One of the unique historical legacies of Chaiyaphum province, a remote province in Thailand’s Northeastern region (Isaan), is two Dvaravati-era sites which date back to the ninth century. They have never been comprehensively explored by archaeologists, but if they were, there would doubtless be much to discover: a small museum in a local school contains examples of ancient bricks and pottery. Yet until such excavations are made, the best evidence of the historical importance of the village is its collection of ninth century bai sema, Buddhist boundary markers which were once used to delineate the sacred place of places of worship. No less than 29 stone boundary markers have been found in the small village of Ban Kut Ngong, making it one of the biggest treasure troves of such antiquities in the region.
This suggests that the village was once home to a sizeable community of Buddhist monks and perhaps even a workshop of skilled artisans who could make bai sema of high artistic quality. Ten of the Ban Kut Ngong bai sema feature jataka scenes which tell the life of the Buddha, and they are rendered with considerable artistic skill. Though they are not as crisp as the masterly specimens in the Khon Kaen National Museum, they predate the examples in that collection by a few centuries, making them amongst the old examples of narrative art surviving from Thailand’s Northeast. Some of the other boundary markers feature simpler motifs such as the stupa-khumba design, which is more typically associated with sites in the Chi River system.
As at Ban Khon Sawan, a similar site from Chaiyaphum province, the boundary markers are no longer placed in situ. They have been rounded up and put together under a protective shelter in the grounds of a local wat. While something has been lost in terms of historical authenticity, keeping them all in one place makes it easier to protect the stones from art thieves or merely weathering from the elements. In recent years chicken-wire has been fitted to the underside of the ceiling as well. This would stop birds nesting under the shelter and defecating on the ancient stones. It is encouraging to see that the unusual heritage of the village has been protected in this way.
One of several beautiful images from the site is the image featured to the left. Though time-worn, the image of the Buddha is still very beautiful, showing an elegant head-dress,the broad nose and thick lips of the Mon people, slender, delicate limbs and a lower body folded in the lotus position, with the feet seemingly crossed Sri-Lanka style. A figure to the right is shown in a attitude of devotion. The comparatively small size of this figure emphasizes the preternatural qualities of the Buddha, who assumes a larger-than-life presence.
Perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the Ban Kut Ngong boundary markers is the one featured to the left. It shows a beautifully rendered standing Buddha with a graceful form adorned with a loincloth, a towering head-dress showing the Buddha’s worldly status and a slight, almost feminine torso. To the left of the image is a highly stylized image of a tree, presumably the banyan tree beneath which the Buddha attained enlightenment. Once more, there is a second humanoid figure on the stone, and again its comparatively diminutive size appears to emphasize the particular status of the Buddha. This is the crispest of the Ban Kut Ngong bai sema and the most interesting scene to the casual visitor.
A third memorable image from Ban Kut Ngong shows another standing Buddha, but this one without the banyan tree. This Buddha is demonstrating the vitarka mudra hand position, which looks somewhat like the Western ‘okay’ hand gesture. The significance of this hand gesture is that it is the delivering a sermon posture, which would be far from obvious unless it was explained to you. This beautiful carving has its eyes averted downwards and the facial features are again typically Mon and rendered with sensitivity and finesse. The Buddha has wearing a cloth about the waist which resembles a delicately draped Khmer sampot (sarung). Behind the Buddha’s head is what appears to be an ornamental wooden pavilion with a pair of lanterns hanging down from it. It is yet another example of the little-known artistic legacy of this small Thai village.