The costant image

The history of Southeast Asia, as the world becomes increasingly aware, is exceedingly complex. The migrations of different peoples of diverse racial strains into that hot and river-laced area, couples with the ambitions of nations on its perimeter, resulted in a shifting scene of confrontations and conflict. However, in spite of this, the inhabittants of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma continued to develop their remarkable artistic genius and innate religious sense.

In the past, as now, Thailand stood somewhat apart from its neighbors, partly because of its geographical position. The early settlers in the region were the Mon, an off-shoot of the Khmer, who established themselves on the lower reaches of the Chao Phya river, but it was the Thais, slowly making their way down from southern China who finally made the land their own. They could do this relatively easily because their arrival coincided more or less with the decay of the Khmer Empire; they moved into a power vacuum. Intermarrying with the Mon they began to spread out, till finally they occupied the whole countrry, though they spent generations warring with the Burmese to the west and the Khmer to the east.

From the 5th century A.D. onwards, the region had been an inviting field for missionaries. Long before the THais arrived, Buddhists and Brahmins, and at last even the followers of Islam, had been coming from the west, seeking converts. The Thai became hinayana Buddhists, but continued to mingle the religion of their adoption with an admixture of their ancient animistic beliefs. The Hinayana or Lesser VEhicle of Buddhism, the austere branch of the faith, suited them much more than the Greater Vehicle, the Mayahana, with its love of sensuous beauty, ritual and metaphysical argument. Having once decided upon the Hinayana, the early doctrine, there They stayed. The Thais did not care for speculation or innovation; they were content with the pure, the simple, the absolute, a choice evidenced in this superb head from Ayudhya.

That old capital on the river, whose very name is unknown to most of us, was, in 1617 according to the directors of the East India Company, as great as London. The Abbe de Choisy, who was there in 1685, wrote of it with enthusiasm; larger than Paris, he said, and magnificent with its gilded pagodas, and the splendid royal enclave, set apart from the town. The peasants were well sustained by fertile rice fields; it seemed to him that he had never seen a lovelier view than Ayudhya afforded.

This bronze Buddha may have been cast there in the 12th century, but possibly in the 13th or 14th. It is of the "U-t'ong" style which was the result of a fusion of the model of the Buddha made in the southeast of the country, as at Ayudhya, and the sort created in the north in the kingdom of Sukhothai. In spite of the fact that this head has been roughly from its body, and that the flame protuberence which once rose from the head is missing, it remains essentially unhurt. It conforms to the image of the Buddha which the Thais admired, derived from one supposedly made during the life of the founder of the religion, and therefore presumed a true likeness and potent.

From this pattern, preserved as a tradition by the coservative Thai devotees, images were made which were considered repositories of power. Workd were seldom dated and, as they conformed to exact canons, generally defy exact placing.

The traditional image which the Mon/Khmer people admired had a broad face, everted lips -- their contours emphasized by an incised line -- the hedddress, the crown of Hellenic curls, separated from the forehead by a strong horizontal line. In the head we are considering, northern influence can be discerned in the elegance, even sophistication, devout as the figure. The U-t'ong pieces brought together these tendencies in the happiest of fusions; the southern craftsman lost his heavy, sometimes clumsy, line without surrendering the strength of his concept; the northerner, while not parting from a discreet subtlety, is restrained from that "prettiness" which made many later works lose their power.

These Buddha images with their soft, smooth faces, strong chins, and veiled inward-looking eyes attest, for all their suavity, a faith rooted in a reality unperceived by the world of the senses. The untroubled secret look of this image, its stillness, is reassuring. It may well have been fashioned in a time of stress and dismay, but the artist presents another vision, undisturbed by the tumult of the world. That it affords neither date nor context is fitting. Art of this sort needs no calendar.

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