Digitally Replicating the Lost Phralak-Phralam Murals at Vat Oub Mong, Vientiane (Laos) by Alan PotkinReturn to the Blog
Digitally Replicating the Lost Phralak-Phralam Murals at Vat Oub Mong, Vientiane (Laos)
In 1938, Thit Panh, a junior monk with untrained but obvious artistic talent, was assigned by the Abbot to decorate all four walls of the then-relatively-new vihaan (i.e., main image hall) at Vat Oub Mong, a Theravada Buddhist monastery in the Lao capital Vientiane, with illustrations of the Phralak-Phralam (the “Lao Ramayana”) which —amazingly— he and his assistants, seven boy novices, apparently completed in well under one month. In 1975, following the communist takeovers of the three countries of the former Indochine française, Buddhism was energetically suppressed in Laos. This proved something of a fools errand, and in 1984, the sangha was allowed to resume it’s former large role in Lao culture, but under the conditions that the monks stay out of politics, and that “superstition” be excised from Lao Buddhist practice. The latter term, regrettably, came to encompass not only those elements of tantrism found at outlier Khmer sites such as Wat Phou, but the Brahmanic traditions as whole. Accordingly, the Ramayana, which had always been a keystone of Lao religious and popular arts, had been so thoroughly purged from the general knowledge base, that by the mid 1990s —when the sangha and elders of Vat Oub Mong first put forward their plan to destroy the old vihaan, and replace it with a more modern and prestigious structure— most of the younger people in the baan didn’t even know what the old murals represented.
Aware of the impending demolition, an extensive but technically unsophisticated image archive —in analog still and video formats— was undertaken of the old paintings, eventually encompassing their actual destruction in 2000. In 2007, having become more adept with computer technologies in cultural conservation, we developed a system to replicate the former murals using digital projection cartooning, and demonstrated the “proof of concept”.
In 2011, by which time there had developed a considerable degree of local regret over what came, correctly, to be seen as de facto vandalism with the demolitions of a decade earlier, the original Thit Panh murals were replicated faithfully and completely throughout the interior of the new Vat Oub Mong vihaan, entailing the essential participation of the Faculty of Fine Arts in Vientiane.
In 2012, the near-perfectly intact, two-thousand page palm leaf manuscript of the Phralak Phralam texts specific to Vat Oub Mong —which had long been believed irretrievably lost— was identified and systematically digitized in its original Tham script format and is now being re-entered in its entirety by several Oub Mong monks into a searchable, Unicode-compliant modern Lao font.
Alan Potkin holds a doctorate in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and in 1995 founded —and has since led— the Digital Conservation Facility, Laos (DCFL); affiliated since 2003 with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) at Northern Illinois University, USA, where he’s an Adjunct Research Fellow. Having lived and worked for decades in South and Southeast Asia, he’s recently been developing interactive visualization and virtual reality (VR) technologies in ecological and cultural conservation for applications in impact assessment, heritage management, museological and site interpretive materials, public participation; and accessible institutional memory for corporations, government agencies, and NGOs. Ongoing DCFL initiatives have included replication at Vat Oub Mong (Vientiane) of the demolished Phralak-Phralam (“PLPL”, the Lao Ramayana) murals with the digitization and re-illustration of the original 2,100-page bailane (palm leaf MSS) PLPL text; archiving the restored Sri Thanonchai paintings at Wat Pathumwanaram (Bangkok) and the physical and historical geography of the larger temple venue; the post-facto evaluation of the Nam Theun 2 hydroelectric project’s effects on the Nam Phit basin (Khammouane, Laos); and producing online oral histories and an online annotated catalog of the collections and décor of the Pak Mun Dam Museum (Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand). In 1991-92, he was the senior environmental consultant for the Upper Kotmale Hydropower Project (Talewakelle, Sri Lanka), on which he will be presenting new research at the Nalanda-IIAS conference in Rajbir, Bihar in January 2013.