Envisioning the Buddhist Cosmos through Paintings: The Traiphum in Central Thailand and Phra Malai in Isan
Thai Buddhists derive their understanding of the Buddhist cosmos from images they see in paintings and/or hear described in recitations or sermons based primarily on one of two texts: the Phra Malai Sutta and the Traiphum (Three Worlds). Both texts are non-canonical and both exist in multiple versions or “tellings” (Ramanujan: 1991). The former is a narrative about the arahat-monk, Phra Malai, and his visits to hell and heaven, while the latter is an encyclopedic collection of treatises that describes in great detail the various realms of the Buddhist universe and the beings inhabiting them. This article examines visual depictions of Phra Malai and the Traiphum, each a selected “telling,” in strikingly different socio-historical and cultural contexts: Phra Malai in early 20th century Isan village scrolls and murals the Traiphum in post-Ayutthaya murals in and near Bangkok. It will demonstrate the impact on visual conceptions of the Buddhist cosmos by the social, political and historic circumstances in which they were created.
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