In 1281, the Thais conquered Lamphun and a Lan Na dynasty was created. Encompassing all of Northern Thailand as well as parts of Burma and Laos. The Lanna kingdom was centered in Chiang Mai and enjoyed self-sufficient rule for about 280 years until it was occupied by Burma in the mid-16th century. Its original name ‘Lan Na Thai’ translates as ‘million Thai rice fields’ it has since been shortened to simply ‘Lanna’.

Following the Burmese occupation, the Thai government in the 19th century reclaimed the region. However, though united by a centralized government in Bangkok, the North and South have slight cultural differences, which can be seen as the legacy of Thailand’s diverse sociopolitical history. While the North and the South have their differences, they are united by the nation-wide Buddhist practice that dates back hundreds of years. Exceptions are found only in the extreme Southern tip of the country, which borders Malaysia. Examples of Buddhist devotional art are well preserved and continue to be revered all over Thailand. Two well-known and distinct regional styles are that of the central Sukhothai and Northern Lanna style of Buddhist imagery.

The Lanna style in Buddhist sculpture is characterized by a generally elongated nature to the entire work. The overall proportions of the body, facial features, garments, hands and even earlobes are longer, thinner, sometimes flaring, unlike the images of the classic Sukhothai style. The brows are somehow lifted and the mouth angular, forward, while the shoulders are broadened and the chest pronounced. The characteristic Lanna approach to depicting the Buddha in these postures is intricate and highly detailed; these figures are often small and delicate with flowing robes and streamlined facial features with their hands at their sides. Standing image of the Buddha with hands at each side in lacquered wood and gold leaf (236)

Another popular Buddha image with both hands raised and the palms facing forward. Standing image of the Buddha in the ‘stop the ocean’ position, gold lacquered wood and gold leaf (235)

The Crowned Buddha, dressed in ornate royal garments decorated with gemstones and bangles is also unique to the Lanna style. By the end of the fifteenth-early sixteenth century, this Crown Buddha appeared in Lanna sculptures. They were often seated in the Maravijyya (the leg on top of the other and the right hand upon the knee) position.

The Sukhothai Period

Sukhothai (Dawn of Happiness) was the capital of Thailand for 120 years. It is located north of Bangkok approximately 427km (267miles) away. Sukhothai became the cradle of the Thai civilization and the first capital for the Thai people. In the late to mid-thirteen century, the people freed themselves from the Khmer control and created Sukhothai. It was at this time that the name Thai, meaning “free”, was adopted by the Thai people, to distinguish themselves from other speakers of the Thai language who remained under Khmer jurisdiction. It was also at Sukhothai that the written Thai script, which is still used today was developed by King Ramkhamhaeng also known as ‘Rama the Great’. This alphabet derives from the Khmer script, which was in turn based on the Indian Devangari script.

Present-day Sukhothai, as well as nearby Phitsanulok and Lopburi are all home to a number of stunning Buddhist monuments which show the characteristic Sukhothai style. A number of scholars have said that the devotional style was developed with influences from Buddhist texts themselves including the description of the body of the Buddha, such as hands with fingers of equal length, a strong chin and nose, and an oval-shaped face.

Siamese image of the Buddha’s head in bronze with green patina (234)

There are two specific Sukothai styles of images of the Buddha. They are the best known in Thailand. One of them is of the freestanding walking Buddha showing the grace of a dancer. Images of the Buddha in this position are rare, and their appearance in Sukhothai can be attributed to a regional interest in depicting the Buddha in a variety of postures. The innovations of the freestanding walking Buddha can be directly linked to the Sri Lankan influence based on examples from the South-Indian bronze-casting tradition in which one elongated arm helps balance the work and allow it to stand freely. The other one is the seated Buddha in the maravijaya pose (in which the Buddha is seated, with one hand in his lap and the other touching the ground). The hands and body are sculpted with style, finesse and in proportion; on the top of the head (finial) there is the addition of an ushnisha (note the italicization) (a flame). The Buddha images have ethnic features of the Thais combined with the yogi serenity.

Sri Lankan images of the Buddha are said to be another influence toward the development of this distinctive style. Certain stylistic features of Sri Lankan Buddha images can be found in works, which may have been brought over in the 14th century by a monk from Sukhothai named Sumana. He traveled extensively and acted as an emissary between these two ancient Buddhist cultures.

Though political power in Sukhothai was ceded in the 15th century to the Ayutthaya Kingdom, the legacy of the Sukhothai style can be found all over the country and original images from Sukhothai are displayed in prominent locations such as at Wat Pho and the National Museum in Bangkok.