Anyone who visited Thailand several decades ago may remember the almost ubiquitous, usually brightly coloured fish mobiles (not the phone type!) that were sold to foreign tourists, who were very many fewer in number than we see today. While not so prevalent now, it is good to know that these decorations are still being made within a few, mostly Muslim, communities on the banks of the Chao Phraya River just outside the city centre of Ayutthaya, site of the former Thai capital destroyed by a Burmese invasion in 1767. It is thought that ancestors of these Thai communities adopted the religion of their employers who were foreign merchants during the time of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. So what are these fish mobiles for?
Rice has grown plentifully in the paddies and fish prospered in the clean rivers since ancient times. As the main food source of all citizens in Thailand’s flat plains, it enabled self-sufficiency and prosperity among the population as a whole. We are famously told from the inscription of King Ramkhamhaeng (1292), “There is fish in the water and rice in the fields.” Fish therefore became a symbol of good fortune, especially the tropical carp, known in Thai as pla tapien, which was found in abundance. In their spare time, the merchants’ workers would cut the dried fronds (leaves) of the common sugar palm into strips to weave the body shape and fins of a pla tapien fish of various sizes to sell for their customers to auspiciously hang in their houses. A grouping of fish all hung together became a mobile that would move in the breeze to both attract and bring prosperity to babies and young children. To compete with other producers, the artisans learned to paint or dye the fish in as many bright colours as they could find, including the use of gold and silver leaf for their more affluent clients.
This craft skill has been handed down through the generations and while the these pla tapien mobiles are not so often seen in Thai homes these days, a new market of tourist visitors enabled the market to continue and, for a while, to flourish. Other communities in other places started to take advantage of the popularity, learning to produce these very Thai-style artefacts. Today, the far fewer artisans are mostly older women in the original communities who find it a suitable home occupation, giving them a chance to earn some extra income for their families. Because they are carrying on an ancient tradition, a few have been featured on Thai TV and in tourist promotion documentaries. A government project that promotes community-made products uses a pla-tapien mobile fish in its logo. However, unless there is a resurgence in popularity for this kind of art, like so many crafts, these symbols of the past could easily disappear with the current generation.
The concept of using the pla-tapien form as a good luck charm has encouraged many to replicate the design in other materials such as in jewellery (talisman or pendant), cloth (woven patterns) and even in plastic. But for many, there is a deeper meaning in the traditional, natural material and the way it is skilfully woven into the pla-tapien shape. It neatly brings together the twin products of water, one grain from plants, the other food from fish. Found in most civilizations and creeds, we are reminded that it is the simplicity of nature that keeps all beings alive on our bountiful planet and enables us to prosper. Worth preserving, don’t you think?