Lao Sculpture

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Buddhist sculpture

The earliest Buddha images in present-day Laos are those of the Mon and Khmer kingdoms of the first millennium C.E. Dvaravati-style Mon Buddha images can be seen carved into the rock face at Vangxang, north of Vientiane, and several Mon and Khmer Buddha sculptures recovered from the central and southern provinces are exhibited in museums. The earliest indigenous Buddha images, dating from 1353-1500, show a strong Khmer influence, but by the reign of King Wisunarath (1501-1520), a distinctive Lao style had begun to develop, and statues displayed characteristic beak-like noses, extended earlobes, tightly-curled hair, and long hands and fingers. During this period, two distinctive mudras (hand positions), found only in Lao Buddhist sculpture, appeared: "Calling for Rain," in which the Buddha stands with both arms held stiffly at the side of the body with fingers pointing downwards, and "Contemplating the Tree of Enlightenment" in which the Buddha stands with hands crossed at the wrist in front of the body.

Many magnificent examples from the "golden age" of the Lao Buddha image, the period from 1500-1695, can be seen today in Ho Phra Keo, Wat Sisakhet and the Luang Prabang National Museum. With the growth of Siamese influence in the region during the 18th century, Lao sculpture was increasingly influenced by the contemporaneous Ayutthaya and Bangkok (Rattanakosin) styles. By the French colonial period decline had set in, and Buddha images were cast less and less frequently.

Lao artisans used a variety of media in their sculptures, including bronze, wood, ceramics, gold, and silver and precious stones. Smaller images were often cast in gold or silver or made of precious stone, while the tiny, votive images found in cloisters or caves were made of wood and ceramics. Wood was also commonly used for large, life-size standing images of the Buddha.

The Pak Ou (mouth of the Ou river) caves near Luang Prabang, Laos, are noted for their hundreds of mostly wooden Lao style Buddha sculptures assembled over the centuries by local people and pilgrims and laid out over the floors and wall shelves.

A few large images were cast in gold, most notably the Phra Say of the sixteenth century, which the Siamese carried to Thailand in the late eighteenth century. Today, it is in enshrined at Wat Po Chai in Nongkhai, Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Vientiane. The Phra Say's two companion images, the Phra Seum and Phra Souk, are also in Thailand, in Bangkok and Lopburi. Perhaps the most famous sculpture in Laos, the Phra Bang, is also cast in gold. According to legend, the craftsmanship is held to be of Sinhalese origin, but the features are clearly Khmer. Tradition maintains that relics of the Buddha are contained in the image.

The two best-known sculptures carved in semi-precious stone are the Phra Keo (The Emerald Buddha) and the Phra Phuttha Butsavarat. The Phra Keo, which is probably of Xieng Sen (Chiang Saen, Lannathai) origin, carved from a solid block of jade, rested in Vientiane for two hundred years before the Siamese carried it away in the late eighteenth century. Today, it serves as the palladium of the Kingdom of Thailand, and resides at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. The Phra Phuttha Butsavarat, like the Phra Keo, is also enshrined in its own chapel at the Grand Palace in Bangkok. Before the Siamese seized it in the early nineteenth century, this crystal image was the palladium of the Lao kingdom of Champassack.

Brick-and-mortar was also used to construct colossal Buddha images. Perhaps the most famous of these is the image of Phya Vat (sixteenth century) in Vientiane, though an unfortunate renovation altered the appearance of the sculpture, and it no longer resembles a Lao Buddha.

Bronze sculptures

Bronze is an alloy of copper, containing about two percent tin. Other materials are often added, however, and the balance of ingredients determines the characteristics of the bronze. In Laos, like Cambodia and Thailand, the bronze, which is called samrit, includes precious metals, and often has a relatively high percentage of tin, which gives the newly-cast images a lustrous dark gray color. Other images, such as the Buddha of Vat Chantabouri in Vientiane, have a higher copper and, probably, gold content that give them a muted gold color.

A number of colossal bronze images exist in Laos. Most notable of these are the Phra Ong Teu (sixteenth century) of Vientiane, the Phra Ong Teu of Sam Neua, the image at Vat Chantabouri (sixteenth century) in Vientiane and the image at Vat Manorom (fourteenth century) in Luang Phrabang, which seems to be the oldest of the colossal sculptures. The Manorom Buddha, of which only the head and torso remain, shows that colossal bronzes were cast in parts and assembled in place.

The religious art tradition of the region has received an original contemporary twist in the monumental fantastic sculpture gardens of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat: Buddha Park near Vientiane, and Sala Keoku near Nong Khai, Thailand.