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.

A Snippet of Srivijaya: Chaiya

"Sriwijayeswarabhupatir emaguno ghanaksititalasarwwasamantanrpottama ekah..."

"The lord king of Sriwijaya, only supreme king of all the kings of the earth..."*

"Victorious is the king of Srivijaya, whose Sri has its seat warmed by the rays emanating from neighbouring kings, and which was diligently created by Brahma, as if this God has in view only the duration of the famous Dharma." - The Wiang Sa Inscription.**

Few visitors to the holiday paradise of Phuket realise that they are close to one of the most historic trade routes of ancient Southeast Asia, a land bridge that took merchants from India to Funan, Champa and Ayutthia across the Gulf of Thailand. Chaiya was a port on the Gulf of Thailand that connected the Andaman Sea port of Takua Pa.

Chaiya was part of the Srivijayan empire that was centered on modern Palembang in Sumatra. Although loosely constituted, at its zenith, Srivijaya encompassed coastal areas of southern Thailand. A powerful reminder of Srivijayan influence here is Wat Borom That (left).

"Srivijaya controlled the Strait of Malacca, and expanded into the mainland of Indochina, where the city of Chaiya (Surat Thani province in Southern Thailand) was probably at the very least a regional capital. The image here is of a pagoda found in Chaiya, done in Srivijaya style. The kingdom at its greatest also covered Sumatra, Malay Peninsula, and western Borneo. Circa 600 CE, the Chinese record two kingdoms on Sumatra (Srivijaya and Melayu), and three on Java. In 683, Srivijaya conquered Melayu, and during this time, the kingdom began its campaign against the kingdoms of Java, eventually conquering these, too. Circa 700, it had also conquered Kedah, on the Malay peninsula."***

Wat Kaew, Chaiya

Note: The Srivijayan Curse:
The curse written in the Srivijayan inscription at Kota Kapur in Bangka, Sumatra is significant to me for two reasons. First, it suggests that while warfare was not infrequent in ancient Southeast Asian empires, the magical and symbolic element of conflict played an important role. Second are more important, it underscores that the conflicts of the period were as much in the nature of internal rebellions against the ruler as wars between states.

"O you, all the powerful divinities who are assembled, and who protect [this] province (kadatuan) of Sriwijaya...

When, within all the lands [bhumi] [dependent on this province (kadatuan)], people revolt [...] conspire with the rebels, listen to the rebels, know the rebels, are not respectful, are not obedient, are not faithful to me and those invested by me with the power of datu, let the authors of these actions be killed by a curse; let an expedition be sent into the field under the command of the datu (or datu’s) of Sriwijaya, and may they be punished, with their clans and families.....But if people are obedient, are faithful to me and to those invested by me with the power of datu, may their undertakings be blessed, as well as their clans and families, success, ease, lack of disasters, abundance for all their countries!"****

The Kota Kapur Inscription (which is in old Malaya with borrowed sanskrit words) also mentions the Srivijayan attack on Java: "nipahat di welana yan wala sriwijaya kaliwat manapik yan bhumi jawa tida bhakti ka sriwijaya". Translation: "This inscription was carved at the time when Sriwijaya's army punished the country of Jawa which did not obey Sriwijaya."*****


*The Wiang Sa Inscription, (found at Wiang Sa near Chaiya in the Thai Peninsula) dated 775 AD. From: George Coedes, “The Kingdom of Sriwijaya", In Sriwijaya: History, Religion and Languae of an Early Malay Polity, Collected Studies By George Coedes and Louis-Charles Damais, edited by Pierre-Yves Manguin and Mubin Sheppard, Monograph of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, no.20 (Kuala Lumpur, 1992)



****From the Kota Kapur Inscription, in Bangka, Sumatra, in: George Coedes, “The Malay Inscriptions of Sriwijaya”, In Sriwijaya: History, Religion and Languae of an Early Malay Polity, op.cit.Sriwijaya's

***** Coedes, "The Kingdom of Sriwijaya", op.cit.