Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles as Primary Sources: Proceedings of the First Symposium of the Textile Society of America, Minneapolis Institute of Art, September 16-18, 1988


Copyright © 1988 by the author(s).


If one observes the principles of Theravada Buddhist art, Thai textiles appear to pose a paradox. On the one hand, Buddhist art is defined as progressing hierarchically from representational to aniconic motifs, replicating movement from worlds of lesser merit to worlds of greater merit. On the other hand, we have the gloriously figurative and expensive garments worn by Thai royalty and adorning gods as depicted in temple murals. How is this seeming discrepancy to be explained?

A recent translation of a section of a larger work by the noted French scholar on Southeast Asia and Buddhism, Paul Mus, titled "The Iconography of an Aniconic Art", codifies the opening premise of this paradox.

. . . whatever its ultimate meaning, the initial formula for Buddhist art appears as a partial aniconism, revealing a hierarchy among styles in which the aniconic is more sacred than the figurative. (Mus 1987:9)

The opposing facet of the paradox is represented in Thai temple murals and the ceremonial life of Thai royalty. For example, in the lower register of a cloth painting (Boisselier, 1976, plate 34, pg. 65) representing the death of the Buddha, laypeople are dressed in their normal garb: figured skirts for women and plaid skirts for men. In the middle register, wearing ornate clothing, are royalty and gods. Finally, in the upper register are members of the Buddhist Sangha, or priesthood, in their totally plain attire. This graphic depiction of the paradox is duplicated both in other murals and in the ceremonial life of Thai royalty. In sum, rather than presenting a smooth progression from figurative to aniconic as suggested by Mus's statement. Thai textiles move from a less ornate style to one that is more ornate to one that is totally plain.

Thus, Thai textiles seemingly contradict the assignment of karmic merit upon which the analysis of Buddhist art is based. This assignment holds that as one achieves greater merit, one moves from lower to upper worlds: one is less constrained by nature (Hanks 1962). Textiles, on the other hand, seem to suggest that this progression is not a straight line, but rather a kind of "j" curve. If one begins at the level of laypeople, two different designs, a plaid pattern for men and a more figurative design for women, are noted. Next, royalty and gods, whether male or female, are presented in elaborately figured, richly woven textiles. Finally, priests and the Buddha appear in extremely plain robes.