Thailand's Gay Past

Temple murals show that homosexual relations are not a recent phenomena in Thai society

SANITSUDA EKACHAI Bangkok Post

Two village men in a loving embrace. — Phra Sing Temple A court woman playfully touches her friend's breast. — Kongkaram Temple
A romantic relationship or male camaraderie? — Buak Krok Luang Temple Court ladies in front of the royal chamber. — Kongkaram Temple
Offering a cigarette as a romantic gesture. — Phra Singh Temple Two mermaids frolicking with each other. — Buddhaisawan Chapel
Two court women in love. — Kongkaram Temple Photos courtesy of VARAPORN VICHAYARATH A group of nymphs or `nang fah' caress one another. — Phra Sing Temple

Mention homosexuality and many Thais will blame it on recent Western influences. Ask Varaporn Vichayarath what she thinks, however, and she would simply smile before providing a list of old temples with murals depicting same-sex courtship.

Yes, homosexual courtship between both men and women.

And yes, at temples.

"Contrary to conservative beliefs, homosexuality has long existed in our society, as evidenced by these mural paintings," said Varaporn, a book editor who has researched the topic.

Varaporn recently presented her findings at Thailand's first ever national conference on sexuality and sexual diversity, where she displayed photographs of murals painted on old temples in various parts of Thailand.

Varaporn started with images of the 18th century Buddhaisawan Chapel in the National Museum, where the sacred Buddha Sihing image is housed for public reverence. There, she found some murals with images of lesbianism. One, located on the middle of the left wall after the main entrance, depicts two mermaids frolicking with each other above the ocean waves. On the opposite wall is the scene on the Buddha's Great Renunciation, the night Prince Siddhartha decided to leave palace life to ordain. In the portion of the mural that shows a group of court ladies sleeping in front of the royal chamber some of the women are embracing one another.

Lesbian love is often seen in murals depicting the Great Renunciation, Varaporn explained.

"While it reflects what must have been a common phenomenon among court women in those days since they were barred from direct contact with men, it may also symbolise worldly lust, which the prince was leaving behind," she said.

A few other paintings of palace ladies cuddling each other can be found on the scripture cabinets behind the Buddha Sihing image.

Suwannaram Temple in Bangkok Noi is another place Varaporn discovered murals showing homosexuality. Lesbian cuddling is again included in the scene of the Buddha's Great Renunciation, found on the front wall of the ordination hall or ubosot, opposite the main Buddha image.

Yet Varaporn pointed out that representations of homosexuality in the sacred space of temples does not equate to social acceptance.

"These scenes appear in the context of mainstream values of heterosexuality, so what they convey ranges from a humorous peek at homosexuality to outright ridicule and condemnation."

An example of this is a depiction at Suwannaram Temple of sodomy used as punishment. Found on the ubosot wall to the left of the main Buddha image, it reflects social contempt of homosexuality and how some men used rape as a means to punish and humiliate other men.

Murals showing same-sex relationships also appear at the Kongkaram Temple in Ratchaburi, Pratusarn Temple in Suphan Buri and the Phra Sing and Buak Krok Luang temples in Chiang Mai.

The ordination hall of Kongkaram Temple houses two of Thailand's most well-known mural depictions of lesbian love. One, found on the right wall of the ordination hall after the main entrance, shows one court lady teasingly touch the breast of another. Another mural found to the left of the entrance features two court ladies in a close embrace, unperturbed by surrounding commotion.

The paintings of lesbian love at Pratusarn Temple, though not as refined as those in city temples, reflect the folk artists' sense of humour rather than social condemnation. One painting seen immediately after entering that depicts the Buddha's Great Renunciation shows a group of court ladies in a romantic embrace. Another mural, showing an elderly woman playfully chasing another woman, is found on the far end of the left wall near the main Buddha image.

The ordination hall of Phra Sing Temple in Chiang Mai, meanwhile, houses murals inspired by the popular folk tale Sang Thong, not the life of the Buddha as in most other temples. Interestingly, these murals show homosexuality to be part of local life, be it in the court or the village.

One of these beautiful paintings depicts a group of nymphs (nang fah) caressing one another. Two other murals detail gay courtship; one in which two princes have romantically locked eyes while on a journey to marry their princesses, another in which two young village men hold each other in a loving embrace. All the murals are on the right wall after the entrance.

Varaporn said that murals showing lesbian courtship are more common and easier to identify than ones showing gay courtship, which, as they are not overtly sexual, some may argue reflect only male friendship.

Varaporn compared the gestures in murals at Phra Sing Temple showing gay courtship with those showing heterosexual relationships. She believes that in the representations of heterosexuality, these gestures, which include eye contact, close embraces, placing hands on another's hips and offering someone a cigarette, indicate romantic advances between men and women. But she remains cautious of claiming they mean the same when seen between two men given the culture of male camaraderie in the North. "We should note, however, that other studies on the North show that gay relationships were not a strange thing in the past," Varaporn pointed out.

But why do these paintings on same-sex love appear in temples, supposedly sacred spiritual spaces?

And why and when did they cease to be produced?

According to Varaporn, the agricultural society of ancient Thailand had long employed sex-related rituals or items associated with fertility in worship. "Consequently, the people saw sexuality as a normal part of life."

When, starting in early Ayutthaya period, temples became more widespread and more accessible to commoners, it was natural for the painters of murals to depict what they saw in daily life - including sexuality - in their work, she explained.

The temples that house paintings of same-sex relations mainly belong to the early Rattanakosin period during the reign of King Rama I to King Rama III. This was the time society was opening up and allowing more diverse groups to interact with one another on an equal level, at least in religious spheres, said Varaporn.

The depictions of contemporary life, however, are just a tiny part in the ubosot murals and do not in any way interfere with their main stories, which are the Buddha's life and other folk tales. Instead, the everyday scenes were used as space-fillers by the early Rattanakosin mural painters, who liked to make their characters and decorative scenes small and compact in order to cover every minute detail of a story.

"This left a lot of white space given the size of the wall," explained Varaporn. "The mural painters solved this problem by filling the space with scenery such as trees and mountains as well as depictions of commoners' daily lives."

Since these portions of the paintings were not as stylised as those showing the main story, the artists were allowed more freedom and creativity to paint contemporary life and to express themselves, she added.

Murals showing same-sex relations started to phase out after the reign of Rama III and disappeared altogether after the reign of Rama V.

Contrary to the mainstream belief that homosexuality arrived with Western influences in modern Thailand, the relative social openness toward homosexuality - as indicated by same-sex courtship seen in the murals - started to disappear when the ruling elite began to accept 19th century Victorian morality and sexually repressive beliefs, said Varaporn.

Consequently, the artists' playful murals showing same-sex courtship were frowned upon and eventually disappeared.

During the reign of King Rama V, the country adopted Western laws making sodomy illegal. Those laws were repealed in 1956.

The silence on same-sex relationships, which has contributed to various forms of discrimination against homosexuals, is actually a recent social phenomena, said Varaporn.

"We can see this by going back to our temples and our mural paintings," she said.

Source: Bangkok Post