Siam Society Lecture: Cosmology at the Crossroads

Readers in Bangkok may be interested in this lecture by Peter Skilling of the EFEO.

Cosmology at the Crossroads: the Harvard Traibhumi Manuscript
Venue: The Siam Society, Bangkok, Thailand
Date: 21 May 2015
Time: 7 pm

Cosmology was one of the important sciences of the pre-modern period. Cosmological treatises were source books or encyclopaedias on ethics and metaphysics, on time and space, and on the rich narrative traditions of Buddhism. They described Nirvana, the heavens and the hells, and the worlds of humans, animals, and spirits. The science of cosmology enabled individuals to situate themselves in the world by mapping human psychology and moral action against wide-ranging physical and temporal landscapes; it breathed meaning into the rhythm of the ritual and calendrical years.

Some of these treatises were designed as complex charts that integrate the visual image and the written text into a meaningful whole, painted in bright palettes on the broad panels of accordion manuscripts made of paper. The earliest examples are from the Ayutthaya period; the practice continued up to the early twentieth century. Recently my colleagues and I have studied and translated an illustrated Traibhumi manuscript from the collections of Harvard University, with the intention to publish it in celebration of Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn’s Sixtieth Birth Anniversary. By an unknown artist, the beautifully illustrated Harvard Traibhumi is one of the latest examples of the genre, dating to about the end of the nineteenth century. It presents a condensed description of the “Three Worlds” with paintings that gracefully introduce perspective and the vocabulary of western illustration into the traditional themes of Thai artistry.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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