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Phase II: Regional expansion


Workshop on basic conservation knowledge, Nan © UNESCO

In recent years, a strong conservation ethic has emerged in Nan Province in the north of Thailand and in Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south.  The temples in both towns are traditional centres for training in decorative arts, and both are listed on Thailand’s Tentative List of World Heritage properties.  The project provides technical support to help expand the Thailand sangha’s nascent efforts to document temple architecture and arts and create a sustainable training program utilizing the skills of local craft masters whom the sangha will identifying.

In order to promote sustainability of the project, UNESCO has initiated discussions with Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU) and Restaurateurs Sans Frontieres (RSF) to collaborate in developing a curriculum for conservation aiming at monks from around Thailand and around the region, with accreditation through the formal educational system.

As an accredited university established in 1887, MCU today plays a central role in educating monks from Thailand and around Asia.   With 10,000 undergraduate students and 500 graduate students, MCU has a wide network, with a total of 30 campuses, branches and educational centres in Thailand and the region.  In addition to granting formal degrees, MCU has also been recognized by the Mahatherasamakhom in offering a course in Thailand since 2003 on Sangha Administration, which targets training monk officials.  In the area of Buddhist cultural heritage, MCU offers an introductory course to Buddhist arts already.  Furthermore, MCU is considering the establishment of Buddhist Art Halls as well, as an educational resource for its students. 

Nakhon Si Thammarat
Nakhon Si Thammarat is one of the Buddhist art centres in Thailand.  Buddhism was brought to Nakhon Si Thammarat from Anuradapura in Sri Lanka sometime in the 8th or 9th century.  Together with religion came the tradition of the monastery as a centre of education.  Over the centuries Nakhon Si Thammarat developed into the most important regional centre for craftsmanship especially in gold, silver and nielloware metalwork, and in the performing arts where both dance and shadow puppetry was developed to tell the stories of the life of the Buddha, the Ramayana and other masterpieces of didactic literature to local audiences.  The Kings of Siam provided royal patronage that allowed the arts to flourish and made the temples of Nakhon Si Thammarat among the most beautiful of the Kingdom.
Today Nakhon Si Thammarat remains the centre of the highest Thai art, with the ateliers of master artists clustered around the oldest and most revered temple of the town, the Mahathat, which is included on Thailand’s Tentative List of World Heritage sites.  Traditionally, young men from all over Thailand as well as from Buddhist communities in Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia came to live in the Mahathat temple and study artisan and performing arts skills with the associated masters.  Formerly there was a network of monk master craftsmen linking the training schools in Nakhon Si Thammarat with those in Nan, Luang Prabang and at the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh.

Located in the northeastern corner of Thailand bordering Lao PDR, Nan Province has been a crossroads for economic and cultural exchange since pre-historical times.  Nan was an independent city-state with close relations to the early states of Sukhothai, Lan Xang (i.e. Luang Prabang) and Xieng Hong (i.e. Xishuangbanna), before being annexed to the Lanna Kingdom in 1442, and subsequently to Burma in 1553, before finally regaining its independence in the mid-18th century.  Today, Nan still bears the traces of its rich history of cultural exchange in its distinctive arts and architecture, crafts and ways of life.

With a small population of 400,000, Nan is home to some 500 temples that bear testimony to the centrality of the Buddhist faith in the daily and ceremonial life of the province.  The Buddhist sangha in Nan remains the moral core of the largely rural communities in the province and leads a wide range of social, economic and environmental programs.  The monks have traditionally been the caretakers of the temples and religious objects, with mastery over a wide range of architecture and decorative arts including stucco designs, wood-carving and bronze casting. Under the leadership of the monks, the temples act as repositories of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, doubling as community museums and training centers for traditional skills. 

Due to political turmoil and economic changes, the role of monks as caretakers and master craftsmen has faded in the past century, owing mostly to lack of sustained know-how.  However, a strong conservation ethic has emerged in Nan in the last five years, with full support from the local government, civil institutions, local communities and the Buddhist sangha.  The monks have been actively involved in planning the conservation of Nan’s cultural heritage, which is anchored by the preservation of the religious heritage - the mainstay of the province’s identity.