Prevalent throughout South and Southeast Asian art, serpents, or nagas, are positive symbols. They are the guardians of the watery underworld, where they reside in jeweled palaces and protect corals and pearls. In Southeast Asia, nagas also represent the bridge that connects the human and divine worlds.
Exquisitely fashioned from 22-karat gold, the ring takes the shape of a coiled naga. The tip of its tail coils close beside the band, and the body spirals around the finger, culminating in a powerful face with bulging eyes, upturned snout, and mouth with fanged teeth and extended tongue. The serpent’s scales are individually articulated along the full surface. Left intentionally loose by the artisan, the tongue moves in and out, simulating a living creature.
Large and imposing in appearance, this ring was an elite commission. The auspicious naga design was exclusive to the Thai royal family, the serpent’s potency and power befitting of a king. The ring was most likely made for or on behalf of King Rama V, the legendary King Chulalongkorn who ascended the throne in 1868 and ushered Thailand into an era of reform and democracy. Cosmopolitanism characterizes King Rama V’s prolific artistic and architectural enterprises. Through motifs such as the naga, his commissions further reflect Thailand’s deep historical connections across South and Southeast Asia.
Other than ceramics, the Freer|Sackler collections include only a handful of objects from Thailand. The Naga Ring therefore constitutes a significant addition to the Southeast Asia collections. Moreover, its motif directly relates to works in both the South and Southeast Asia collections. The ring will be displayed in the Sackler Southeast Asia gallery, where a cluster of Indonesian objects features the power of nagas (LTS2017.1.1, LTS2015.3.2, LTS2017.1.2). The ring will not only extend the geographical reach of the grouping, its flashing gold surface will become an intriguing visual focus.
As a piece of jewelry with a naga motif, the ring further resonates with the braid ornament of the female donor figure in the adjacent South Asia gallery (S2000.9.1–2). It also complements the gold jewelry from India in the Freer collection (F1991.5, F1990.2, F1990.4, F1990.8).
Thailand, Rattanakosin, Bangkok period, 19th century
H x W x D: 3.5 x 3 x 1.5 cm (1 3/8 x 1 3/16 x 9/16 in)