It was a good opportunity and an honor for me to teach at Mahachulalongkorn Rajawittayalai University-Chiang Mai campus in Wat Chet Yod because this place is a university for Buddhist monks. I could look closely at what was part of a daily life routine. All Buddhists (and I) were accustomed to the real life of monks and normal people. The details were kept in the form of photos.
Wat Chet Yod temple is located at the first kilometer from downtown Chiangmai and the temple's architecture is incredibly interesting.
After my teaching sessions at the temple, I often asked monk students about the art and architecture of the temple as well as its restoration by the private sectors and the department of religions which participate in the historical and environmental improvements. Time can cruelly erase the beauty and sadly, we can only see remnants of the past from the ruins and remains. Nowadays a lot of modern houses and buildings have overwhelmed the old temples and pagodas in Chiang Mai.
Many years ago, many old and important temples were under the supervision of private companies which attempted to develop the scenery of Chiang Mai city to be better for marketing.
For years, I took an array of photo sets of three temples in Chiang Mai from many angles. Those temples are Wat Baan Den, Wat Suan Dok and Wat Chet Yod. The first temple is located in Mae Taeng district while the second and third temples are situated in Chiang Mai city and near the campuses of Mahachulalongkorn Rajawittayalai University.
Until recently, women had limited access to Buddist temples, but being a teacher at Maha Chula I was allowed an exception. I saw the famous places with architecture and fine arts from some famous temples at Chiang Mai in artbooks and tourist magazines. The temples are always open in the morning and closed in the afternoon and we were only allowed to visit the outside of the temples .
The red flowers of flame-trees began to bloom in April, and the most beautiful time to see these flowers was in the end of June. At that time the landscape enhanced my photos more than before. I thought that I completely took all photos from Wat Chet Yod but I was wrong when I saw the new Vihara opposite to the university building which is a part of Wat Chet Yod.
On Thursday afternoon after teaching time, I went to the temples in Chiang Mai including Wat Buak Krok Luang in Sankamphaeng district to take some photos as usual. The student monks invited me to visit and had keys to the main temple (Ubosod) and Vihara (the Chapel). Some people said that every one kilometer in Chiang Mai has a temple but there are not many temples with precious and memorable wall paintings or scuptures. In Wat Chet Yod, I walked to the quite new building Vihara which is behind the big Bodhi tree and saw no one there. Then I entered the Vihara and saw a beautiful painting behind the main Buddha statue.
It was the painting of the Bodhi tree with leaves painted in many colors such as red purple, orange , yellow, indigo, green and gold. The painter used brushes with a dot technique, which for a whole painting looked quite sparkling. Without asking for permission, I took photos of the interior structure, walls, doors, windows and ceiling. I also looked at the painting of Kruba Sriwichai, one of the most respected monks of Thailand. For Thai Buddhists, he was a saint of Thai Lanna, and was the project leader of the road construction to the magnificent Wat Prathat Doi Suthep temple on the mountain in Chiang Mai. Moreover, the nearby wall paintings of local ceremonies were very colorful and picturesque.
I photographed there for a half hour after someone gratefully turned on the lights. I thanked a young man and thought that he might be an art student in training. I was confused a bit and knew that all of these paintings were not the works of art students alone because the drawing and color were very professional and polished. Some images I took earlier were blurry because the light was not bright enough and I did not use flash so I decided to go there again a week later.
On the next Thursday, I went back to that Khun Wannee Vihara again. I met an artist who was painting walls in this Vihara and I noticed that the major colors were purple and yellow . His name is Kriengkrai Muangmool.I told him this was the second time that I saw the Vihara open. I wanted to know who was the artist-leader of the mural project for this chapel. I had talked to him quietly. I told him that my monk students , said that there are the team of students from Rajamankala Lanna institute Chedyod campus Chiang Mai, and as a painter, myself, I cannot believe this project came from students only.
We talked about mural painting in Thailand and its scope in ChiangMai. Not so many places in Thailand have the ancient mural art like Northern Thai especially Chiang Mai, but I never realized that in Wat Ched Yod there existed such an incredible modern style in mural art.
I was fortunate to gather an interview with Kriengkrai Muangmool, a professor and famous Lanna artist. He told me that he enjoyed and was interested in painting since he was young. Currently, he is an art teacher for the university students. Most of his art works are about local cultures and traditions for which he's received many awards. He said: 'Once I received awards seven years consecutively so I considered myself to be a prize hunter. But all of them were not my favorite art works.'
JY: Tell me about your favorite works.
KK: That is what I am doing now. I have worked and painted the Vihara in Wat Chet Yod temple for nine years. I can remember exactly the first day of working there—it was 11 September 2001. Now I am no longer the prize hunter. My intention is to serve Buddhism and when I have a chance to study the remaining ancient wall paintings. In Chiang Mai, many temples still preserve the old arts although time can ravage any object and I found that faith can encourage artists to tell people about local folklore and tales about morality and goodness or the life story of Buddha using brushes and colors. Some might tell people about heaven, the human world and hell. I would like to retell these stories in the Lanna Thai style. It would be the story of the Lanna Kingdom and some interesting traditions and ceremonies and I would like to focus on the Northern Thai region which includes the provinces of Phare, Nan, Lampoon, Lampang, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Maehongsorn to the self governing area called 12 Panna region which is in the south of Yunnan County, republic of China. It was also located near the border of Laos and Burma with a frontier of 966 Km. The culture and tradition of the people there as well as the houses, clothing, eating, living, art, performances, ceremonies and festivals were captured in the wall paintings in six temples of Chiang Mai and Phayao provinces. The time frame is different in each place, but in Wat Chet Yod temple my intention finally took shape and became visible.
JY: Your work is like drawing and painting on very large batik cloth. The colors are stunningly beautiful. I have just discovered that some students from the art department come to work as well but I thought that these works are not from the students because it is not easy do something as good as this. The pictures of Lanna traditions are lively and I can see the perspective, the viewpoint quite well.
KK: No, This is not a perspective viewpoint. I painted them in Thai style
[He smiled Then he showed me the differences between Western and Thai arts.]
KK: Thai artists prefer to draw a house next to others in the same size without considering proportion, distance and human size. Sometimes a human head is bigger than a door. As an art teacher, I adapted the big-scale painting which was used in the art competitions and tried to simulate the birds-eye-view scene. The result was very impressive. The picture showed Lanna ceremonies and festivals. I think that colors can create more depth to the picture. I use opaque acrylic and a shading technique to bring life to the picture and it has a feel of movement. These techniques are suitable for mural paintings in the temple. I told you that I put mulberry paper on the canvas before I paint something on it. The mulberry paper was made from the "Krasa tree" in Tonpao and Sankampaeng districts, Chiang Mai province.
JY: Had anyone used this technique before?
KK: Yes, it was a folk art created by Thai people and I presented it to the public because it was so suitable for shading light and shadow and it also encouraged artists to use natural materials such as wood pulp as tools for artistic creation.
JY: I looked at the house in the painting and noticed that you have a background in architecture, which I see from the geometry, roof, the height of basement and floor plan in your painting. Is that correct?
KK: Yes, it is. I am a teacher from the art and architecture department. But if you look at the house made by the Tai lue hill tribe [he opened a book for me to see a picture], actually people at that time had knowledge of geometry.
JY: You use very beautiful colors such as purple, green, yellow, orange, gold and red. I've never seen wall painting that uses this palette and color tone before. I am very fond of this because it is like a modern batik cloth and the color is not too sharp and is quite suitable for the local traditions.
KK: Well, I use opaque acrylic color and use some technique to reduce and raise brightness in order to create the dimension I want in the painting.
JY: It is strange to see the faces of women, men and children in your painting. They are so similar.
KK: I like to draw people and this picture portrays the traditional ceremonies in which everyone put on local costumes to participate. It is my intention and technique to use the same face on people because some artists and I are satisfied with works that use the same symbol and everyone in the picture looks happy and healthy when they are smiling. Also, I want to emphasize the unique features in the painting so everyone can remember and tell other people that these exceptional paintings are my creation. If you would like to compare my works with Western art, I can tell you that my work is in the "Renaissance Lanna" period and I am an artist in the impressionist style. You can see that all paintings have background stories about the way of life, and Buddhism, the beautiful cloth of the Northern people and Thai traditional dancing. These are the accumulation of cultures and reveal them in a positive way. For example: "Villager's life" can tell people about vegetables, fruits and flowers in a Thai rural area. I have worked on this project for 10 years.
JY: Are there any other stories you want to tell? How about Wat Chet Yod temple which has a long history.
KK: Yes, let me tell you briefly about history of Wat Chet Yod temple. The full name of this temple is Wat Potharammahavihara. Phra jao Tilokarat, the 11th king of Mengrai dynasty, ordered people to build a temple with red clay mixed with stucco but it is strange and interesting that the pattern of the flower comes from Chinese patterns.
We tried to do research about when the temple was built. Wat Chet Yod temple was constructed to look like the Bodhgaya temple in India. The pagoda has the style of Siklala or seven spires.
JY: What about the new project you are working on?
KK: My new project is beginning after painting in Wanee Vihara for nine years. The Abbot thought that we should build a new museum for angel statues at the pagoda because they are falling into ruin.
He told me to draw a construction plan of the museum and I told him about the reproduction of angels at the pagoda with drawings and photos to complete the research and then bring them to the museum. I have some sketches of these angels. There is no secret about my work.
[He showed me a sketch and an actual photo of an angel statue 10 years ago and also pointed out the difference.]
KK: We have a book that kept the pictures of the pagoda from 10 years ago. The pictures have no flowers and leaves pattern. We still make new angel statues using the old sculpting technique. They have faces arms and legs. Currently we are making six angels from the eighty of them. All these statues will be a part of Wat Chet Yod's new museum. You came to the temple and see 80 damaged angel statues. Do you have any pictures?
JY: Yes, some of them. The pagoda is very high and I cannot take photos of all angel statues and I am frightened of them.
KK: Do you know where the most complete angel statue is?
JY: In the north, I think. I cannot remember the face of an angel statue.
KK: Yes, it is in the north. The face of the angel statue is normal. No laughter or anger. Many faces, hands, legs including flower and leaf patterns were lost.
JY: I understand that you paint but do you sculpt the statues?
KK: Yes. I do it for the religion.
JT: Do you plan to restore the pagoda?
KK: No I cannot do that. It is the supervised work of the art department. I only take photos and sketch for the temple's project. All angel statues will be reproduced and kept in the new museum. People and especially art students can see good models to supplement their imagination. You take pictures afar from the pagoda because you see and are frightened by the damaged angel statues, but If you see the art and beauty you will not be frightened of them and you will have good memories and impressions. Because the faces are very similar, we are not quite sure about the origin and period that these statues were sculpted. Some say that they are from Lanka or India. Others said that the face belonged to Burma's king at that time and some assumed that the angel statues were built during the 8th revision of Tripitaka in the reign of king Tilokkarat.
Working for religion is good and beneficial and I will not stop only here. I am pleased to go to paint murals or do other things for Thai temples in foreign countries. I am sure that I have extensive knowledge and experience in painting, sculpting, architecture and especially Lanna traditional arts. I would like to give something to people, society and religion as well as create great works to fulfill my dreams and goals. Money is not my priority anymore. This is my true personal happiness.