Published on January 13, 2008
The number of temples, chedis
and stupas in Thailand whose sculptures and murals are in need of refurbishment climbs daily in inverse proportion to the number of skilled artisans who can do the work.
Few monks, let alone lay people, have the talent to tackle what has become a massive conservation task.
Now, however, Mahachulalongkorn-
rajavidayalaya University (MCU) has launched an undergraduate programme in Buddhist art to try and ensure the survival of the traditions that form these fading masterpieces. Graduates will be well versed in Pali and 3-D design and everything in between.
This inaugural year, the programme is initially open to Thai monks and laymen, but it will eventually accept foreigners as well.
Deputy MCU rector Phramaha Somjin Sammapanno says the lack of knowledge about Buddhist architecture among monks is worrying, with the majority unaware of even common terms for parts of a temple.
"The main objective of this programme is to familiarise people with Buddhist art," says Phramaha Somjin. "We want the students to study religious symbols in the field and learn how to conserve the artwork. Right now, if you ask a monk to identify parts of his main prayer chapel in traditional terms, he'd probably be dumbstruck."
The programme will be supported by various institutions, including Silpakorn University and Unesco, which will provide lecturers. The United Nations agency has long been engaged in efforts to conserve Asian heritage sites, including several in Thailand. News of MCU's programme was welcomed at Unesco's recent conference on "Cultural Survival and Revival in the Buddhist Sangha" in Ayutthaya.
Representatives of religious communities across Asia gathered to exchange views on revitalising traditional artisanship, and Phramaha Somjin says he learned of the current region-wide lack in conservation efforts.
The university programme will thus promise a bachelor-of-arts degree with core courses in Buddhism - Pali, philosophy and history - and training in art history, techniques and conservation, as well as the influence of Thai Buddhist art overseas.
The art-history course will extend right across Asia, including India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Tibet, Nepal, China, the Koreas and Japan.
There will be instruction in Thai painting, sculpture, architecture and ornamentation examining all regions of the Kingdom.
At the heart of the programme is art conservation, which will include instruction in how museums, galleries and architectural sites are managed. The course in cultural heritage conservation will cover all the factors that have to be taken into consideration, from government policy to licensing, along with both modern and traditional restoration techniques.
Students will also learn about the production of lacquer ware and bronze artworks, pottery and wood and stone carving and, with an eye to modern methodology, creative photography and computer graphic design.
"The most important aspect of this programme is the conservation and revitalisation of Buddhist art," says Phramaha Somjin. "We absolutely need expertise in restoring religious buildings across the country correctly.
"I believe the programme will help raise awareness, and I hope it will appeal not just to monks but members of the public. Foreign students will also be welcome, but in the first stage all lectures will be conducted in Thai. Eventually the programme will be bilingual."
For further information, visit the university's website: Mcu.ac.th.