Over a thousand years, Thai art developed its own unique sense of identity. A distinctive and dominant style emerged, a pattern often found on ornaments or fabrics, termed ‘Lai Thai’ in Thai language. Lai Thai reveals the culture and social history of places in Thailand, like Siam, in its design. In considering what constitutes the essence of Lai Thai, on the surface it might seem like merely a lavish, decorative art that only influenced the upper-class echelons of society. In fact, it can be extended to reflect the full hierarchy of Thai society in a wider context. Thai culture on the whole can be said to be deeply influenced by the Thai people’s religion, Buddhism. Faith is intertwined into the fabric of Thai society, where some dedicate their life to learning and upholding Buddhist traditions and values. The character of Lai Thai came from a meeting of traditional Buddhist art with Thai people’s natural delicacy, sweetness, gentleness, and their love of traditional beauty. It ultimately resulted in the distinctive form of Lai Thai that we see nowadays.
Let’s focus for a moment on some of the history of Lai Thai more explicitly. Broadly speaking, Thai art has been influenced by various civilizations; often neighboring countries in Asia. These include Mon-Khmer, Sinhalese, Chinese, and indeed Indian influences, where Thai Buddhism originated from. At this time, Indian-Buddhism art and culture spread through Thailand in conjunction with the golden age of sciences and arts that occurred during the Sukhothai era of the Kingdom (1238 - 1438). Simultaneously, it was a period in which Thai artists started to branch out and create artworks in new, distinctive styles. This leads to the emergence of Lai Thai. As noted in this timeline, it cannot be denied that Lai Thai was partly inspired by the Indian arts of that era. Later on, since the Ayutthaya period (17th- early 18th centuries) to the Rattanakosin period, Lai Thai continued to develop until reaching its modern form.
Speaking of the style, Lai Thai represents a composition between the art of Buddhism, and nature. Thailand has a rich history of its people living off the land, their hearts and minds engaged with the Buddhist faith. Nature and religion play such an everyday role in most people’s lives. Therefore, the concept of Lai Thai was adapted from natural shapes such as flowers, leaves, vines, candle flame, and incense smoke. In addition, there were ‘Combined-Animals’ such as quadruped animals, Himmapan creatures, and imaginary creatures found in myths and legends.
Ancient Thai art commonly consisted of paintings and decorative designs in two-dimensions, stylised and unrealistic - this included Lai Thai. They were used in both fine art and ornamentation (for instances, paintings, sculptures, architectures, textiles, ornaments, potteries, carvings, etc.). Thai artists mainly focused on delicacy, beautiful line movements, and an exquisiteness of the patterns. In particular, Lai Thai can be divided into 4 categories; 1) ‘Kranok’; decorative patterns. The Kranok pattern can be used to incorporate in other patterns in order to enhance the Lai Thai. Additionally, the merged triple Kranok pattern is a very significant Lai Thai form; it is widely accepted as the most beautiful Thai pattern. 2) ‘Nari’; human portraits i.e. a man, a woman or angels. 3) ‘Krabi’; animals, i.e. monkeys, giants, beasts and the undead. The characters are mainly protagonists of the Ramayana story. In particular, one of the main characters, ‘Hanuman’, was the minister of the ape king Sugriva, and the loyal companion of Rama. Illustrations of Hanuman are found in conjunction with the Kranok pattern in Lai Thai frequently. 4) ‘Kacha’; natural animals, i.e. elephants, horses, buffalos, tigers, lions, bison, rhinoceros and creatures from the artist’s imagination, namely Himmapan creatures. The myth of the legendary Himmapan Forest has a significant influence upon Lai Thai. In the legend, the forest is located below the Buddhist heavens, and is invisible to the eyes of mortals - unable to approach or enter.
In contemporary Thai art, there are a number of Thai artists that combine Lai Thai with modern/Western techniques and styles, such as Thawan Duchanee, Chalermchai Kositpipat, Panya Wijinthanasan, Alongkorn Lauwatthana, and Thongchai Srisukprasert. These artists are greatly encouraging Thai Art on an international level. As traditional Thai Art has adhered to a Buddhist philosophy, now is the time that those artists start breaking the boundary. Consequently, there are no limits for Thai artists; indeed they invigorate the identity of Lai Thai and make it approachable for the market of today.