Iconography of Gautama Buddha in Laos and Thailand

The iconography of Gautama Buddha in Laos and Thailand recall specific episodes during his travels and teachings that are familiar to the Buddhists according to an iconography with specific rules. The Buddha is always represented with certain physical attributes, and in specified dress and specified poses. Each pose, and particularly the position and gestures of the Buddha's hands, has a defined meaning which is familiar to Buddhists. In other Buddhist countries, different but related iconography is used, for example the mudras in Indian art. Certain ones of these are considered particularly auspicious for those born on particular days of the week.[1]

Statue of "the Buddha calling the earth to witness (Maravijaya Attitude)," one of the most common depictions. The Buddha's hands are in the bhūmisparśa mudrā (Earth-touching position). Haw Phra Kaew temple, Viang Chan, Laos


Buddha Reclining Bangkok Thailand by D Ramey Logan
The Reclining Buddha

For Buddhists, the correct depiction of the Buddha is not an anabolistic matter; Buddhists believe that a properly rendered Buddha image is a hypostasis: an actual spiritual emanation of the Buddha, which possesses supernatural qualities. Although the Buddha is not a god, Buddhists seek to communicate with the supernatural world through Buddha images, making offerings to them and praying before them.

Buddhists venerating a Leela Buddha image (Wat Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, Thailand)

Buddha images are not intended to be naturalistic representations of what Gautama Buddha looked like. There are no contemporary images of him, and the oldest Buddha images date from 500 to 600 years after his lifetime. But Buddhists believe that Buddha images represent an ideal reality of the Buddha, and that every Buddha image stands at the end of a succession of images reaching back to the Buddha himself.

When creating a Buddha image, the artist is expected to be in a spiritual and mental state (samādhi) that will enable him to visualise this ideal reality. There is no requirement that every Buddha image be identical, and in fact there is a wide variety of artistic styles and national traditions in representing the Buddha. There are, however, certain rules of representation that must be adhered to.


The current range of postures in which the Buddha may be shown, and the gestures which may be depicted, evolved over the first millennium of the Buddhist era (roughly 500 BCE to 500 CE), mainly in India, the original homeland of Buddhism. The tradition of images that reached South-East Asia had been changed in the later 5th century CE, apparently first at Sarnath in India. The new "Sarnath image type" or "Gupta period Buddhist image" differs from earlier Buddha images, such as those in Greco-Buddhist art, in a number of respects: the gaze is lowered, the clinging robes disclose no male genital bulge, the robe lacks folds, and there are different body proportions.[2]

In the early part of this period, the Buddha was usually shown giving a general gesture of benediction, with the right hand held at shoulder-height with the palm facing forward and the fingers together and slightly bent. By the end of the Gupta Empire (about 550 CE), the canon of representation had become more varied, with the seated meditative position (dhyāna mudrā - see below) becoming common, particularly in Sri Lanka. By the 7th century CE the canon was largely as it is seen today.

Phutthamonthon 001
Statue of the Buddha with his hand upraised in the abhāya mudrā position. Walking in the Leela attitude, he is draped with monastic robes, with the right shoulder bare. (Phutthamonthon, Thailand)

As Buddhism spread from India to other countries, variations in the depiction of the Buddha evolved. This article describes the canon of Buddha representation in Thailand and Laos. This canon was not formalised until the 19th century, as part of the general project of "modernisation" that followed the Buddhist world's encounter with Western civilisation. A key figure in this process was the Siamese royal prince and Buddhist monk Paramanuchit Chinorot, a son of King Rama I, who in 1814 was appointed administrator of the Wat Pho royal temple in Bangkok. At the request of King Rama III, Paramanuchit described and represented 40 different postures of the Buddha in an illustrated treatise called Pathama Sambodhikatha. Some of these, such as "Buddha threading a needle," were new, although justified through reference to the literary accounts of the Buddha's life. Paramanuchit's illustrations were later rendered as bronze miniatures, which can be seen today at Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok and serve as templates for the creation of modern Buddhist imagery.

Attributes of the Buddha

Reclining Buddha (Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Phrabāng, Laos)

The Dīgha Nikāya, a Pāli text of the 1st century BCE, gives a list of 32 physical attributes of the Buddha. Some of these are poetic or fanciful ("legs like an antelope's," "ankles like rounded shells"), while others are more specific: feet with level tread, projecting heels, long and slender fingers and toes, a tuft of hair between the eyebrows. Although it is not required that Buddha images reflect all of these attributes, many of them have acquired canonical status.

Most curiously, the Buddha is said to have had a protuberance on the top of his skull, the usnīsa. This is sometimes shown as a spire or spike, and sometimes only as a small bump. The Buddha always has a serene expression or a faint smile. The Buddha is also always depicted with very long earlobes. This is attributed to his earlier life as a prince, weighed down by material possession, but has since come to symbolize wisdom.[3]

Posture and dress

The Buddha may be depicted in one of four postures:

  • Sitting: If seated, the Buddha may be shown in one of three different positions
In the "heroic posture" (vīrāsana), with the legs folded over each other
In the "adamantine posture" (vajrāsana; also known as "lotus position"), with the legs crossed so that the soles of both feet are turned up
In the position of a person sitting in a chair (pralambanāsana)
  • Standing: If standing, the Buddha may be shown either with his feet together, or with one foot forward
  • Walking
  • Reclining: The reclining posture may represent the Buddha resting or sleeping, but more usually represents the mahāparinabbāna: the Buddha's final state of enlightenment before his death
Buddha Park
Modern gigantic rendition of the reclining Buddha in Bunleua Sulilat's Buddha Park.

The Buddha is nearly always depicted wearing a monastic robe, of the type worn by Buddhist monks today. The robe may be shown as worn in the "covering mode" (draped over both shoulders) or in the "open mode" (leaving the right shoulder and breast uncovered). The robe is a representation of the Buddha's humility. (Gautama was originally a prince, who renounced the world to seek enlightenment, and his original robe was made from the shroud of a corpse.) The robe is sometimes shown as diaphanous, transparent or billowing mysteriously, suggesting the spiritual power emanating from the Buddha. Buddha images are often draped with real robes, which are renewed periodically, usually at major festivals. The Buddha may also be shown wearing royal attire, but this is uncommon.

Hand gestures

Statue of "the Buddha meditating." The Buddha's hands are in the dhyāna mudrā position (Wat Xieng Thong, Luang Phrabāng, Laos)

The most important aspect of the iconography of the Buddha is gestures made with the hands, known as mudrā. These gestures have meanings which are known throughout the Buddhist world, and when combined with the postures described above, give a complete representation, usually associated with a particular incident in the life of the Buddha.

The six mudrā associated with the Buddha are:

  • Touching the earth (Bhūmiśparṣa mudrā) (มารวิชัย; pang maa-rá-wí-chai): the right arm rests on the right thigh with the fingers pointing downwards, but not always touching the earth (as can be seen in the image at the top of this page). The left hand rests in the dhyāna mudrā position in the Buddha's lap. This mudrā is called in Pāḷi and Sanskrit "calling the earth to witness (to his fulfilment of the perfections, pāramī). In Thai it is known as "Buddha subduing Māra" (the demon who tried to prevent him attaining enlightenment by various means). This is by far the most commonly depicted mudrā.
  • Meditation (Dhyāna mudrā) th:ปางสมาธิ pang sà-măa-tí: the hands are shown lying flat in the Buddha's lap, palms upward. This mudrā is associated with a seated Buddha. It shows that the Buddha is disciplining his mind through mental concentration, a necessary step to achieving enlightenment.
  • Charity (Varana mudrā) th:ปางประทานพร pang bprà-taan pon: the right arm is shown pendent (extended downwards), with the open palm turned to the front and the fingers extended. This mudrā is usually associated with a standing Buddha. This position can signify either that the Buddha is granting blessings or receiving charitable offerings.
  • Fearlessness (Abhāya mudrā) th:ปางประทานอภัย pang bprà-taan à-pai: either one or both arms are shown bent at the elbow and the wrist, with the palm facing outwards and the fingers pointing upwards. It shows the Buddha either displaying fearlessness in the face of adversity, or enjoining others to do so. Right hand raised is also called "calming animals" th:ปางโปรดสัตว์ pang pròht sàt; both hands raised is also called "forbidding the relatives" th:ปางห้ามญาติ pang ham yat. These 'mudrā are usually associated with a standing Buddha, but seated representations are not uncommon.
Statue of "the Buddha preaching on reason," with the Buddha's hands in the double abhāya mudrā position (Luang Phrabāng, Laos)
  • Reasoning and exposition (Vitarka mudrā): the arm and hand are positioned in the same manner as in the abhāya mudrā, except that the thumb and forefinger are brought together. The gesture can be made with either the right or left hand (usually the right), but not both. This mudra signifies an appeal to reason, or the giving of instruction. Since the Buddha is appealing to reason, the gesture is often interpreted as an appeal for peace.
  • Setting the wheel in motion (Dharmachakrā mudrā): the hands are held in front of the chest, with both hands in the vitarka mudrā position, with the fingers of the left hand resting in the palm of the right hand. This is a less common mudrā since it refers to a particular episode in the Buddha's life: his first sermon, when he "set the wheel (of his life's work) in motion." It can be used for both seated and standing images.

Over the centuries combinations and variations of these six mudrā have evolved. For example, the "double abhāya mudrā", with both hands held up in the abhāya mudrā position, became common in Thailand and Laos in the 16th century, and is now one of the most common representations of the Buddha in south-east Asian countries. It is sometimes interpreted as "Buddha teaching on reason." As artists wished to depict more of the specific incidents in the life of the Buddha, new, secondary mudrās evolved, such as "Buddha holding an alms bowl", "Buddha receiving a mango" and Buddha performing various miracles. Many of these originated in Burma and then spread to other parts of the Buddhist world.

Attitudes of Buddha icons in Thai art

There are acceptably 80 attitudes (Thai: ปาง, ปางพระพุทธรูป; Paang, Paang Phra Phutta Roupe) existed in Thai art. However, only fews could be commonly founded throughout most temples and amongst those displayed individually. The list below consists of several common paang of Buddha in Thai art.[4]

See also


  1. ^ Thai birth day colors and Buddha image
  2. ^ Brown, Robert L., pp. 318-319, "The Importance of Gupta-period Sculpture in Southeast Asian Art History", in Early Interactions Between South and Southeast Asia: Reflections on Cross-cultural Exchange, Editors Pierre-Yves Manguin, A. Mani, Geoff Wade, 2011, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISBN 9814311162, 9789814311168, google books
  3. ^ Why do statues of Buddha have long earlobes? What's the difference between fat Buddha and regular Buddha? (2007) Straight Dope
  4. ^ translated from th:ปางพระพุทธรูป on Thai Wikipedia


  • Gestures of the Buddha, K.I.Matics, Chulalongkorn University Press, Bangkok 2004
  • Untitled booklet, Khochone Keomanivong et al., Ho Phra Kaeo Museum, Viang Chan, Laos (undated)

External links

Buddha images in Thailand

A Buddha image in Thailand typically refers to three-dimensional stone, wood, clay, or metal cast images of the Buddha. While there are such figures in all regions where Buddhism is commonly practiced, the appearance, composition and position of the images vary greatly from country to country.


Buddhism (, US also ) is the world's fourth-largest religion with over 520 million followers, or over 7% of the global population, known as Buddhists.

Buddhism encompasses a variety of traditions, beliefs and spiritual practices largely based on original teachings attributed to the Buddha and resulting interpreted philosophies. Buddhism originated in ancient India as a Sramana tradition sometime between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE, spreading through much of Asia. Two major extant branches of Buddhism are generally recognized by scholars: Theravada (Pali: "The School of the Elders") and Mahayana (Sanskrit: "The Great Vehicle").

Most Buddhist traditions share the goal of overcoming suffering and the cycle of death and rebirth, either by the attainment of Nirvana or through the path of Buddhahood. Buddhist schools vary in their interpretation of the path to liberation, the relative importance and canonicity assigned to the various Buddhist texts, and their specific teachings and practices. Widely observed practices include taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, observance of moral precepts, monasticism, meditation, and the cultivation of the Paramitas (virtues).

Theravada Buddhism has a widespread following in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia such as Myanmar and Thailand. Mahayana, which includes the traditions of Pure Land, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, Shingon and Tiantai (Tendai), is found throughout East Asia.

Vajrayana, a body of teachings attributed to Indian adepts, may be viewed as a separate branch or as an aspect of Mahayana Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhism, which preserves the Vajrayana teachings of eighth-century India, is practiced in the countries of the Himalayan region, Mongolia, and Kalmykia.

Easily confused Buddhist representations

Easily confused Buddhist representations are images or statues that may resemble the mortal, historical Buddha known as Siddhārtha Gautama, Śākyamuni, or Tathāgata (or others), but were actually created to represent other individuals.

Depictions could be Gautama, or a bodhisattva, guardian, protector, disciple, or saint. Clues to a figure's identity are found in, for example, the physical characteristics of the Buddha, the objects the figure is holding, its mudra (hand gesture), and asana (sitting or standing position of the body). There may be an image in the figure's crown, or the figure could be holding a book, thunderbolt, vase, jewel, or lotus flower or stem.Mandalas created for Japanese Shingon Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism can contain hundreds of different figures that may need interpretation. In his paper on the mudrās of bodhisattvas, Carl B. Becker, Kyoto University professor, describes the situation:

When the uninitiated observer first confronts the Buddhist pantheon [of Japan], his reaction may border on bewilderment or dismay. Far from the ascetic agnosticism taught by Gautama, Buddha-like deities are available to answer every material or spiritual need. They wear regal robes or deerskins; they sit, stand, or fly; they have their own sūtras, temples, and guardians....

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Outline of Buddhism

Buddhism (Pali/Sanskrit: बौद्ध धर्म Buddha Dharma) is a religion and philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices, largely based on teachings attributed to Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha, "the awakened one".

The following outline is provided as an overview of, and topical guide to, Buddhism.

Phra Mae Thorani

Vasundharā or Dharaṇī is a chthonic goddess from Buddhist mythology in Southeast Asia. Similar earth deities include Pṛthivī, Kṣiti, and Dharaṇī.

Thai temple art and architecture

Thai temple art and architecture is the art and architecture of Buddhist temples in Thailand. Temples are known as wat's, from the Pāḷi vāṭa, meaning "enclosure." A temple has an enclosing wall that divides it from the secular world.

Tourism in Thailand

Tourism is a major economic contributor to the Kingdom of Thailand. Estimates of tourism revenue directly contributing to the Thai GDP of 12 trillion baht range from one trillion baht (2013) 2.53 trillion baht (2016), the equivalent of 9 per cent to 17.7 per cent of GDP. When including indirect travel and tourism receipts, the 2014 total is estimated to be the equivalent of 19.3 percent (2.3 trillion baht) of Thailand's GDP. The actual contribution of tourism to GDP is lower than these percentages because GDP is measured in value added not revenue. The valued added of the Thailand's tourism industry is not known (value added is revenue less purchases of inputs).

Tourism worldwide in 2017 accounted for 10.4 percent of global GDP and 313 million jobs, or 9.9 percent of total employment. Most governments view tourism as an easy moneymaker and a shortcut to economic development. Tourism success is measured by the number of visitors; the more, the better.The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) uses the slogan "Amazing Thailand" to promote Thailand internationally. In 2015, this was supplemented by a "Discover Thainess" campaign.

Topics in Buddhism
The Buddha
Key concepts
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