Thai Buddha images are among the most aesthetically pleasing and beautiful in the world. Thai Art including the Buddha images has been heavily influenced by neighboring countries until the 14th century. The development of the Buddha image in Thailand, as well as in any other country, cannot be analyzed and understood if the political situation is not taken into account. Since Buddhism spread from the birthplace of Buddha near the Indian-Nepalese border, Indian influences on the Thai Buddha images were dominant until the 6th century and noticeable until the 13th century.
Traditionally the styles and periods are classified as follows:
Mon / Dvaravati: 6th to 11th century in Central Thailand
Srivajaya: 8th to 13th century in Southern Thailand
Lopburi: 10th to 14th century in Central and North Eastern Thailand
Sukothai: 13th to 15th century in northern Central Thailand
Lanna / Chiang Saen: 13th to 19th century in Northern Thailand
Ayutthaya: 1350 to 1767
Thonburi: 1767 to 1782
Rattanakosin (Bangkok): 1782 to present
The classification, though generally correct and helpful, needs clarification and explanation. The periods are often named after the politically dominant city/ capital of the time. Lopburi, though a city in today?s Central Thailand, was at the time a mid size provincial town of the Khmer Empire. Lopburi style is, therefore, a copy of the Khmer style and stayed like that until the Khmer withdrew from central Thailand. It can be argued that Lopburi is not Thai but Khmer, because from the 10th to the 13th century there was no Thailand and the region was part of the Khmer empire. Consequently, I will present Thai/Lopburi Art in the Khmer chapter.
The Sukothai style is the first true Thai Buddha image that has developed as a uniquely Thai style, while the area was not being dominated politically by a foreign power. When Khmer influence deteriorated further, the kingdom of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350. It grew more important, conquered most of Sukothai's provinces and annexed Sukothai in 1438. Ayutthaya is located in central Thailand, close to Lopburi, therefore the development from the Khmer/Lopburi style to the Ayutthaya style is clearly visible, while there is less Khmer influence in Sukothai Buddha images. In 1767 Ayutthaya was destroyed by the Burmese and the new Thai capital was established in Thonburi and in 1782 moved across the Chao Praya River to Bangkok. Since neither Thonburi nor Bangkok were important before that time, the Ayutthaya style moved with the court to Bangkok. Thonburi and Rattanakosin style are, therefore, the continuation of Ayutthaya style, for the first years certainly by the same artists. The distinction between late Ayutthaya and early Thonburi/Rattanakosin is nearly impossible.
In northern Thailand the kingdom of Lanna (translation: million rice fields) developed its own style that mixed with the central Thai style only in the 18th century. Until then, Lanna had much closer ties politically and economically to neighboring Lanxiang (translation: million elephants; today?s Laos). For some time Lanna and Lanxiang were under the same king. Buddha images from Lanna and Lanxiang have quite a few similarities, especially in the 16/17th century. Also here the categorization of Lanna as Thai is questionable and based on today?s political situation. Furthermore prisoners of war were often brought from one area to another and artists were the most valuable prisoners. With them came their home style of Buddha images and mixed with the local style. As a result of all this, it is especially important to determine style, age and origin of a Buddha image not only by its outer appearance, but examine material, craftsmanship, casting core etc. as well.