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  The Story behind the Buddha Image      
 

As the Buddha lay dying in 543 B.C. the sorrowing Ananda asked how he and other disciples might remember their spiritual leader. Buddha suggested that they raise mounds of earth – an ancient Hindu practice. These, he said, would serve as reminders, not of him, but of his teachings. Within the Buddhist tradition, then, the earthen mounds gradually evolved into the stops surmounted by tall spires that are scattered throughout Asia. As time passed, some Buddhists began seeking more tangible reminders of their Great Teacher. Central Pakistan, at that time, was a center of Buddhist learning with universities at Jaulian and Taxila. The technique of sculpting representations of human forms was new to Pakistani artisans, so they turned to the people who knew how to bring stone to life: artisans from Alexander the Great’s army. (These and other deserters had remained behind when Alexander returned to Greece. The ex-soldiers married local women and fathered generations of children that to this day have sandy hair and green or brown eyes.) Among the ancient Greek customs, which they retained, was stone carving. So when Buddhists sought Buddha images, they looked to the Greeks to create them.

The craft then came to Thailand via India and Sri Lanka. But Thai sculptors turned from wood and stone to metal, drawing on 55 centuries of a bronze-crafting tradition that had emerged high on the Korat Plateau, near the Mekong River. There, perhaps as early as 3,500 B.C., craftsmen cast bronze spear points, jewelry, musical instruments, and kitchen utensils embossed with attractive swirls and patterns.

By the 13th century, Thais had perfected the art, evolving their own style of Buddha image, a smooth figure in each of the four principal positions: standing, walking, seated, and lying as the Buddha was at his death. This Sukhothai style was unique in Asian art; and, although the kingdom itself survived only a century, the art has endured as one of the most striking expressions of Asian creative endeavour.

At first, images were found only in Thai temples. Over the centuries, however, Buddhists came to incorporate special meditation rooms in their homes. Dominating these altars were bronze Buddha images which was propitiated daily with flowers and incense sticks. Small foundries created the images they required.

And Buddha bronze casting is still a cottage craft today. The workshops resemble Greek studio, ateliers with sunlight seeping through holes in the roof, the dusty air turning the light into laser rays that seem to pierce the floor and the objects lying on it.

In these small open-air workshops, artisans knead a clumb of clay into the rough contours of a man seated with his legs crossed in lotus fashion. On this base, women pat layer upon layer of beeswax, shaping it with bamboo knives and styluses to the exact contours of a meditating figure of the Buddha. Tiny crown details and other ornaments are shaped and affixed separately till the completed wax figure exactly prefigures the finished image. Other women then brush a liquified mud solution over the wax, taking special care to ensure that every detail is encased.

Strictly speaking, the images are not meant as representations of the Buddha. Instead, they embody the lakshanas, or characteristics mentioned in ancient Sa-skrit texts, which noted point by point, the physical marks by which the Buddha would be recognized when he was reborn.

 

  These included fingers of equal length, arms long enough to enable the Buddha to touch either knee without bending down, hair in tight curls, and blue eyes. Most of the 32 lakshanas have been incorporated into the images that Asian sculptors through the centuries have wrought in stone, wood, stucco, and bronze.

Once the molds are finished, the images are cast and consecrated in one of the most colourful and impressive rites in Thailand. The molds are carried to a monastery courtyard and placed in temporary kilns of bricks stacked head high. As the heat rises, the wax melts and runs out, leaving behind a cavity the exact contours of a finished image, a ‘lost wax’ process that has been employed for more than 2,000 years. All night the fires burn until, at sunrise, the last embers smolder to ashes and the molds are left to cool while the exhausted workers go home to sleep.
Early in the afternoon, they return to build new fires to heat the cauldrons. Bronze ingots melt into a molten mass that glows an iridescent greenish-yellow rivaling the afternoon sun.

The first guests to filter into the monastery courtyard are Brahman priests dressed in pristine white dhotsia, a costume handed down from the ancient pre-Hindu courts of India. These priests oversee state ceremonies and royal rites of passage which date from the courts or Angkor Wat, from whence they were brought as captives after Thai armies overran that Khmer city in the 16th century. The mere fact that these figures are presiding is a mark of the exalted status of this particular ceremony.

Now the Supreme Patriarch, the spiritual leader of Thailand’s 50 million Buddhist, arrives with his retinue. Dipping a whisk in a silver bowl, he chants prayers as he blesses the congregation and the workmen by flecking scented lustful water on their heads. He steps to a low platform to lead the seated monks in a long prayer delivered in resonant tones.

The ceremony serves a double purpose: it both provides images for the devout and it secures funds for important monastery projects. In appreciation for money donated to repair a temple roof, the abbot has commissioned the casting of the images and arranged the ceremony to consecrate them for presentation to the donors.

The workmen break the kilns and transfer the molds to long racks along the ground. Other workmen skim the slag off the bubbling bronze, scooping the molten liquid into long-handled ladles. A sacred thread is then strung from the temple through the Supreme Patriarch’s praying hands and tied to the handles of one of the large two-man ladles.

At one side of the gathering, the Brahmans strike up propitiatory music, banging a strident wail on a gold rimmed conch shell. It is believed that the angels love music and will be drawn to watch over the ceremony, their presence giving added blessing to the images.

The workmen then pour the ten principal images, the molten bronze flowing into the two holes of the mold. Other workmen stand with wetted clay ready to staunch any leaks.

After the principal images are poured, the chief Brahman flicks lustful water from a conch shell onto each mold to bless it. After he and the Supreme Patriarch leave, the workmen begin the hot work of pouring the rest of the 300 images as the late afternoon sun blazes down. It is long after dark before the work is completed.

The following morning the molds are carried to the foundry.

Strewn about the floor and yard are numerous Buddha images in various stages of completion. The air reverberates with the hiss of welders, the whir of grinding discs and the crackle of fire under cauldrons. The metallic scent of bronze being burnished blends with the dust motes hanging in the sunlight, which pours through chinks in the tile roof.

In this smithy-like setting, the outer clay of the mold is broken away to reveal the rough images inside. Now begins the final smoothing and polishing. The conduits, which were molded into the clay to direct the melted bronze into the remote sections of the image, have cooled to solid veins. The tiny bubble holes must now be filled and the outer surface polished.

In the past, files and sandpaper were employed to smooth the images, a laborious task lasting months. These days, electric sanders and buffers do the job in a fraction of the time. Despite the labour saving devices, though, it will take nearly a year before all the images are ready for presentation. In the meantime, they must be covered with a brass skin a neared with welding torches to the bronze body. Once finished, they will be buffed to a golden sheen and stored, glowing softly in the shadows of the workshop.

After the presentation ceremony the images will occupy revered places in recipients’ homes. The abbot, meanwhile, will have completed the repairs to his monastery roof in time for the monsoon rains. It is a tradition as old as Thailand, a survivour in a land in which little of antique value can survive in the headlong rush to propitiate a new god: Industrialization, for whom all sacrifices are made.
 
         
  Write and story by Steve Van Beek.