Wat Benjamabophit, The Marble Temple (Photo credit: Tarikabdelmonem/Flickr)

Excited to tour around temples in Bangkok’s old town? A great way to add to your trip is to learn a little about religious art in Thailand before you go.

Refreshing your knowledge (and learning something new) about Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity will add an extra layer to your experience walking past house shrines, large golden temples, mosques and churches throughout the kingdom.

“Thailand’s cultural and historical backgrounds have shaped it into a country filled with amazing contrasts, where diversity forms a coherent whole,” says The Culture Trip in this article.

The article explores the religious art of Thailand’s Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and Christian groups and see how their respective temples, mosques and churches reflect the country’s rich heritage.

1. Hinduism

Gold embellished Garuda (Photo credit: Alice Mann/The Culture Trip)

During the long development of temple art, Hindu elements were introduced into Thai iconography. As a result, some of the Hindu gods can be seen represented in Thai temples; examples include the four-armed Vishnu, the half-man half-bird Garuda, the eight-armed Shiva or the elephant-headed Ganesh. Though there is, to an extent, a belief in some of the Hindu gods in Thailand, the religion hasn’t affected the nation’s principal philosophies and theologies, which have always been closely related to Theravada Buddhism.

2. Buddhism

A Yaksha guarding the entrance of a temple

Despite influences from other religions, the art of Buddhism is omnipresent, and visible especially in the multitude of wats, or Buddhist temples and monasteries, across Thailand. Roof tiers, for example, are an important element of Thai temples. There is a colour scheme typical for Bangkok temple roofs: orange, ochre, green, red and white. Gold also plays an important role, as applying it to constructions is very common and the basis upon which the impressive effect of tall Buddha statues or chedis, also known as stupas, is built. The origin of the chedi can be traced back to India, where it acted as a place to store relics; it has retained this original function to an extent, as its Buddhist counterpart is supposed to store the relics of Buddha. The most typical form, the bell shape, comes from Sri Lanka.

One of the most significant elements of the decoration of Thai temples is visible at the edge of the roof, at the gable ends. The serpent-shaped figures residing there evoke the Naga, a snake-like god from Indian mythology, which, in Thailand, appears as snake or dragon and is supposed to protect the temple’s treasures. Also serving as guardians, big Yaksha figures, or benevolent nature spirits, stand at portals of temples and prevent demons from entering these holy places.

3. Islam

Bangkok mosque (Photo credit: Alice Mann/The Culture Trip)

The second-largest religious group in Thailand are the Muslims. Their religion affects art especially through the mosques, which have no specific or typical style in Southeast Asia, but are influenced by Indian, Arab and Chinese designs. Importantly, there are two groups of Muslims in Thailand: the Malay Muslims who have a different ethnic culture in language, religious practice and costumes, and the Thai Muslims, who mostly live in central and northern Thailand. They share many similarities with Buddhist society and culture, except for their religious beliefs.

4. Christianity 

The art of Christian churches is, on the other hand, completely independent and bears little to no influence from Thailand. Christianity came to Thailand quite late, with the work of Portuguese missionaries, who arrived in the mid-16th century in the former capital Ayutthaya and brought the Catholic belief to Thailand. Later, at the beginning of the 19th century, Protestants settled in Bangkok, followed by American Baptists and Presbyterians a short while later. The more notable churches here such as the The Assumption Church in Bangkok have Roman designs.

To learn more about the influences of the different religions on Thai art and architecture, check out the full article here.



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