When I first laid eyes on Wat Phumin I saw a fortress within which the quiet denizens of the area could seek sanctuary. Even with a bustling textile fair throwing clamoring bids and chatter about, and a fashion-show blasting music right across the way—the merriment couldn’t breach the temple’s grounds.
The two rolling serpent creatures, or nagas, upon which the temple seemed to rest—looked as though they were holding back the din, biting the air clear of noise and careless speech.
My friends and I had no idea we were looking at the temple housing the icon of the city. So, we simply fell into step with a stream of people circling the building while clutching candles, incense and flowers.
It was nice to drop the energy of the fair and take up the shroud of contemplation. Along the route we noticed a small domed building, tucked off to the side of the tiled square.
No light settled on the dome and its inner chamber seemed as ravenous as a black hole—like one could get sucked in and trapped forever if they dawdled.
Course, we are journalism students. So we ventured close, stepping right up to the threshold as we peered into the inky air within and speculated on what’s housed inside.
“That’s hell. It says hell,” my friend from Japan gestured up at the sign over the door.
“Let’s take a look then,” I replied pulling out my phone and switching on the small light. The gloom fled and revealed a bubble of torment. Rooster-headed demons glared as they paused in their work. A man atop a pile of skulls seemed to be staring at us, mulling over whether to add us to the three being cooked alive at front-and-centre.
Flee, flee! They screamed in my thoughts.
With the soft light of my phone I felt like a character from a horror film. At any moment now the grotesque scene before me would spring to life and chase me to the ends of the earth, or my life.
“Welp, that’s nice,” I said taking an extra quick scan and then turning from the entrance to step lightly into the glow of the temple. “Let’s go inside the temple now.”
Inside of Wat Phumin a large set of four Buddha images benevolently welcomed me in. They stared off into the four directs, seemingly warding off the evils we had just witnessed.
The temple was originally built in 1596 at the behest of a ruler of Nan called Prachao Cheabut Phrommin. Its shape was unique with a crucifix form, but the temple’s most intriguing attribute would be added much later.
From 1867 to 1875 the temple underwent renovations. It was at this time that the most famous aspect of the temple was commissioned by the last king of Nan—its mural.
The mural, as the online tourists/tourism authority community puts it, depicts scenes from the Buddhist Jakata stories, which represent the past lives of Buddha—and a record of everyday life in Nan at the time. There are images documenting the hairstyles, fashion, social actions like smoking hand-rolled cheroots and perception of the foreigners visiting the area.
In 1893 a Thai Lue artist from Laos, called Thit Buaphan, took up his brush and didn’t finish the piece until 20 years later. That year was a rough time, with France slurping up Siam’s (Thailand’s old name) northern tributary states—Nan among them.
The principality felt abandoned, and as the story goes this feeling was meant to be forever displayed in the mural through the decision to portray the Jataka, Khaddhana (which depicts an orphan looking for his parents).
In essence, the piece was created to criticize the central rule in Bangkok for their negligence. The semi-independent kingdom hade been left behind by the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai, Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya, states the Lonely Planet book “Thailand”.
When I walked into the temple I wasn’t aware of any of this history. I just saw three levels of existence: the heavens, humans and hell; people participating in village life; and tons of sexual references.
My eyes darn near popped out of my head as I shuffled around the room.
Snuggling, eye waggling… whoa, fondling… wait are those monkeys copulating?
Turns out this might be a political criticism. Check out this image in daylight.
Do the colours of the waving background behind the monkey remind you of something?
I was shocked out of my sandals (well I was already out of my sandals in respect for the temple but you get the reference).
I literally nabbed my friend and tugged him from corner to corner as I pointed out the “sinful” acts I’d spotted. I assumed the plot was about life sins leading to a presence in hell, which was depicted at the corner I believed was the end.
“Look, there is a couple sneaking around after some fun.”
Was this a giant “forbidden acts” list?
Now though, I feel like a prude.
According to the academic papers I’ve read this mural is just depicting everyday life. Of course I was happy to find at least one paper describing the flirting and fondling in the mural, because on the other hand I was wondering if my mind is permanently in the gutter.
“… gossiping and flirting; there is even a transvestite pointedly involved near women doing ‘women’s work.’”
“… lovers fondle and smirk, their lips puckered.”
– Journal of the Siam Society Vol. 93 2005
The most iconic image of the set though?
The artist, Thit Buaphan, labeled it “Poo Marn Yar Marn” or “Whispering of Love”.
Some say the male is a portrait of the artist himself.
Among the many figures going about their business in the human realm these two are the largest.
Many local artists have been inspired by the mural and created their own interpretations of the scene.
When tourists visit the markets or wander the souvenir shops of Nan this is as the forefront. These two people are stamped on shirts, bookmarks, coffee cups, key chains, books, necklaces, phone covers, scarves, bags, bracelets, cups, plates, and pretty much anything with a flat surface.
They really are the talk of the town.