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.

Two Ancient Khmer Temples in Thailand

Phimai and Phnom Rung

Prasat Phimai and Prasat Phnom Rung are the two most important Khmer sanctuaries in what is today north eastern Thailand (I-san). They signify Khmer influence over the area during the 9th-13 centuries, before the Tai kingdom of Sukhothai established hegemony over the area. Their presence is not only a reminder of the vast expanse of the Khmer empire at its zenith, it also provides concrete evidence of Indian influence which spread over Thailand via Angkor, as opposed to Indian influence over Thailand which came via the Mon-Dharavati culture. As such, they should illustrate what Wolters calls ‘relocalisation’, when a local culture after receiving a foreign religion spreads it to other areas. It should be remembered, however, that although the images found in the Khmer sites in Thailand were an integral part of the Khmer empire; they do not exhibit any pre-Khmer local aspects.

Phimai (Bhimapura, Vimaya)

Phimai is linked to the Mahidharapura dynasty, which is native to the valley of the Mun river. This dynasty usurped the throne of Angkor and produced some of the most powerful Khmer rulers, including Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII. A statue of Jayavarman VII, originally found in a shrine in the Phimai, is now at the Phimai National Museum.

Phimai is noted for its syncretism, combining Hindu and Buddhist images. It is the only Khmer sanctuary to have Mahayana tantric Buddhist imagery. The Buddhist imagery sits uneasily with the Hindu reliefs.

The tantric element at Phimai is represented by Trailokyavijaya, a Bodhisvatta with three heads and eight arms, dancing on corpses, who was supposed to have tried to convert Shiva to Buddhism. But the identification with Tailokyavijaya has not been accepted by all.

Phimai is a prime example of what I call complex localisation, when two foreign religions are combined at the recipient’s end. This could mean two different stages of its development.

A lintel in Phimai depicts the construction of causeway to Lanka by the monkey army. The lower part of the lintel shows sea animals moving about. Roveda suggests that the animals could be attacking the causeway in order to destroy it. If so, then it will be a Thai localisation of the Ramayana, as the attack is found in the Thai Ramkien, but not in the Indian Ramayana.

The temple of Phimai is on a north-south axis, with its main opening to the South, unusual in Khmer shrines. This might have been due to the need for the sanctuary to face the royal capital of Angkor, which underscores the political significance of Khmer religious shrines. But Claude Jacques suggests that this was due to the need to face the ancestor’s direction, since the temple may have been constructed at the site of the relics of the king’s dynasty.

Phnom Rung

Phnom Rung (10-12 Century AD) was linked to the Mahidharapura dynasty which is native to the area. The first cousin of Suryavarman II, Narendraditya, took retirement there. He was reputably a great warrior, who might have ruled in this part of the Khmer empire.

Phnom Rung is a Hindu shrine, with images from Hinduism, especially Vishnu, Shiva and tales of Ramayana.

A relief on the West side of the main sanctuary (left image), depicting Sita on a chariot in the battlefield looking at the severed heads of Ram and Laxman (a trick by Ravana to persuade Sita that the two are dead) is a classic example of localisation. The chariot resembles a Khmer prang, perhaps of the Phnom Rung itself, according to Roveda. Could it be that the design of the chariot glorifies Khmer craftsmanship by associating it with the great epic Ramayana?

This image of Vishnu Ananta (here leaning on a dragon, rather than a snake, example of localisation or syncretism with Chinese art?) was stolen before restoration began in 1960s. It was on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago and was returned to the temple in 1988)

A real highlight of Phnom Rung is the relief of the Khmer "deflowering" ceremony (left and below left). This used to be a local custom of the Angkor period (described in Chinese visitor to late 12th century Angkor, Zhou Daguan’s, The Customs of Cambodia. This is the only relief illustration that I have seen in Khmer temples.
The ceremony is performed by a priest, who accompanies the girl in a procession. The actual deflowering is performed using a stone lingam. The girls are between 7-13 years old. The blood from the deflowering was supposed to be tasted by the parents. The girls is taken to the priest’s house in a palanquin in a small evening procession. She stays in the priests house, and if her parents do not take her back, she belongs to the priest)

(Amitav Acharya, 7 April 2007)

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