Talipot and ceremonial fans in Thai manuscript art (2)
Depictions of Talipot and ceremonial fans, like many other objects of everyday use, are very common in Thai manuscript paintings. In the first part of this blog, we looked at the origin and making of Talipot fans, called Talapat in the Thai language. In this part, we will be looking at how different types of fans were used historically and how they became symbols of honour and status in Thai social and religious life.
Talapat of Brahmins and sages
Brahmins are highly regarded as knowledge-seekers and members of the priestly social class in traditional Hindu society in India. However, in Thai art and literature they are sometimes represented with some degree of ambiguity, which is expressed through features of poor health, disfigurement, poverty, greed, and immorality. In the Jataka literature the figure of the Brahmin often plays the role of an antihero, who creates obstacles for the Bodhisatta, but by doing so, the Brahmin unwittingly helps to create a situation in which the Buddhist hero can prove his moral stature and accumulate merit. The depiction of Brahmins in manuscript paintings is in striking contrast to the appearance of real-life Thai court Brahmins, who are dressed in impressive gold-embroidered white robes during royal ceremonies.
The Brahmin Jujaka with Vessantara’s children, with a damaged Talipot fan in his shoulder bag. Illustrated in a folding book containing Tipitaka extracts and the Mahabuddhaguna. Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, IO Pali 207, f. 20
The image above from a Thai folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka is an example from the second half of the 18th century. It shows a popular scene from the Vessantara Jataka, in which the Brahmin Jujaka takes away the Bodhisatta’s children, Jali and Kanhajina. Jujaka’s hair appears unkempt, and he is dressed in a plain white loin cloth. In his shoulder bag is a damaged Talapat made from a single Talipot leaf.
Another depiction of a Brahmin appears in the illustration below from a Thai folding book containing the story of the monk Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts, dated 1894. This scene from the Bhuridatta Jataka illustrates how the Brahmin and snake charmer Alambayana captured and humiliated the Buddha-to-be, who in this Birth Tale was reborn as a naga (serpent) prince named Bhuridatta. The Brahmin is dressed in a red-and-white chequered loin cloth, holding a Talipot fan in his right hand. On the fan is an ancient symbol that is well-known beyond Thailand and Southeast Asia: the Ring of Solomon. In this case, the symbol fulfils a protective purpose. This kind of fan can often be seen in Thai in manuscript illustrations as a utensil of Brahmins engaging in pre-Buddhist activities and magic.
Illustration of the Brahmin Alambayana capturing the naga Bhuridatta while holding a Talipot fan with a Ring of Solomon symbol. Found in a folding book with Tipitaka extracts and the story of Phra Malai. Central Thailand, 1894. British Library, Or 16100, f. 5
Sages and hermits are also frequently depicted in illustrations of the Jataka tales. Usually, such paintings show the Bodhisatta who in a previous life was reborn with the wisdom of a sage, or who followed the path of a hermit.
The illustration below from an 18th-century folding book depicts the Buddha-to-be as the wise sage Mahosadha, on the right side, facing the evil-minded royal Brahmin Kevatta. Mahosadha is holding a jewel that he is about to drop, so that the greedy Kevatta will bow down to pick it up in front of Mahosadha, which is interpreted by everyone around them as a gesture of the Brahmin paying respect to the Bodhisatta. Quite extraordinarily, Kevatta is presented here lacking the usual attributes of a lowly character, probably because he is a royal Brahmin in this story. Both men are holding a Talipot fan, each with small floral decorations drawn on the front side in gold and red colour.
The Buddha-to-be Mahosadha and the Brahmin Kevatta, both with a Talapat in their hands. Illustrated in a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 6
Ceremonial fans in monastic life
Numerous Thai folding books contain paintings related to the lives and activities of Buddhist monks. Most frequently, such illustrations accompany the story of the monk Phra Malai. Among the most popular depictions of monastics are scenes from funeral wakes, where four monks are seen chanting passages from the Abhidhamma-pitaka and reciting the legend of Phra Malai to lay audiences.
The monk Phra Malai himself is often portrayed with a Talapat. Below is a painting from a Phra Malai manuscript dated 1837. Phra Malai is floating in the air while on his way to the hell-like realm of preta (hungry ghosts). He is shown with a red aura, dressed in a monk’s robes and a Talapat in his left hand. The fan has an oval shape and is made from Talipot leaves, with gold decorations at the center and on the edges. It has the long handle of a floor Talapat which is used by monks when chanting sacred texts.
Illustration of the monk Phra Malai holding a Talapat with intricate gold decorations. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and additional Pali texts. Central Thailand, 1837. British Library, Or 14710, f. 2
Scenes from the life of the Buddha are not frequently included in Thai illustrated manuscripts. However, there are few compilations of canonical texts and Buddhist cosmologies that contain rare paintings depicting the Buddha being surrounded by lavishly decorated fans of veneration, called Phatyot in Thai. In the painting below, from an 18th-century manuscript, the Buddha is represented in the earth-touching gesture which symbolises the moment of his Enlightenment. Behind the Buddha is a stylised Bodhi tree, and on each side one can see a heavily ornamented Phatyot fan, and a three-tiered umbrella, alongside deities paying their respects to the Enlightened One.
The Buddha at the moment of his Enlightenment, with Phatyot and umbrellas by his side. From a folding book containing extracts from the Tipitaka, Central Thailand, late 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f. 53
Highly ornamented Phatyot as symbols of veneration for the Buddha can also be found in illustrations of the Chulamani Chedi in Phra Malai manuscripts from the 19th century. In Theravada Buddhist belief, the Chulamani Chedi is a stupa situated in Tavatimsa heaven where hair and tooth relics of the Buddha are housed. Therefore, the stupa is directly related to the Life of the Buddha, and according to the legend of Phra Malai the story’s monk-hero travelled to the heavenly stupa to deposit a lotus flower offering on behalf of a poor man.
In the painting below from a 19th-century Phra Malai manuscript, the monk is depicted in front of the Chulamani Chedi in Tavatimsa heaven, conversing with the god Indra and another deity. Equipped with lavish gold-leaf decorations are four Phatyot left and right of the stupa. Two of these fans appear like lotus-shaped roundels, and the other pair are in the shape of lotus buds or Khao Bin rice offerings in lotus shapes.
Phra Malai at the heavenly Chulamani Chedi. On both sides of the stupa are embellished and gilded Phatyot. From a folding book containing the story of Phra Malai and Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14664, f. 62
Fans as symbols of honour and status
Bodhisattas, kings, royals, and sometimes deities are portrayed with fans in Thai manuscript illustrations. In certain contexts, especially the Life of the Buddha, fans are used as an expression of veneration and respect. Manuscripts containing secular texts are also occasionally illustrated with images of kings or leaders surrounded by beautifully adorned fans to emphasise their royal or high social status. The painting below depicts two persons who are paying their respects to a king or royal personage wearing a large gold crown, with two decorated fans on each side of the pedestal he is sitting on. The fans are in the frequently found shapes of a lotus bud or Khao Bin offering, and a roundel. In this case, the roundel has eight spokes like a Dhamma Wheel. This image is part of a chart that is used to predict the fate and future of individuals. It is included in a Phrommachat divination manual, with text in Old Mon language and illustrations in the late Ayutthaya style.
Illustration of a royal figure with colourful Wanwichani fans on each side. From a Mon version of a Phrommachat divination manual. Ayutthaya or Burma, c. 1750-1820. British Library, Or 14532, f. 14
In Thai funeral or commemoration books that were commissioned to make merit, the first folios are often illustrated with the gods Brahma and Indra, mythical beings like Kinnari, Garuda or Yakkha, and deities called Thep Chumnum. The latter appear as eye-pleasing figures with golden crowns and royal attires. Thep Chumnum are often depicted in pairs with fans of honour, facing a passage of canonical Pali text like in the paired manuscript illustrations below. Two Thep Chumnum dressed in several layers of colourful loin cloths with floral designs, gold crowns and jewelery, are seated in a respectful pose, flanked by two fans with elongated floor handles. The fans with red and blue ornaments in plant shapes were included to emphasise the divine status and eminence of the Thep Chumnum.
Illustration of Thep Chumnum with exquisitely decorated fans on each side. From a folding book with Tipitaka extracts. Central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f. 1
Khin Saw Oo: Culture Value of Myanmar Hand Fan (Talipot-palm Fan). Paper presented at the 2nd International Conference on Burma/Myanmar Studies, 16-18 February 2018, Mandalay
Phra Maha Min Thiritsaro: Phatyot samanasak phrasong Thai. Bangkok, 2016
Talapat. In: Traditional objects of everyday use. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre (retrieved 28/12/2022)
Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections