Exploring Laotian Temples - Vat Phou

Like Bangladesh, Laos is another country that I personally have not encountered much in the realms of philately. I only have six Laotian stamps in my collection, but luckily they are all part of a six-stamp 1959 Kingdom of Laos series on important Laotian religious structures. As I tried to learn more about these stamps, it was impossible not to dive into the history of Laos, particularly the legacy of Hindu-Buddhist Khmer empires, or into the mid-20th century global shift towards more aesthetic stamps. In the first article of this series, I will start with the Laotian ruins of Vat Phou. However, we should probably learn a little more about Laos first.

Kingdom of Laos, 1959, Michelin 97-102 (Left to Right)

A Brief Primer on Laos and its Stamps:

Laos is a land-locked country (bordered by China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) in South-East Asia with a population of a little over 7 million. Its history is one

Laos is a land-locked country (2)

that is intertwined with that of its neighbors, French imperialism, and the geopolitics of the Cold War. Just looking at the 20th century, the region of Laos changed hands from Siam to France in the 1890s, then to Thailand in 1941, Japan in 1945, back to France soon after, and finally in the independent "Royaume du Laos" (Kingdom of Laos) in 1953 (1). This constitutional monarchy lasted until 1975, when the communist Pathet Lao movement established the present-day Lao People's Democratic Republic (1). Laos, like other South-East Asian nations occupied by

1907 Postcard sent from Hanoi with an Indo-China stamp (3)

France initially used stamps generally released for Indochina (3). Its stamps are denoted in Kip, the national currency, and the first set was released in 1951, when it became a monarchy within the French Union. Simply put, the stamps released by the Kingdom of Laos are regarded as some of the most beautiful in all of philately. The reasons for this were aptly explained in the 1959 Life Magazine article "Beauty in Stamps" (4).

This stamp was part of the first set of Laotian stamps, 1951 (8)
A lovely example of an engraved Polish stamp (9)

First, the article explains that post-World War II, countries began to see stamps not only as utilitarian postal tools but also as ways to "contribute to national prestige, attract tourists, and provide a steady income". This is corroborated by a whole field of literature that, even today, uses stamps to study topics from national culture to medical history (5). The Kingdom of Laos was no exception, and its philately "was designed to advertise her arts and culture" (4).

Second, these Laotian masterpieces were created via "engraving", a process in which a master craftsmen would scratch a design onto a metal square and impress countless pieces of paper, later colored (6). In this manner, several notable engravers, including Pierre Gandon, Jean Pheulpin, and Charles Mazellin, quite literally stamped their legacy on Laos (7). Both the Laotian and Polish stamps pictured here are based on engraved designs. The National Postal Museum says that "collectors still value the artistry of engraved stamps," (6) and why wouldn't they? The retention of crisp lines and colors even after extreme zooming would make a smartphone camera blush.

With all this in mind as we take a closer look at some 1959 Laotian stamps on temples, I hope you can appreciate them as remarks on culture and spectacular works of art.


Vat Phou

The ruins of Vat Phou Sanctuary (10)

Vat Phou is a Khmer temple complex in southern Laos and part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Originally built around the end of the 10th century as a Hindu temple, it became a Buddhist monastery in the 13th century (11). However, the building stone work remains filled with Hindu iconography, some of which the stamp designer bravely attempts to replicate. For example, the lintel (an archaeological term for the slab of stone above a door) shown in the above image depicts Indra mounted on Airavata, the three-headed elephant also revered as Erawan in South-East Asian iconography (12).

A lintel at the sanctuary depicting Indra on Airavata, with asuras on either end (13)
Ho Nang Palace at Vat Phou (14)

Interestingly, the current Vat Phou was a later addition, at the bottom of the Lingaparvata mountain, to a site that had already housed Khmer cities for centuries. This site was seen as divine even in the 6th century and contained inscriptions from earlier kings (15). Although there were several Khmer empires in history, the one that build modern Vat Phou was founded by King Jayavarman II in the 9th century and also known as the Angkor empire. Its Khmer predecessors were introduced to Sanskrit, Hinduism and Buddhism by "Indian traders, adventurers, teachers and priests,"and King Jayavarman II directly associated monarchs with Shiva as well (15, 16). Along with the Hindu iconography, even the geographical layout of the complex containing Vat Phou was significant. UNESCO states that the complex "was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of [structures] . . ." (17). Even today, one would start at the Mekong River bank and find "finds two large barays, a long processional walkway, two palaces [, Ho Nang and Ho Thao,] and finally the main sanctuary" (11).The Vat Phou sanctuary was an important part of Khmer religious architecture and likely connected by road to Angkor, the capital of the empire (15, 16).


Vat Phou is a highly promoted tourism spot today (18) and still remains a very sacred site in Laos, where the largest religion is Theravada Buddhism (Brittanica). In fact, it hosts an annual festival (Boun Vat Phou) based on the Lao lunar calendar. This three day celebration of Buddha's ordainment of 1,250 disciples as teachers of enlightenment brings thousands of people from Laos and surrounding countries to "pay respect to the Buddha and bring offerings" (12, 18). Furthermore, festival activities include many representations of Laotian culture, including traditional dance and boat racing (19). All in all, Vat Phou uniquely combines ancient Khmer history with contemporary celebration of Buddhism and is revered beyond Laotian borders. It is no wonder that Laos would release a stamp on Vat Phou as a site of great national and cultural significance.

Stamp Design: Temple de Vat Phou Pakse, Michelin 97-98

Vat Phou Sanctuary (0.5 Kip, Michelin 97)
Ho Nang Palace (2.5 Kip, Michelin 98)

Now that we have learned about Vat Phou's history, perhaps we can better appreciate the ambitions of the two illustrations designed by Chamnane Prisayane (whose name is printed on the lower left of each stamp, the name on the right being the designer).

Let's start with the 0.50 Kip stamp. The cella of the temple (an archaeological term for the room where the deity would have been; 20) would have originally housed a linga, whereas today it houses several Buddha statues (10). However, Prisayane's design seems to show two individuals standing in the room, perhaps devotees seeking blessings at this hallowed site. Also, it is impressive how Prisayane gives a sense of light and shadow with the conservative use of colors (I only spot burnt orange, green, light brown, and dark brown). The orange-brown outer entrance structure is used to represent sandstone, while the inner pillars and much of the cella are obscured in dark green. This especially makes the inner lintel, presumably the one depicting Indra, stand out even more as a burnt orange spot in a sea of dark green. The level of detail is phenomenal, as the horizontal bars on the door and even the outline of Indra's carriage (though that may be my own speculation) are apparent to a meticulous viewer.


The 2.5 Kip stamp provides a splendid view of Ho Nang palace, one of the two palaces leading up to the main sanctuary we just discussed. Although not obvious in the illustration, the palace wall is one of four, surrounding a courtyard (21). Ho Nang is known as the palace to the North, while Ho Thao is the palace to the South. They likely had some role in religious ceremonies and may have housed women and men, respectively (22). It appears that they were also made of sandstone, making the brownish-purple building color choice interesting. I am guessing that this decision was motivated by the muddy green lawn color, which required a stronger contrast than orange-red. Again, you really have to admire how well the lines within the art stand up to close scrutiny. Prisayane includes some scratches on the pediment (the triangle above the building) to hint at its carvings and even takes the trouble to delineate individual bricks next to the doors. Prisayne truly captured works of art by creating his own works of art.


Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this close look at a few Laotian stamps. It is true that these stamps perhaps gave more narrow insight into Laos than, say, the Bangladeshi ones we previously looked at. However, they still have so much to teach us about Khmer architecture, the past and present of Laotian culture, and even about philatelic aesthetics. I had not heard of Vat Phou prior to seeing these stamps, and am so glad that I was able to learn about it. Stamps are far from physical travel but they still make our lives richer by opening new doors. There is so much knowledge waiting to be discovered in the world, and I'm glad to work through it one stamp at a time.


Works Cited:

  1. Zasloff, Joseph. “Under Foreign Rule.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/place/Laos/Under-foreign-rule.

  2. “Map of Laos.” Encyclopedia Brittanica, Samples 1 and 4 Are Both from the Mouse Strain C57BL/6J. If These Biological Replicates Are Highly Correlated to Each Other, Then an MA-Plot of These Samples Should Be Symmetrical around the Line x=y (Equivalent to x - y = 0). Assign x and y as the Log Base 2 of Samples 1 and 4 Respectively. Note That Adding 1 before Taking the Log Prevents Problems Related to Zeros in the Data: www.britannica.com/place/Laos#/media/1/330219/61743.

  3. Dieulefils, Pierre. “Back-Side of Postcard 1662 by Pierre Dieulefils, Mailed April 17, 1907. The Stamp Was Issued from 1904-1907.[1] The Postcard Was Published in Hanoi.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Project, 19 Aug. 2019, commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?search=indochina+stamps&title=Special%3ASearch&go=Go&ns0=1&ns6=1&ns12=1&ns14=1&ns100=1&ns106=1#/media/File:Pierre_Dieulefils_postcard_1662_back_side_with_postmark.jpg.

  4. “BEAUTY IN STAMPS.” Life Magazine, 30 Nov. 1959, pp. 77–88.

  5. Walczak, Steven, and Angela Elizabeth Switzer. “Raising Social Awareness Through Philately and Its Effect on Philanthropy.” Philanthropy & Education, vol. 3, no. 1, 2019, pp. 73–102., doi:10.2979/phileduc.3.1.04.

  6. “Classic Engraving.” Classic Engraving | National Postal Museum, Smithsonian, postalmuseum.si.edu/exhibition/stamps-take-flight-creating-america%E2%80%99s-stamps/classic-engraving.

  7. “Board Index.” Kingdom of Laos Stamps 1951-1975 - A Visual Catalogue, STAMPBOARDS.com, 5 Jan. 2015, www.stampboards.com/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=60163.

  8. Agence Économique du Gouvernement de l’Indochine. Laos Definitive Stamp on Mekong River, 1951.

  9. “ .” Google Books, Life Magazine, 30 Nov. 1959, books.google.com/books?id=T1UEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA77&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=2#v=onepage&q=beauty%20in%20stamps&f=false.

  10. Markalexander100. The Facade of the Sanctuary. The Buddha Image inside Is Modern, and the Site Is Used for Religious Worship Today. Champasak, 10 Nov. 2005.

  11. “Wat Phou.” Wat Phou - 10th Century Khmer Temple in Laos, Renown Group Co.,Ltd, www.renown-travel.com/laos/pakse/wat-phou.html.

  12. “Airavata: The King of Elephants – Sanskriti - Hinduism and Indian Culture Website.” Sanskriti, Creative Nerds, 27 Mar. 2015, www.sanskritimagazine.com/indian-religions/hinduism/airavata-the-king-of-elephants/.

  13. LECLERCQ, PIERRE ANDRE. Le « Temple De La Montagne »Site De Vat_Phou Champassak, Laos. Champasak, 22 Jan. 2014.

  14. Hubbard, Nick. “Vat Phou or Wat Phu (Lao: ວັດພູ [Wāt Pʰúː] Temple-Mountain) Is a Ruined Khmer Temple Complex in Southern Laos. It Is Located at the Base of Mount Phu Kao, Some 6 Km from the Mekong River in Champasak Province. There Was a Temple on the Site as Early as the 5th Century, but the Surviving Structures Date from the 11th to 13th Centuries. The Temple Has a Unique Structure, in Which the Elements Lead to a Shrine Where a Linga Was Bathed in Water from a Mountain Spring.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 10 Feb. 2010, commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Shiva_temple_mountain_at_Vat_Phu_Champasak_Laos.jpg.

  15. Coedés, G. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. 2nd ed., Australian National University Press, 1968.

  16. “A Short History of South East Asia .” http://aerocomlab.stanford.edu/jameson/world_history/A_Short_History_of_South_East_Asia1.pdf

  17. Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Vat Phou and Associated Ancient Settlements within the Champasak Cultural Landscape.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, whc.unesco.org/en/list/481/.

  18. Liem, Jolie. What Is Boun Wat Phou Festival? Where and When to Celebrate?, Sonasia Holiday, 14 Jan. 2021, sonasia-holiday.com/sonabee/wat-phou-festival.

  19. “Vat Phou Festival In 2020.” Laohorizonstravel.com, Lao Horizons Travel, 16 Jan. 2020, www.laohorizonstravel.com/vat-phou-festival-in-2020/.

  20. “Cella.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., www.britannica.com/technology/cella.

  21. Marhas. “Champasak, Vat Phou and Lingaparvata.” Treasures of Laos, Blogger, 1 Jan. 1970, treasuresoflaos.blogspot.com/2010/08/champasak.html.

  22. Whelan, Ed. “The Stunning Vat Phou Temple Tells Secrets of Laos' Past.” Ancient Origins, Ancient Origins, 1 Jan. 2020, www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-asia/vat-phou-0013078.

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