Thai Grotesques

Posted by Katarzyna Ancuta on November 14, 2007 in Dr Katarzyna Ancuta, Guest Blog tagged with

Having spent many a day in the past straining my neck to catch a glimpse of ghastly gargoyles adorning castle turrets and Gothic cathedrals, I am somewhat overwhelmed by the abundance of grotesque imagery assailing me, so to speak, from almost every direction in Thailand. The excessive presence of Thai grotesque ornamentation can only be described through the Baudrillardian metaphor of obscenity, they truly are “the visible, the all-too-visible and the more-visible-than-the-visible,” whether in art and architecture, in commercial design, in fashion, in street ornaments and decorations or practically anywhere else.

The sheer amount and variety of grotesque hybrid creatures that have made their way from religion and mythology to Thai everyday life can confuse even the specialists. Not to mention such a casual observer as myself. There are, of course, plenty of other areas of Thai culture and everyday life that I could describe as grotesque or excessive, but they deserve separate attention, so perhaps I’ll get back to that in another post. Still, I thought that I could introduce you to some of the more bizarre fantastic creatures I have found in my neighbourhood.

Perhaps the most striking of them are the Himmapan creatures, mythical beings that are said to inhabit the legendary Himmapan forest supposedly located in the Himalaya Mountains. According to the legend, the forest and its creatures remain invisible to human eyes. Having said that, this apparent invisibility does not seem to bother Thai artists who have been reproducing the bizarre and fantastic shapes of the mythical beasts in great detail for many generations.

Although sometimes referred to as beasts or animals, the Himmapan creatures are in fact rather complicated animal-based hybrids, frequently combining body parts of many animals (including humans) seen as representing different elements. Some of the more prominent creatures are those based on the body of a lion, a bird, or a horse, although these are by far not the only combinations.

Perhaps the most popular Thai human-bird creature is the swan-bottomed Thep Kinnaree seen as the embodiment of grace. Having said that, although promoted as the epitome of loveliness, some tales describe Kinnaree’s taste for human blood, which makes her the closest equivalent to a vampire we can find in Thailand. The male counterpart of Kinnaree is known as Kinnara or Thep Kinna Norn.

Kinnara looks almost exactly like Kinnaree minus the breasts. Taking into consideration the feminine features of the male Kinnaras and the small breasts of the female Kinnarees, it’s easy to get confused.

Thep Puksee, looks pretty much the same as Kinnara, apart from the fact that it is supposed to have human legs. Also, its bottom seems to resemble that of a chicken rather than a swan.

Another Wat Phra Keow’s human-bird creature, this time looking more like a chicken. Its human legs allow us to classify it as Thep Puksee.

Asoon Puksa and Asura Wayupuk are both hybrids of birds and giants, the only difference being the fact that the former is supposed to be half-chicken and the latter half-eagle. The difference is obviously very easy to spot…

Beats me whether this one looks more like a chicken or an eagle. Still, the head-dress of the creature makes me think it is actually Asura Wayupuk.

Similarly, the thing that differentiates Nok Tuntima from other similar creatures is the fact that he is supposed to carry a long pole, presumably to be used as a weapon.

This particular statue of Nok Tuntima could easily be confused with Garuda if it were not for its weapon.

Lion-based Himmapan creatures form another large group. Singha Panorn is supposed to be a mixture of a lion and a monkey.

 The lion part of Singha Panorn boils down pretty much to the tail in this case, as the rest of its body seems to belong to a monkey.

Thep Norasri is a combination of human and lion features with an occasional touch of a deer. The females are sometimes called Upsorn Srihas.

 Once again we recognise the lion’s tail, but as the face belongs to a human and the feet seem to be those of a deer we rest assured this creature is no other than Thep Norasri. Or is it his female counterpart?

The deer element is certainly popular in hybrid-formation, as can also be seen on this example. I have not been able to determine what exactly is this creature supposed to represent, as its design does not seem to resemble the usual Himmapan style.

The origin of this dear-headed creature at Wat Po seems baffling even to the locals. It seems to have almost an Egyptian aura around it for some reason. At least for me.

Several of the more prominent grotesque creatures have been incorporated into Thai culture through the influence of Hinduism and the Indian epic tale of Ramayana. A good example here can be various monkey-based creatures, such as Hanuman, the monkey general.

General Hanuman using his body as a bridge in the battle.

We can also find giants (Yak), who frequently look quite demonic, although technically speaking there are no demons in Thai mythology as such. The facial expression of Yak, with his frown and grotesquely barred fangs is supposed to represent Anger. Some even claim it is meant as a warning for humans to control their anger.

Blue-faced Yak at Wat Phra Keow. Yaks seem to come in many shapes and colours. They frequently have extra limbs as well.

Among other religious inspirations we find Garuda, frequently represented as having the torso of a man with the head, beak, wings and talons of an eagle. In Hindu mythology, Garuda was depicted as the king of birds and the winged vehicle of the god Vishnu.

Garuda getting ready for take-off. Apparently its wingspan was supposed to measure around 13000 km.

Although Garuda is frequently seen as the symbol of Indonesia, in Thailand it has association with royalty and the state, and many Garudas can be found on public institutions, such as banks or the post office. In fact, when the 2004 Thai film Garuda by Monthon Arayangkoon introduced the Godzilla-like half-bird, half-human monster, several people objected to such a representation of the creature, even if it was portrayed as properly nationalistic, eating only those who had succumbed to foreign fashions.

Garuda is frequently portrayed as perched on rooftops, although it might be difficult to spot it at times amidst the excessive Thai roof decoration.

Erawan, frequently portrayed as a three-headed elephant, is another image borrowed from Ramayana. Originally Erawan was supposed to be a white elephant with 33 heads, each with 7 long tusks. As you can imagine, this was not an easy design to follow by the artists, who declared that three heads were more than enough. Erawan was the mount of the Hindu god Indra.

A truly monstrous Erawan statue watching over Bangkok suburbia. Another Erawan can be found downtown but that one is a large department store instead.

The King of snakes, or the Naga is usually portrayed as a many-headed crowned serpent-like, frequently using its heads to shade Buddha from the sun.

The seven-headed Naga guarding the entrance to a temple.

Last but not least, let me introduce you to some of my personal grotesque favourites, which can be found at Wat Po temple in Bangkok.

It looks like a kitty but is it a kitty? More likely a tiger, I suppose. But in any case, what about the floral patterns on its fur?

Another cat-creature from Wat Po lurking in the bushes. 

The design of these stone animals definitely speaks of Chinese influences, although I have had trouble determining exactly what they are supposed to represent. Some of the creatures seem to resemble Chinese Lions, known in Thailand as Singto Jean, or the fantastic Ghilen in parts, but none of them seems to match the design completely.

I’ve been told to call this creature "a mean sort of Sinto Jean from Wat Po," as nobody seems to be exactly sure how to classify it. It does seem to resemble a Chinese lion from behind but…

This one seems easier to recognise. It is definitely some sort of a goat-creature.

The entrance to the temple is guarded by several giant Chinese Warrior statues in the style of Kuan Yu, the Chinese god of war. Even if they might not look particularly grotesque in themselves, they certainly begin to look so when we realise they are accompanied by the similarly styled figures of the Scary White Man. I have not yet been able to determine the exact reason for erecting those statues.

The mighty foreign Warriors at Wat Po.

The fact that much of the artwork at Wat Po is expected to serve some practical purpose can be best illustrated by the bizarre humanoid depictions that were meant to teach human anatomy.

Luckily for all of us, the Thai doctors’ understanding of human anatomy has improved much over the years.

Last but not least, Wat Po stone figures include also an astounding selection of bizarre statues, known as Lue Si Dud Ton, which were originally meant as a study aid for those interested in learning Thai massage. Taking into consideration the particularly brutal bone-cracking nature of Thai massage you will be excused to confuse these images with the scenes straight from the torture chamber.

Looks painful, doesn’t it? Instead of educating, I’m afraid these figures seem to be putting most people off the idea of Thai massage.

More about the Himmapan creatures and their designs can be found here.

We can obviously argue whether the hybrid creatures mentioned here could or should be called grotesque in the first place. Bizarre and fantastic they certainly are, no doubt about it. They are also frequently excessive and ridiculous, and the intoxicating combination of shapes and colours involved can easily be called carnivalesque. Is this enough to justify categorising them as grotesque? Well, I’m not sure what you think but to me they remain one more manifestation of Bangkok Gothic.

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