Art in Thailand: A Brief History

by M.C. Subhadradis Diskul

A reference summary of the history of art in Thailand, by a Thai educationist and archaeologist.

Diskul ART IN THAILAND A Brief History 1970 cover

Type: e-book

Publisher: Faculty of Archaeology, Silpakorn University, Bangkok

Edition: 1st English version of the book initially published in Thai in 1963. With 100 plates (125 in 1991 edition)

Author: M.C. Subhadradis Diskul

Pages: 134

Language : English

ADB Library Catalog ID: eTHDISK1

At a time when artwork repatriation rekindled the the heated debate over what is the Khmer” part of Thai art, it is helpful to go back to the work of a major agent in developing Thai studies in art history and archeology. The author, himself a son of Prince Damrong, often called the Father of Thai history”, gives us a useful breakdown of the historical periods in which art in Thailand — rather than Thai art’ — can be considered:

  • Dvaravati period (6th or 7th- 11th century A.D.) (pp 2 – 7 in his concise yet precise introduction)
  • Ancient Hindu images (7th- 9th century A.D.) (pp 7,8)
  • Srivijaya period (8th- 13th centuary AD.) (pp 8 – 10)
  • Lopburi period (11th-13th century A.D.) (pp 10,11)
  • Chiengsaen period (circa 11th-18th century A.D.) (pp 11 – 14)
  • Sukhothai period (13th- 14th century AD.) (pp 14 – 17)
  • U‑tong period (circa 12th-15th century A.D.) (pp 1718)
  • Ayudhya period (14th-18th century A.D.) (pp 18 – 23)
  • Bangkok period (late 18th- early 20th century A.D.) (pp 23 – 32)

Such classification is important, because it helps us to better apprehend 1) the artistic apportation of Mon, Khmer and Mon-Khmer native inhabitants to the early stages of art in Thailand 2) the artistic influence still exterted by Angkorean artists long after the Khmer Empire had been defeated, mostly by the Ayudhya power. 


Starting with Dvaravati” — a period that has been debated at length by historians and archaeologists — , we noticed this notation in the author’s work: 

There is a group of Dvaravati Buddha images whose significance cannot be known for certain. They represent the Buddha standing or seated on the head of a curious beast called in Thai Panasbati” (fig. 12). The standing figure probably represents the Buddha descending from Tavatimsa Heaven. Quite a number of them have been found. Panasbati seems to have a beak of a garuda (the king of birds), ears and horns of a bull, and wings of a hamsa (wild goose). These three animals are mounts of the three great Hindu gods, respectively Vishnu, Siva and Brahma. This placement of the Buddha upon Panasbati might be an attempt to indicate a belief that Buddhism was stronger than Hinduism. Such an iconography does not {fist in India. A has-relief in Dvaravati style recently discovered on a cave-wall in Saraburi, which depicts Vishnu and Siva or Brahma attending the sermon of the Buddha, seems to support this assumption. These figures of the Buddha seated or standing upon Panasbati might have originally been fixed on the hub of the stone Wheels of the Law discussed later. 

In the 1991 edition, the author developed this part as follows:

There is a group of Dvaravati Buddha images whose significance cannot be known for certain. They represent the Buddha standing or seated on the head of a curious beast called by some Thai archaeologists Panasbati” (Lord of the Jungle) [in a glossary note, he added that Panasbatl literally means Lord of the Jungle. Often called a kala” (monster face) in Thailand or a monster beneath the Buddha during the Dvaravati period”]. The standing figure sometimes represents the Buddha descending from Tavatimsa Heaven with a parasol above the head of the Master who is flanked by lndra and Brahma. the former holding the handle of the parasol and the latter a fly-whisk, according to Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhist description. Without the parasol the statue might concern Mahayana Buddhism with Buddha standing in the middle, flanked by Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva and Maitreya. Quite a number of these images have been found. Panasbati seems to have the beak of a garuda (the king of birds). the ears and horns of a bull, and the wings of a hamsa (wild goose). These three animals are mounts of the three great Hindu gods, respectively Vishnu, Siva and Brahma. This placement of the Buddha upon Panasbati might be an attempt to indicate a belief that Buddhism was stronger than Hinduism. Such an iconography does not exist in India. À bas-relief in Dvaravati style recently discovered on a cave-wall in Saraburi, which depicts Vishnu and Siva or Brahma attending the sermon of the Buddha with two angels also flying to listen to the preaching, seems to support this assumption. These figures of the Buddha seated or standing upon Panasbati might have originally been fixed on the hub of the stone Wheels of the Law discussed later or according to some authorities architectural decorations.


Prince Damrong thought that the Dvaravati kingdom lost all its power because of the invasion of King Aniruddha. This assumption, however has been opposed by some scholars who believe that the Dvaravati kingdom disintegrated following the attack of the Khmer army from Cambodia
Dvaravati art flourished in the central part of Thailand, for instance at Nakhon Pathom, U‑tong in the province of Supanburi, and Ratburi, and in the northeastern part of the country such as at Muang Fa Daed Sung Yang in the province of Kalasin. Some Dvaravati Buddha images were also discovered in the south. Early Buddha statues in Cambodia also belong to the same style of early Dvaravati. About the middle of the 7th century A.D. the inhabitants of the town of Lavo (Lopburi) migrated to found another kingdom in the north, that of Haripunjaya (Lampun). Dvaravati art flourished in this kingdom until it was conquered by the Thai in the late 13th century.

12. Buddha seated on Panasbati. Stone. Ht. 67 cm. Transferred from Pisnulok Museum. Dvaravati style.” 

The Pallava influence in Thailand

A group of ancient Hindu images has been discovered in Thailand. They closely resemble sculptures of the Indian post-Gupta style, i.e. those of the Pallava dynasty in south-eastern India around the 7th century. These stone Hindu statues usually represent standing Vishnu with four arms holding a conch, a disc, a club and
a lotus, the last one symbolizing earth. The god is wearing a cylindrical bat and a long robe (like a sarong) descending to the ankles. Most of these images were discovered in the southern and eastern parts of Thailand. The oldest one is probably the image of Vishnu 69 cm. high, which was found at Chaiya, Suratthani, in the south and dates before the 7th century. These Hindu statues wearing long robes can be divided into two groups: the first one with a scarf draped diagonally across the thigh (fig. 23) and another group with the same scarf-decoration tied horizontally (fig. 24j. The first group presumably antedates the second as it is more similar to Hindu images in India and was popular only for a short while. Many images can be placed in the second category, and they lasted for a long period, displaying a certain evolution. The statues in the first group were mostly found in southern Thailand, whereas the majority of the second group were discovered at Dong Si Maha Pot, Prachinburi, in the east.


In the central, eastern and north-eastern parts of Thailand is found a style of art, both in sculpture and architecture, that has affinities with the Khmer art of Cambodia. This style is called Lopburi Art”, in Thailand, as it is believed that the town of Lavo or Lopburi was an important stronghold ruled by a Khmer viceroy in the 12th century. The chronology of this style of art is based on tbe periods of the similar Khmer art in Cambodia; for instance the Angkor Vat style (circa 1110 – 1175 A.D.) or the Bayon style (circa 1177 – 1 230 A.D.). Some of the Lopburi antiquities found in Thailand are, however, much older than these two periods. Some of them might date back to the 7th century, but most of the objects and monuments date only from the 11th century onwards. The Lopburi objects are carved from stone or cast in bronze. Most of the Buddhist objects belong to the Mahayana. The bronze objects may have been of Thai workmanship, and they continued to be made down to the Ayudhya period.

[…] Some Lopburi Buddha images belong to the Khmer Angkor Vat style (fig. 34). The Buddha under Naga was very popular, and some of them are typical of the Bayon style (fig. 35). These large Buddha statues are carved from sandstone, but at the same time there arc many small bronze Lopburi Buddha images. Most of them were cast from the 13th century onwards and represent the single Buddha or a group of Buddhas on the same pedestal (fig. 36). Sometimes the Mahayana Triratna (Three Gems) is shown personified by the Buddha under Naga in the middle,
flanked by the Bodllisattva A valoki tesvara on the right and the Prajnaparamita on the left (fig. 37). Quite often these last two figures are separately represented. Hindu images also occur, for instance images of Siva, Visbnu and Visvakarma (fig. 38). Buddhist votive tablets were fabncated both in terracotta and metal. Those with the Buddha or with Hevajra, a Mabayana Buddhist saint, were quite popular. Buddhist votive· tablets of the Lopburi period are usually adorned by the representation of a prang or Khmer tower.

In Lopburi art portraits have also been found; one example is the stone portrait of King Jayavarman VII, the last great monarch of Cambodia, discovered at the Pimai Temple, Nakbon Racbasima (fig. 39). Bronzes that were used as household articles abound in offering-trays, decorations of wooden chariots (fig. 40), and palanquins. Most of them are of superb workmanship. Belonging to this period brown glazed ceramics are also known. They are usually called Khmer jars” in Thai. These ceramics were sometimes produced in the form of human beings or of animals (fig. 41). They may have been fabricated in Thailand and then exported to Cambodia.

Art and Theravada Buddhism

Sukhothai art (13th-14th century A.D.)commenced when King Si Intratit founded the Sukhothai kingdom as a country independent from the Khmer around 1250. Sukhothai art is regarded as the most beautiful and the most original Thai artistic · expression, especially in the field of Buddha images. During this period the Sukhothai kingdom received Theravada Buddhism from Ceylon and Singhalese artistic in fluence also appeared at Sukhothai, but it was more prominent in architecture than in sculpture. The bronze walking Buddha of the Sukhothai period (fig. 53) can compete with any masterpiece in the world.

As for Sukhothai chedi, they are divided into three styles:
1. The original Sukhothai stupa which has three superimposed rectangular pedestals supporting a small and redented central part (in imitation of a Khmer tower?), above wh1ch is a finial in the form of a lotus bud (fig. 63). Such stupa exist at Wat Mahathat in the centre of the old town of Sukhothai and at Wat Chedi Chet Thaew, Sisatcbanalai.
2. The round stupa probably derived from Ceylon at the same time as Singhalese Theravada Buddhism (fig. 64). The round chedi surrounded by elephant caryatids is also classified into this category.
3. The Srivijaya stupa characterized by a tall rectangular base sometimes decorated by niches with Buddha images, terminated by a round stupa of Singhalese style. The mondop of Wat Khao Yai and monuments at Wat Chedi Chet Thaew, Sisatchanalai (fig. 65) are examples.

Religious architecture of Sukhothai style that imitates Lopburi art also exists in the form of a more elevated Khmer tower such as at Wat Si Sawai, Sukhotbai. The big prang at Wat Pra Si Ratana Mabatbat Chalieng, Sisatcbanalai, was probably restored during the Ayudhya period.

61. Harihara. Bronze. Ht. 1.20 m. Sukhothai style.” [Hariharalaya figure is a staple of Khmer sculpture.]

U‑Tong, Ayudhya and the Khmer influence again

While the Chiengsaen art was flourishing in the extreme north of Thailand and the Sukhothai style in the north, there developed in the central part of the country another style of art, the U‑tong school. As has been mentioned, central Thailand was originally the site of the Dvaravati kingdom and then was occupied by the Khmer. The lJ-tong art that flourished in this central part of Thailand is therefore a composite art, but the artists were probably Thai.
U‑tong Buddha images can be divided into three styles:
1. The first group is the result of the mixture of Dvaravati with Khmer or Lopburi art. This category is probably the earliest of the three and dates from the 12th-13th century (fig. 67).
2. The second group shows more prominent Khmer or Lopburi influence (fig. 68). The halo on the skull-protuberance has changed from a lotus bud into a flame.Jike motif. This innovation might have occurred first in the Buddha images of the second group of the U‑tong style before it was handed on to the Sukhotbai Buddhist statues. This second group is probably later than the first category and dates from the 13th-14th century.
3. There is strong Sukhothai influence in the third group. This last category probably existed in the 14th-15th century (fig. 69), and quite a number of them were discovered in the crypt of the main prang of Wat Ratburana, Ayudhya, erected by command of King Borom Rachatbirat II of Ayudhya in 1424
The constant characteristics of U‑tong Buddha images are a small band dividing the hair from the forehead, a long robe falling from the left shoulder and terminating in a straight line, a folded-leg posture, the attitude of subduing Mara and a pedestal concave in outline.
As for U‑tong religious architecture, one can include Pra Mahathat of Cbainat (fig. 70), which displays a mixture of Sukhothai and Srivijaya styles. There is also the main prang of Wat Pra Si Ratana Mahathat, Lopburi, attributed by Professor Boisselier to the late 13th century (fig. 71).

[…]The first period of Ayudhya painting (13501488) shows strong Khmer influence. The figures are rather stiff and heavy, and the colour is in black, white and red with only a few spots covered in gold. The best example of this style is the mural painting in the crypt of the main prang of Wat Ratburana, built in
the reign of King Borom Rajathirat 11 in 1424 (fig. 79). Later, a painting was executed on lead in the crypt of the large eastern stupa of Wat Pra Si San pet; it shows a row of standing Buddhist disciples holding lotuses in their joined hands. This second painting, probably executed in the reign of King Rama Thibodi H (14911529), is now
preserved in the Bangkok National Museum.
The second period of Ayudhya pictorial art may be studied from illustrations on some palm-leaf manuscripts. These religious documents were probably produced in the 16th or 17th century, and most of them deal with Buddhist cosmology (fig. 80). They show the gradual development of Sukhotai influence in Ayudhya painting and the popularity of using many colours. Late Ayudhya painting is represented by a style typically Thai.
colours were used as well as gold applied on figures and ornamental designs. Many representation of trees, mountains and water shows some Chinese tendencies (fig. 81 ).

98. The prang of Wat Rakbang, Thonburi. Bangkok style of the first reign.” [persistence of the Khmer prang form in Thai architecture.]

In 1991, the author added this useful list of Siamese-Thai sovereigns:

List of Thai Kings

Sukhothai Dynasty
1 . King Si lntratit — circa 1235 A.D
2. King Ban Muang (son) — circa 1279
3. King Ram Khamhaeng (brother) — 12791299
4. King Loe Thai (son)
5. King Ngoa Nam Thorn {brother?) ‑1347
6. King Li Thai or Mahathammaracha I (son of no. 4) 1347 ‑circa 1368
7. King Mahathammaracha II (son) 1368 ‑circa 1399
8. King Sai Lu Thai or Mahathammarqcha Ill (nephew of no.6) 1399 – 1419
9. King Borom Pan or Mahathammaracha IV (son) 1419-circa 1438
The Sukhothai Kingdom was ruled by an Ayudhya prince in 1438.

Ayudhya Dynasties
1. King Rama Thibodi I or U‑tong 1350 – 1369
2. King Ramesuan (son) 1369 – 1370
3. King Borom Rachathirat I (brother-in-law of no. 1) 1370 – 1388
4. King Tong Lan (son) 1388
King Ramesuan (the same as no. 2) 1388 – 1395
5. King Ram Racha (son) 1395 – 1409
6. King Nakhon In (nephew of no. 3) 1409 – 1424
7. King Borom Rachathirat 11 (Chao Sam Praya, son) 1424 – 1448
8. King Borom Trailokanath (son) 1448 – 1488
9. King Borom Rachathirat Ill (son) 1488 – 1491
10. King Rarna Thibodi 11 (brother) 14911529
11. King Borom Rachathirat IV (son) 1529 – 1533
12. King Rashadhathirat (son) 1533 – 1534
13. King Chai Racha (brother of no. 11) 1534 – 1546
14. King Yod Fa (son) 1546 – 1548
15. King Mahachakrapat (brother of no. 13) 1548 – 1568
16. King Mahin (son) 1568 – 1569
Ayudhya was lost to the Burmese in 1569.
17 King Mahathammaracha (new dynasty, perhaps related to that of Sukhothai) 1569 – 1590
18. King Naresuan (son) 1590 – 1605
19. King Ekathosaroth (brother) 1605 – 1610
20. King Si Sauvaphak {son) 1610
21. King Song Tham (elder brother?) 1610 – 1628
22. King Chetthathirat (son) 1628 – 1629
23. King Atitayavong (brother) 1629
24. King Prasat Tong (new dynasty) 1629 – 1656
25. King Chai (son) 1656
26. King Si Sutham (brother of no. 24) 1656
27. Kmg Narai (son of no. 24) 1656 – 1688
28. King Petracha (new dynasty) 1688 – 1702
29. King Sue (son?) 1702 – 1708
30. King Tai Sa (son) 1708 – 1732
31. King Borom Kat (brother) 1732 – 1758
32. King Utumporn (son) 1758
33. King Ekatat (elder brother) 1758 – 1767
Ayudhya was lost the Burmese for the second time in 1767.

Thonburi Dynasty
1. King Tak Sin 1767 – 1782

Bangkok (Chakri) Dynasty
1. King Rama I 1782 – 1809
2. King Rama II (son} 1809 – 1824
3. King Rama Ill (son) 1824 – 1851
4. King Mongkut or Rama IV (brother) 1851 – 1868
5. King Chulalongkorn or Rama V (son) 1868 – 1910
6. King Vajiravudh or Rama VI (son) 1910 – 1925
7. King Prajadhipok or Rama VII {brother) 1925·1934
Siam was changed into a constitutional monarchy country in 1932.
8. King Ananda (nephew), Rama VIII 1934 – 1946
The name Siam” was changed into Thailand” during the Second World War.
9. King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX (brother) 1946-[2016]

[10. King Vajiralongkorn, Rama X 2016- ]

In both editions, this Archaeological Map of Thailand was published:

The 1991 edition added the following illustrations to the 100 plates in 1970 edition, most of them from recent history:

101. Painting in a manuscript on Buddhist cosmology 4054 cm. National Library, Bangkok. Ayudhyan style. 17th century A.D.
102. Mural painting in a building of Pra Putthakhosacharn at Wat Putthaisawan, Ayudhya, representing Maha Janaka Jataka. Late Ayudhyan style. Late 17th century A.D.
103. Book-cabinet with painting in gold on black lacquer. Master of Wat Serng Wai” workmanship. Late Ayudhyan style. 17th century A.D.
104. Book-cabinet made from mother-of-pearl inlaid door-panels of Wat Borom Puttharam, Ayudhya. Late Ayudhyan style. Early 18th century A.D.
105. Eight stupa, inserted one inside the other, protecting the relics of the Buddha (one has already crumbled). The height of the smallest one in crystal is 6 cm. Found in the large eastern stupa of Wat Pra Si Sanpet, Ayudhya. Ayudhyan style. 15th-16th century A. D.
106. Headgear in gold decorated with precious stones. HI. 14 cm. Found in the crypt of the main prang of Wat Ratburana, Ayudhya. Chao Sam Praya National Museum, Ayudhya. Ayudhyarr styla. Early 15th century A. D.
107. Bencharong (five-coloured) bowls. Glazed terracotta.late Ayudhyan style. 17th-18th century A.D.
108. Wat Putthaisawan, Ayudhya. Early Ayudhyan style. 14th-15th century A.D.
109. The three large stupa in Wat Pra Si San pet, Ayudhya. Middle Ayudhyan style. 15th-16th century A.O.
110. Wat.Chalwathanaram. Ayudhya. late Ayudhyan style. Early 17th century A.D.
111. Redented stupa. Brick with lime mortar. Wat Chumpon Nikayaram, Bang Pa-in, Ayudhya. late Ayudhyan style Early 17th century A.D.
1 12. The large redented stupa at Wat Phukhao Tong, Ayudhya. Ayudhya style. Early 18th century A.D. (?}
113. Model of a late Ayudhyan edifice. 62.572 cm. 17th-18th century A.D.
114. Buddha subduing Mara. Gilt stucco. Ubosoth of Wat Mahathat. Bangkok. Bangkok Style of the first reign. Late 18th century A.D.
115. Buddha calling down the rain. Gilt bronze. Ht. of the Buddha 65 cm. Pra Khanthararat Pavilion in the precinct of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, Bangkok. Bangkok style of the first reign. Late 18th century A. D.
116. Pra Nirantarai (Without Danger). Gold with gilt bronze base. Ht. of the Buddha 27.8 cm. Royal Private Chapel. Grand Palace, Bangkok. Bangkok style of the fourth reign (King Mongkut}. Middle 19th century A.D.
117. Buddha calling down the rain. Brass. Ht. 86 cm. Bangkok style of the fifth reign (King Chulalongkorn). Late 19th century A.D.
118. Walking Buddha. Stucco. Ht. 2.30 m. Made by Professor Silpa Birasri in 1957 A.D.
119. Mural painting in the vihara of Wat Sutat, Bangkok. Bangkok style of the third reign. Early 19th century A.O.
120. Mural painting in the ubosoth of Wat Mahapritharam, Bangkok. Bangkok style of the fourth reign. Middle 19th century A.D.
121 . The Prang of Wat Rakhang, Thonbun. Bangkok style of the first reign. Late 18th century A.D.
122. Pra Pathom Chedi. Nakhon f’athom. Bangkok style of the fourth reign. Middle 19th century A.D.
123. Wat Racha-orot. Thonburi. Bangkok style of the third reign. Early 19th century A. D.
124. The ubosoth of Wat Benchamabopit, Bangkok. Bangkok style of the fifth reign. Early 20th century A.D.
125. The Aphonpimok Pavilion in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Bangkok style of the fourth reign. Middle 19th century A D.
The 1991 edition added a Glossary, a List of Thai Kings (see above), and a Bibliography. 

Read the 1991 edition.

Tags: Thai art, Thailand, Khmer influences, Lopburi, Sukhotai, art history, archaeology, Ayudhya, art periods, Theravada Buddhism, sculpture, architecture

About the Author

Diskul portrait

M.C. Subhadradis Diskul

HSH [His Serene Highness: Mom Chao] Subhadradis Diskul หม่อมเจ้าสุภัทรดิศ ดิศกุล (23 Nov. 1923, Bangkok, Siam – 6 November 2003, Bangkok, Thailand), known as Prince Suphad” among his friends, was a Thai prince, a professor and researcher in art history and archaeology

A son of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a grandson of King Mongkut (Rama IV), he studied archaeology at the École du Louvre and the Institute of Archaeology, University of London. The curator of the Bangkok National Museum, he joined Silpakorn University as a professor in the Faculty of Archaeology in 1964, serving as its president from 1982 to 1986. He also headed the SEAMEO Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts (SPAFA), and presided over the Siam Society from 1979 to 1981.


  • Art in Thailand: A brief history, 1970, Silpakorn University, Bangkok | new edition 1991, Amarin Printing and Publishing, ISBN-13 ‏:978 – 9746002295
  • ประวัติศาสตร์เอเชียอาคเนย์ ถึง พ.ศ. ๒๐๐๐ (History of Southeast Asia until 2000 B.E.) [with George Cœdès], 1992, Samākhom Prawatsāt, Bangkok, ISBN 9789748873541

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