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Artistic Depiction of Thai Mythology, Part 2

Thai Mythology has its roots in early Indian Brahminism, and the tales of that mythical ancient time still have great similarities whether told in modern India or Thailand. Yet inevitably the retelling of these tales from the past, from generation to succeeding generation, subtly changes them over time and the modern myths have a distinctly Thai flavor. These tales are about the mythical Himapan forest high in the Himalayas somewhere near the India-Nepal border. This forest is beneath the Buddhist heaven and invisible to the eyes of mortals who may not approach it.

The forest is populated with strange creatures, unknown in mortal realms, which were created first in narrated stories and later in written tales. To bring these mythical beasts and beings to life, however, became the task of Thai artists who gave rein to their creativity, depicting the denizens of the Himapan forest in visual form. Some artists enjoyed this so much that they invented and named new creatures of their own. Many of the creatures of this mythical world have been represented in Thai classical art and architecture for many years and are found in murals, sculptures, carvings and decorative lacquerware.


The most important of the animals of the Himapan forest is probably the Garuda, with the head, wings, tail and lower body of an eagle, and the upper body and arms of man. This was the king of the birds and the mount of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Traditionally the Thais believe that their kings are incarnations of Vishnu and the Garuda has come to represent the King of Thailand. It is used as a symbol of the monarchy or of the government itself, appears on Thai bank notes and on the royal flag, which is flown only in the presence of the His Majesty.


NagaThe Naga, or king snake, with its beard and pointed crown, is the half-brother of the garuda. Base on mythology, the two had the same father and their mothers were sisters. There is only one garuda, but there are one thousand nagas, all sworn enemies of the snake-eating half-brother. In many northern Thai temple stairway the handrails depict the great Naga, the many-headed bearded serpent with its pointed crown. The Naga is often found in Thai architecture and also frequently portrayed giving comfort and shade to the meditating Buddha, the coils of the great snake acting as a cushion while the many heads function as an umbrella.


The Rajasi is the stylized Thai lion, the king of the mythical beasts. With flames depicted burning on its head, neck and back, and trailing from each of its feet, it is a truly magnificent creature. The Rajasi should not be confused with the Gajasi or Takto, its close relatives. Both the Gajasi and Takto have a lion's body and head but the trunk and tusks of an elephant.


The Hong is a bird of infinite grace, and the Thai saying: "Ngaam onchoy tiap dang hong" -- as beautiful and graceful as a Hong. The head and neck of a Hong can be seen on the prow of the magnificent royal barge the Suphannahong. The Hong is also auspicious animal, portending of miracles. Nothing can match the grace of the Hong, for this great swan-like bird has a poise and delicacy beyond compare and its name is used in a modern Thai expression denoting unsurpassed beauty and grace.


The Kinnari is one of the loveliest of the mythology beings, a beautiful half-woman, half swan, with the head and torso of a woman yet below the delicately tapered waist she has the body, tail and legs of a swan. She also has both human arms and the wings of a swan. While the Kinnari has a male counterpart (the Kinnara) and is similar in form, it is less beloved by Thai artists. The Kinnari is renowned for her excellence in song and dance and her graceful form is often seen in sculpture and temple murals.


HeraFrom the aquatic Hera, with the serpentine body of its Naga father and the feet of its mother, a dragon, are two strange hybrids relatively new additions to the mythical assortment. The Kinnon-nua which is a man from the waist up and a deer from the waist down. The Narasingh has a human body, but the claws and head of a lion, though occasionally depicted with hooves. Both were of the fertile imagination of ancient Thai artisans who found the original literature about the Himapan forest to be somewhat lacking in detail about the inhabitants of that invisible realm.

With all these strange and wonderful creatures roaming the Himapan forest to portray, Thai artists should have been satisfied with the scope they had, but they felt that more was needed and invented many other mythical forms of their own. Combining the ancient written and spoken myths with the imagination of generations of Thai artists has created a whole world of strange and wonderful creatures inhabiting their own special paradise. It is a blend of legend and reality that is such a fundamental part of Thai art.

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