The prehistoric, ancient, and medieval political subdivisions of the Southeast Asian subcontinent have little relation to the region’s modern nations—Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.

According to the The Metropolitan Museum of Art website: “South and Southeast Asia has been the seat of great civilizations from time immemorial. From the Himalayan mountains to the vast island chains of the equator, from the Indian subcontinent to the Pacific, the peoples of this region have produced magnificent art for thousands of years. Included are Buddhist and Hindu sculpture in stone and bronze, later Indian court art, miniature painting, and elegant personal possessions. These artworks demonstrate that the people who created and owned them keenly appreciated the things of this world—the luxury and fine craftsmanship that power can command—and at the same time probed deeply into spiritual and cosmic matters of great complexity. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia,The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

In Southeast Asia many statues have had their heads lopped off. The head is often lopped off because it the part of the statue that art collectors want most and an often entire statue is too big for looters to haul off from a site.

In comparison with India, where little ancient gold survives, hoards of jewelry and ritual vessels have been found in Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, Cambodia and Vietnam. The jewelry includes gold adornments for the head, ears, neck and chest, waist, fingers, upper and lower arms, and ankles and toes. Other examples of sophisticated metalwork are bronze, silver, and gold vessels for religious and court ceremonies, ritual weapons with elaborate finials, temple lamps and bells, and ritual objects such as the vajra (thunder- bolt) and processional staffs. The fate of a large number of these precious objects was (and still is) to be melted down for the value of the metal.

See Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia

Book: “The Art of Southeast Asia” by art historian Philip Rawson (Thames and Hudson, 1990); “The Arts of South and Southeast Asia: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 51, no. 3" (Spring 1994), pp. 1–88.; “Commentaries on Objects from India and Southeast Asia.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 10, Asia . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987; “The Flame and the Lotus: Indian and Southeast Asian Art from the Kronos Collection”, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, 1984; “Buddhist Art and Architecture” by Robert E. Fisher (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1993);

Suggested Web Sites: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Twenty images of South and Southeast Asian art with descriptions (thirteenof which are illustrated in this resource). Asia Society ( ) AskAsia is an integral part of the Asia Society’s Asian Education Resource Center (AERC), an initiative to organize and disseminate Asia-related infor- mation and resources; develop student-centered institutional materials; and provide teaching strategies and staff development programs. An informative online source for K-12 Asian and Asian-American studies, AskAsia offers easy 24-hour access to high-quality, classroom-tested resources and cultural information, maps, lesson plans, engaging games and activities, and links to relevant people, places, and institutions. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco Programs and and resource materials for teachers and students are available at this site, as well as images and information on selected highlights of the museum’s collection. The John C. and Susan L. Huntington Archive of Buddhist and Related Art Under the On-line Exhibitions section see “Meeting God: Elements of Hindu Devotion.” Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Images of and information on ten masterpieces in the South and Southeast Asian art collection. Seattle Asian Art Museum: Contains a “Look and Discover Stories Game” for art from India and Southeast Asia. Smithsonian Smithsonian Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Religious Contexts of South Asian and Southeast Asian Art

Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the three great religions that developed in the subcontinent, share certain basic beliefs: that time is cyclical, and the universe is created and destroyed in endless cycles; that the world is transitory and the appearance of permanence is illusion (maya); that all living beings are born and reborn in different lives and bodies (samsara); and that one’s good and bad deeds (karma) accumulate from life to life and determine the form in which one is reborn. The goal is to accumulate enough good deeds to finally be released from cycles of birth and rebirth by attaining nirvana (extinction or quiescence) in Buddhism, or moksha (release or liberation) in Hinduism. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Over the centuries, as these religions have evolved, they have incorporated a variety of physical disciplines and esoteric and magical practices such as yoga, meditation, trance, breath control, and the repetition of mantras (words of power). An essential feature of all three religions is a holistic view of life: all forms of life—gods, demons, humans, animals, and vegetation— are integrally connected. Although Buddhists and Jains believe in maya, samsara, karma, and eventual release (as Hindus do), they reject caste, Hindu gods, sacrifices, and the power of the priestly caste (Brahmins). The founders of Buddhism and Jainism both lived in the sixth century B.C. and were born in the warrior, or kshatriya, caste.

Hinduism and South Asian and Southeast Asian Art

There is no single founder or doctrine of Hinduism. It has evolved over the centuries, incorporating previous doctrines and deities, for instance, maintaining reverence for the ancient Vedic texts and adopting some of the Vedic deities but in new guises, and responding to non-Vedic religious movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism as we know it seems to have coalesced at the beginning of the first millennium A.D.Although Hindus may select one deity for personal worship among the great gods and goddesses and the countless regional and local gods, all of these deities can be under- stood as representing the many aspects of the One. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Initially, Hinduism was centered around three male gods: Brahma, creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe; and Shiva, destroyer of the universe so that from the formless void it may be created again. Brahma has never had a large number of worshippers. Shiva, Vishnu, and the Great Goddess Devi (Mahadevi) in their myriad forms are the most widely worshipped Hindu gods. They are described in the Puranas, a group of texts formulated between A.D. 200 and 800.

Shiva is worshipped as the ascetic god, remote when in meditation but also at times wild, passionate, and loving. As Lord of the Dance he both destroys and creates the universe. His cosmic dance visualizes the cycles of creation and destruction in human lives, in the history of nations, and in the universe. Shiva is also manifest in a phallic emblem called a linga, and it is in this form that he is most often portrayed in the inner sanctum of his temples. Worshippers of Shiva believe that he is the supreme god who contains and controls all creation. Whenever destructive forces, usually symbolized by demons, threaten to overwhelm the world, Vishnu descends in the form of an avatar to restore moral order. His concern for human political and social activities expresses the gentle and just-minded side of the One. It is believed that in our present universe, Vishnu has already appeared in nine incarnations, taking such animal forms as a fish and a tortoise and various human forms such as Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha. It is believed he will appear once more in the future. As Rama, he symbolizes the importance of loyalty and obedience. As Krishna, he is the divine lover as well as a slayer of demons. Krishna’s consort, Radha, and his female devotees, in their passionate longing for him, symbolize the soul’s desire to be one with God.

One of the most striking characteristics of Hinduism is the importance of goddesses. As Hinduism developed, Vedic goddesses came to the fore. Lakshmi and Sarasvati, for instance, became the consorts of Vishnu. Other goddesses, who may have been worshipped independently outside of the Vedic tradition, gradually appeared as powerful deities on their own, most prominently, Devi, who represents the essence of female power.

In the seventh century, Hinduism and Buddhism were influenced by Tantra, a new religious movement that employed esoteric knowledge to speed the believer toward spiritual liberation. The Hindu pantheon of gods expanded to include shaktis, female counterparts to male gods and personified as their consorts. Shakti is female energy, which activates the powers of the male gods and emanates from the goddess Devi. Many other goddesses represent aspects of Devi’s powers, for instance, Parvati, the beautiful, loving, and obedient consort of Shiva, and Durga. Chamunda. and Kali, whose actions and moods indicate anger, ferocity, and the horrific. This range of emotions symbolizes their multiple purposes and the variety of forms female energy and power can assume.

From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.

People in South Asia and Southeast Asia have treasured, in particular, two great epics: the Ramayana (2nd century B.C.) and the famous epic poem, the Mahabharata (500–400 B.C.), both of which may be based on actual historical events. The Ramayana has been, and still is, a rich source for art.

Buddhism and South Asian and Southeast Asian Art

Siddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha, was born in North India in the sixth century B.C. According to legend, Siddhartha was the son of a king of the Shakya clan (hence the name Buddha Shakyamuni, by which he is often referred). At his birth, a soothsayer predicted he would become either a great military ruler or a great spiritual leader. To prevent the latter from happening, Siddhartha’s father kept him within the palace, providing him with luxuries and pleasures so that he would remain unaware of the harshness and suffering in the world. One day, already a young man, Siddhartha managed to escape from the palace. For the first time he saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and an ascetic holy man. He was stunned and deeply affected by their suffering. Realizing that pleasures are transitory and cannot prevent suffering, he put aside all his jewelry and fine clothing. Leaving his wife and son at the palace, he embarked on a journey to seek the meaning of life and the ways in which humans can attain peace. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

At first Siddhartha turned inward in his quest for knowledge. He went into the forest to seek the advice of holy men and to meditate. In Siddhartha’s time, yoga was already an ancient way to seek inner knowledge and under- standing of universal truths. He became an ascetic and attempted extreme forms of renunciation, nearly starving himself to death. Having recognized that extreme deprivation was not the way, he once again took food. He sat meditating beneath a bodhi tree, overnight according to some accounts and days and days according to others. The evil demon Mara, realizing that Siddhartha was close to enlightenment, tempted him with his beautiful daughters and threatened him with a powerful army. But Siddhartha touched the ground with his right hand, calling the Earth to witness his resolve to achieve enlightenment and thereby vanquishing Mara. When Siddhartha arose, he had become the Buddha, which means the Enlightened One (or the Awakened One). He realized that the causes of human suffering lay in the attachment to physical desires of all kinds, and as long as this was so, the karma-laden souls of living creatures were destined to suffer endless rebirths. Only with the complete elimination of worldly attachments could one reach release into a state of eternal selfless bliss, called nirvana, the Sanskrit word for “extinguishment.”

Buddhism was a philosophical and ethical system with the Buddha as its greatly revered founder. The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching his ascetic doctrine, gaining an ever-growing group of followers. He taught that nirvana could only be achieved through first realizing the Four Noble Truths: that all life is suffering; that suffering is caused by desires; that to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate desires; and that this can be done by following the Eightfold Path, which includes right thoughts, right inten- tions, right deeds, and the right concentration in meditation. Nirvana can only be attained through the extinguishment of one’s ego by following the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism attracted many people for whom caste and the Brahmins’ exclu- sive control over worship were problematic. Even before the Buddha’s death, many of his followers had become monks and nuns and were settling into monasteries provided by wealthy laity as merit-producing gifts. Gradually the monks spread his teachings across northern India in peaceful conver- sions. The main focus of worship became stupas, hemispherical mounds containing relics of the Buddha or other transcendent beings and often decorated with scenes from the Jatakas (folk tales about the past lives of the Buddha). The faithful also made pilgrimages to important places in the Buddha’s life, including his birthplace, the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya where he reached enlightenment, and the Deer Park at Sarnath where he preached his first sermon. As the centuries passed, pilgrims throughout Asia came to visit these sacred sites. There they learned about the Buddha’s life and his teachings.

The earliest form of Buddhism is called the Theravada (Way of the Elders). It adheres strictly to the Buddha’s teaching and to his austere life of meditation and detachment. Theravada Buddhists believed that very few would reach nirvana. Initially, in this system, the Buddha was represented in art only by symbols, but in the first century A.D., under the Kushan rulers, the Buddha began to be depicted in human form. At about this time, a new form of Buddhism emerged called the Mahayana (the Great Way), which held that the Buddha was more than a great spiritual teacher but also a savior god. It was believed that he had appeared in perfect human form to relieve suffering with the message that, by performing good deeds and maintaining sincere faith, everyone could reach nirvana through means less strict and arduous than in Theravada (which Mahayana Buddhists called the Hinayana, or Lesser Way).

A whole pantheon of Mahayana Buddhist deities began to appear to aide the devotee—Buddhas of the past, bodhisattvas such as Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), and Vajrapani (“thunderbolt bearer”), who had evolved from the chief Vedic god Indra. Most appealing and approachable of all is the gentle Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, who can be called upon to help people in all kinds of trouble. A bodhisattva is a being who has reached the moment of spiritual transcendence but foregoes nirvana in order to guide all beings in their quest to attain enlightenment. The Mahayana faith became the more popular form of Buddhism and was carried by mer- chants and monks across Central Asia along the trade routes to China, and from there to Korea and Japan.

Another form of Buddhism, called Esoteric and also known as Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Esoteric Buddhists accepted the tenets of the Mahayana but also used forms of meditation subtly directed by master teachers (gurus) involving magical words, symbols, and practices to speed the devotee toward enlightenment. They believed that those who practiced compassion and meditation with unwavering effort and acquired the wis- dom to become detached from human passions could achieve in one lifetime a state of perfect bliss or “clear light,” their term for ultimate realization and release. Their practices paralleled concurrent developments in Hinduism.

Many new deities appeared in the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon who, in their poses, gestures, and expressions, visualize philosophical ideas. For instance, male and female deities shown in embrace express the union of wisdom and compassion. Wrathful deities symbolize protection, and their violent and horrific appearance helps devotees to overcome the passions that hinder salvation. Also central to Esoteric thinking were the five celestial Buddhas (the four directions and the zenith), who represent both the energy of the universe and the potential for wisdom within the psychological make- up of the individual.

By the twelfth century, Buddhism was concentrated mainly in northeastern India, where the Buddha lived and preached. Its near extinction seems to have been caused by Muslim invaders who destroyed the Buddhist monastic universities. Teachers and monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and Burma. Today only a small percentage of India’s population is Buddhist.

Prehistoric Period of Southeast Asian Art and Southeast Asia’s Initial Contacts with India

Little is known about the early indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia. It is unclear how and when pottery making and metalworking were first discovered in the region and whether the sites that have been excavated represent related or separate traditions. Archaeologists have investigated only a few Bronze and Iron Age sites such as Ban Chiang in Thailand (4th century B.C.– A.D. 3rd century) and Dong-son in Vietnam (7th century B.C.– A.D. 2nd century). Their discoveries, and those made accidentally by local peoples in these modern nations as well as in Indonesia, suggest that there were well- organized prehistoric cultures whose populations had the skill and technical knowledge to make fine ceramics and cast bronze objects. To what extent such finely made objects were traded or commissioned from other centers in Southeast Asia remains unclear. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Bronze Age cultures flourished throughout Southeast Asia, and bronze utilitarian and ceremonial objects in distinct but related styles were produced in Thailand and Vietnam as well as in Indonesia. Bronze has always been a very valuable metal and this vessel was cast hollow in the lost-wax process, a difficult technical feat.

Early Southeast Asian bronze votive objects with narrative scenes are very rare. The quality of the relief is superb and forms a unique counterpoint to the naturalistic, if iconic, sculpture of the early (pre-Angkor) traditions of Southeast Asia. Describing a “Dish with Animals and Mounted Hunters” Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts wrote in , The Art of South, and Southeast Asia: “This beautiful vessel is in the form of a shallow dish set on a low splayed foot. At the center is a receptacle in the form of a lotus that may have once held a stone. Surrounding it is a narrow band of rosettes that outlines a wider frieze with trees and animals. It is encircled by a band of rectangular blocks within blocks. The main frieze, bordered near the rim with rosettes, contains highly naturalistic scenes with three hunters on horse- back in a forest setting filled with animals, some of which are fighting each other. The low relief is extremely successful in conveying the mass- ing of the figures and their lively and varied movement in the shallow space. Each of the hunters uses a different weapon: a sword, spear, and bow and arrow, the latter used in the “Parthian manner,” aimed back- wards across the horse’s rump. The smaller inner frieze depicts six animals. A feline attacks a cow in another animal combat scene. Behind the feline is an animal lying on its back, either dead or in a pose of sub- mission. Continuing around the frieze, a bull, a deer, and a rhinoceros move among miniature trees. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Southeast Asia came under the influence of Indian civilization toward the end of the first millennium B.C., when India, Sri Lanka, and mainl and Southeast Asia became involved in the network of trade along which luxury goods were moved both east and west by sea from the eastern Roman Empire to the Han dynasty in China. These sea routes were lengthy and required stopovers that changed over time due to politics and technological development. First the Thai peninsula and Mekong Delta and later some of the Indonesian islands became important way stations.

The Rise of Southeast Asian Kingdoms: 4th–9th century

Commercial centers flourished in these areas, which had long been governed by local chiefdoms. The founding myths of later Southeast Asian kingdoms indicate that Indian merchants settled in these centers and intermarried with local nobility, forming states ruled by divine kings according to the Indian model. Brahmins and Buddhist monks also came, bringing their religions, cosmologies, and concepts of social and political structure, the Sanskrit alphabet, and the rich religious literature of India. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

India continued to be a source for Southeast Asian cultures for the next thousand years. Buddhist and Hindu devotees visited holy sites in India, returning with firsthand impressions of Indian art and architecture, religious texts, and portable images of Buddhist and Hindu deities. By the sixth cen- tury A.D., kingdoms and principalities had formed in the southern part of mainland Southeast Asia, on the Thai peninsula, and on Java and Sumatra. Their political structure was based on the Indian concept of divine kingship, expressed in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Indian epics recounting the heroic deeds of gods and rulers.

Southern Cambodia and Vietnam were controlled by the Hindu rulers of the Funan kingdom (4th–6th century), later usurped by rulers, also Hindu, of the nearby kingdom of Zhenla. The earliest surviving Funan-Zhenla sculpture dates from the sixth century. By the seventh and early eighth century, stone sculpture of this combined kingdom was created with such skill and assurance that its forms must have derived from an already ancient tradition of carving in wood.

In the eighth century, Zhenla-Funan collapsed, perhaps because the lucrative trade routes that had passed through their territories now moved by sea through the Strait of Malacca. The fleets of the Shrivijaya kingdom, which was centered on Sumatra and controlled portions of the Thai peninsula, made the sea passage safe from piracy for the first time. From 770 to 855, Central Java was ruled by kings who were most probably related to the Shrivijaya rulers of Sumatra. This Javanese kingdom was the most powerful Southeast Asian kingdom of its time. The classical style of Indonesian art flourished under its patronage, and a large number of temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, were built, including the great stupa of Borobudur.

At the same time, parts of Thailand and Myanmar were controlled by the Mon peoples, who were Theravada Buddhists. Other small kingdoms in the region were also strongly influenced by India. In Burma, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism coexisted with Theravada Buddhism until the eleventh century, when the newly established Pagan kingdom proclaimed Theravada Buddhism the state religion. After Mongols destroyed the Pagan kingdom in 1287, Burma was divided among a number of smaller kingdoms.

Khmer Empire: 9th–13th century

After a long stay at the Central Javanese court, a Zhenla nobleman returned to the mainland and founded the Khmer Empire of Cambodia. In 802, he gave himself the name of Jayavarman II and built a capital, which he called “the mountain of the king of the gods,” in the tradition of Central Javanese rulers who called themselves “mountain kings.” He erected a temple- mountain that mirrored the abode of the gods, and established the cult of the devaraja —the god-king—in Cambodia. The Khmer kings henceforth were believed to be the physical incarnation of a god, usually Shiva but sometimes Vishnu. Perhaps because of this initial connection with Java, Javanese art and architecture seem to have influenced early Khmer art. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

The Khmer dynasty ruled Cambodia for the next six hundred years, expand- ing their empire into Thailand, to the borders of Myanmar, into northern Vietnam, and south into Malaya. In the ninth century, the capital was moved to Angkor, which over the next three centuries became a vast royal city of palaces, canals, reservoirs (for rice paddy cultiva- tion), and temple-mountains, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat, built in the twelfth century.

After the Khmer Empire

The Khmer Empire began a slow decline in the thirteenth century. A large part of what had been Khmer land eventually was taken over by the Thais, a tribal people from southern China who became Theravada Buddhists through their contact with the Buddhist kingdom of Pagan in Myanmar. For the next four centuries, two Thai kingdoms—one located in the north, the other in what is now central Thailand—vied for power and often fought off Buddhist neighbors from Myanmar. Thai people also ruled small provincial kingdoms in what is now Laos.

The great classical sculptural traditions of Southeast Asian art came to an end by the early sixteenth century. The Southeast Asian collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art focuses on this classical period and upon the art forms preceding it.

In the sixteenth century, Southeast Asia came under greater and greater pressure from Muslim traders and European seafaring nations. With the exception of Bali, whose population is Hindu, the peoples of Indonesia became Muslims. The Dutch gradually ousted the Muslims and the Portuguese from their trading centers. Later, the Dutch and British parried for control of Southeast Asia and were joined by the French in the nineteenth century. Only Thailand (then called Siam) managed to remain independent. In the nineteenth century, the British took control of the Malay peninsula and gradually annexed Myanmar to British India. Indonesia became a Dutch colony, and to the French went Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. All these nations gained independence after World War II.

Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asian Art

Hinduism and Theravada, Mahayana, and Esoteric Buddhism had spread throughout Southeast Asia by the seventh century, and important monuments and sculptures of both faiths survive from that period onward. Throughout the region, ancient indigenous animistic and pantheistic beliefs survived and complemented the tenets and practices of the Indic faiths. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Theravada Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka at an early date and is still the dominant religion there. It was also carried along sea routes to Thail and and Burma (Myanmar). It is the form of Buddhism still practiced in those countries today, as well as in Cambodia and Laos. In neighboring Vietnam, the population is largely Mahayana, perhaps due to the proximity to China, where the Buddhism that still exists is largely Mahayana. In Indonesia, Hinduism and Esoteric Buddhism, which had coexisted peacefully for centuries, were gradually displaced by the spread of Islam through not only Indonesia but also Malaysia in the fifteenth century. Indonesia now has the largest Muslim population in the world. Bali, however, remains largely Hindu.

Although rich and varied court art was produced in Southeast Asia, as we know from temple reliefs, religious subjects in stone and metal dominate the surviving art from the classical period (7th–13th century). Little art made from other materials has withstood the region’s tropical climate, although a few extant pieces of early wood sculpture—now very worn— point to the existence of an important earlier tradition of carving. No early textiles have survived, and we can only imagine the beauty of the ancient costumes. Similarly, paintings on palm leaves and paper deteriorated long ago, and we have only second-hand evidence for the elaborate wood carvings and murals that may have decorated palace and temple walls. Some Cambodian stone palace architecture exists, but it is devoid of such decoration.

The iconography of Southeast Asian sculpture strongly reflects Indian influences, which began to penetrate the region early in the Common Era. Buddhism and Hinduism were adopted with the identifying attributes and gestures of deities basically unchanged. Ideals of physical perfection and its representation in sculptural form, however, present quite distinct local characteristics such as regional facial types and bodies that reveal underlying musculature and skeleton.

Fewer Hindu deities are depicted in Southeast Asia than in India. Vishnu. Shiva, Ganesha, and Durga are the most popular, together with a syncretic deity called Hari-Hara, who combined aspects of Shiva and Vishnu. In Buddhist sculpture, emphasis was placed on the interceding role of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.

Narratives Royal courts, particularly in Cambodia and Java, commissioned extensive narrative reliefs for temple walls which portray episodes from the Buddha’s life and scenes from Hindu legends and mythology. They also offer a wealth of detail about courtly and vernacular life, domestic customs, agriculture, industry, transport and architecture, music and dance. Most remain on temple walls in Cambodia and Java.

Southeast Asian Sculpture

Following the conventions of Indian art, Southeast Asian artists sought to visualize the spiritual perfection of the gods in idealized human form. Although the iconography was imported from India, notable differences are evident in Southeast Asian sculpture. The sculpture combines sensual forms with a strong architectonic basis, as if the sensuality of Indian sculpture had been merged with the formal, hieratic qualities of Egyptian sculpture. Although surface flesh seems to be inflated by prana (inner breath), the body is not usually as taut as in Indian sculpture. Beneath the skin surface, whose junctures are subtly indicated, there is the sense of muscle and bone. The sensuality and fecundity expressed in Khmer female figures are not as exaggerated and seem restrained when compared with the voluptuous femininity typical of Indian art. Later Southeast Asian sculptures are even more abstracted, and forms cease to have a direct relationship to the human anatomy. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

In general, a sense of dignity and restraint is created in the sculpture by an erect posture, frontal pose, and balanced forms. Serene expressions emphasize the compassion, purity, and introspection of transcendent beings. In comparison to Indian sculpture, less emphasis is placed on adornment. Smooth areas contrast with the rich patterns of the figure’s hairstyle and the pleats of the garment and the elaborate way in which it is worn. Some images were probably adorned with actual jewelry.

Unlike Indian sculptural figures, which were rarely more than carvings in very high relief as part of a stela or for display in a niche, Southeast Asian deities were often carved fully in the round. A tradition of low-relief sculp- ture also flourished. As in South Asian art, to express the power and complexity of the gods or kings, sculptures of them were sometimes represented on a superhuman scale, while lesser spiritual beings were portrayed smaller.

Functions of Southeast Asian Art

As in India, the majority of sculptures covered the exterior of temples that were circumambulated in worship. Sculptures of deities in the round may have been placed in the interior of temples and shrines, where dim light would have added to the mystery of the divine being. Why small statues were made and how they were used is not known. They may have been votive images created as gifts to temples and shrines, or intended for personal use. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas were themselves objects of worship. They can be seen as microcosms of the universe, with their architectural forms replicating the cosmic mountains where the gods dwell. Typically, Hindu temples had towers that were oriented to the cardinal directions.

Sometimes the ground plan is rectangular, with the temple surrounded by walls, a plan that resembles the sacred form of the mandala. Differing versions of this sacred cosmology in brick and stone occur throughout Southeast Asia, the most famous examples being the Buddhist monuments of Borobudur in Java, the Bayon at Angkor, and the stupas of Pagan in Burma, and the Hindu temples of Angkor, in particular Angkor Wat.

Glorifying the King and Teaching in Southeast Asian Art

In Khmer Cambodia and in Java, the devaraja (god-king) cult embodied the belief that the living king transmitted divine will through his relationship with a particular god, and that the deity’s images in the temple constructed by the king symbolized the god’s approval of the king’s divine right to rule. The devaraja cult was appropriated from India. Hindu rulers turned to Shiva or Vishnu as their patron deity. Buddhist kings derived their authority not from Buddha, who had renounced his worldly position, but from bod- hisattvas, who were still of this world and possessed extraordinary powers. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

In keeping with these beliefs, occasionally representations of the monarch were made in the image of the god, often complete with the attributes of a deity. Many of the greatest Khmer temple-mountains were centered on a funerary shrine—the inner core of Angkor Wat, for instance— in which such statues were placed.

Along with the cosmic and spiritual truths embodied in the temple’s architectural form, extensive narrative reliefs on temple walls performed on educational role by instructing worshippers in both religious and histor- ical events. For instance, as the pilgrim ascends the galleries at Borobudur, circling each level before climbing to the next, he or she is inspired by depictions of the Buddha’s life and the compassion of bodhisattvas.

Deified King (Jayavarman VI?)

All but one of the Khmer rulers were Hindu and were identified with either Shiva or Vishnu. It is thought that each devaraja may have commissioned a statue of himself to be placed in his temple-mountain. Such figures expressed in visual form the king’s divine right to rule. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Because a bronze statue thought to be of the deified King Jayavarman VI features gestures and adornment that do not identify it with Shiva, Vishnu, or any other known deity worshipped by Khmer royalty, it may be a devaraja image. If so, it is the only one known to have survived. His hands, torso, and face, though devoid of anatomical detail, are portrayed naturalistically, while the lower half of the image is more stylized and rigid. Our attention is drawn to the figure’s upper body by the imperious gaze, the hand gestures, and the luxurious adornment. A wide, patterned belt decorated with jeweled pendants circles the figure’s hips. His sampot is depicted in precise linear folds and the cloth’s front end falls under and over the belt in an elegant fishtail design. Although such precision in real cloth seems impossible even with starching and pressing, the style of royal sampots were high-fashion items of the time. As in so much Cambodian freestanding sculpture, the smooth surface of the flesh provides a pleasing contrast to the details of costume and to the raised decoration on the anklets, bracelets, armlets, and necklace.

This figure is not only one of the largest, most complete Cambodian bronze sculptures known, it is also in excellent condition. The only missing pieces are the top of the crown (perhaps originally of solid gold), part of the ear pendants, and the inlays of the eyebrows, pupils, mustache, and beard. The gilding is original.

Islamic Art in Southeast Asia

Jane Perlez wrote in the New York Times: “Islamic art from Indonesia, Malaysia and parts of the Philippines, Thailand and Myanmar—the world's most populous Islamic region—includes splendid gold court jewelry; hand-drawn, naturally dyed batiks; illuminated Korans; and blue-and-white Chinese porcelain.” Despite this “basic texts on Islamic art cover Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and India, and then abruptly stop, rarely mentioning Southeast Asia. [Source: Jane Perlez, New York Times, March 16, 2006]

"The deliberate thrust is that there is no one Islamic art," Robyn Maxwell of the Australian National University told the New York Times. "That's a completely European outlook," she said, "that's what Western art historians have been interested in." In "Islamic Art," published by Harvard University Press, Barbara Brend defines Islamic art as "the art produced for rulers or populations of Islamic cultures." Art from Southeast Asia meets that test, Ms. Maxwell argues, even though Ms. Brend doesn't mention it in her book. Ms. Brend also writes that Islamic art does not necessarily have to be religious, and that the artists and patrons do not necessarily have to be good Muslims.

A show at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra called "Crescent Moon: Islamic Art and Civilization in Southeast Asia featured a display of nearly two dozen Indonesian and Malaysian gold illuminated manuscripts, including a prized 19th-century Koran from Aceh, Indonesia's northernmost province. In the 16th century, Aceh, which never bowed to the colonial Dutch, was regarded as the most powerful Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia. Paper was not common, and the tropical weather insured that barely any manuscripts or Korans survive from that period.

But the 1841 Koran borrowed for the show from the National Library of Indonesia is considered a striking example of vigorous calligraphy and high decoration. The catalog notes that Korans in Southeast Asia were generally more austere than those from the Ottoman, Persian or Indian traditions, often having only a few sumptuously decorated pages. Yet a 19th-century Koran from the Sultan of Banten, an Indonesian province, belies that argument: it was written on gilded paper imported from India, decorated on every page, and uses the Indian custom of highlighting the word Allah in red ink.

One of the star textiles is from Cirebon, on the north coast of the main island of Java, which was one of richest and most religious royal courts. An 18th-century dark blue and white royal banner, used by the court on religious occasions, shows the sword Zulfikar, which the archangel Gabriel is believed to have given to the Prophet Muhammad, who passed// it to his son-in-law Sayidina Ali. There are also textiles, rich in color and with fabulously intricate design, that bear little relationship to Islam as religion. One of the most graphically interesting, a 19th-century black and red skirt cloth, is animated by mermaids armed with bows and arrows. Their tails resemble shrimp, a reference to the Cirebon court's reliance on maritime trade.

A distinguishing theme of the show is the continuity of the Buddhist and Hindu motifs that existed in Indonesia before the Islamization of the courts. Some artistic traditions declined when Islam arrived, particularly the making of figurative stone and bronze pieces. But the famed shadow puppets of Java became a means of preserving the Hindu epic the Ramayana even as Islam had taken hold. Some puppets are included in the show. In the context of controversy over Islam's rules about depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and, more generally, the human figure, Ms. Maxwell said, this was a way to show that the Islamic courts in Southeast Asia sanctioned images of humans, if in distorted form.

Stefano Carboni, the associate curator of Islamic Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, said the show was probably more a cultural experience than an artistic one, an effort perhaps to help the audience connect with Southeast Asia. In general, he said, he believes that Islamic art should feature calligraphy in Arabic form, with geometric and arabesque patterns. "You can argue one way or the other, it's a very thin line," he said. At the Met, Indonesian textiles are placed with Oceanic art, and the Chinese export porcelain with Islamic inscriptions that flooded Southeast Asia is shown as Asian art, not Islamic art.

At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Forrest McGill, chief curator and Wattis curator of South and Southeast Asian art, said he liked the inclusive approach. His collection is undergoing considerable relabeling, he said, to address the fact that many Americans do not realize that some Southeast Asian countries have very large Muslim populations. In Indonesia, for example, 90 percent of the 240 million people are Muslims. "Any artwork can be illuminated by being put in a different context," he said.


See Separate Article on Buddhist Images and Art

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2014

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