The Carved Stones of Ban Kut Ngong

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.

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A time-worn image of a seated Buddha

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.

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A standing Buddha and the banyan tree

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.

IMG_0177  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.

 

 

 

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The Coral Pagoda of Khanom

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Khanom is the northernmost district of the province of Nakhon Si Thammarat, and the towns of Khanom and Nakhon Si Thammarat are situated about eighty-five kilometres apart. Khanom is known as a low-key beach resort for Thais, but foreigners mostly give it a wide berth, heading straight out for the tourist hoards on the islands. If Khanom has any claim to fame at all among travelers, it is as the home of pink dolphins, which can often be seen swimming near the town jetty just after dawn. But it wasn’t pink dolphins which brought us to Khanom on our driving tour through Southern Thailand: we were in search of the Coral Pagoda of Khanom, an ancient edifice which was more proof that Peninsular Thailand’s reputation as an historical and cultural desert had been exaggerated.

One of the problems in locating the pagoda is that it is known by so many…

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Kota Belanda: Pulau Pangkor’s Dutch Heritage

South-East Asia has a wide array of historical remains, some major and some minor. While it has to be said that Kota Belanda falls decidedly into the latter category, if you find yourself on the charming island of Pulau Pangkor you might as well check out its improbable 17th and 18th century vestiges of Dutch colonialism. Variously known as the Dutch Fort and Kota Belanda, it is little-known testament as one of the earliest episodes of European colonialism on the Malayan Peninsula.

The trip to Pulau Pangkor begins at the unusually named seaside town of Lumut: in English, the word is translated as either ‘moss’ or ‘mould’. There are a number of attractive interwar-years shop-houses in the town, many of which are now painted in pastel colours. While the town is certainly not a tourist attraction its own right, it is worth a quick walk long the main street, especially if you are waiting for a ferry across to Pangkor.  It retains much of its colonial-era appearance. We also stopped by a small informal eatery here for a cup of coffee and a plate of noodles.

From the port in Lumut, a ferry goes across to Pulau Pangkor once an hour or so and the trip out through the sleepy harbour is peaceful. Within about half an hour, you approach the island of Pulau Pangkor, stopping first at the jetty in the little village of Sungai Pinang Kecil. From there, you continue on to Pangkor village, which is where most tourists disembark. Pangkor’s largest settlement is a quaint town of one and two-storey timber shop-houses, a few cheap noodle-shops and a modest Chinese shrine. You can hire motorbikes here for RM 40 a day, which is highly recommended if you want to do a tour of the island.

The interior of the island is heavily forested and particularly diverse in terms of birds, frogs and reptiles. Birdwatchers can look forward to seeing magnificent sea-eagles circling above the coastline, some of them with truly impressive wingspans. If you are lucky you may also see hornbills, which sometimes fly down out of the forest and perch themselves on the trees and electrical cables in the villages. There are also a number of small beaches at which you can float for an hour or so while looking out of the islands offshore or the jungle on the headlands. Furthermore, there are said to be walking trails across the island which take you deep into the jungle. However, our experience was limited to driving through the forest by bike, which is still a worthwhile adventure. On the mountain at the far end of the island, we encountered a couple of troops of macaques which had come out of the forest to feed by the roadside.

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The scant remains of Kota Belanda on Pulau Pangkor

However, this is not a natural history blog, but one dedicated to historical heritage, so we should speed on to Kota Belanda, which is located about three kilometres from Pangkor village. Once you have done a complete circuit of the island, a small side-road will take you down to the modest archaeological site, which has now been transformed into a minor tourist complex. It is not very large or prepossessing- we almost drove right past it- but if you take it slowly and keep your eyes open, you can easily see it from the main road. It is here you will find the remains of an 18th century fortress (the original 17th century wooden one was burned to the ground in an attack from the Sultan of Perak in 1690).

Anyone expecting a ‘castle’ with grand bastions is going to be disappointed. What remains is a small, roofless brick structure of no great size. Architecturally speaking, there is little to get excited about. The floor of the walled area stands only a couple of metres high and is reached by a metal ramp with wooden floorboards. Some of the brickwork looks suspiciously modern and even perfunctory research revealed that it was heavily restored in 1973, at which point it had been just a pile of bricks abandoned to the jungle. There are still some broken bricks visible, half-buried in the dirt, which can show you what it would have looked like pre-restoration.

The walls around this area are crenellated and there are numerous embrasures and look-holes in the brickwork. These give some sense of a fortified building but the whole structure struck me as somewhat incongruous with the usual historical accounts.. According to the records of the Dutch East India company (VOC), during the 1743-1748 period, there were 60 guards stationed at the fort, made up of 30 Dutchmen and 30 Bugis (an ethnic group from Indonesia). In addition, the fort was used as a warehouse for tin ore. It was these mineral ores which were what had generated Dutch interest in Perak in the first place. The Dutch had been trying to get a monopoly in tin in the Straits. Being only a few metres wide, it seemed impossible that the ruins at Kota Belanda could have served as a fortress for 60 men and a warehouse at the same time. I was left with the impression that the ruin on the site today was only a small part of the original building. Perhaps the warehouses had originally been built from timber and there was only one fortified section. However, this was a mystery which none of available information has entirely cleared up for me.