The Thai Skill that Almost Disappeared Forever
Chiang Mai in Northwestern Thailand is home to some seriously talented metalworkers. A few years ago, my family and I travelled to Chiang Mai and witnessed its’ beauty. What makes this city so unique, though? And why has it become a silversmith’s center of excellence? As with all good stories, we need to travel back in time.
Siam, or Thailand, as we know it today, has had a long succession of kings. These rulers, over the ages, made their mark in one way or another.
Some, like King Chairachathirat (1533-1546), became known for introducing foreign mercenaries into the army and advancing warfare technology. History also remembers others, like King Rama IV (1851-1868). Rama is famous for employing Anna Leonowens as governess to his 39 wives and 82 children. Yes, Anna from the ‘King & I’ musical, if you’re old enough to remember the movie!
When it comes to silversmithing, the regent we want to know more about is Kawila, ruler of Lampang Province in the northwestern corner of the kingdom. He is also known as the King of Chiang Mai.
When Kawila kicked the invading Burmese out of northern Siam, one of the first jobs he took on was the restoration of Chiang Mai.
The city, thanks to the Burmese invaders, was in ruin. The king came up with the idea to rebuild and restore Wat Chiang Man, the city’s oldest Buddhist temple.
Kawila wasn’t exactly big on human rights. His re-population plan included rounding up ex-citizens and press-ganging people from neighboring provinces to relocate.
Heavy-handed for sure. However, on the plus side, Kawila also reintroduced many of the ancient cultural traditions of dance, music, and craftsmanship. Many of which may have otherwise died out. One of those traditions was the art of silversmithing.
A Mystery to Modern Silversmiths
These early masters were highly skilled. How they crafted some of the coins they made in silver, such as pig mouth or silver bubble coins, remains a mystery to modern-day smiths.
Thai silversmiths work on everything from small intricate jewelry to large ornate pieces. All these have incredible detail and depth in hand-beaten relief.
Traditional necklaces, bangles, rings, and even cutlery designs include complicated woven and geometric patterns. Often these are leaf, wave, and flower themes.
As beautiful as the jewelry is, it’s larger pieces, such as wall hangings, that showcase the skill of the silver masters of Chiang Mai.
These wall hangings have graced Buddhist Temples for centuries. They feature incredible three-dimensional intricate carvings and hand shaping. Scenes often depict Buddha’s life and teachings and are intertwined with dragons, elephants, and jungles.
Keeping the Silversmith Art Alive
In recent times, the number of master craftsmen practicing this ancient art stands at just five talented individuals. Today, without the intervention of the present Abbot of the local Wat Sri Suphan Temple, the master silver sculptors may have disappeared from the area altogether.
The Abbot’s idea was simple. He wanted to continue the tradition of decorating the Buddhist temple in silver relief. He knew if he did this, it would help make sure that the art of silversmithing got passed on to generations to come.
To do this, the ninth and current Abbot Phrakru Pitaksutthikhun, established the Ancient Lanna Arts Study Center. The Center, on the temple grounds, was a place where master smiths could pass on their ancient skills to students and apprentice monks.
To showcase the talents of the Center’s silver carvers, the Abbot set about adorning the temple walls. He also continued the theme on every available space, inside and out.
The Wat Sri Suphan, also known as the Silver Temple, took traditional Lanna craftsmen 12- years and over $1m in donations to complete. The temple is now quite literally a shining monument. It honors Buddha and is a testament to the ancient skills of the silver craftsmen of Chiang Mai.