Wat Phumin – The Art of Temple Mural Storytelling

A temple with a striking architectural beauty that could be entered through doors on any of its four sides, built by King Ananta in the late 19th century, with murals that make the characters come alive.

Enter Wat Phumin

People are not all alike, they are depicted walking or sitting with their eyes and bodies expressing emotions. There are complicated stories that illustrate culture, relations and life at the time. This is something very typical for temples in the northern province of Nan.

Marching and some looking at ladies going to the market.

In Wat Phumin there are stories of the jataka tale, previous lives of the Buddha. But there are also other stories. The artist Thit Buapan that created the murals must have had a lot of helpers. Before he created Wat Pumins murals, he spent 21 years on the work of another famous temple in the province Wat Nong Bua. The murals came much after the temple was built and are probably created after 1894.

Most of the stories from Wat Phumin comes from the jataka of Gaddhana. It is a story where a small boy learns that his father was the god of Indra so he goes in search of the great warrior god. Some scenes don’t quite fit in such as armies of foreigners(farangs). One of the most famous murals is a group of foreign soldiers on the march but where some stop to look at Thai women on their way to the market. There are French flags depicted on the walls, pictures of French priests and western inventions such as steamships.

Thit Buapan worked from printed sources, using magazines and newspapers to create the contemporary stories told on the walls.

The artist is also good at depicting different ethnic groups, Karen hill tribes(called Yang), Indians and Chinese people. Not often signs of the business Chinese conducted in Siam though. They were influential in liquor, gambling and prostitution activities.

This period is a tense and important part of Thai history. It is when the European powers are putting pressure on Siam and local Thai kingdoms. Indian and Chinese come to trade and work as go intermediaries. Nan had partly been an independent kingdom but also a vassal to Lannathai, then for a while part of Burma but when the Burmese rulers were driven out in 1788, it was under the new rulers of Siam. During the Paknam crisis when the French turned their canons on the Royal Palace in Bangkok in 1893, Siam seeded a big part of eastern Nan to French Indochina. There is possibly an anti/French statement on the wall where you can see an act of male homosexuality with a French flag in the background.

The Karens were involved in the teak logging industry. A lot of the income that the ruling family acquired at the time was from cooperation with the Borneo Company and other present logging companies.

The temple is located in the middle of Nan city, not far from the National Museum. There is an entrance fee of 50 baht and the temple is open from 6 am until 6 pm.

I have visited Nan a few times but I never get tired of Wat Pumin and Wat Nong Bua outside town. I can go there again, and again. There are constantly new motives you discover on the walls.

Some of the facts gathered here are collected from David K Wyatt’s excellent book Reading Thai Murals, the pictures I took from my last visit during the green season of 2017. There will be more about that roadtrip in a later posting.

Here is a collection of interesting murals from Wat Phumin collected in a slideshow from my Flickr.

Staying in Nan I would like to recommend Nan Seasons Boutique Hotel. Great large wooden bungalows with soothering views of the rice fields, friendly owners, and excellent food. The coffee machine in the room was a great bonus. Since the last visit, they also have a swimming pool.

%d bloggers like this: