalist scientific thinking he was learning from Westerners. Mongkut was influenced by monks who favoured strict adherence to monastic rules and came to the belief that Buddhism needed to be purified and stripped of animist and other non-canonical influences. In 1835 he started a reform movement which developed into the Dhammayut Order promoting a stricter adherence to Buddhist teachings and more rational theology. In 1836 he was appointed the abbot of a new temple on the outskirts of the city called Wat Bowonniwet which was paired with a second forest temple outside of the city boundaries, Wat Boromniwat. At these temples Mongkut developed and promoted his Dhammayut movement and it is here that he was aided by the mural artist Khrua In Khong.
Metaphors in the Murals
Temple murals were never mere decoration but rather aids to remind followers of stories about the Buddha’s life and his message about the way to achieve enlightenment called “Dhamma“. In Thailand particular stories are popular themes for mural paintings, with Mae Thorani commonly seen above the entrance, depictions of Mount Meru often behind the principal Buddha image and stories from The Ten Great Birth Stories of the Buddha, particularly the Vessantara Jataka, around the walls. But many of these stories are non-canonical, that is not part of the Buddha’s teachings from the Tipitaka and Mongkut viewed these stories as the “husks and the dirty and nasty trash that have accumulated”. For his new Dhammayut temples he engaged Khrua In Khong to convey the message of the Buddha in a radically new way, cleansed of popular “trash”.
Khrua In Khong’s murals embraced modernity by the very style of painting. Gone were the highly stylised painting of tradition and instead he used Western techniques of realism, three dimensional perspective and light and shade. Vivid colours of red, green, yellow and gold that dominate traditional murals were replaced by dark shades of blue and green. Gone were the images of villagers, monks, kings and deities. Instead he painted predominantly ordinary people but dressed in European fashion. The backgrounds vary from dark and intimidating forests to magnificent buildings quite unlike anything to be seen in 1830’s Bangkok. Modern technology also featured prominently with steam ships, railways and telescopes displayed.
It would appear that the instructions that Mongkut gave Khrua in Khong for these murals was to depict Buddhism in the context of a modern, Euro-American world, embracing the modernity they saw being brought to them by Westerners. Rather than depicting popular stories of the Buddha’s lives these paintings were to provide guidance to the viewer on the way to seek the truth of Buddhist dhamma through the use of subtle clues. In case these clues were a bit too subtle explanations were written under each painting. Although we cannot be sure on the authorship of these texts they closely match the writing style of Mongkut himself. These allegorical paintings have become known as “Dhamma Riddles”
Solving the Dhamma Riddles
In Wat Boromniwat one of the largest murals is of ships crossing the ocean. The Buddha is compared to a ship’s captain, the Buddhist sangha or clergy his crew. The ship representing the Buddhist dhamma carries them to nirvana represented by the far shore with a Buddhist chedi. The chedi is of Mon design, in fact very similar to Phra Samut Chedi at the mouth of the Chao Phraya river. Mongkut favoured Mon Buddhist tradition as being purer than the Siamese monastic tradition of the period. Note that this analogy of dhamma being a boat carrying people across the ocean of samsara to nirvana was not in itself novel. In fact contemporary with this art work, Mongkut’s conservative half-brother King Rama III was building Wat Yannawa, a temple shaped like a Chinese ship.
Other interesting details in this mural include a re-creation of the famous American painting Watson and the Whale, as well as images of people riding side-saddle, this being a new invention perfected in the 1830’s by Jules Pellier.
Looking to the left of the scene of sailing ships one sees a man standing below a statue of the Greek goddess Athena speaking to the crowd and pointing towards an impressive domed building. This is probably a depiction of George Washington pointing the way to the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.1 King Mongkut was known to be impressed with descriptions of American democratic government. This painting appears to be an attempt to compare nirvana with the earthly “miracle” of a democratically run nation and implying that Buddhism is compatible with modern democratic ideas. The Buddha himself is said to have described nirvana as the “ancient capital…..a delightful place” which is painted here as America.
On the opposite wall another large mural of horsemen training shows men in military uniform racing their horses whilst others cheer from the sidelines. The explanation below relates that the person skilled in training and riding horses is like the Buddha who is skilled at teaching the way of dhamma, that is the path to enlightenment.
To the right of the horsemen training is a scene of a horse carriage accident with injured people being carried to a nearby hospital for treatment. The hospital building with its prominent columns may have been based upon Greenwich Hospital for Seamen in London. Doctors in top hats are seen to be treating patients in the hospital grounds. Some people are seen drinking curative waters from a fountain. The inscription below compares the Buddha to a doctor, the doctor curing ailments in the same way that the Buddha cures defilements.
The Strange Case of the Giant Lotus
Perhaps the most famous mural of Khrua In Khong shows a group of people, again in European dress, standing around a lotus pond admiring a lotus flower of gigantic proportions. The depiction of lotus flowers and their use as an analogy is not uncommon in Buddhism (Take a visit to see the lotus filled murals of Wat Pathum Wanaram on Rama I Road, another favourite temple of King Mongkut). In the Buddhist Tipitaka the Buddha who arises from the world to reach nirvana is likened to a lotus flower which rises beautiful and fresh from unclean waters. Indeed the inscription below this mural states that the lotus has “magical scent more so than all others” and that it “rises beautifully from the water.” The smell is likened to the Buddhist teachings of dhamma and the monks of the sangha to the people who come to admire the lotus.
But the enormous lotus flower of Khrua In Khong’s mural once again holds a hidden and this time partly acccidental message linking Buddhism with modern times. Because at the time that he was painting, the Victorian world was gripped with excitement about a giant lotus discovered in 1837 by the Amazon explorer Sir Richard Schomburgk. The lotus was named Victoria Amazonia after Britain’s new queen, crowned that same year. In January1838 the popular Penny Magazine published an article about this new discovery, with a picture portraying an enormous lotus flower, similar in size to some people nearby in a boat. In this age before photography few knew that this was an exaggeration. It would not be until 1849 that Victoria Amazonia was grown successfully in Britain so that more people could understand that it was the lotus leaves that were truly gigantic. The flower although large was not the two meter wide “vegetable wonder” depicted in the popular press.
It would appear that when Mongkut and Khrua In Khong were working together on the murals at Wat Boromniwat they had read articles based on these early misleading pictures. Their message was that the emergence of new scientific discoveries is the same as the revelations of dhamma. Linking his new temples with this newly discovered giant lotus Mongkut was signalling the modernity of his new Dhammayut school of Buddhism.
In Khong’s Influences
This leads us to the question of what else influenced the creation of these radically modern murals. Khrua In Khong never left Siam so never had an opportunity to see the the modern buildings and railways that he was painting. Almost certainly the images of European and American modernity came from books and journals that Mongkut was receiving from his numerous Western contacts whilst still the abbot of Wat Bowonniwet. For example Mongkut is known to have been given a copy of William and Thomas Birch’s The City of Philadelphia, in the State of Pennsylvania, North America, as it appeared in the Year 1800, a volume which contained plentiful drawings of buildings that could have been used as a basis for Khrua in Khong’s paintings. The appearance in the murals of a telescope and depictions of the planets also would appear to be due to Mongkut’s well known interest in Western astronomy which he promoted in place of traditional Buddhist cosmology.
Another intriguing inspiration is mentioned by Prince Damrong Rachanuphab (1862 – 1943) who wrote that Khrua In Khong was inspired by “those pictures made of paper that white people stick to the walls of their houses”. It appears that this Western fashion of interior decoration also became popular with the Thai elite as Edmund Roberts, the American envoy who negotiated the first US-Siam Treaty in 1833, wrote that when he visited the house of the Minister of Trade, Dit Bunnag, he saw the walls covered with “common English prints of battles” and “rural scenery”.
The Politics of Dhammayut and Modernism
It is impossible to understand the inspiration for Khrua In Khong’s fascinating murals without considering the position and view point of his sponsor Phra Vajirayan, later King Mongkut. Mongkut’s 27 years in the monkhood kept him away from overt politics and avoided any potentially dangerous conflict with his half-brother Rama III. But Mongkut’s continued interest in new ideas coming from the West and his Dhammayut Order’s emphasis on rationalism and rejection of non-canonical practices and beliefs caused some tension with the more conservative elite (For example, his insistence that monks re-ordain using Mon based practices, implied that existing ordination practices were invalid). Nevertheless Rama III appears to have tolerated his younger brother’s small radical order on the outskirts of Bangkok, whilst he himself continued to sponsor traditional style temples (He built or repaired some 50 temples, frequently using Chinese architectural styles).
On one level Khrua In Khong’s murals are arguments on the validity of Buddhist dhamma as promoted by the new Dhammayut Order. Although Mongkut embraced many Western ideas he never left behind his strong Buddhist faith. The murals argue that Buddhism is as effective as Christian doctors at healing, that the search for good government is equivalent to the search for nirvana and that Buddhist dhamma can transport people to “the delightful city” just as a modern train carries people into a city. They are arguing that these new Western technologies are in fact further accomplishments of enlightenment.
But with Khrua In Khong’s help Mongkut was also creating an advertisement of his engagement with Western culture and technology at a time when Rama III and many of the Siamese elite were still looking towards China as the cultural centre of the world. Khrua In Khong’s murals in fact provided an education to the Siamese populace in the cultural practices and the technologies that would be coming from Europe and America. In this way, prior to his elevation to the throne, he was demonstrating to others in the ruling elite, that he was best placed to negotiate Siam’s place in this future dominated by Western culture and technology. He was positioning himself against more conservative forces within the Siamese elite, forces that he would continue to challenge through-out the 17 years of his reign.
There is considerable uncertainty about the exact period when Khrua In Khong painted his famous murals. Mongkut was the abbot of Wat Bowonniwet from 1834 to 1851 after which he was king until his death in 1868. The years 1837 to 1847 are considered by McBain to be the most likely period for the work whereas Clark appears to support a later and more vague period of “1850s to 1860s”, which would seem to be incongruent with Mongkut’s role as abbot and patron of Khrua In Khong. Some of the scenes are problematic when applying the earlier dates before Mongkut’s coronation. It is hard not to see Khrua In Khong’s railway “into the delightful city” as closely resembling an underground train. But London’s Metropolitan Railway, the world’s first underground railway did not open until 1863. Also in the scene of George Washington pointing the way to the city, McBain describes the building as “an imperfect representation of the United States Capitol, with its domed top and Grecian pillars”. The problem here is that the famous dome on Washington DC’s Capitol was not competed until 1866. It is possible the murals underwent restoration work and perhaps changes after Mongkut became king. These problems of dating remain unreconciled.
Header Image : Wat Boromniwat main Buddha image Phra Thosaphonlayan with Khrua In Khong mural behind depicting to the lower left a revolving telescope used for astronomy and to the lower right a train entering a tunnel below a city.
Where to Go
The photographs used in this article were all taken at Wat Boromniwat. The open interior of this temple makes taking photographs of the murals much easier. Wat Bowonniwet has internal pillars which obstruct a clear view of the murals there.
Buy Me a Coffee
- McBain, Paul. The Murals of Khrua In Khong: Enlightenment is Happening Everywhere. Journal of the Siam Society, Vol 110, Pt2, 2022.
- John Clark. Khrua In Khong. The Asia Modern, 2013
- Meer, J. H. Rattanakosin Era Mural Painting. Newsletter National Museum Volunteers, NMVJune2010.pdf
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