Two Early Boundary Markers from Muang Fa Daet

During the Dvaravati period (from the 8th to the 11th centuries) Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang emerged as one of the leading artistic centres of Isaan (Northeastern Thailand). Set in Kamalasai District of the modern province of Kalasin, the moated city produced a very large number of carved boundary markers (bai sema in Thai), which served to delineate the sacred area of an ubosot in a Buddhist monastery. While these boundary markers have been found from many different parts of Isaan and Laos, Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang has yielded them in the greatest quantities. The Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang boundary markers are also notable for the artistic skill with which they were composed, suggesting that the city was home to a stonemason’s workshop where high-quality bai sema were commissioned.

We can surmise, without indisputable proof, that this workshop enjoyed royal patronage, as most of the boundary markers were found in the immediate vicinity of the city itself, with numerous examples being located inside the moats. Also, many of them display royal personages or occasionally even palace grounds, which is a further hint of royal associations. A large number of these bai sema have now been relocated to the Khon Kaen National Museum in the city of Khon Kaen. This post will be dedicated to two damaged, lesser-known bai sema from the museum, which, despite their fragmentary condition, remain impressive examples of Dvaravati art.

Sema 13 from Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang

The first of these two boundary markers (bai sema) is the one which the historian Stephen Murphy has classified as S13. This bai sema is located on the ground floor of the Khon Kaen National Museum. The top of it is broken off and the section which he do have is cracked across the middle. Nonetheless, it presents an enigmatic scene which has proven impossible to identify. At the bottom of the fragment are four seated figures, the ones on the right being rather more distinct. Above the crack are two larger, seated figures, one of which has a Mon style conical head-dress and the other has a rounded halo. At the centre of the scene is an altar with three triangular objects on top. Perhaps they represent some kind of votive offerings. Based on stylistic features, it has been suggested that they date to the early period of Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang, from the eighth or ninth centuries.

S16 features a Buddha with a flaming nimbus

The second bai sema,  otherwise known as S16, is also thought to date from this earlier period of Dvaravati art history. Unlike S13, it is located in a small courtyard garden to the rear of the ground floor. It is one of a small subset of Muang Fa Daet boundary markers which depict a standing Buddha with a flaming nimbus around his head. This pointy nimbus suggests a supernatural aura, which would have been an important feature for monks trying to win new converts to the Buddhist faith. Though S16 is cracked, with the bottom section missing, the main features of the scene are clear. The standing Buddha has curled Mon hair, full lips, closed eyes which suggest a blissful spirituality and a richly draped robe. There is a much shorter figure standing beside him, looking up in an attitude of reverence. Despite its damaged condition, this is a very graceful carving, indicating that Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang was an artistic centre as far back as the 8th or 9th centuries.


The Kulavaka Jataka Boundary Marker

One of the lesser-sung treasures from the Khon Kaen National Museum is the carved stone known as the Kulavaka Jataka Boundary Marker. Like many of Thailand’s most remarkable bai sema (boundary markers), it came from Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang, an archaeological site in Kamalasai district of Kalasin province. The boundary marker is broken and incomplete, with only the top section remaining. However, despite its fragmentary state, it offers crisp and vivid stone carving. Whereas the carving on many of Isaan’s bai sema is now very time-worn, the scenes on the Kulavaka Jataka Boundary Marker are still distinct.

The Kulavaka Jataka boundary marker

The boundary marker depicts a jataka scene, a scene from one of the lives of the Buddha. The scene on this stone has been identified as Jataka story #31, otherwise known as the Kulavaka Jataka. This story tells of several reincarnations of the life of a woman called Highborn. Its pedagogic value was to instruct the faithful in the notion of Buddhist merit, informing people that those who lacked good works in their current incarnation could expect to be reincarnated in a lower station- perhaps even as an animal- in the next life. In one of her incarnations, the ironically named Highborn was one of four women in a household. The other three, known as Goodness, Thoughtful, Joy, all performed acts of merit, but Highborn ignored their example. As a result, in her next life she was reborn as a wild bird.

A close-up of Sakka and Highborn 

The Kulavaka Jataka at the Khon Kaen National Museum shows the considerable compositional skills of the stone carvers of Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang. In the centre of the slab is a figure which Murphy identifies as Sakka (another name for the god Indra). Presumably he was seated atop his vehicle, the multi-headed elephant Airavata. This section of the scene is lost but there is a tusked elephant to the left of the god, which helps to support this identification. Sakka has a conical head-dress, broad lips and heavy, metal ear-rings, all of which are common features of Mon art. There is a halo around the head of Sakka and a tree behind him, which strongly suggests the iconography of Mon-Dvaravati banyan trees. To the left of Indra are three women, who Murphy suggests are Goodness, Thoughful and Joy, now the handmaidens of the god. They have elaborate head-dresses and heavy jewelry. One of the woman has a bird in her hand, which represents Highborn in her lowly new incarnation. A particularly compelling example of Dvaravati jataka art, it is worthy of close attention even its incomplete state.

The Dvarapala of Ku Noi

While the ground floor of the Khon Kaen National Museum is notable mostly for its fine collection of boundary markers from Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang, the upper level of the museum is largely devoted to the Khmer period (sometimes referred to as the ‘Lopburi’ period by Thai art scholars). There are numerous fine sculptures here, but perhaps the most eye-catching is a male figure, which is either the god Shiva or a dvarapala. It was excavated at the Khmer archaeological site of Ku Noi, which is located in Nadoon district of Maha Sarakham province. At the time of our visit, the sculpture was situated on a pedestal against a railing at the end of the Khmer art gallery. Easily the largest of the Khmer sculptures on display, it is an undoubted highlight of a trip to the museum.

A head and chest shot of the dvarapala

Made from sandstone, the sculpture is roughly life-sized, standing 175 centimetres tall. Due to the third eye which is present in the centre of its forehead, it has been suggested that the statue depicts the Hindu god Shiva. However, there are also instances of Khmer dvarapalas with a third eye. One beautiful example can be found on a bas-relief at the temple of Banteay Kdei at Angkor, and in all other respects, the statue bears a very close resemblance to Angkor-period dvarapalas. A dvarapala was one of the pair of guardian figures who protected the entrance to Hindu sanctuaries. In ancient Cambodia each had a name: Nondhikesavara or Mahakala. Some historians believe that this sculpture represents Nondhikesavara. It certainly bears a close resemblance to the dvarapala which still guards the main prang (tower) of Thailand’s most magnificent Khmer sanctuary, Prasat Phanom Rung. Whereas dvarapalas in Indonesia were usually fat monsters with long fangs, the Khmer dvarapalas are more humanoid in form.

A full-length shot of the statue

This sculpture has a square face with a serious expression. There is, as already mentioned, a third eye in his forehead, which has created academic debates about the figure’s true identity. Above his face is a a broad headband, with the hair rising in a cylinder on top. It creates the overall impression of a miter. Around the statue’s neck is a large necklace, or perhaps a band of ornamental lace, which is of great intricacy. The torso of the figure is bare but both his arms have been broken off. They would probably have come together in the centre to grip the handle of a mace (katha), which would have been planted between his feet. His sampot (the traditional Khmer sarong) is draped with incredible complexity here, greatly adding to the beauty of the sculpture. It forms a fish-tail design in the centre of the sampot,the bottom of which is exactly equal with the rim of the sampot generally. Both feet were found broken off, but they have now been reattached to the statue.

Whether this is was a sculpture of Shiva, or a rare Khmer dvarapala with a third eye, it remains one of the most striking sculptures to have been found in the central zone of Isaan. It is another compelling reason to visit the Khon Kaen National Museum on a trip through Isaan.

Two Indra and Airavata Images from Isaan

Images of the god Indra atop his vehicle, the multi-headed, white elephant Airavata, are very often featured in decorative lintels and pediments from Khmer art. They are one of the most common images depicted on Khmer lintels in particular, and many beautiful examples survive. For instance, the visitor to Cambodia will find a late 9th century image of Indra at Lolei in the Roluos Group near Angkor. In addition, a particularly elegant 10th century example can be found at East Mebon temple in Angkor Archaeological Park. Whereas the earlier example showed a one-headed Airavata, the one at East Mebon shows a three-headed Airavata supporting a standing Indra. There is also Indra lintels from the far reaches of the Angkorian realm, including a couple from Phnom Chisor near the border with Vietnam and a splendid example from Wat Phu Champasak, the best known Khmer temple from the current territory of Laos. Clearly, this image was popular right across the territory of the former kingdom of Angkor.

Typically, Indra was depicted on lintels which faced east, as this Hindu sky-god was known as the ‘guardian’ of that direction. Indra was also regarded as the god of the atmosphere and weather, so he was sometimes shown holding a thunderbolt in one hand. However, it is more common in Khmer art for him to be holding the end of garlands or nagas (dragons). Known as the king of the elephants, Airavata was also said to have been the stongest of the sixteen elephants which held up the world. He was created as a by-product of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, a prominent Hindu legend. While in India, he is often shown having five heads and ten tusks, in Thailand he is usually represented with three heads and is known as ‘Erawan’.

Isaan (Northeastern Thailand) was once part of the Khmer empire, so it is not surprising that numerous Khmer temples and hospitals have been found in this part of  the country. In Isaan, as in Cambodia itself, Khmer temples often featured lintels and pediments with images of Indra. During our most recent trip through the region, we encountered two little-known Indra images depicting Indra and Airvata. Because both of them were still in a good state of repair, I decided to feature them in a post on this blog.

The Indra pediment from Muang Tam

I encountered the first of them at Muang Tam, which is often described as the third best Khmer temple in Thailand, after Phanom Rung and Phimai. The Indra image is no longer part of the temple complex itself; instead, it is found on the ground near the entrance to the site. It is a pediment carving from the central tower at Muang Tam, which was overall too incomplete to restore. In spite of its unflattering position, it is a singularly beautiful image. The carving depicts Indra atop a three-headed Airavata, with a sensuous background of stylized foliage. Beneath the sky-god is the grinning head of a kala, a kind of Hindu demon. It is said to be in the 11th century Baphuon style, and it bears a strong resemblance to the Indra lintel at the 11th century sanctuary of Wat Phu Champasak. The pinkish hue in the sandstone makes it an especially appealing relief.

An Indra image at the Khon Kaen National Museum

A few days later, we encountered another lesser-known Indra image at the Khon Kaen National Museum. This one was not featured inside the building but rather in the little courtyard garden out of the back of the ground floor. Indra is depicted with a two-tiered miter, heavy metal ear-rings which had greatly elongated his ear lobes and a small, crescent-shaped loincloth. His right knee juts upwards at a sharp angle and a three-headed Airavata is beneath him. Just like the pediment from Muang Tam, the background is filled with a rich field of floral and vegetal designs. The exhibit informed us that during the height of the Angkor period, the popularity of Indra images had extended at least as far north as Central Isaan.

The Dvaravati Naga-Buddha Boundary Marker

The richest source of bai sema (boundary markers) in Northeast Thailand was the so-called ‘City of Steles’, the archaeological site of Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang. From a total of twelve hundred bai sema which have come down to us from antiquity, one-hundred and seventy two of them are thought to come from this one site. The Muang Fa Daet bai sema are not only the most numerous but also the most artistically accomplished, demonstrating narrative art from the Jatakas (stories of the life of the Buddha) in vivid, sensuous sandstone carvings. There are fifty-five known bai sema from Muang Fa Daet which are carved with jataka scenes; many of these have been gathered at the Khon Kaen National Museum, which is arguably the premier museum of Isaan (Northeastern Thailand).

One of the most intriguing is a rare example of a Dvaravati-era Naga-Buddha- the finest of only three known examples of this image appearing on an ancient bai sema. This artefact is known by the very unromantic name of No.504/2517 from Muang Fa Daet, but I would prefer to call it the Naga-Buddha Boundary Marker, which is both more descriptive and evocative. Despite being a rare and valuable artefact- it is one of only eight known Dvaravati Naga-Buddha images surviving in any medium- it is not very prominently displayed. To find this bai sema you need to go out through the back door of the first floor into a little courtyard garden. You will find this boundary marker there along the porch, without any special lighting or signage.

The Naga-Buddha boundary marker

In spite of its unexalted position at the museum, it has gained a degree of fame in academic circles, with the historian Stephen Murphy discussing in its study of the boundary markers of Isaan and Laos, attributing an eighth or ninth century date to it. The French archaeologist Jean-Pierre Gaston-Aubert has also written about it in recent years, making the startling suggestion that the famous Naga-Buddhas of Angkor were actually inspired by a Dvaravati prototype, of which this bai sema remains one of the leading examples.

The Mucalinda episode relates to a story in which the Buddha was meditating to attain enlightenment when a terrible storm began to blow, continuing for seven days. During the deluge, a serpent (naga) emerged from the tree and wrapped himself around the body of the Buddha with its coils, also forming a seven-headed hood over his head in order to shelter him from the rain. In Buddhist iconography, the Buddha has usually been shown seated on the coils of the naga, which is the position known as paryaṅkāsana. Gaston-Aubert insists that the particular depiction on this bai sema demonstrates Southern India characteristics, because he makes the gesture of teaching known as vitarkamudrā and has crossed ankles. The naga hood has five heads, which is also indicative of Southern Indian art. There are two kneeling figures in front of the Buddha, one of them a royal figure listening to the First Sermon of the Buddha. He wears a high, conical head-dress, which is a common feature of Dvaravati (Mon) art. The facial features of the Buddha also display Mon characteristics, with a broad nose and full lips. In this way a degree of synthesis is evident between Southern Indian prototypes and the Mon-Dvaravati artistic tradition.

The Buddha on the coils of the naga


Considering the fact that only eight known instances of Naga-Buddha sculptures have been found in the whole Dvaravati relam, it does not appear to have been an especially potent or popular image. However, the Naga-Buddha was eventually to become of enormous religious importance in Angkorian Cambodia, where it was eventually to become the main deity of the kingdom. Gaston-Aubert argues that the Dvaravati Naga-Buddha may have been transmitted from Isaan to Angkor, probably via the temple complex of Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima. If he is correct, the neglected bai sema at the Khon Kaen National Museum may have been much more culturally significant than its current humble position suggests.

The Weeping Princess Boundary Marker

Khon Kaen is not a city known for its long history or wealth of antiquities, but it does have The Khon Kaen National Museum, which was opened in 1972. This museum has one of the best collections of in Isaan (Northeastern Thailand), with a collection of artifacts not only from Khon Kaen province but also neighboring areas such as Maha Sarakham and Kalasin. Kalasin province is probably the richest source of finds in this museum, in particular the district of Kamalasai, where the archaeological site of Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang is located. This site has yielded an astonishing collection of carved boundary markers from the Dvaravati era, the masterpiece of which is surely the ‘Weeping Princess’ or ‘Yasothara Pimpa’ boundary marker. This exquisite bai sema, or boundary marker, is one of the treasures of Mon-Dvaravati art.

img_0217The Weeping Princess boundary marker is housed on the ground floor of the museum and is the centrepiece of the Dvaravati period section. The boundary marker is unusually monumental, with a height of one-hundred and ninety centimetres and a width of sixty-eight centimetres. It is made from golden sandstone, whose subtle coloring contributes a lot its aesthetic appeal. The museum has lit the boundary marker attractively, which brings out the rich, golden hues of the stone. But what will capture your attention most of all is that crisp, vivid jataka carving, which depicts an important episode from the life of the Buddha. Though these jataka scenes have also been found on boundary markers from Chaiyaphum, by far the greatest number of them hail from the ancient city of Muang Fa Daet Sung Yang in Kalasin. Around one-hundred and sixty ancient bai sema (boundary markers) have been located in the vicinity of this ancient Buddhist centre, and the ‘Weeping Princess’ is arguably the most majestic.

A detail of the upper panel

The stone is carved in two panels, the upper and lower sections, with a beautiful lotus bud motif at the bottom, making the entire stone seem as if it rests on a padmasana (lotus throne). The upper panel depicts the scene where the newly enlightened Buddha returned to the city of Kabilapas to bless his father and other relatives. During this visit, he gave a sermon to his sister Yasothara Pimpa at a pavilion the palace and she showed her reverence for her brother, now the Buddha, by brushing his feet with her long hair. In the panel on this scene, the Buddha is shown seated in a wooden arched structure with his feet hanging down. On the left side are two men of high caste, as shown by their pointed top crowns, and on the right side are two women. One of them, the princess, is spreading her hair to clean the Buddha’s feet and the other is holding a baby. In the lower panel there are four guards on the city walls of Kabilapas. In the centre of the wall is a watchtower with a three-tiered roof in the style of a Khmer prasat. The rich and sensuous detail of the boundary marker makes it one of the greatest examples on Mon-Dvaravati stone-carving.

The Walled and Moated City of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang

Even by Isaan standards, the province of Kalasin is way off the tourist radar and tourist infrastructure is basic. Still, the area is not particularly difficult to access; the big Issan centre of Khon Kaen is just seventy-five kilometres down the road. But here, in the northeastern part of Thailand’s Northeast, life is much slower-paced than in somewhere like Udon Thani or Khon Kaen, let alone Bangkok. There is not so much traffic on the roads and the cafes and restaurants have fewer customers than most other places in Thailand. Kalasin is a town that feels sleepy even in the middle of the day and it is all but deserted of a night time. Still, while Kalasin is a bit of a backwater day, in the Dvaravati era it was home to possibly the largest and most artistically sophisticated city in the Northeast, Muang Fa Daet. The ruins of this city were on our itinerary in coming here and so was Phu Po, a mystic hill which has been attracting Buddhist pilgrims since at least the ninth century.

Arriving from Khon Kaen at the Kalasin bus terminal, we found that there were a number of tuk-tuk drivers waiting there who were keen to do business. We told one we wanted to do a day trip out to Muang Fa Daet and Phu Po and he quickly agreed. However, he said that his tuk-tuk was a little slow for so long a trip. He dropped us off at our hotel first and said he would come back with a car. It turned out to be a particularly old and decrepit car which struggled to get to sixty kilometres an hour, but it was still a much faster-moving mode of transport than the tuk-tuk, so we were pleased.

The driver was an affable sort of fellow who didn’t speak much English but who was keen to try out the few phrases he did know. We learned that he was a native of Kalasin  who had lived there all his life. He was a family man with two children, the eldest of two was a six-year-old boy who he had to pick up after school by three-thirty that afternoon. We said that we didn’t anticipate that would be a problem, knowing it was only nineteen kilometres out of Muang Fa Deat and about fifty kilometres further to Phu Po.

From Kalasin we headed south into Kamalasai District, which was located at the southernmost tip of the province. After about eleven kilometres, we came to Kamalasai town centre. It was a small town set on the banks of a river; whether it was the Chi itself or one of its tributaries we were unable to determine. As luck would have it, it was a busy day in town because, as our driver reported, it was the day of the dragon boat races. There were large crowds lining the bridges over the river and in the grandstands along the banks, all waiting for the races to begin. He said that the races were not due for another hour or so, so we continued on our way, passing through the town centre, which consisted of a modern of modern concrete shopfronts and older timber ones. Its riverside location and the larger number of timber shop-houses made it a more attractive rural town than most.

About eight kilometres further on again, we came to Ban Sema village, which is located within the territory of the ancient settlement of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang. According to legend, the ancient city had been established in the year 621. It was strategically located near the confluence of the Pao and Lan Pham Rivers, both of which were major tributaries of the Chi. The first trace we glimpsed of its former grandeur was the deep moat which runs along the edge of the village. This moat was full of dark, black water, and the embankments were choked with thick, weedy growth. Its neglected state notwithstanding, we could easily see that this had once been a major construction project. It has been estimated that even if the moats of Muang Fa Daet were only one metre deep, they would have required over one million man hours to complete. Clearly, the ruler who commissioned the project must have had a large workforce at his disposal. Of course, the moat may have been progressively extended at various points, as the heyday of Muang Fa Daet was half a millennium or more, but it still would have been a huge project during each phase.

The ruins of Muang Fa Daet Song Yang

From the highway, we noticed road-sign to Phra That Yahku (the main monument at the site) and turned onto a side-road. There was another section of moat down this road, which emphasized how expansive this former city had been. A few hundred metres down the road, we arrived at the focal point of the site, the main chedi and its surrounding ruins. The car stopped at a sort of impromptu parking area, where there were a couple of stalls selling Buddhist paraphernalia for visiting pilgrims. Due to the modest size of the ruins and the fact they were still an active site of worship, there was no entrance charge. We got out of the car and scanned the surrounding area. Apart from the nearby brick ruins, we could see some earthworks, which were a few hundred metres away across an overgrown field.

We decided to walk over and inspect these earthworks, which were a couple of metres high and quite extensive. These were the vestiges of the former city walls, which, according to legend, had once extended for five kilometres. Though you might guess that these had served a defensive purpose, there is no real evidence to support this view. Archaeological investigations have turned up no hint that they were ever topped with a wooden palisade or other structures that would have strengthened their defenses. In truth, they may have been little more than the place to store the soil which was displaced by the creation of the moats.Like the walls, it is thought that the shallow moats did not serve a defensive purpose but rather were used for water storage. Whatever their original function, substantial areas of the city wall remained, reinforcing the impression that this was once a large and important settlement.

Phra That Yahku, a revered chedi

Having seen the surviving earthworks, we turned our attention to the main ‘sight’: Phra That Yakhu. This chedi is locally famous, being featured on the seal of Kalasin province. It is a graceful, octagonal chedi on a redented square base. The base would once have been covered with stucco, but it is mostly a bare brick structure today. It is presumed that the square base is a Dvaravati original, the octagonal body of the chedi is an Ayutthaya-era reconstruction, and the lotus bud peak is a comparatively modern reconstruction, dating only  from the Rattanakosin period.

No one knows whose remains the chedi enshrines, but it has been suggested that they belonged to a highly revered monk. This could explain why the chedi survived when all the other structures at Muang Fa Daet were destroyed- probably in a war in the early twelfth century. According to legend, a rival kingdom by the name of Muang Chiang Som fought at least two different wars with Muang Fa Daet. It is also possible that the city was finally destroyed by the Khmers, who waged many military campaigns in Isaan during this era. However, there are signs that the site of Muang Fa Daet remained a site of religious devotion even after its destruction, as ceremonial burial continued at the site in subsequent years.

A boundary-marker with a floral votive

The chedi is surrounded by a number of small boundary markers, which were produced more numerously at Muang Fa Daet than anywhere else in Isaan. Most of the them have been moved to either nearby Wat Po Chai Semaram or the branch of Khon Kaen National Museum, but a few minor ones remain in situ. In the area around the main chedi, there are also a number of smaller brick structures, some of which may have been the bases of subsidiary chedis or stupas. No effort has been made to restore these, but at least the vegetation has been cleared away to create a sort of ‘historical park’ in the vicinity of Phra That Yahku. These lesser ruins hint at the wealth of other monuments which the city must once have boasted. After all, the boundary stones delineated the outer sacred space of former temples, and at least one-hundred and seventy-two of these stones have been found at Muang Fa Daet; the city must once have claimed a very large monastic population, with all manner of Buddhist religious architecture present. However, these vestiges can merely hint at former glories, because it is only Phra That Yahku which has survived intact. For the most part, the visitor to Muang Fa Daet will need to use their imagination.