Thailand Pages; The Erawan Museum - Bangkok's Bizarre Three-Headed Elephant
N.B: The Erawan Museum is not to be confused with the Erawan Shrine which is in Central Bangkok
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This is the story of one of the most remarkable 'museums' in the world.
1) Remarkable for its content - beautiful exhibits of mystical sculptures and art work, as well as historical relics.
2) Remarkable for its surroundings - set in attractive landscaped gardens of tropical plants, waterways and statues.
3) And most remarkable for the building itself - a monumental three-headed elephant sculpture which houses the exhibits. Surely, one of the world's most unusually shaped museums!
This is Thailand's Erawan Museum, and this article - illustrated with the author's own photos - reveals what this extraordinary place is all about.
If one travels a short distance south of Thailand's capital city of Bangkok along the Sukhumvit Road - one of the main thoroughfares out of the city - one will soon arrive at the province of Samut Prakan. And then it will not be long before one comes across the Erawan Museum. And unlike some museums, there is no way in the world any visitor could doubt that they had arrived at the right place. A giant three-headed elephant stood on a pink pedestal, looms over the neighbourhood, so large that it is a contender for the title of the largest elephant shaped building in the world* - a building of three parts, home to priceless relics, swirling staircases, religious icons and ornate decorations.
* World's Biggest Elephants *
There seem to be three contenders for the title of 'World's Biggest Elephant Building'. It all depends on the criteria employed. Two of them are in Thailand, within the environs of Bangkok, and one is in America. They are (in order of size):
1) The Elephant Tower built in 1997 in Bangkok, is by far the biggest structure. Perhaps that qualifies it as the biggest elephant building, but only if you think of it as elephant shaped. It has legs, a trunk, and eyes and tusks - but it is scarcely life-like. More of an abstract lego brick-like elephant, designed by an architect with a very quirky sense of humour. And one poll listed it among the world's 20 ugliest skyscrapers!
2) The Erawan Museum - the subject of this page - is undoubtedly the most expertly sculpted and life-like of the three contenders, if one overlooks the fact that it's got three heads. More of an elephant than the Elephant Tower, and bigger than our final contender, 'Lucy', the Erawan Museum was completed in the year 2000 on the outskirts of the Thai capital - the second great elephant building in that part of the world.
3) 'Lucy' is a cartoonesque sculpture in the town of Margate, New Jersey, USA. Constructed in 1881 from wood and tin, Lucy is a novelty elephant and has served at various times as a bar and restaurant, a business office and most of all as a tourist attraction. It's the smallest of the trio, but as it's not eccentrically cubist and it's only got one head, so some may claim this to be the largest model of a real elephant.
The History of the Erawan Museum - the Vision of Lek Viriyphant
The Erawan Museum was born out of the extraordinary creative vision of Lek Viriyphant, an eccentric millionaire with a real creative genius for architecture. Having made his money as an importer of high quality goods, notably for the motor trade, this Thai businessman turned his attention to pursuing his great passion - promotion of Thailand's culture. His first project was to create the world's largest open air museum at Muang Boran. But then he planned the building of one of the world's bizarrest indoor exhibitions in the form of a giant sculptural edifice, the Erawan Museum.
The aim of Lek Viriyphant (also known as Khun Lek) was to create a home for his personal collection of religious relics and artwork. And the curious choice of the elephant building to house the collection was based on one of the figures of Hindu-Buddhist mythology - Erawan (known as Airavata to Hindus) - the three headed elephant mount of the Hindu God Indra, and a symbol of Buddhist cosmology.
it seems that while the idea of this museum was forming in Lek's mind, a Western guest suggested an apple-shaped building - based on the role of apples in many ancient Western mythologies, as well as its symbolism in Christianity. Lek Viriyphant liked the idea of a symbolic shape to embrace his collection, but chose a more Asian icon - the Erawan elephant.
The unusualness of the design, and the practical difficulties of creating such an ornate, monumental building - especially the heavy elephant heads supported only by the join to the neck, required numerous master craftsmen and artists. Khun Lek Viriyphant assigned his son Pagpean Viriyphant to lead the team, and he in turn appointed a team of designers and sculptors including architect Khun Suwannee Napasawangwong to bring the project to fruition. After meticulous preparation including the creation of a series of miniature clay, foam and wax models to work from, construction started on 19th October 1994, and it took six years to complete.
The elephant is truly massive - it is a 29 m (95 ft) high sculpture by artist Khun Rakchart Srichanken, made of steel overlaid with bronze, and with steel and concrete legs to support the weight. Despite being hollow, it weighs 250 tons. And it is hollow because a key part of the exhibition space is actually within the body of the elephant. The rest of the museum exhibits are housed in the great pink plinth or pedestal upon which the elephant stands, as we shall see in the following sections.
The Museum of the Pedestal and the Erewan Elephant
It is not easy to describe the exhibits of the Erawan Museum, because it amalgamates so many elements of culture, art and history. You will see curiosities in glass display cases - but not so many as you might anticipate, because this is not merely a journey into Thailand's past and craftwork. It is also a flight of fancy into Buddhist and Hindu iconography, surreal fantastical imagery and cosmological mythology. The overseas visitor should really not expect to understand exactly what is going on - but picture an exhibition centre in which factual history meets religion in a Salvador Daliesque fantasy, and you'll have some idea of what you will find. The museum is themed according to the mythological principles of the 'Underworld, the 'Earth' and 'Heaven', and comprises three major levels representing these realms - the lowest level in the basement of the pink pedestal, a middle level of two storeys within the pink pedestal itself, and an upper level within the belly of the great elephant.
The Basement - The Underworld
The basement is arrived at through a not very imposing door in the base of the pedestal. In truth the door can easily be overlooked if the visitor is not aware of its presence, but the visitor must go through it because the room beyond is the principal home of the historical artifacts and antiques. The theme is that of the 'Underworld', but this is esentially a regular museum exhibit with displays of objects such as Chinese Ming and Qing vases, Chakri Dynasty tea sets, jade ornaments and furniture - the collection of Kung Lek Viriyphant. There is also a series of photographs here, which illustrates the development of the museum.
Tour guides can be arranged to explain the treasures on display, though there are also plenty of descriptive notes with English translations. Unfortunately personal photography of the exhibits is not allowed in this section, though for most visitors this will not be a major concern - it is the upper levels of the museum which are more visually attractive and photogenic.
The Pink Pedestal - The Earth and Mount Meru
The middle section of the museum is much more a gallery of mythical art and sculpture than a display of artifacts. Housed within the pink pedestal, this section consists of a circular room with two stories united by an extraordinary double staircase. This is 'Earth' and the staircases lead to 'Mount Meru' - the centre of the Universe where Gods and deities reside.
As one enters, there is a short central set of stairs which leads to a statue of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. (Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings or deities who forego the chance to achieve Nirvana or entrance into Paradise in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Guanyin is a Bodhisattva particularly associated with compassion). Just before the statue, the staircase divides into a majestically ornate, sweeping double staircase, intricately carved with images of dragons and inlaid with tiny pieces of Benjarong pottery. These staircases take us to the upper storey.
The real appeal for the visitor who does not understand the symbolism of this level, is in the craftwork and artistry, including mural paintings, hand-beaten copper panels and a decorative stucco wall coating.
Four great pillars extend from ground level and support a colourful stained glass ceiling. These pillars made of tin, are dark in hue, and that makes the detail of their design difficult to make out. But they are worth a close look, because the four pillars are inlaid with intricate scenes from four of the world's religions - two branches of Buddhism (Theravada and Mahayana), Hindusim and Christianity - symbolically supporting the world. The four pillars represent in their imagery moral themes associated with the four religions - Theravada (enlightenment and the path to Nirvana), Mahayana (compassion and kindness), Hinduism (freedom from suffering) and Christianity (love bringing salvation).
Originally the entire Erawan elephant was going to be encased in pewter or tin, rather than bronze, but when this vision of Khun Lek Viriyphant proved to be impractical, his son chose to just decorate the pillars with tin in deference to Khun Lek's original ambition.
Over the upper storey is the domed stained glass ceiling. The ceiling combines a map of the world created by German artist Jacob Schwarzkopf, with images of the Zodiac and the cosmological vault.
The Stairway to Heaven
How to get up to the third level of the museum? The secret lies in the two hind legs of the Erawan Elephant. One leg houses an elevator, while the other houses a stairway. If you are physically able, the author of this article would recommend the latter. Though just an ordinary spiral set of stairs - nothing as ornate as the flamboyant staircase in the lower level - it's well worth climbing for the mural of scenes from mythology on the walls - pastel scenes which reproduce beautifully in photographs.
And these wall paintings herald the way to a cavernous room, and it's a room which cannot fail to touch the emotions with its combinations of historic relics, serenity and extravagance.
The Body of the Elephant - Heaven and the Gods
This cavernous room in which we are now standing is physically inside the belly of the Erawan elephant statue itself. Spiritually however, we are now beyond Earth and in the realm of Heaven, located above Mount Meru in Buddhist mythology. Facing before us is a shrine which houses a golden Buddha. Relics of Buddha are encased in the room and lining the sides of the shrine are eight precious Buddha statues from various parts of Asia, and from various periods of history.
As with the relics in the basement, one is not permitted to take direct photos of these eight Buddhas in their display cases, but everything else can be photographed, including the golden Buddha shrine at the far end of the room - housed below the central head of the elephant sculpture.
The ceiling is a rather curious curved shape - not flat, but not quite a dome - dictated by the shape of the elephant's body. Decorations of the ceiling look like the visualisation of a dreamworld. In fact, it is more of the work of Jacob Schwarzkopf, and it represents the cosmos. Featured symbols are moons, clouds, meteors and constellations and a big orange sun.
To Western eyes used to staid church design, the whole effect may seem like a strange union of solemn religious iconography with surreal hallucinogenic imagery. And the whole is bathed in a blue haze. It all works to create a vision which will live in the memory.
Scenes from the Museum GardenClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Colourful Garden of the Erawan Museum
There is more to the Erawan Museum than the central elephant exhibition centre. The building is set in tranquil and attractively landscaped grounds with pathways which lead one through a small, tropically planted garden, over wooden bridges across fish stocked ponds and streams, and past small statues of mythological creatures.
This garden is very much in keeping with the museum. Every effort is made to create a visually appealing display, and yet one senses that the symbolism of the dragons and deity statues all around the garden are just as important to the concept as are the plants.
The garden is an attraction in its own right which allows a different slow paced appeal, and a place for rest and reflection. And if one is in the area and has no interest in the museum, well one can just wander peacefully around the grounds for a nominal entrance fee.
For tourists the extraordinary museum and garden are the reason to make the short journey south of Bangkok. But there are a few other features of this site - some of curiousity value, and some standard fare to cater for visitors.
Even though the museum houses a shrine and religious icons within the body of the elephant statue, it is not in itself a religious building. However there is another small courtyard shrine just inside the entrance to the site, where locals may come to make offerings.
Though most foreign visitors don’t take advantage of it, there is also a gentle custom enacted here by Buddhists, and which is included in the admission charge. The pedestal of the Erawan Museum is surrounded by a small moat or channel of water, and a supply of lotus flowers - a sacred flower in both Buddhist and Hindu tradition - is on hand nearby. One takes a single flower, rests it on the surface of the gently flowing water, and makes a wish as the flower begins its journey around the museum. It's a bit like the custom in the West of throwing coins into a fountain, but there is a caveat - If your lotus gets caught up on something and fails to circumnavigate the pedestal, failing to make it all the way around the museum, then apparently your wish won't come true.
Finally, as one would expect, there are the usual features one would expect of a tourist attraction - including a restaurant, other refreshment facilities and a souvenir shop.
How to get to the Erawan Museum and Admission Charges
The Erawan Museum is on a busy road located about 20 km south of Bangkok in the Province of Samut Prakan. One can self-drive of course, or catch a taxi (just say 'Erawan Museum' or show the driver a photo) but a method more relaxed than driving and cheaper than taxi hire all the way from the city, is to take the Bangkok BTS SkyTrain to its southern limit at Bearing Station. From there one can walk down to the museum (adjacent to a major intersection flyover), but the distance is about 4km (2.5 miles), and a taxi from the station may be a pleasanter option on a hot day.
Also, three times a day a shuttle service is provided between Bearing Station and the Erawan Museum. A similar service allows a visitor to go on from the museum to another of Lek Viriyphant's creations, the 'Ancient City' of Muang Boran. Details of current schedules are on the Erawan Museum official web site.
Some web sites suggest that Skytrain users should disembark at On Nut Station. However, since the opening of the extension to Bearing Station, that information is out of date.
The site is open from 9.00 am to 8.00 pm. Cost of entry for foreign visitors is different to the cost for local residents. The price for tourists (last time I checked) is 400 baht (about £7 / $11) for adults. Admission after 5.00 pm is half price. Children can also enter half price. Group bookings and bookings for special events are also available on enquiry. Tours and audio guides are also available.
The Location of the Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan Province
A Summary of the Appeal of the Erawan Museum
The Erawan Museum is not on every tourist's list of 'must-see' sights in Bangkok. Many only spend a few days in the capital before moving on to a beach resort, and for others Samut Prakan may seem like it's just a bit too far to travel from their hotel.
However, if one has the time, a half day spent at the Erawan Museum will certainly be memorable. Confusing perhaps, even bizarre, but unworldly and memorable. The gardens are attractive, the art and culture on display is intriguing and in some cases extravagant, and as for that three-headed elephant - well, that is unforgettable.
Photos of the museum were taken by the author in 2 visits in 2013 and 2015
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