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Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2000

A sliver of Thai history brought to life

LANNA STYLE: Photography: Ping Amranand: Text: William Warren. Asia Books, Bangkok, 1995, 235 pp., 46 baht.

Lanna is a name that tourists in the north of Thailand come across, accept and do not bother to discover its origin. It means "a million rice fields," and was the name given to the kingdom founded by King Mangrai toward the end of the 13th century.

Having conquered northern Thailand, parts of Burma and Laos, and, most importantly, Haripunchai, a great cultural center, now Lamphun, Mangrai needed a capital. In 1296 work began on the right bank of the River Ping, and the walled and moated city known as Chiang Mai (New City) came into being; the Lanna Kingdom prospered; the dynasty, founded by Mangrai, lasted 200 years.

In his clear, concise, pleasing style, William Warren relates the history of Lanna, including that of Haripunchai, the wars with Burma, the decline of Chiang Mai, the sacking of Ayutthaya by the Burmese and the eventual absorption of Chiang Mai into the Thai Kingdom.

The history is interposed by dazzling photographs by Ping Amranand of Lanna architecture and artifacts. The temples have steep overlapping low roofs that sweep downward to rise slightly at the end; they are topped with a hook-shaped finial called a jao faa (sky lord), which is supposed to catch evil spirits; another feature of the temple is the naga (sacred serpent), whose snarling head appears at the bottom of the roof warding off harmful powers.

There is a spread of photographs showing the varying styles of statues of the Buddha, and another depicting the exquisite kalong pottery dishes and vases with bold black floral designs on a white or creamy background.

The book covers many branches of Lanna art: Ceramics, wood carvings, images in stucco, votive tablets, temple furnishings such as pulpits, chests for holy manuscripts, howdahs, lacquer work, cloth banners, mural paintings of folk scenes and scarecrows made of palm leaves. There is a section on the traditional house built on stilts with a space underneath for animals, with photos of a humble dwelling made of bamboo and reeds, a middle-class home made of wood, and an upper-class residence of teak with two bedrooms as well as a living room. The two outer beams in the front of such a house protrude above the roof and cross each other to form what is called a kalae which is often intricately carved.

The book concludes with "Contemporary Lanna Style." Warren writes: "Old rice granaries, temple libraries, wood carvings, doors and decorative objects have been lovingly restored and used as components. Situated in lush, beautiful gardens, with views of mountains and rice fields, these treasured retreats are themselves magical works of art."

The chapter includes several Lanna-style private residences built with wood collected from old houses and set in splendid gardens with spectacular views. The modern comforts of these dwellings do not greatly interfere with the main Lanna style of the buildings, since they are not visible from the outside.

Warren has written many books on Thailand. His style and his descriptive ability are consummate. Ping is an experienced photographer and has been widely published. He collaborated with Warren on the excellent book about the Thai elephant. Warren's text and Ping's photographs together make a delightful book for both the cognoscenti and those who have never heard of Lanna.

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