The Thaworawatthu Building is showcasing a collection of intriguing 47 gilded black lacquered cabinets to celebrate Rattanakosin art. (Photo: Varuth Hirunyatheb)
The Year of the Rabbit provides an occasion for the “Gilded Black Lacquer Cabinet” exhibition at the historic Thaworawatthu Building to present a new collection, the majority of which is featured in the Gold-Motif Cabinets: Series 2 (Rattanakosin Era) Book 1.
Ideal for art students and those interested in Thailand’s rich history and cultural legacy, the exhibition was first introduced in 2019 with a focus on classic designs from the Ayutthaya and Thon Buri periods to honour Thailand’s top-notch craftsmanship. This time around, it has shifted to Rattanakosin-style art to demonstrate how artisans maintained customs and local knowledge through religious artworks as times changed.
With limited space, the exhibition displays a rare selection of 47 gilded black lacquered cabinets from the Somdet Phra Narai National Museum in Lop Buri as well as the treasury of the National Library of Thailand on Samsen Road and the National Museums in Pathum Thani.
“The first printing of Gold-Motif Cabinets: Series 2 (Rattanakosin Era) Book 1 was published in 1986 and included black-and-white images of cabinets. But this reproduction will contain a selection of colourful images to show sophisticated patterns, and readers and art students can attend this exhibition to learn from the original ones,” said Siwaporn Chalermsri, ancient language officer at the National Library of Thailand.
Back in the reign of King Rama V, HRH Prince Damrong Rajanubhab served as the interior minister and came across several gilded black lacquer cabinets while travelling around the country for the construction of infrastructure projects.
During the reign of King Rama III, a quartet of manuscript cabinets in the Rattanakosin style were created to represent the pilgrimage to Sri Lanka and the first to third revivals of the Buddhist canon.
He requested permission from King Chulalongkorn to exhibit them at various events so that the young generation could learn about culture and craftsmanship. As a result, the collection increased from 130 to more than 300 pieces thanks to numerous contributions.
King Chulalongkorn also used them as bookcases at the Hor Phra Samut Vajirayana Samrap Phra Nakhon (Vajirayana Library for the Capital City) and they were generally made of teak, daeng and teng wood.
This ongoing exhibition is rearranged into nine themes and a vintage French-style tower clock, which Prince Damrong bestowed to Hor Phra Samut Vajirayana, acts as a fantastic portal to take visitors back in time to the period when Siam became a vital marine commercial hub, creating a cultural melting pot.
An assortment of ancient cabinets from various periods and styles seems to be a prelude to revealing their functions to store books, manuscripts and other precious items. Buddhist concepts were repeated through the use of lai rot nam (splashed water patterns) on gilded lacquered wood and lai kammalo, which employed Chinese colours instead of lacquer to inlay with stained glass.
“The flexibility given to artists to express their ideas resulted in the intricate and delicate appearance of the Ayutthaya-style patterns. Since they were built on free forms, each panel can have a distinct design and might not be continuous,” Siwaporn said.
“Thon Buri-era artists embraced Ayutthaya-style art, although their creations were less delicate, yet still exquisite. The Rattanakosin-style cabinets resembled paintings seen in temples. Sketching was required, and artists focused more on symmetry and filling every square inch of space.”
A pig-legged cabinet displays a troop of angels and demons serving as guardians.
The cabinets come with different legs, bases and other components. For instance, the lion-feet cabinets feature legs sculpted with a lion’s paw walking on glass balls, and the lion-based cabinets have a flat top with a lotus motif facing up. The pig-legged cabinets have four straight rectangular legs, while the bent-legged cabinets have straight legs that curl inward beneath the cabinet.
Visitors will see the lion-legged Ayutthaya-style manuscript cabinet with designs of rice ears and wild animals, created by Wat Serng-Wai School artists. The Thon Buri-style, pig-legged cabinet depicts demons holding Narayana with a background of kanok (a trellis of flame pattern).
The centrepiece of the domed chamber is a quartet of towering Rattanakosin-style manuscript cabinets crafted during the reign of King Rama III. Starting on the left side, the continuous episodes illustrate the first to third grand Buddhist councils convened to revise the Buddhist canon, while monk Buddhaghosa travelled to Sri Lanka to preach Buddhist principles, according to Mahavamsa, the Great Chronicle of Sri Lanka.
Then you may imagine you’re on a pilgrimage to Sri Lanka to worship the Buddha’s footprints in accordance with a record written by monks, who visited the Ceylon kingdom during the reign of King Rama II.
The Na Phra Lan tunnel offers tourists and locals convenience. (Photos: Pattarawadee Saengmanee)
The paintings of everyday life show boats as a primary mode of transportation and how local villagers embraced Chinese culture to create elegant porcelain dinnerware for use in various religious rites, and the expansion of Western influence into Siam through the invention of telescopes.
A scenario from the Ramakien epic has been recreated in the next room where a classic Rattanakosin-style pig-legged cabinet depicts Phra Ram and Hanuman confronting an army of demons. At the same time, a masterpiece from the Somdet Phra Narai National Museum captures the scene of Phra Ram and Phra Lak riding elephants through the Himmapan forest, which is home to mythical creatures like the orahan (a hybrid of a human and bird). All designs were influenced by khon mask dance.
As you go further, you will find a number of manuscript cabinets that display Tavaraban (the gatekeeper) in a mixture of Thai and Chinese designs. According to Buddhist scriptures, demons would flee if they saw the Indra replica from afar, thus pilgrims have created statues of god guards to defend holy religious places from danger.
The unique pig-legged cabinet illustrates a squad of angels and demons rather than a pair, while another one depicts a demon and monkey holding Phra Lak and a guardian. After that, visitors can learn more about Buddha’s life. The pig-legged cabinet depicts Brahma and deities gathering at the front of the Chulamani Chedi, which is located in Tavatimsa heaven, to listen to Buddha’s sermon.
The iconic scenes are the Buddha riding his horse Kanthaka before entering monkhood and the Buddha shaving his head with a dagger on the bank of the Anoma Nathi River. Some scenes from Pathomsomphot and Pannasa Jataka illustrate how Buddha lived in the forest while animals searched for food.
A collection of 130 centuries-old stone sculptures of foreigners and mythical creatures at the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
The Thaworawatthu Building is showcasing the collection of intriguing 47 gilded black lacquered cabinets to celebrate Rattanakosin art.
The final room is about theHimmapan forest, home of legendary creatures like the kinnaree, the paksawayu, which resembles a garuda, and the nok sadayu, which has a swan tail and human-like musculature. Wat Dusidaram Worawihan’s ancient cabinet depicts a number of erotic scenes, including a group of ascetics with fruits in the shape of ladies, Hanuman flirting with Suphan Matcha, and a swarm of mythical Himmapan animals mating during the rainy season.
Just a short stroll from the Thaworawatthu Building, visitors can walk down the newly opened pedestrian tunnel, which cost 1.1 billion baht to link the intersection of Na Phra Lan and Na Phra That roads with Sanam Luang and Wat Phra Kaew’s entrances.
This 96m underground walkway is growing in popularity among travel bloggers and young people who are obsessed with taking selfies. A large map identifies the locations of key historical landmarks and tourist attractions on Rattanakosin Island as well as along the Chao Phraya River, and its walls are decorated with a collection of old photographs that show how this area has evolved over the past century.
Going up to Wat Phra Kaew, visitors can round off a sightseeing tour by viewing 130 centuries-old stone statues representing various nationalities and mythical creatures, which were unearthed during road maintenance near the temple’s wall.
The Fine Arts Department carried out excavation and restoration prior to their installation on the temple grounds. The sculptures may have been bought from China as maritime merchants employed them to balance the ship’s weight on their trip back to Siam.
Some historians believe that the statues were placed in the temple during the reign of King Rama V to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of Bangkok in 1882. However, there are no records of the time they were taken.
The “Gilded Black Lacquer Cabinet” exhibition is on view at Thaworawatthu Building on Na Phra That Road. It is open from 9am to 4pm, Wednesday to Sunday.
Na Phra Lan Tunnel is open daily from 8am to 6pm.
An illustration of mythological Himmapan creatures mating during the rainy season can be seen on the cabinet from Wat Dusidaram Worawihan.
The lion-legged cabinet tells the story of monk Xuanzang’s fabled journey to the West.
The pig-legged cabinet depicts Brahma and deities gathering at the front of the Chulamani Chedi to listen to Buddha’s sermon.
The traditional Rattanakosin pig-legged cabinet shows Hanuman and Phra Ram battling a horde of demons.
The Na Phra Lan tunnel provides tourists and local residents with convenience. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
A collection of 130 centuries-old stone sculptures of foreigners and mythical creatures are catching the eyes of visitors at the Emerald Buddha Temple. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)