Laos is a showcase of Buddhist art and sculpture from one side to the other. Most Buddhist art is typically made from metals like bronze, gold, and silver. Many of the larger and more elaborate Lao sculptures were looted by the Siamese over several centuries and taken to Thailand. Likewise, one of the largest gold sculptures found in Phra Bang was originally thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka even though some of the images suggest a later Khmer origin. Sculptures used a variety of other mediums as well including brick-and-mortar and wood. Most of these statues are of Buddha himself and either show him sitting in a meditative state or reclining. One of the most popular places to see great examples of these Buddhist statues (and Hindu statues as well) is Buddha Park, located in Vientiane. The park was created in 1958, and most of the statues here are created from reinforced concrete.
In 1970, workers in a construction site unexpectedly discovered a kiln and ceramic works. They ended up finding several kilns in this area, and topographic imaging shows there may be several hundred kilns here.
Textiles and other handicrafts are also an important part of Laotian art. Arts such as paper-making, basket-weaving, embroidery, tapestry weaving, and woodcarving have been passed down generation to generation. Dragons and other mythical animals are often common themes in their artwork.
The French introduced European-style painting and sculptures as well. One of the first things they did was open up art schools around French Indochina to teach drawing, painting, metalworking, and other arts. Some artists were lucky enough to travel to France to continue their art studies. However, their society didn’t have a place specifically for this European-style art. These artists ended up painting mostly realistic paintings of their own land, people, and culture for the sake of the (mostly French) tourists.
Laos has a long history of literature and storytelling. Many of the early stories were epic tales of a folkloric nature. Some of the largest and most well-preserved of these epic poems include the stories of Sin Xay, Thao Hung Thao Cheuang, Phra Lak Phra Lam, The Rocket Festival, and others.
|Mural showing Sin Xay epic in Thailand|
There were also many Buddhist writings; however, most of them were written in Pali, the language of Buddhism. Some early writings were also translated and transcribed into Lao. Other religious writings, such as animist writings, were often written from oral histories and stories, but the ones that were translated and transcribed using a Khmer script. Other nonreligious texts (like court documents, histories, commerce documents) were often written in Lao or Thai.
After the French arrived, the French language began to be introduced into the country. However, it was only taught to the upper crust of Lao society who were able to afford the French parochial schools newly set up there. Only a few French scholars were interested in Lao literary traditions.
The first novel composed entirely in Lao wasn’t published until 1944. Somchine Nginn’s novel The Sacred Buddha Image is about a Lao-French detective looking for a stolen Buddha image. This book was published amid a change that fell over the country. In some areas, the people were forced to adopt Thai language and culture while the French were trying to emphasize nationalism. It eventually set the Lao people to fight for their own independence, which ultimately ended with a communist government. There are a lot of sentiments regarding their identity that comes out in their literature. During the Vietnam War, there were many pieces written about the war and its effects. However, as a country under a communist rule, literature is required to reflect the approval of the government. To go against the government isn’t a safe thing to do, and authors who chose to criticize their government must often do so from outside the country. Regardless, there have been many efforts to preserve Lao literary traditions and to raise the literacy rates across the country as an effort to appreciate their own written histories and voices.
Up next: music and dance