Thai art

Traditional Thai art is primarily composed of Buddhist art and scenes from the Indian epics. Traditional Thai sculpture almost exclusively depicts images of the Buddha, being very similar with the other styles from Southeast Asia, such as Khmer. Traditional Thai paintings usually consist of book illustrations, and painted ornamentation of buildings such as palaces and temples. Thai art was influenced by indigenous civilizations of the Mon and Khmer. By the Sukothai and Ayutthaya period, thai had developed into its own unique style and was later further influenced by the other Asian styles, mostly by Sri Lankan and Chinese. Thai sculpture and painting, and the royal courts provided patronage, erecting temples and other religious shrines as acts of merit or to commemorate important events.



Prior to the southwards migration of the Thai peoples from Yunnan in the 10th century, mainland Southeast Asia had been a home to various indigenous communities for thousands of years. The discovery of Homo erectus fossils such as Lampang man is an example of archaic hominids. The remains were first discovered during excavations in Lampang Province. The finds have been dated from roughly 1,000,000–500,000 years ago in the Pleistocene. Stone artefacts dating to 40,000 years ago have been recovered from, e.g., Tham Lod rockshelter in Mae Hong Son and Lang Rongrien Rockshelter in Krabi, peninsular Thailand.[1] The archaeological data between 18,000–3,000 years ago primarily derive from cave and rock shelter sites, and are associated with Hoabinhian foragers.[2]

Sukhothai period

The Sukhothai period began in the 14th century in the Sukhothai Kingdom. Buddha images of the Sukhothai period are elegant, with sinuous bodies and slender, oval faces. This style emphasized the spiritual aspect of the Buddha, by omitting many small anatomical details. The effect was enhanced by the common practice of casting images in metal rather than carving them. This period saw the introduction of the "walking Buddha" pose. Sukhothai also produced a large quantity of glazed ceramics in the Sawankhalok style, which were traded throughout Southeast Asia.

Ayutthaya period

The surviving art from this period was primarily executed in stone, characterised by juxtaposed rows of Buddha figures. In the middle period, Sukhothai influence dominated, with large bronze or brick and stucco Buddha images, as well as decorations of gold leaf in free-form designs on a lacquered background. The late period was more elaborate, with Buddha images in royal attire, set on decorative bases.

Bangkok period

This period is characterized by the further development of the Ayutthaya style, rather than by more great innovation. One important element was the Krom Chang Sip Mu (Organization of the Ten Crafts), founded in Ayutthaya, which was responsible for improving the skills of the country's craftsmen. Paintings from the mid-19th century show the influence of Western art.


Modern painting in the western sense started late in Thailand, with Professor Silpa Bhirasri and the establishment of Silpakorn University, but Thai artists are now expressing themselves in a variety of media such as installations, photographs, prints, video art and performance art.

In the mid 1990s, a group of artists created the Chiang Mai Social Installation, which brought art and performance out of the traditional gallery setting and into the streets of Chiang Mai.

2018 saw the first iteration of the Bangkok Biennial.


A depiction of a white elephant in 19th century Thai art.

Traditional Thai paintings showed subjects in two dimensions without perspective. The size of each element in the picture reflected its degree of importance. The primary technique of composition is that of apportioning areas: the main elements are isolated from each other by space transformers. This eliminated the intermediate ground, which would otherwise imply perspective. Perspective was introduced only as a result of Western influence in the mid-19th century. Monk artist Khrua In Khong is well-known as the first artist to introduce linear perspective to Thai traditional art.

The most frequent narrative subjects for paintings were or are: the Jataka stories, episodes from the life of the Buddha, the Buddhist heavens and hells, themes derived from the Thai versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, not to mention scenes of daily life. Some of the scenes are influenced by Thai folklore instead of following strict Buddhist iconography.


Thai sculpture almost exclusively depicts images of the Buddha, being very similar with the other styles from Southeast Asia, such as Khmer. Most of the sculptures depict Buddha. An exception is the dvarapala.


Phra Maha Chedi Si Ratchakan, Wat Pho, Bangkok.

Architecture is the preeminent medium of the country's cultural legacy and reflects both the challenges of living in Thailand's sometimes extreme climate as well as, historically, the importance of architecture to the Thai people's sense of community and religious beliefs. Influenced by the architectural traditions of many of Thailand's neighbors, it has also developed significant regional variation within its vernacular and religious buildings.

Thai temples

Buddhist temples in Thailand are known as "wats", from the Pāḷi vāṭa, meaning an enclosure. A temple has an enclosing wall that divides it from the secular world. Wat architecture has seen many changes in Thailand in the course of history. Although there are many differences in layout and style, they all adhere to the same principles.

Traditional Thai houses

As the phrase "Thai stilt house" suggests, one universal aspect of Thailand's traditional architecture is the elevation of its buildings on stilts, most commonly to around head height. The area beneath the house is used for storage, crafts, lounging in the daytime, and sometimes for livestock. The houses were raised due to heavy flooding during certain parts of the year, and in more ancient times, predators. Thai building and living habits are often based on superstitious and religious beliefs. Many other considerations such as locally available materials, climate, and agriculture have a lot to do with the style.


Ceramics in Thailand were mostly used for domestic purposes such as holding food and water. Thai ceramics in the pattern of nature and animals were popular between the 11th and 13th centuries.


NamePeriodNotesExample image
Ban Chiang3400 BCE - 200 CEspoons, beads, jars, vessel, pots, and vases. Some decorated with simple geometric patterns. Unglazed – red clay, some red on buff painted [3]
Ban Kao2000 BCE – 500 BCE [5]jars, vessel, pots, vase, and tripods. Decorated with simple geometric patterns. Ban Kao's ceramics are thinner when compared to Ban Chiang. Glazed – red and black clay
Mon peopleHariphunchai, 200 CE – 1000 CEfigurines, votive tablets and building decorations. Unglazed – red clay
Sukhothai wareSukhothai, 14th century – 16th centuryanimal figurines, bowls, and boxes. Opaque or greenish glazed – creamy white slip – fine clay
Kalong wareSukhothai, 14th century – 16th century
Sankampaeng wareSukhothai, 14th century – 16th century
Sawankhalok wareSukhothai, 14th century – 16th centuryanimal figurines, bowls, and boxes. Opaque or greenish glazed – creamy white slip – fine clay
Si Satchanalai wareSukhothai, 14th century – 16th centuryanimal figurines, bowls, and boxes. Opaque or greenish glazed – creamy white slip – fine clay
Ayutthaya17th century - 18th centurybowls, pedestal plates, roof tiles, and votive tablets. Enameled painted – creamy white slip – fine clay[4]
BenjarongBangkok, 18th century - presentbowls, pedestal plates, roof tiles, and votive tablets. five colours, influenced from China
Lai Nam ThongBangkok, 19th century - present

Shadow play

Shadow theatre in Thailand is called nang yai; in the south there is a tradition called nang talung.[5] Nang yai puppets are normally made of cowhide and rattan. Performances are normally accompanied by a combination of songs and chants. Performances in Thailand were temporarily suspended in 1960 due to a fire at the national theatre. Nang drama has influenced modern Thai cinema, including filmmakers like Cherd Songsri and Payut Ngaokrachang.[6]

See also


  1. Anderson, D. 1990. Lang Rongrien Rockshelter: A Pleistocene–early Holocene Archaeological Site from Krabi, Southwestern Thailand. Philadelphia: The University Museum, University of Pennsylvania.
  2. Lekenvall, Henrik. "Late Stone Age Communities in the Thai-Malay Peninsula". Journal of Indo-Pacific Archaeology 32 (2012): 78-86.
  3. "Thai Ceramics: asia-art"
  4. "Types of Ancient Ceramics: thailandceramicart” Archived April 2, 2012, at the Wayback Machine
  5. Lian Lim, Siew (2013). "The Role of Shadow Puppetry in the Development of Phatthalung Province, Thailand" (PDF). Southeast Asia Club Conference, Northern Illinois University. Retrieved 27 August 2018.
  6. Nang Yai Archived 2002-12-25 at the Wayback Machine from Mahidol University.

Further reading

  • Rama IX Art Museum Virtual museum of Thai contemporary artists. Listings of museums, galleries, exhibitions and venues. Contains muchinformation on Thai artists and art activities.
  • Golden Triangle Art Introduction of contemporary art and artists living and working in Northern Thailand and Myanmar. Guide to art galleries, art News and exhibitions with focus on Chiang Mai.
  • Thai Buddhist Art Thai Buddhist Art Website Project to Promote and play a part in the growth of the Thai Fine Art Community of Collectors and Aficionados. Representing a host of Thailand's Most Outstanding Artists.
  • Online display of the 19th-century Thai Manuscript Traiphum (Illustrated Text on Cosmology) from the Harvard Art Museums’ collections.
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