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Buddhist Textiles of Laos, Lan Na and the Isan {The Iconography of Design Elements}

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Item Code: IDK250
Author: Fredrick W. Bunce
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2004
ISBN: 8124602506
Pages: 456 (Throughout B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.0" X 11.5"
Weight 1.69 kg
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Book Description

This brief study will concentrate on the iconography of the Tai textiles from Laos, Lan Na and Isan. Laos, as a country, is well known. However, Lan Na no longer exist and Isan, as an independent country, never was. Lan Na was an independent kingdom in what is now northern Thailand with its ancient capitol first at Chiang Rai and then at Chiang Mai. Isan, on the other hand, fell under the yoke of the Khmer, Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, Lan Xang and finally Thailand. Isan is the region which is known as Northeast Thailand, and is the home for more Lao Tai than inhabit Laos.

These three are considered as the weaving "style" is similar in these contiguous states/regions. In addition, the majority of those now living in the region know as Isan are of Lao origin having been resettled in this area after the numerous wars with Sukhothai, Ayuthaya and the Rattanakosin (Bangkok). These three areas, prior to the Tai migration, had been part of the Mon Dvaravati Kingdom (c. 6th C-1007 C.E.) and then the Khmers (a.1007 C.E.)

Two terms used need clarification-Tai and Thai. Tai (Dai) refers to the general ethnic group that settled in what is now Thailand, Laos and the northeastern part of Myanmar. Thai refers to the inhabitants of present day Thailand.


The country which is now know as Laos, long known before the French takeover as Lan Xang-the Land of a 'Million Elephants" – is a land locked country in North central Southeast Asia. The Second smallest country of the Indochinese peninsula, it has suffered more vicissitudes than any of its others neighbors. Partly because of its physical isolation, it has traditionally been considered to be the most mysterious of all the Southeast Asian countries by those of the West. Yet, it has been able to maintains its own identity.

This country, this Lan Xang in an venerable as the surrounding states. Ethnographically, the people are considered to be Tai-Lao or Dai-Lao. Their genesis n this area can be traced from the invasion of Kublai Khan into China. The Tai or Dai migrated southward into the rich riverine systems of the Mekong and Chao Phaya Rivers. They were bracketed by the Shan states on the east, by Annam and Champa on the East and the Khmer to the southeast. Basically, sedentary, non aggressive group they settled into the rich farming areas, intermixed and flourished.

Lan Xang has had the fortune or misfortune to be so geographically located and composed that it had been coveted by a number of its more bellicose neighbors throughout its existence. Its mountainous North East served as a buffer against the rapacious Annamese, the giant China the Thai Kingdoms, the kingdoms of Myanmar (Burma) and Kamboja-specifically the Khmer. Foreign armies consistently invaded this small, isolated country in their quest of plunder and glory. It is little wonder that there are any monuments of any substance remaining.

1353 saw the establishment of a Lao kingdom, Lan Xang by Fa Ngum (Fa Ngoum) with the help of the Khmers. For nearly two hundred years Lan Xang expanded and developed. In 1520 King Phothisarat ascended the throne, moved the capitol from Luang Phabang to Wieng Chan (Vientiane), and by 1545 he had subdued the Lan Na Kingdom to the West. When the Lan Na throne fell vacant King Phothisarat set his son Setthathirat upon the that throne. Two years later Phothisarat died and Setthathirat consolidated his kingdom and moved his capitol back to the more opulent Wieng Chan. He brought with him the Pha Kaew (Phra Kaew) the Emerald Buddha, subsequently it was taken by the Thai and is now the palladium of Thailand. In 1571 King Setthathirat disappeared during a military expedition into the mountainous northeast. He was succeeded by a number of weak and ineffectual rulers.

In 1574 the Burmans invaded and plundered Lan Xang and the city of Wieng Chan. They razed and destroyed many of the important monuments, carried off numerous craftsmen, artisans and nobility to enrich their kingdom, and left the country in shambles. Happily, in 1637 Sulinya Vongsa (r.1667-1694) was crowned king. He came the longest reigning Lan Xang king. King Sulinya Vongsa consolidated the populous, rebuilt the country, enlarged the borders and generally improved te lot of the Lao. Unfortunately, his death, without issue, brought the dissolution and the breakup of Lan Xang into three separate, weak kingdoms of Luang Phabang, Wieng Chan and Champasak.

Thailand, by the end of the eighteenth Century controlled the kingdom of Wieng Chan and the kingdom of Luang Phabang was also a vassal state to Thailand. 1826 saw the first sack of Vientiane by the Thai after an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Thai yoke by Prince Chan of Wieng Chan. The Thai, like the Burman, ravaged the small princedoms and carried off great numbers of the population. However, the Thai at least left numerous monuments, including the great monument known as That Luang, relatively intact at that time. They were not as even handed in 1828 when the monument was considerably damaged by their re-invading armies. Again, nearly the whole of the populous of Wieng Chan (Vientiane) was transported to Thailand, including all the available craftsmen and anyone else whom the Thai thought would benefit their thirst for glory. Within a few score yeas the same fate befell the kingdoms of Luang Phabang and Champasak. Later, in 1873, a bandit horde from southern China swept into the beleaguered princedom and was responsible for further desecration of the remaining monuments of Wieng Chan. By 1855 all of what had been Lan Xang was under direct Thai control.

None of the Southeast Asian kingdoms were prepared for the rapacious incursions of two, very powerful encompassing European Countries England and France. Between 1893 and 1907, the Thai relinquished all their hold on Lan Xang in favour of the French. France also annexed Kamboja and Viet Nam while England usurped the Malay States ad Burma. Thailand alone was too rich a prize for either France or England to allow to fall into their competitors net. It remained independent by default.

After World War II, the War of Independence raged on both the battlefield and within the political arena with bewildering permutations. Finally, in 1975 the Lao People's Democratic Republic was declared. This country has been so governed ever since.

Today the country's population is slightly over five million people who live in a land greater in size than Great Britain, but with only 8% of the latter's population. It possesses the lowest inhabitants per square kilometer of any Southeast Asian country. When one considers Thailand its neighbor to the South, with a population of close to forty million which possesses a larger population of those with Lao origin than the total inhabitants of Laos, one begins to understand the true and nefarious effect of the plundering of its monuments, the abduction and deportation of its populous. It is small wonder that the Lao culture has survived at all!

Lan Na

The Kingdom of Lan Na ("Land of a Million Rice fields") (aka Lan Na Tai) finds its roots as an independent kingdom as early as the thirteenth century. But traces its royal roots back to a Tai Prince Phang and his son, the monarch Khun Chuang (mid 12th C –1172) of Chiang Saen. As the other Tai of the region, they migrated from China and here encountered the Lawa peoples. The area of what is now Northern Thailand and what was known as Sip-song Pan Na held numerous Thai muang which coalesced into small, viable principalities.

The monarch Meng Rai (1259-1317) (aka Mengrai, Mangrai) born of the ruler of Chiang Saen is however seen as the father of this kingdom, Lan Na His line can be traced variously from his ascension o the throne (See: Appendix B) to the sixteenth century C.E. in 1292 he established Chiang Mai as his capitol. Prior to Chiang Mai his seat of rule had been Chiang Rai. It had remained so until the demise of this kingdom and its final amalgamation into the hegemony of Thailand. During Meng Rai's reign he conquered the neighboring states of Muang Lai, Vhiang Kham, Chiang Chang and finally Haripunjaya. Later he annexed Chiang Hung. He ruled all the northern Tai but was unable to conqueror Phayao. Nonetheless, he was the most vital of kings of Lan Na. Within a century after his death the kingdom began to suffer a gradual decline during the reign of various ineffectual rulers with few exceptions.

Yet after Meng Rai's passing this small kingdom expended further. Within a century of this great king's death, the kingdom included the principalities of Chiang Sean, Phayao and Fan and was a vibrant power I the region even though it was one of the smaller kingdoms of Southeast Asia. It's influence was felt in Luang Phabang, to the East, the giant China to the North, and the burgeoning kingdoms of Burma and Thailand (Sukhothai and Ayuthaya) to the West and South.

Lan Na was in an unenviable position, even more so than Lao. After the collapse of the Khmer Empire, the kingdoms of Sukhothai, Ayuthaya, Pagan and the later Burman states vied for influence and control of this strategic and vital kingdom. Unfortunately a number of weak kings sat upon the throne and in 1578 a Burmese prince was elevated to the throne of Lan Na. The kingdom was to be ruled mainly by external forces until a revolt in 1774 which managed to throw off the Burman yoke. The final disintegration came, first with the establishment of the Chao of Chiang Mai (the demotion of Lan Na to a principality under the Kingship of Bangkok) in 1781. This, in a sense, protected Lan Na from the avaricious incursions and conquests of England and France. Then came the complete absorption of Lan Na into the state we now know as Thailand in 1939. Since that time the state of Lan Na no longer existed as an independent kingdom or a principality. It was and is a province of Thailand.


Isan, the region of northeast Thailand had never been an independent entity. Its location and topography made it an area that was coveted by a number of surrounding states. First it was a part of Dvaravati, then fell under the yoke of the brilliant Khmer empire. With the rise and independence of Sukhothai, the northern part was absorbed by that kingdom. With the ascendancy of the two vibrant states Ayuthaya and Lan Sang Isan wa split North to South. Lan Sang occupied the greater share of the eastern part and Ayuthaya the western smaller portion. As Lan Sang diminished in power, Ayuthaya assimilated more and more of Isan. Ayuthaya then was conquered and razed by the Burmese invasion of 1776. First, the Thon Buri kingdom sprang up (1776-1782 C.E.) and was quickly supplanted by the Chakri Dynasty of Bangkok (1782-present). By 1809 Siam occupied not only all of Isan, but also Lan Na, Lan Xang, as well as most of the Khmer homeland and the Malay Sultanates of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.

Isan is a region of unique of demography. As part of the early Khmer Empire, many of the inhabitants of the southeast are Khmer descendants. The Northern and Western areas are inhabited primarily by Lao (Tai). They had been forcibly resettled here by the Thai (Siam) after the various incursions into the kingdom of Lan Xang. Scattered throughout the region are Chinese and Tai (Thai). However, the majority are Lao (Tai) and their population in the Isan exceeds the population of Lao (Tai) in present day Los.

Of all the regions or states within Southeast Asia, Lao is most often neglected in art and architectural studies and considerations. Certainly the major art historical surveys present a paucity of information and/or comment on this country contributions to the region's cultural heritage. If Laos is mentioned at all, it is frequently stated that it has been heavily influenced by the Thai, Burmese, Khmer, as well as the Annamese, and possesses little, if any, truly indigenous and/or unique art form or style. On the other hand, Thailand (including the Isan) and even the former kingdom of Lan Na are relatively well known and frequently considered in the various journal that treat this region.

In a part of the world where civilizations are measured in millennia, little is conceived without influence. China to the North and India to the West have had such influence in the area known as Southeast Asia as to be truly astounding. Yet from theses culturally rich giants, areas resting along their boundaries or subject to their substantial influence had developed in way as to be clearly distinct and unique. The Kingdoms of Java, Thailand, Myanmar and Kamboja surely stand out as substantial sources within their own areas as well as that the of the region.

As has been stated, little credit is given to the aesthetic contributions that this country has provided to region. Architecturally, the That Luang is one prominent example of scholarly neglect. It is said that it was constructed on a sight that had long been held sacred. The wat sits on a low hill some three kilometers from the Mekong River and overlooked the old city. In its present form it was constructed by King Sai Setthathirat, of Lan Xang (Lao) (1548-1571), who had moved the capital from Muang Sawa (Luang Phabang or Luang Phrabang) to Wieng Chan (Vientiane). The Form of its distinctive "spire" (Indic chattravali) can be seen in other Laotion stupa as well as in a number of Thai chedi. That in itself indicates the level of its regional importance.

Of course, in field of archeology, there is a single phenomenon which finds no equal – the Plain of Jars. From what people did they emanate? How were they constructed? When were they constructed? Where were they constructed? Why were they constructed? These are questions that still remain unanswered. Yet the Plain of Jars in singular in the world!

The various invasions may have tried to suppress, destroy or, at least, subvert the natural creative effort of the Lao, particularly in the area of architecture. However, it is in the area of weaving that one finds a distinctively rich field. Doubtlessly, this is due to the fact that weaving has been considered as a "cottage industry" and often beyond the interest of the invading hoards whose rapacious desire was centered on larger, richer and more substantive objects.

Lan Na and the Isan fared worse. Both the kingdom of Lan Na and the region of Isan were amalgamated into the burgeoning Thai kingdom. Isan, particularly, since it was not an independent state has lost whatever identity is possessed. Chiang Mai (Lan Na), on the other hand, has managed to maintain a modicum of its former cultural heritage.


Weaving has long been employed by the various peoples of Southeast Asia as a form of expression, as a means of providing material for clothing, as adornment, as religious/ spiritual expression, as a badge of identity and as a source of income. Each of the countries of Southeast Asia possess distinct forms of textile and textile design. Further, within each country, the many tribes and/or ethnic groups developed their own individual style, colour and patterns. Most are so distinctive that they clearly identify the individual group from which they emanate.

This brief study is, therefore, concerned with the design elements that are typically employed by the craftspersons. This study is not an attempt to be encyclopaedic in its consideration of all the design elements or their iconography. These various elements, their variations and permutations are as varied as there are those individual, unique craftspersons who employ this singular form.

Terms and Spelling

Due to regional vagaries and national preferences, there are often time sterims which are indentical or similar. For example, the woman's garment, reered to herein as pha-sin is the Thai Term. The Lao refer to the same article as simply sin. In Vientiane, one may find themselves quietly and politely corrected when using the Thai equivalent: "pha-sin".

Also, one may find subtle spelling variations which refer to even subtler pronunciations between Laos and Thailand. Herein, the term for snake or serpent is spelled; "nak". However, there are those who insist that the spelling should be: "nark. The pronunciation in both cases sounds virtually identical to these Western ears. Similarly, one will find two distinct spellings for Luang Praband-the variation being: "Luang Phabang."

These may seem like minor points. However, they are important to the national interests of these peoples.


From the Jacket

Textiles from Laos, Lan Na and the Isan are prized for their artistic brilliance and aesthetic beauty. They speak volumes on a weaving tradition that has evolved through centuries and shaped the socio-cultural life of the people associated with it.

This book studies the iconography of the design elements typically employed by crafts persons of textiles from these areas: it deals with their art of weaving, various textile forms to be found in the region and the suitable and inherently powerful motifs woven. With numerous splendid illustrations of the designs, it involves study of design elements on articles of daily use as well as those used for ceremonial purposes and the kind of forms and iconography depicted – like ancestor figures, animal and plant forms, water creatures, objects used in ceremonies and geometric forms. Viewing Buddhism as the prime influence upon the objects though Hinduism is also an important referent, it explores the symbols the design elements involve and their many meanings and the dimensions they encompass – their fertility-related, religious and universal association, for instance. The designs considered in the study are based upon the square grid and the design elements are shown in the typical graph for employed by weavers. It also gives Indian (Sanskrit) and Thai equivalents for English terms of plant and animal species and clarifies a number of terms all of which make this painstakingly-conducted a thorough work on the subject.

The book will be very useful to scholars of Textile designs, Buddhist art and culture; and the cultural tradition of South-East Asia.


About the Author

Fredrick W. Bunce, a Ph.D. a cultural historian of international eminence, is an authority on ancient iconography and Buddhist arts. He has been honoured with prestigious awards/commendations and is listed in Who's Who in American Art and the International Biographical Dictionary 1980. He has published the: Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities (2 vols.); Encyclopaedia of Hindu Deities (3 vols.); Dictionary of Buddhist and Hindu Iconography; Yantra of Deities and their Numerological Foundations; Iconography of Architectural Plans; Numbers: Their Iconographic Consideration in Buddhist and Hindu Practice; Islamic Tombs in India; and co-authored with Lokesh Chandra: The Tibetan Iconography of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Other Deities. He is currently Professors Emeritus of Art, Indiana State University, Terre Haute Indiana.



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