Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in
Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in
SOUTHEAST ASIA, BUDDHIST ART IN
The earliest Buddhist art in Southeast Asia dates to about the sixth century c.e. These sculptures, primarily Buddha images, show close stylistic and iconographical relationships with Indian images. Contact between Southeast Asia and India occurred earlier, by the beginning of the common era as attested by Chinese literary sources and small scattered finds, such as Indian coins and glyptics. The motivation for contact was trade, primarily between India and China, with Southeast Asia being initially less a destination than a stopover between them. Southeast Asia was exposed to both Indian religions—Buddhism and Hinduism—during this process, not in terms of proselytization or colonization but from haphazard meetings of locals with Indian merchants and crew. While this perhaps helps to explain the late appearance of Buddhist art in Southeast Asia, it does not explain how thoroughly Buddhism and its art, from the sixth century on, were adopted and indigenized within the region.
The modern nation-states of Southeast Asia are a poor model for organizing geographically the early Buddhist art. The people who made the earliest Buddhist art were the Pyu, Mon, Khmer, and Cham peoples on the mainland. These categories are not clear-cut, and are linguistically based on vernacular inscriptions. The Indonesian islands and the Malay Peninsula present a number of linguistic groups as well.
The mainland: Pyu, Mon, Khmer, and Cham
The Pyu lived in central and northern areas of Burma, with Śrī Ksetra (modern Prome) offering the most Buddhist artifacts. These include three enormous tube-shaped brick stūpas (the Bawbawgui stŪpa is 150 feet tall) and several small brick temples that housed Buddha images. In addition, many metal and stone images of the Buddha and thousands of clay votive tablets were found. The discovery of twenty gold leaves (each 6-1/2 by 1-1/4 inches) bound as a manuscript, with sections from the abhidamma and vinayapiṭaka inscribed in Pali, suggests relationships with TheravĀda traditions. Indeed, some scholars feel this is the earliest extant Pāli manuscript, dating on the basis of its epigraphy to around the fifth century c.e.
The Mon lived in southern Burma and in Thailand. They, like the Pyu, were predominantly Buddhists, and they also inscribed in stone Pāli verses that relate closely to texts. The presence of images of bodhisattvas and some jĀtaka reliefs indicate that the Mon were aware of Sanskrit Buddhist traditions as well. The Mon in Thailand (whose "kingdom" is often referred to as Dvāravatī) had a brilliant sculptural tradition and have left extensive numbers of Buddhist images in stone, bronze, and clay. In addition, they produced several unique image types, including stone wheels of the law (dharmacakra) that were raised on pillars, as well as depictions of the Buddha riding on the back of a winged figure, which are as yet unexplained. Dozens of Mon sites, such as Nakhon Pathom and Ku Bua, have been identified, but no complete architectural remains survive. From archaeological evidence we know it was brick architecture, and it included at Nakhon Pathom the Chula Phatom Chedi (stūpas are referred to in Southeast Asia as chedi), which was decorated with stucco and terra-cotta jātaka reliefs dating to around the eighth century.
The Khmer lived in Cambodia, as well as in the northeastern parts of Thailand and in the Delta area of Vietnam. They, unlike the Pyu and Mon, were predominantly Hindus until the twelfth century, although Buddhism was present as well. The Khmer founded the famous Angkor dynasty in 802 c.e., which ruled not only Cambodia but much of the mainland for almost five hundred years. The pre-Angkorian period, however, produced some of the most remarkable Hindu and Buddhist sculpture ever made. The Buddhist images were primarily of the Buddha and two bodhisattvas, Avalokiteśvara and Maitreya. The stone sculptures, dating to the seventh and eighth centuries, tend to be cut out into three dimensions, so that the arms, held by stone supports, extend into space. The three-dimensional quality of Khmer sculpture continued for centuries, in part reflecting the use of these images at the center of small shrines, where they were meant to be seen from all sides. The inscriptions and the art indicate that Buddhism was of much lesser importance than Hinduism during the ninth to twelfth centuries. The Khmer king Jayavarman VII (r. 1181–ca.1220) made a radical shift from royal support of Hinduism to Buddhism in the twelfth century.
Under Jayavarman VII, the Khmer ruled more of mainland Southeast Asia than ever before, from coastal Vietnam up to the Thai-Burmese border. Jayavarman built monuments with inexhaustible energy. He constructed the Bayon, a temple that was rebuilt perhaps three times during his reign, in his royal city of Angkor Thom. Each of the kings of Angkor constructed a temple mountain in the form of a stepped pyramid, upon which they set an image of a Hindu god, usually Śiva, thus establishing the king's personal relationship with the deity. The Bayon is Jayavarman's temple mountain, and the deity he placed at its center was neither Śiva nor ViṢṆu, but the Buddha seated in meditation on the coils of a seven-headed snake (nāga). The king also built two enormous temples dedicated to his parents, one for his mother in the guise of the goddess Prajñāpāramitā and one to his father as Lokeśvara (a form of Avalokiteśvara). Indeed, these three deities (the Buddha on the snake, Prajñāpāramitā, and Avalokiteśvara) were represented repeatedly in art as a triad, and were central to Buddhism under Jayavarman.
The Bayon has a circle of shrines that surrounds the central 140-foot tower in which the Buddha on the snake was housed. Placed in these shrines were images of local and regional deities brought to the capital from locations throughout the empire. These deities were placed in subordination to Jayavarman's Buddha. The temple has fifty-four towers that are crowned by enormous faces. These faces, numbering some two hundred, are arranged so that they look axially. The city itself, Angkor Thom, is surrounded by a wall about two miles square with five gates, each gate topped by four directional faces. Although scholars have tried to interpret these faces, no theory has been completely convincing. One possibility is that the faces are those of the bodhisattva Lokeśvara, who as Lord of the World sees everywhere with a look of karuṆĀ (compassion). That Jayavarman felt such compassion for all living things is stated in his inscriptions and seen in his building of 102 hospitals throughout the kingdom. In addition, the Bayon has extensive sculptural reliefs in surrounding galleries. These reliefs, however, do not depict stories from Buddhist texts but are mostly scenes of battles that Jayavarman undertook against the Cham, as well as interesting genre scenes, such as cockfights and markets. The reliefs also show that both Śiva and ViṢṇu were under worship.
Of the hundreds of other monuments Jayavarman built, the Neak Pean (coiled serpents) is notable. It consists of a square pond, 230 feet on each side, faced with stone steps and a circular stone island with a shrine in the center. Two carved snakes entwine the base of the island. There are four smaller directional ponds surrounding the central pond; these are connected with channels so that water could flow out of the central pond into the four side ponds. The water flowed through the stone heads of a human (east), lion (south), horse (west), and elephant (north). This symbolism apparently indicates that the pond was considered a duplicate of the Himalayan lake Anavatapta from which the four celestial rivers of India flow. The central shrine has three false doors carved with images of Avalokitesśvara, to whom the shrine was dedicated. A three-dimensional stone horse to which human figures cling is placed in the water; this is an image of Avalokiteśvara in his form as the horse Balaha, who
attempted to rescue shipwrecked sailors. We know from a thirteenth-century Chinese visitor that the waters of Neak Pean were believed to wash away sin.
The Cham sites are in mid- and southern Vietnam (the kingdom called Champa). The earliest Indian-related inscription, in Sanskrit, in Southeast Asia comes from Vo Canh in south Vietnam, dating to around the third century c.e. The earliest extant Indian-related images are much later, from the seventh century, and are entirely Hindu. A Buddhist monastery, however, was built at Dong Duong in central Vietnam in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Buddhism was MahĀyĀna with tantric elements, apparently something of a local school. The stone sculptures include figures performing unique gestures and wearing unique clothing and ornaments. Both Tārā and Avalokiteśvara were of importance, and in 1978 a metal image of Tārā, almost fifty inches tall, was found, indicating that large metal images were also being made at the time. The style of the Dong Duong sculptures is highly unusual within the Southeast Asian artistic tradition, with such characteristics as a single long eyebrow and the use of wormlike designs for hair and halos.
Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula
The art history of Buddhism becomes even more complex when turning to Indonesia and the Malay Peninsula. As on the mainland, both Hinduism and Buddhism were introduced simultaneously from India as a result of trade. Two of the earliest Indian-related Southeast Asian kingdoms were founded in the fifth century c.e. on the islands, one in Borneo and one in Java. The inscriptions by the "kings" from both mention brahmanical rites and indicate the appeal Hinduism had for the local Southeast Asian chiefs as a means to increase their power through using a shared Indian religious vocabulary.
These two kingdoms apparently disappeared, with Indian religions reappearing in central Java in the eighth century. During about a two-hundred-year period (ca. 730–950), hundreds of monuments in brick and stone were built and thousands of images were made in stone and metal. It was during this Central Javanese period that the Buddhist monument Borobudur was erected (ca. 800–830). Few Buddhist monuments have been studied as extensively as Borobudur. It is an enormous structure, measuring 370 feet square and 113 feet tall. Built over a small hill, it consists of millions of cut volcanic stone blocks that rise like a pyramid in four square and three round terraces. There are 1,300 relief panels that illustrate a series of Indian texts, including jātakas and life stories of Śākyamuni Buddha from the Lalitavistara. Placed in niches and in stūpas are 504 life-size Buddha images, each cut in the round. In addition, about 1,472 small stūpas, 72 large perforated stūpas, and an enormous single closed stūpa at the top decorate the structure.
A Mahayānā monument, with perhaps tantric aspects, Borobudur has defied any single interpretation of its meaning and use. As with the Dong Duong Buddhism and art mentioned above, or the Dvāravatī buddhas on flying figures, Southeast Asian Buddhists at Borobudur developed a type of Buddhism that was local and unique. Unlike East Asian Buddhists, Southeast Asian Buddhists did not in the ancient period translate Indian texts into local vernaculars, nor, as far as we know, did they produce their own Buddhist texts. They used the Indian texts in the original Sanskrit or Pali. The result is that we have Indian texts but Southeast Asian art, art that is Indian-related but consistently local in style and iconography. In short, we often have no way to know the extent to which local understanding is hidden under the Indian guise.
There are other important Buddhist monuments in Central Java. Candi Sewu, which probably dates to the end of the eighth century, was dedicated to the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī. It had a central cella with four attached directional subshrines, and was surrounded by 250 smaller shrines. This maṇḍalic organization is seen as well at Borobudur, with the organization of the Buddha images into a seven-Buddha system differentiated by their hand gestures (mudrĀ) and directional placement. During the Central Javanese period both Hinduism and Buddhism coexisted, with the complex of Loro Jonggrang dedicated to Śiva, ViṢṇu, and Brahmā being constructed at about the same time as Borobudur.
During the Central Javanese period enormous numbers of both Buddhist and Hindu images were caste in bronze, gold, and silver. The closeness in style and iconography that many of these metal images shared with images from the Pala period (eighth to twelfth centuries) sites in India has long been observed. The Pala kings were among the last major patrons of Buddhism in India, and it was under them that the great Eastern Indian monastery complexes such as Nālandā flourished. There is also inscriptional and historical evidence for frequent interchange between these monasteries and those in Indonesia.
Sometime around the middle of the tenth century Central Java appears to have been abandoned, and artistic work ceased. The cause may have been the eruption of the volcano of Mount Merapi. The Central Javanese court moved to eastern Java, with a very different type of art and architecture developing there under several different kingdoms. By the sixteenth century, Islam had become dominant throughout the Indonesian islands, except in Bali.
Buddhism continued throughout the Eastern Javanese period (tenth to fifteenth centuries), but it was not as important as Śaivism. Tantric beliefs and rituals became paramount in both Buddhism and Śaivism, and the two religions blended in many ways. The Buddhist kĀlacakra rituals were performed, and the kings were identified as Śiva/Buddha after death. The images in the temples in the forms of Buddhist deities, such as Prajñāpāramitā, were intended to represent the kings and queens after death when they became absorbed into the deity. Indeed, this use of images of deities as "portrait" statues of both the god and the royal person is what took place under Jayavarman VII at Angkor at about the same time, and it can be found in Champa as well. The Khmer, Cham, and Javanese royalty used images of deities in a similar way, a practice probably from the earliest adoption of Indian-related art.
There is a corpus of Buddhist art found on the island of Sumatra, but mainly at sites in what is today the southern area of the Thai peninsula; this art is loosely labeled as "Śrīvijaya" in style, with dates from the seventh to thirteenth centuries. Śrīvijaya enters history in the seventh century with several inscriptions in Sumatra. At the same time the Chinese monk-pilgrim Yijing (635–713) tells us that he spent several years in Śrīvijaya, initially in 671 to learn Sanskrit on his way to India, and then for two extended periods from 685 to 695 (with a brief return to China in 689) to translate texts and write his memoirs. Śrīvijaya continued to exist for almost five hundred years, and inscriptions on the peninsula mention it. The problem has been to find it. The place Yijing lived appears to be Palembang in Sumatra, but it has been only since the late 1970s that any archaeological evidence has been found there. Much of Śrīvijaya would have been
built in bamboo and thatch, with people living on boats that left no trace.
Most of the Buddhist art associated with Śrīvijaya has been found in peninsular Thailand from such cities as Chaiya and Nakhon Si Thammarat. The art shares such general characteristics as being Mahāyāna in theme, with Avalokiteśvara being very popular. But rather than seeing this material, which is generally varied in style, as belonging to Śrīvijaya, it is more helpful to locate and discuss it by region because the existence of a hegemonic empire based in Śrīvijaya is questioned today.
The Burmese, Thais, Laotians, and Vietnamese
Besides the Khmer of modern Cambodia, there are other linguistic groups that dominate mainland Southeast Asia today: the Burmese, Thais, Laotians, and Vietnamese. Each of these groups, and the modern nations they have created, was predominantly Buddhist. The Burmese appear in history around the eleventh century. The Pyu kingdoms ended in the ninth, but the Mon continued for a time to share power with the Burmese. The Burmese looked to Sri Lanka for Theravāda Buddhist monks and texts, and they built one of the greatest Buddhist sites in the world at Pagan on the Irrawaddy River. Fueled by a veritable frenzy of merit-making through giving to the saṄgha, some two thousand brick monuments (temples and stūpas) were built over a two-hundred-year period. Although most of these monuments are abandoned today, some, such as the Ananda temple, continue in serve worshipers.
The Ananda was built by King Kyanzittha at the beginning of the twelfth century. As with the Bayon and Borobudur, the Ananda is impressive in its size and complexity. It takes the form of a Greek cross, with four directional entrances, each of which leads to a standing wood buddha image. The buddhas stand against a solid central masonry block that is 175 feet square. The buddhas, each thirty-one feet tall, are identified as four earthly buddhas: Kakusandha (Sanskrit, Krakuccanda; north), Koṇāgamana (Sanskrit, Kaṇakamuni; east), Kassapa (Sanskrit, Kāśyapa; south), and Gotama (Sanskrit, Gautama; west). There are two inner galleries flanked by niches in which stone sculptures are placed, and on the outside of the building are extensive series of glazed stone tiles, including 912 tiles depicting jātakas that are arranged in tiers on the roof, which rises to a height of 172 feet.
Myanmar (Burma), like Thailand, is a Buddhist nation today, and Buddhism is officially sponsored by the government. The famous Shwedagon pagoda (stūpa) in Rangoon is constantly thronged with worshipers, as are Buddhist monuments everywhere, and images of the Buddha, mostly in bronze, are being produced in great quantities. Contemporary Thailand shares many Buddhist traditions with Burma, including its Theravāda Buddhism. It is not clear when the Mon in central Thailand (Dvāravatī) ceased making images, perhaps as early as the ninth century, but the Mon had a kingdom in northern Thailand at Haripunchai until the thirteenth century. This is approximately the time that the Thais first appear in history, when they revolt against their Khmer overlords and establish the first Thai kingdom of Sukhothai. Like the Burmese, they looked to the Mon of lower Burma and the Sri Lankans for their Buddhism.
Sukhothai in north central Thailand has many Buddhist monuments, but they are not on the scale of Pagan or Angkor, and most are in ruins today. But this area developed a new style of Buddha image known for its lithe, melting lines, which remains the favored style of the Thais, who continue to produce thousands of Buddha images in the style. Sukhothai's political power waned quickly, as Ayutthaya, another Thai kingdom founded in 1350, soon dominated much of Thailand, and was to control much of Cambodia as well. The Khmer abandoned Angkor as the capital in 1431 because of Thai attacks. By then Theravāda Buddhism, already present during the reign of Jayavarman VII, had spread throughout Cambodia and Laos. The famous Angkor Wat, built in the twelfth century as the temple mountain of Suryavarman II and dedicated to the Hindu god ViṢṇu, was converted in the fourteenth century to a Buddhist monastery.
Finally, the Vietnamese have an extended Buddhist tradition. It is not, however, with India and Sri Lanka that we find relationships, but with China. China held northern Vietnam (Dai Viet) as a province for over a thousand years. The Vietnamese gained independence in the eleventh century. The Cham, in central and southern Vietnam, were in constant warfare with the Vietnamese, who relentlessly pushed them south until they completely collapsed in the nineteenth century. Vietnamese Buddhist art is best discussed in conjunction with that of China.
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Robert L. Brown