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 Window Into Khmer Magnificence: The Guimet in Paris

balustrade from Preah Khan Temple in Angkor

The Guimet Museum in Paris has one of the finest collections of Khmer art, not surprising considering the long French rule over the country and the important role played by the French Institute of the Far East (Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient) in uncovering and restoring many of Cambodia’s archaeological wonders.

At the very entrance to the main hall with Khmer art is a piece from the balustrade to the Preah Khan temple complex at Angkor, which was consecrated in 1191. It consists of a Naga being pulled by Devas and Asuras, from the Hindu Churning of the Ocean of Milk. This is taken from the Preah Koh temple in Angkor Thom. This image was brought to France for the Paris expo of 1900, where it evoked considerable interest in Cambodian art among the French.

Lintel from Bantey Srei

The magnificent lintel of the Bantey Srei temple depicting the battle between the demons Sunda and Upasunda over Tilottama (an episode from Mahabharata)occupies a pride of place in the main hall for Khmer art at Guimet. Apparently, it had to be brought to France because it could not be restored back at its original site by French archaeologists.

Hindu Trinty from Phnom Bok

The other magnificent collections at Guimet includes the images of the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Visnhu and Shiva found at the site of Phnom Bok temple built at the beginning of the 10th century. These may be the finest images of the trinity in entire findings of Khmer art that survives to date anywhere.

Shiva Image
In addition, there are numerous Shiva and Buddha images at Guimet. Buddhism flourished under Jayavarman VII, Angkor’s most powerful emperor who built the Angkor Thom and Bayan complexes.

Buddha Image

The Guimet collection shows an intimate link between art and politics or ancient Cambodia. The variety of artistic styles and schools during pre-Angkoran time (6-8 century), reflects the break up of Cambodia. Styles represent different regions. One example is Harihara in Phnom Da Style, from the pre-Angkor period .

Harihara in Phnom Da Style

The Kulen style at the beginning of the Angkoran period can be found throughout Cambodia, suggesting the influence of a centralised government.

Koh Ker Style: reflects the abandonment of Angkor as capital for a provincial capital by Jayavarman IV (920-940AD), marked by colossal powerful statues. A magnificent example is the image of Brahma found from Wat Baset in Battambang Province done in Koh Ker style

Jayvarmana and Jayarajadevi

And what can provide a better example of the political nature of Khmer art can be collection at Guimet than the images of Jayavarman VII and his first queen Jayarajadevi (to be provided) appearing as a prajnaparamita or Tara of the Mahayan pantheon.

Source: Personal visit 25th September 2008; Pocket Guide (Guimet Musee National des Arts Asiatiques,, 2001)

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