Thailand is a Buddhist country, a nation that reveres and upholds the Dhamma — the collected teachings of Buddhism. These are considered to be precious, like gold. Like the metal, this set of beliefs is regarded as an eternal symbol of brightness and prosperity. Thais think of their country as a land illuminated by the Buddhist religion.

Buddhism first came to mainland Southeast Asia around the eighth century, and has thus been a part of the culture for well over a thousand years — evidence of how deeply Thais have come to embrace their religion.

Given this long history, visitors coming to Thailand can expect to find Buddhist temples, or wat, throughout the country, and Buddha images in all of them. Each image is revered as a depiction of the Lord Buddha. The images exist in many different styles and postures, and have been made from a variety of materials. Some large images are made from concrete, others are cast in bronze or gold, or carved from sandstone or even wood.

The different attitudes, or mudra, seen in Buddha images are meant to express ideas connected with the Dhamma the Lord Buddha spread, or with specific events from his life. Artisans who fashioned them in so many different forms wanted to have these ideas disseminated to all places and through all time. They felt that the images would endure for many centuries because no one would think of harming or destroying them. If they were made of valuable materials, people in future generations would maintain them carefully to ensure that they didn’t deteriorate or disappear.

It was also thought that creating a Buddha image to perpetuate reverence for the Lord Buddha and his teachings earned a great deal of Buddhist merit. If a group of people worked together to make the image, in their next incarnation they would meet again. This traditional belief has endured unchanged down the centuries.

In the past, the project of carving or casting a Buddha image was usually initiated and sponsored by a monarch, a member of the nobility, or a high-level civil servant, although prominent and wealthy people sometimes commissioned them, too. The first step was to locate an artisan – either a sculptor or an expert at casting images in metal — who would propose a design and work plan to the commissioner of the project. Once approved, it would be announced generally and a schedule set out.

If the image was to be made in concrete, volunteers would come to offer their services. Sand had to be transported from river banks and limestone brought in, baked and pounded to make plaster. The fire-treated lime would be pounded and sifted to obtain the finest powder.

Animal skins were boiled and reduced to make glue that would be mixed with the sand to bind it together. Then there were the sculptors, who would form these materials into the image.

When a metal image was to be cast, an announcement was made and local people would donate metal objects to be melted down. Most contributed household items like trays, bowls, sets of implements for preparing betel, chains or belts made of brass or silver.

Since different kinds of metal, some heavier then others, were melted down together, cast images often exhibited mottled surfaces, with streaks of different colour showing. This was not a problem, because the finished image was usually covered with dark lacquer and gold leaf applied.

Local donors also supplied the gold for the leaf. The gold rings, ornaments and belts they contributed were melted down and cast into ingots, which were then flattened and beaten out into gold leaf only a few microns thick.

Creating sandstone images required volunteer workers to quarry the stone from the mountains and bring it in by oxcart or elephant to the site where the sculptors would shape it. The sculptors and other artisans involved in creating a Buddha image had to strictly observe Buddhist precepts and be mindful of the Dhamma during the entire time that they were working on the project. Many things were off limits to them: no meat or alcohol could be consumed, and sexual activity was also forbidden.

There were also special kinds of Buddha images that were traditional in the North, the Northeast (Isan) and in Laos. Since the Thai North and Isan were densely forested with many different kinds and sizes of trees available, wood was a popular material for making images in these regions.

If the image was to be large, the procedure was the same as in other parts of the country. The woodcarver who was to create it would go into the forest to find a tree of the type and size he wanted and then bring it back to work on.

In earlier times, Buddha images were often carved in sandalwood, which has a beautiful colour and fragrance. Old documents refer to a famous sandalwood image that once existed in Lampang Province, but it disappeared centuries ago and nowadays no one knows what it looked like. About 20 years ago, it was reported that the image had been found in a small temple in Tak Province, but examiners who went to authenticate this concluded that it was not the same one.

There are also small wooden Buddha images that were made by villagers themselves, who intended them to be placed in temples on the base of the main image. They believed that when visitors to the temple worshipped the additional gathered images, merit was bestowed on those who had created them.

People usually carved wooden images at about the New Year, or when they were ill. Most villagers were not skilled woodcarvers but fashioned carvings to the best of their ability. For that reason most of them have distorted proportions, with short bodies or long, pointed heads. The facial features may be out of balance as well. Many such homemade images therefore have the appearance of naive or folk art. Those who made them also liked to paint them white and yellow, and write their name on the base in their local dialect. These images were always quite small, never more than eight or ten inches high.

In the mornings, when the monks made their rounds, villagers placed these images in the alms’ bowls together with food. When the monks returned to the temple, they would place the images at the base of the image in the viharn (main image hall), as the donors had intended. Fifty years ago, there were tens of thousands of wooden images in all sizes in Chiang Dao Cave in a district of Chiang Mai. This was a place where monks often went to meditate, but today they have all disappeared.

In Thailand there are a number of especially highly revered Buddha images. The first and most famous of them is the Phra Kaeow Morokot, or Emerald Buddha at Wat Phra Kaeow, a temple also known as Wat Phra Srisatdaram. This image has a very long and involved history and a special significance for many different Thai ethnic communities.

It was originally hidden in a stupa in Chiang Rai Province. When that structure was struck by lightning in 1436 AD, the damage to its exterior revealed the presence of the image. The lightning also dislodged some of the concrete in which it was encased, and it could be seen that another, smaller one, made of green jade, was secreted inside.

The King of Chiang Mai wanted to transfer it to Chiang Mai, but when the elephant that was transporting it refused to go beyond Lampang the image was kept in that city, where it remained for 32 years. It was subsequently taken to Chiang Mai, where it stayed for the next 84 years.

At that time, Chiang Mai had a ruler whose Lao father had just died. The son had to go to the Lao capital of Luang Prabang to ascend his new throne, and the Emerald Buddha accompanied him. It remained in Luang Prabang for 12 years, after which it was taken to Vientiane, where it was kept for 214 years. The image’s final journey took place in 1767 AD when it was brought to Bangkok before the construction of the Rattanakosin Island area of the new capital, where it is still kept today.

The Emerald Buddha is an example of the power antiquity can have over the mind. Its great age and remarkable beauty have inspired a desire in rulers of every period to acquire the image and preserve it as one of the treasures of their realm.

Another of the most important of Thailand’s Buddha images is Phra Srisakkayamuni, which is housed at Wat Suthat Thepwararam in Bangkok. It was once kept at Wat Mahathat in Sukhothai, where it had been made during an era when the kingdom was flourishing. In 1807 AD, many centuries after the decline of Sukhothai, when the capital in Bangkok was only newly established, it was believed that every Thai city should have a kaenmueang, or center, which should also be its highest point. This lofty central point would be emblematic of the city’s strength and assure its long and prosperous existence.

Wat Suthat Thepwararam was built as the highest structure in Bangkok, and the Phra Srisakkatamuni image was brought from Sukhothai to be housed there. It was transported by boat via the Chao Phraya River and brought ashore at the pier called Tha Chang (near today’s Thammasat University). There it was set on log rollers and gradually moved to the temple. Many people helped in the arduous work of getting it to its new location.

Today the Phra Srisakkatamuni image is set at a great height inside the temple. Visitors have to bend their heads far back to see it. This positioning of the image as the kaenmueang is believed to guarantee a long and powerful future for Bangkok. The fact that the image was brought from a once-mighty kingdom to another is also seen as a guarantee that its new home will endure longer than its earlier one.

These are a few of the beliefs and historical facts concerning Buddhism in Thailand, and especially the Buddha images that are among its most eloquent symbols. They continue to give focus to a religion and a philosophy that will support and inspire the country for ages to come.