The Tradition of Wood Carving in Southeast Asia

December 30th, 2017

Southeast Asia has always been thickly forested, so it was natural that the first material to be used for artistic purposes should have been wood, though because of its lack of durability, it is hard to trace the earliest examples of wood carving in the region.  The wood carving tradition, dating back to ancient times, prevailed even after the use of metals and stone emerged. Wood carving flourished long after the great age of stone sculpture and stone architecture, which ended in the 13th century.

Nowhere has the tradition of wood carving in Southeast Asia been more prolific and impressive than Burma. Temples and palaces were richly decorated with highly detailed roof edges, gates, Buddha images, images of monks, effigies of celestial beings, doorways and panels, and windows all carved from hardwood in designs uniquely Burmese. Wood carvings of religious significance were often gilded and decorated with a glittering mosaic of stained glass.

Antique Wood Carvings
Gilded Buddhist Antique Wood Carvings from Burma and Laos

The work was done with a variety of different sized chisels and mallets made from tamarind wood of varying weights, depending on the degree of detail required. Apprenticeships under the guidance of a master carver with several decades of experience lasted as long as ten years. Burmese wood carving is noted for its wonderful spatial arrangement, sense of freedom, and flow. Mostly, work was done in teak to survive the rigours of a climate of intense heat and humidity followed by long dry periods. For highly articulate work, Burmese carvers preferred fine-grained woods such as yindaik, similar to ebony. Popular designs imitated foliage such as vines with flowing outlines, and the use of holes to create a sense of depth with light and shadow.

Buddha images were sensitively carved with the objective of conveying a sense of peace, equanimity, and faithfully portraying the countenance of one who has overcome suffering in the world. The flowing lines of the Buddha’s robes, the tranquil facial expression, and detailed bases such as the lotus pedestal, all contribute to producing works of art that inspire reverence amongst devotees.

Buddha Wood Carvings
Burmese Buddha Statues and Pair of Teppanom Angels Carved from Wood
Burmese Buddhist Wood Carvings of Monks
Antique Wood Carvings of Monks from Burma

Nat spirits were also carved in wood, and while less refined in execution than Buddhist images, were highly expressive. There are 37 ‘official’ Nats and there are said to be as many as 2000 lower Nats of various forms. A favourite Nat of ours is Nga Pyi, Rider of the White Horse (shown below), who was executed for his tardiness in delivering an important message on behalf of a prince.

Antique Burmese Nat Wood Carvings
Burmese Nat Spirit Wood Carvings

Even utilitarian objects in Burma were decorated with attractive forms carved from wood, such as the ox cart, which in the past would have on its bow an ornament carved from wood. An example of this is featured below; the Feng Huang, said to be a mythical bird of infinite grace.

Antique Wood Carving
Antique Burmese Ox Cart Ornament, Javanese Husband and Wife Statues, and Ox Wood Carving

Wood carvings other than those from Burma featured in this blog include a wonderful pair of rare 19th century statues from Java, Indonesia, known as ‘husband and wife statues’, a pair of antique Thai roof gable ornaments decorated in lichen, a Buddhist panel from Laos, and a rare shamanic ritual printing woodblock from Vietnam.

Antique Wood Carving
Antique Naga Wood Carvings and Roof Gables
Antique Wood Carvings
Antique Saddle Ornament, Opium Weight / Scales Box, Shamanic Woodblock

Antique wood carvings have a unique organic quality and possess the sense of presence instilled in objects lovingly made by hand in times past, before the homogeneous conformity of factory produced goods became commonplace.

Asian Antiques
Asian Antiques
Asian Antiques
Asian Home Decor

Asian Home Décor by sabai designs gallery

December 31st, 2016

In this last blog for 2016 we are featuring a small collection of artifacts from Southeast Asia in a home setting. We wish all of our customers a very happy New Year in 2017.

This photo features an antique Burmese bell, Nat Spirit wood carving, lacquerware hsun-ok and a bronze Buddha and wood carving monk from Thailand.
This photo features an antique Burmese bell, Nat Spirit wood carving, lacquerware hsun-ok and a bronze Buddha and wood carving of a monk from Thailand.
Burmese style standing Buddha statue carved from wood.
Burmese style standing Buddha statue carved from wood.
Silk wall hanging from Laos, lacquerware box, teppanom angels, and altar sculpture from Burma.
Silk wall hanging from Laos, lacquerware box, teppanom angels, and altar sculpture from Burma.
Featuring Hmong silver torque and necklace, bronze Burmese bell.
Featuring Hmong silver torque and necklace, bronze Burmese bell.
Featuring etching by Vorakorn, Burmese lacquerware box, silk wall hanging from Laos, and Indonesian wood carvings.
Featuring etching by Vorakorn, Burmese lacquerware box, silk wall hanging from Laos, and Indonesian wood carvings.
Asian home decor - Entrance
Asian home decor – Entrance
Asian Home Decor - Dining Room
Asian Home Decor – Dining Room

Buddhist Manuscripts: Translations from Ancient Pali in the Digital Era

October 21st, 2014

A rare antique kammavaca (Buddhist Pali manuscript) currently offered in our gallery was recently featured in the fall edition of the well known Canadian based quarterly magazine, Buddhadharma. The article titled, Milestones – Exploring Buddhist Translation Today, discusses the historical and ongoing work of translating the Pali canon, as well as the many subsequent Buddhist texts from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition so that they are preserved and made available for study today and for future generations of seekers.

Buddhadharma Quarterly Magazine

In the countries where Buddhism first spread, namely, Sri Lanka, China, and Tibet, the translator’s role was extremely important and highly honored.  An error in translation could lead to a missed clue of vital importance about the nature of consciousness. To do justice to the work was to perform an act of great merit, for if it facilitated the awakening of even one being, the existence of the text was priceless. “The Tibetan word for translator is lotsawa, meaning cosmic-eye.”

The article notes that, “Forty years ago, Buddhist books in English were hard to find, and today there are probably more translations than most of us can read in one lifetime.” Fellow of the Tsadra Foundation, Sarah Harding makes the comment, “Until about 2000, many translation efforts were random, and often began when a lama asked for a text in his lineage to be translated or when academics would find good PhD projects to undertake. Now a number of organizations are working in a more cohesive fashion. Because of the massive volume of some anthologies, a number of translations today are only published digitally.  Technology has changed translation tremendously, just in terms of time and the ability to look something up quickly (on the internet) without flipping through giant pages of text.”

Griffith Foulk, co-editor-in-chief of the Soto Zen Text Project expresses concern that, “we’re building digital canons; they’re so easy to access that they’ve become almost the only thing people look at. There is a danger that what isn’t input digitally will fall by the wayside and be ignored. Then, when everything exists on the cloud, civilization will pull the plug on the whole thing and it will go poof!”

Also calling into question the wisdom of relying too much on the fickle longevity of digitally preserved documents is Bhikkhu Bodhi, “There are older Pali texts preserved in the form of palm-leaf manuscripts…..across Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand. In these tropical countries, the manuscripts tend to decay…Now that they’re no longer being copied, what’s coming to pass is that the electronic edition  becomes the single authoritative version of the text; variant readings preserved in these palm-leaf manuscripts will likely be lost.”

Kammavaca from our gallery featured in Buddhadharma Magazine

Below is a collection of rare antique Buddhist manuscripts and manuscript pages offered in our gallery – click on the image for more information. Please contact us at to inquire about any of these artifacts.

Framed Buddhist Pali Leaf Manuscript Pages
Pages of Antique Kammavaca
Pages of Antique Kammavaca
Antique Pali Manuscript Pages
Antique Pali Manuscript Pages
Antique Buddhist Manuscript Box with Pali Manuscript
Complete Antique Buddhist Pali Manuscript
Complete Antique Buddhist Pali Manuscript
Antique Burmese Kammavaca available at sabai designs gallery
Antique Burmese Kammavaca available at sabai designs gallery

Buddhist Art: Tibetan Thangka Paintings

June 16th, 2014

Buddhism lies at the heart of all Tibetan art with thangkas (in Tibetan thang yig meaning ‘recorded message’) emerging as one of the most important Tibetan art forms. Tibetans have always revered thangkas as a treasure of great value and today the popularity of Tibetan thangkas has spread throughout the world.

Tibetan Thangka Paintings available at sabai designs gallery

The beginnings of Tibetan art can be traced to the time of King Songtsen Gampo of the 7th century who married Nepalese and Chinese princesses, both Buddhists, who each brought with them their Buddhist shrines. By the 8th century, Buddhism was established as the state religion and Tibetan Buddhist art began to flourish, embracing the iconographical art of India as well as notable influences from China and Persia.

Thangkas or scroll paintings first originated in India and served as a richly symbolic portrayal of the cyclic nature of the world of samsara or illusion and the means of transcending it as taught by the Buddha. This form of thangka is commonly referred to as the ‘Wheel of Life’. Buddhist pilgrims would travel with thangkas rolled up, unfurling the paintings in village squares to help convey the basic tenets of Buddhism including the binding nature of desire, ensuing suffering, and the source of karma which keeps one ‘lashed to the wheel’ of material existence with inevitable rebirth.

In Tibet, where a significant number of the population was nomadic, thangkas developed a wider use. They always accompanied the caravan of monks and abbots in what was essentially a mobile temple. It is recorded in the ‘Book of the Crystal Rosary’, that when the 7th Karmapa, Chotrag Gyamsto (1454-1506) traveled, over 500 donkeys were required to transport the tents, religious documents, portable shrines, decorated banners and other paraphernalia. To provide a sense of the magnitude of this traveling monastery, it’s thought that as many as 10,000 monks would participate in this style of itinerant Buddhist camp, or in Tibetan, gar.

Iconography of Tibetan Thangkas
Iconography of Tibetan Thangkas

The art form of creating thangkas was most often passed on from father to son as a family tradition with a long apprenticeship requiring commitment and discipline. Typically, a thangka would be commissioned by a monastery and the master artist would be surrounded by students including his sons while he worked. The apprentices would fill in colour and perform the less demanding aspects of painting the thangka. Master and apprentices would be well taken care of by the monastery while the work was being completed with weekly feasts held and gifts presented. Final payment for the thangka may have included livestock, butter, cheese, grain, clothes, and jewellery.

Most thangkas are painted on linen stretched over a wooden frame, though Chinese silk was sometimes used. The linen would be prepared with chalk mixed with a thick gummy substance such as animal based glue.  With the excess base scraped off and the cotton dry, a charcoal outline would be drawn. Natural pigments used to apply colour included blue from lapis lazuli, pink from flower petals, red from cinnabar, green from tailor’s greenstone, and yellow from sulphur. After the basic colouring of the various elements of the painting had been completed, the master would add shading and 24K gold which would be burnished with an agate stone. The eyes of the celestial spirits, and lastly the Buddha, signaled the completion of the painting of the thangka in the “opening of the eyes” celebration. Later, silk brocade would sometimes be added in blue, green, red and yellow, with a curtain falling over the front of the thangka regarded as a ‘door’ leading into the ‘world’ depicted in the painting. Wooden dowels act as support rods top and bottom. Thangkas were sometimes created using silk appliqué or embroidered silk. Mantras written in the ancient language, Sanskrit, may also be added in designated panels at the bottom of the painting.

Tibetan Thangka 'Life of the Buddha'

While the creation of thangkas was mostly undertaken anonymously by lay people whose family had a long lineage of passing on the tradition from one generation to the next, occasionally artistically disposed gurus or abbots painted thangkas to express their own deeps insights and thereby enrich the body of spiritual understanding for future students of Buddhism.

As well as being used as instructional aides to convey the teaching and life of the Buddha, thangkas serve as subjects of meditative inquiry, particularly when in the form of the mandala. As well as monasteries, thangkas are found in the homes of lay people, though sadly, most were confiscated or destroyed during the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution.

For information on the specific iconography found in the “Life of the Buddha” and “Wheel of Existence” form of thangkas, please visit the individual pages for the thangkas currently offered in the gallery in the Buddhist Art category. The three thangkas listed are from Ladakh, in the Indian Himalaya, where about half of the inhabitants are Tibetan Buddhists. The thangka coded ABA51 is a rare museum quality piece from the 19th century.

Images from Ladakh, India, where the thangkas offered in our gallery were created.
Images from Ladakh, India, where the thangkas offered in our gallery were created.

Bronze Buddha Statues & Buddhist Art

December 31st, 2012

Of all the works of art originating in Asia, bronze Buddha statues and devotional paintings are amongst the most beautiful and inspiring artifacts to be incorporated into home decor. Statues and paintings of the Buddha help to create a serene and aesthetically pleasing home environment, reminding us of one of the most profoundly important figures in the history of mankind. The story and teachings of the Buddha are deeply intriguing and offer for the earnest seeker, liberation from suffering and direct insight into Absolute Truth. Buddhism has survived nearly 2600 years and remains an extremely important source of practical wisdom today. The teachings of the Buddha, along with the works of subsequent enlightened teachers of the various schools of Buddhism, provide a guide to realizing one’s true nature beyond duality, psychological conditioning, and delusion.  Unlike most world religions, Buddhism neither seeks nor requires exclusive allegiance.

The world of Buddhist art is rich and extensive and takes many forms, varying from the highly descriptive Japanese 14th century Taima Manadala to the profoundly spiritual such as the 14thC Thai Buddha statue in the ‘calling the earth to witness’ posture; the informative such as the 10thC Pala Indian stele with the ‘Eight Great Events of the Buddha’ to the meditative serenity of the Amitabha Buddha from central Java. There is still much debate over when and where the first images of the Buddha appeared, though most historians agree that the earliest works of Buddhist art in India date back to 1st century B.C.

While these few examples shown are major works of Buddhist art found in museums, more affordable   representations of the Buddha made in the last century often retain the same beauty, and communicate the same profound message of freedom that remains the legacy of the Buddha.  Below are examples of Buddha statues from the 20th century and devotional temple paintings on canvass listed in our gallery as well as photos of impressive Buddha images that we’ve encountered in our travels throughout SE Asia. They demonstrate the various mudras or hand positions of the Buddha, each with a distinct meaning. We will soon be adding more bronze Buddha statues to our gallery. For a brief description of the life of the Buddha, the essential teaching of the Buddha, and an explanation of the mudras and symbols of Buddhist art, read Buddhist Art and its Symbolism.

Bronze Buddha Statues

Thai Buddhist Temple Scroll Paintings

Buddhist Art – An Extraordinary Exhibition

May 17th, 2009

‘Gleaning just a hint of of the realms of Buddhism is like looking into the stunning infinity of the night sky, recognizing in such a scale of things the absurdity of that most privileged yet tortured species, the human animal, but seeing at the same time the extraordinary power and uniqueness of our species.’ Edmund Capon, Director, Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In 2001 the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia began an initiative to promote the understanding and appreciation of Asian art and culture through exhibitions, publications and programs. One such extraordinary exhibition was Buddha: Radiant Awakening. Exhibited was some of the most important Buddhist Art in existence, on loan from the world’s most prestigious museums as well as private collections. The exhibition was broadly conceived around three concepts; firstly the life the Buddha; secondly the radiance of both the ideals and the image of the Buddha manifest in so many different ways and means; and thirdly the worlds into which those manifold Buddhas are projected.  Jackie Menzies, Head Curator of Asian Art assisted by Adrian Snodgrass, distinguished scholar of Buddhism, did an amazing job in organizing an exhibition of such immense challenges.

I have included a few images from the exhibition for those who didn’t have the good fortune of seeing it. It is a mere glimpse of the remarkable works of Buddhist art presented.