Jennifer Gampell
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September 19-21, 2003

by Jennifer Gampell
A Thai abbot brings la moda Italiana to Bangkok

Wat Dhammamongkol, a large temple complex on the eastern outskirts of Bangkok, is already in the Guinness Book of Records for having the world's largest jade Buddha image.But recently, 84 year-old Luangpor Viriyang Sirintharo--the temple's highly respected abbot-- has embarked on another potentially record-shattering venture: running an Italian fashion and interior design institute at his temple.

On September 1, some 100 new and returning Thai students--including one young monk--were on hand for orientation night. Ranging in age from early 20s to 50s, they sat on plastic chairs facing a dais with the words "Chanapatana Institute, La Scuola di Design Italiano" emblazoned in styrofoam letters on blue draping. The ultra suave Vincenzo Giubba, president of the prestigious Accademia Italiana which co-developed the two-year program together with Luangpor Viriyang, flew in from Florence to address the crowd.

"We don't teach Italian style or Italian design at Chanapatana," he explained, accenting the institute's middle syllable instead of the final one and giving an Italian lilt to the Thai word for human development. "We teach design. If we have 100 students, I hope we'll have 100 styles." This statement reflects one of Luangpor Viriyang's primary motives in opening a foreign design institute in a country where meticulous copying has traditionally been valued more than originality.

"The Italian teachers open our minds to new ideas and give us freedom," says Mr. Kor Sitttiphat, now in his third semester in the interior design section. "It's important for designers to know why they're doing something," agrees fashion design student Natchalai Kaveevuth, a self-taught designer of nightwear for a famous Thai department store chain. "Before I just copied, but now I'm creating my own collection."

This year's total of 97 students--50 in fashion design and 47 in interior/product design--marks a significant increase over the 60 who enrolled in the inaugural 2001 program. That class graduated in May and two students are currently getting masters degrees in Florence on scholarships from the Luangpor Viriyang Foundation. Another recently won second prize for lamp design at the "Echi di Luce 03" competition.

Accademia Italiana supplies a rotating roster of four Italian teachers (two per discipline) who teach two three-hour sessions per day over the nine-month school year. Class size is capped at 25, and as of this year there's a waiting list for places. While the $2,500 per year tuition may be higher than at private local universities, no other institution in Thailand offers an all-foreign faculty and curriculum. Financial aid programs are also available. Besides, as Luongpor Viriyang intended when he conceived the idea for the institute, it's a lot cheaper than going to Italy.

Luangpor Viriyang's penchant for things Italian--including spaghetti al vongole and cappucino--dates back to 1987 when he had a vision of promulgating Buddhism by building an enormous jade Buddha image. In 1991 he had another vision of a jade boulder lying under a Canadian riverbed. Soon afterwards he learned that a massive block had been discovered roughly where he'd pictured it and he immediately flew over to purchase it--for $560,000. Once the jade arrived in Bangkok, Luangpor Viriyang discovered that no Thais had experience carving such a hard gemstone. At the urging of professors at Silpakorn University--a Thai fine arts institute founded in the 1920s by Italian sculptor Corrado Feroci--the abbot went to Carrara in search of sculptors.

While in Italy he also visited many museums and art galleries. He eventually found two Italian sculptors and brought them to Bangkok where they spent a year working on the now-famous Buddha--which was completed in 1994. Meanwhile 300,000 amulets made from spare jade fragments were snapped up by religious-relic-loving Thais for $20 apiece. With part of the $6 million proceeds, Luangpor Viriyang built 400 kindergartens and a university in Thailand as well as six temples in Canada.

Then came the economic crisis sparked by the 1997 currency devaluation. Suddenly many desperate--even suicidal--middle-class Thais were flocking to Wat Dhammamongkol. That year Luangpor Viriyang opened the Willpower Institute and began offering a range of meditation courses. "He wanted to give people a sense of control over their lives," explained the abbot's longtime secretary Phra Ajarn Suphon. "He thought giving money for food wouldn't help because once you've eaten the food it's gone. He believed giving people food for their minds would help them feel better about themselves." Couple the abbot's appreciation for Italian art and design with his desire to give Thais a sense of creative purpose and ecco, you've got a design institute!

"Luangpor Viriyang has so much energy we Italians call him the Ferrari," marvels Ezio Salamone, a longtime Bangkok resident and unofficial Italian-Thai liaison at Chanapatana. "I've been all over the world and done all kinds of jobs and I've never known anyone like him." When they met in 1995 the abbot barely spoke English. Now he speaks it quite fluently, has picked up some German and is currently learning Italian--with a view to opening up meditation centers in Italy.

A year after Chanapatana opened, the abbot asked a student in the interior/product design section to create a prototype set of dinnerware and also came up with the name LUNA for the Institute's in-house brand. To critics who accuse him of being too worldly, the abbot reportedly responds, "If you don't want to look, you don't have to." In deference to the strict Buddhist precepts against overt displays of sexuality, however, the women's dress design courses are held in a modern building located a few meters outside the temple compound.

Contrary to tourist-brochure rhetoric, not all Buddhist temples in Thailand are solemn shrines filled with saffron-robed ascetics. Indeed for centuries they functioned as village schools and community centers in addition to places of worship. Nowadays temples sponsor an eclectic assortment of secular activities ranging from internationally recognized AIDS hospices and drug treatment programs to raucous fund-raising fairs and animist tattoo festivals. Some are famous for their Buddha images, while others boast strange objects such as live crocodiles, dinosaur bones or phantasmagoric Hindu-Buddhist statuary. Perhaps in this context, a temple with a two-year Thai/Italian diploma program in fashion or interior design isn't so unusual after all.

Ms. Gampell is a Bangkok-based writer.

Copyright 2003 Asian Wall Street Journal/Jennifer Gampell