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Notes on the Geography of Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion

The Suan Pakkard Palace is just east of the intersection of Thanon Ayutthaya and Phaya Thai. On his own palace grounds Prince Chumbhot (1904-59) put the small building known as the Lacquer Pavilion. Open to the public, the building seems to have been begun in the late 17th century as two buildings. Shortly thereafter, during a Burmese invasion, the buildings were moved north a few miles to a monastery at Ban Kling, where they slowly deteriorated until 1930, when they were torn down and combined into a single structure comprising an interior room and an enclosed surrounding hallway: a box inside a box. The interior walls of each box were covered with paintings, chiefly the life of the Buddha, but they were almost illegible when Prince Chumbhot acquired them.

During the 1950s they were painstakingly renewed. The process began with several coats of black lacquer. Upon this surface, a drawing was traced. The rest of the panel was covered with a soft yellow paint. The entire surface was then covered with gold leaf. The next day, the panel was washed to remove the gold leaf atop the soft yellow paint; the only gold remaining was the gold atop the traced pattern.

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Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 1

The "box in a box" structure is evident from the double-stacked roof. You'd never guess that the building is surrounded by central Bangkok.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 2

A close-up of one panel of the outer wall; on the other side of the wall, in an interior hallway between the boxes, there's a picture of the Buddha's last hours. All told, there are six panels on the walls of the inner box and seven on the walls of the outer. Although they tell a story, the panels are out of order and have been so since they were reassembled into a single building.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 3

This is the chronological first panel, now in the inner room. The complex picture shows the battle against the demon Mara during which the Buddha achieves enlightenment. Like Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" with its clocks, this picture has the anachronism of European soldiers in Mara's army. During the Ayatthaya period, such imagery was widespread.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 4

Here, judging from his clothing, a Dutchman.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 5

Here, Frenchmen.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 6

Enlightened, the Buddha floats overhead, while fire-worshippers are forced into a boat by floods. They soon convert to Buddhism.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 7

Carts cross a river. They illustrate a well-known miracle: the Buddha in old age asked his disciple Ananda to fetch water from a stream that these carts had muddied. The water becomes crystal clear.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 8

The King and Queen of Malla, where the Buddha spends his final hours.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 9

From the same panel, cooks prepare the Buddha's last meal.

Thailand: Bangkok's Lacquer Pavilion picture 10

Peeking out a window.

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