Journeys into Hindu-Buddhist Temple Art in Southeast Asia

Diffusion, Legitimation, and Domination

Amitav Acharya

Monumental Splendours is a series of photo blogs about Hindu-Buddhist temple art in Southeast Asia. These blogs record personal journeys into selected sites in Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and Burma.

The primary purpose of these journeys is to enjoy and revel in the magnificent Hindu-Buddhist temples and their ruins in Southeast Asia. The selection of the sites is a highly personal choice; it’s not meant to convey any ordering of the temple art in terms of their relative historical or cultural importance.

Monumental Splendours examines three main effects of Indian religious-political ideas and art forms (broadly defined) transmitted to Southeast Asia which helped to define the classical geopolitics of the region. The “diffusion” effect has to be understood in terms of "localisation", a concept proposed by Wolters, and "local genius", proposed by Quaritch Wales. The "legitimation" effect builds on van Leur's "idea of the local initiative" which stresses the functions of Indian religious ideas in legitimizing Southeast Asian kingship and statehood. Champa provides good examples of the legitimation effect involving royal lingas. A more uncertain effect of Indian ideas and art forms is “domination”. That Indian art forms and ideas were brought to Southeast Asia by peaceful means is not doubted, and there is considerable evidence to support the thesis that the internal legitimation of rulers might have been their major effect. But did they also fuel the expansionist ambition of Southeast Asian rulers, as represented in the "chakravartin" concept, through warfare? What role did the transmitted Indian ideas and art forms play in creating the “moral order of the mandalas”, in which the ritualistic, symbolic and transient forms of warfare were supposed to have been more important that “conquest” and colonisation?

Almost all of these blogs are written on-site, based on first-hand observations and impressions of the monuments. These impressions are supplemented by background readings from specialists, but also by drawing on the publications of the temple sites and museums around the world housing their artefacts.

Monumental Splendours is meant for the traveller with a passion for Southeast Asia’s past. The author counts himself as one, having lived in the region for nearly 12 years and having been a frequent traveller in the region for the past 20. But these blogs are not a conventional travel guide. They explore a specific angle: the relationship between art and living with a heavy emphasis on politics, including domestic rule and foreign relations of classical Southeast Asian states. As such, they provide a new window on Southeast Asian magnificent temple heritage. Above all, they are meant to inspire fellow travellers to do their own travel blogs and thereby promote further awareness and understanding of Southeast Asia’s monumental splendours.

Interpreting Angkor

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Art and Empire in the Hindu-Buddhist World

The monuments left by the Khmer empire offer one of the most striking examples of how art reflects politics and how politics shapes art.

It does so in two ways, first by legitimising of the political authority of the sovereign, and second by reflecting the drive for imperial power through war and peace-making.

The Bayan in Angkor Thom is the place to look for a snapshot of the intimate linkage between art and politics in classical Southeast Asia.


The Faces of Bayon

Although a religious monument like much of Angkor’s heritage, Bayan is also a thoroughly secular and political statement of life in the Angkor period. It has gone through different phases of Hindu-Buddhist art.

One signpost is the alternation between Hinduism and Buddhism, as legitimisation strategies of the rulers after periods of rise and decline of the Khmer empire. For example, Jayavarman VII built the monument to reflect his Mahayan Buddhist beliefs as the ruling ideology of Angkor. His embrace of Buddhism in what had been a staunch Hindu ruling class might have been partly due to disillusionment with Hinduism, including Shaivism, in failing to protect the empire from defeat in the hands of the rival Champa. But his successors, who struggled with the burden of empire that Jayavarman built, the greatest in Angkor history, turned to Hinduism as their fortunes declined. Hence Budhist images on the walls of Angkor were defaced and replaced with Hindu deities. These defacements can be seen quite clearly today.

Bayon defaced Buddha with Hindu Deity superimposed

The bas reliefs of Bayon are full of secular depictions of daily life in Angkor, capturing its multicultural makeup, the social life of the inhabitants and the political role of the ruling elite, including the powerful Brahmin clergy.

Social Scenes

But the most vivid illustrations in Bayon depict battles between Chams and Khmers. It shows the Cham sacking of Angor, as well as the Khmer counter-attack and eventual victory that firmly re-established Angkor’s supremacy over its neighbour.

One interesting facet of the story told in bas reliefs is a scene where a retreating Khmer army if being pursued by Cham soldiers. It would be odd for a ruler to show defeat of his own forces in the hands of foreign invading forces. But this anomaly could be explained by the fact that Jayavarman VII was himself being helped by the Chams to recapture powers by defeating the ruler who had usurped the throne of Angkor.

                             Khmer Army Retreating from Cham Attack

Scenes of Battle

Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom

Punishment Chambers


                                               ANGKOR WAT

Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex in the world. Although of less political import than the Bayon complex, it nonethless was a legitimating device for the rulers of Angkor. The bass reliefs of Angkor Wat depict scenes from Ramayana. The design and structure of the Angkor Temple is unlike anything in India. There are significant variations in the appearance of Rishi,Apsaras,Rama and Hanumana. Angkor Wat vividly illustrates the localization of Indian art and design.


King Suryavarmana

Rama and Hanumana at War




Battle Scenes from Ramayana (Angkor Wat

                                                                         BANTAY SREI