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Artistic Depiction of Thai Mythology, Part 3

Thai mythology has its roots in early Indian Brahmanism, 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 lacquer ware.

The world has many legends of great elephant birds, but the Nok Hasadee, or Hasadee Link, must be the greatest and most fearsome of them all. With the head of an elephant on the body of a great bird, this fabulous creature was the size of a house, and had the strength of 5 elephants together. Strangely it chose to live in tangled, thorny rattan cane forests where its pale body would be conspicuous against the dark green fronds. This creature was no grazing animal however and would eat only fresh red meat.

The Gilane is a Chinese intruder into the world of the Himapan creatures. It has the body of a horse and the head of a dragon, but with a deer's antlers. The body is swathed in reptilian scales and flame burns from its legs. The Gilane is a throwback to ancient days, being made of the five primary elements of the ancients, namely earth, water, fire, wood and metal. Being a creature of the distant past it is probably not surprising that it has great longevity, living for 1,000 years or more.

A combination of danger and beauty is found in the Seua Peek. It is a hybrid between a tiger and a peacock. It has the head and forelegs of the great cat but a bird's wings, legs and tail. Despite the sharp claws on its fore feet, the hands are able to grasp things as a monkey might.

The Loto is a visitor from the deserts of Central Asia for its name is the Chinese word for a camel. Its depiction is more like a lion however for it has lost its humps somewhere in artistic history. It is a creature of fire with flames bursting from its head, neck, legs and tail.

The Takto is the half-brother of the better known Singha, yet while the Singha is powerful and burly, the Takto has an elegance and grace in clear contrast. The trunk and tusks of an elephant are combined with the features and fangs of a lion. It has a beard and its hair is always brushed forward. The neck is altogether more slender than that of the Singha, yet otherwise the legs and body are much the same. The Takto has been depicted on temple cabinets since the Ayutthaya period.

One of the strangest creatures in appearance is the Kumpee Nimit. The body is that of an angel, carrying a sword, while the legs and tail are those of a great crocodile, and a strange crocodile too, for its reptilian parts are dark purple in color.

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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