Reclining Buddha, c. 12th century
Art,  English

Buddhist Art in Thailand and the Countries of Southeast Asia

Introduction video credit: Plant Leaves with wind and Buddha video of Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay,
Buddha video credit: Buddha Statue video of Klaus Hausmann from Pixabay,
Ending video credit: Meditation Yoga Buddhism video of Julius H. from Pixabay.

The text below is the excerpt of the book 1000 Buddhas of Genius (ASIN: B00T8VNZ5O), written by T.W. Rhys Davids Ph.D. LLD. and Victoria Charles, published by Parkstone International.

Around 500 BCE, at a place called Kapilavastu on the banks of the river Rohini in what is now Nepal, there settled a tribe named the Sakyas. The river rose thirty or forty miles to the north of their settlement in the spurs of the mighty Himalayas, whose giant peaks loomed up in the distance against the clear blue of the Indian sky…

Buddhism in Thailand

Nearly all of Thailand’s population adheres to a distinctly Thai hybrid of Theravada Buddhism, which has integrated several aspects of Chinese religions such as ancestor worship and other folk beliefs. The religious practises are also visibly influenced by Sri Lanka’s Theravada school, but the style of Thai Buddhist art and architecture reflects that of other Southeast Asian countries with which Thailand shares some culture and history, particularly Cambodia and Laos. Thai temples are magnificent, usually distinguished by tall, elaborate golden stupas.

Head of Buddha, 6th century, Buddhist Art
Head of Buddha, 6th century, Nakhon Pathom, Thailand, stone.

In Thailand, the official language of Buddhism is Pali, used to record scriptures and give religious liturgy, despite the fact that most Thai people do not understand the ancient language. The Pali Tipitaka is the primary religious text of Thailand, though many local texts have been composed in order to summarise and simplify the vast number of teachings found in the Tipitaka. Pali scripture also dictates the practises of Patimokkha, the Thai monastic code. In recent history, this adherence to Pali scripture has created some controversy, as there is a movement in Thailand to establish a line of bhikkhunis, fully ordained female monks.

Buddhist Art in Vietnam

Buddhism was first introduced to Vietnam in the 1st century CE By the end of the 2nd century, Vietnam had developed an important Buddhist centre, commonly known as the Luy Lâu centre, now in the Baéc Ninh province north of present day Hanoi. Luy Lâu was the capital of Giao Chæ, (the former name of Vietnam), and was a popular place visited by many Buddhist missionary monks on their way from India to China, who were following the sea route from the Indian subcontinent used by Indian traders.

Buddha, late 9th century, Buddhist Art
Buddha, late 9th century, Vietnam, sandstone, height: 93 cm.

Further south was the Kingdom of Champa, which was as powerful and influential as the neighbouring kingdom of Khmer. It extended its influence from the 4th to the 17th century and passed on a style of Buddhist art that was very rich. Even though Indian and Javanese influences have been strong throughout the entirety of Vietnam’s history, the art of Champa has endured in the traces of local art, borrowing Cham characteristics (thick lips, snub nose and very elaborate decorative details). The apogee of the art of Champa occurred between the 8th and the 11th century; during the medieval period, the influence of Khmer and Javanese art, following various invasions, came to soften the features of the Cham sculptures.

Buddhist Art in Indonesia

Like the rest of Southeast Asia, Indonesia was most strongly influenced by Indian culture. The islands of Sumatra and Java in western Indonesia were the seat of the empire of Sri Vijaya (8th-13th century), which used its maritime power to eventually dominate most of the area around the Southeast Asian peninsula. This empire, ruled by the Sailendra, accepted two school of Buddhism: Mahayana and Vajrayana. When the empire spread into the Southeast Asian peninsula, it transmitted its Mahayana artistic style, inciting the production of numerous Bodhisattva statues in the region. These pieces are characterised by a very strong refinement and technical sophistication, and the figures are represented in an incredibly graceful manner and generally marked by a serene expression.

Seated Gautama Buddha, 8th-9th century, Buddhist Art
Seated Gautama Buddha, 8th-9th century, Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia, stone.

The Indonesian islands of Java and Sumatra are home to many well-preserved architectural remains. The most impressive of these is the temple of Borobudur, constructed around 780-850 A.D, which is the largest Buddhist structure in the world. The temple serves as a large-scale illustration of the holy Buddhist scriptures through a long series of bas-reliefs.

Movement and Influences of Buddhist Kingdoms in Southeast Asia

The period between the 9th and the 13th century was extremely transformative for Southeast Asia, which was ruled by many powerful empires who each left their mark on Buddhist art and architecture. The two most prominent influences were the Sri Vijaya Empire to the south and the Khmer Empire to the north; because both adhered to the Mahayana school, the art that they influenced illustrates the rich Mahayana pantheon of Bodhisattvas. After this period of development, the Thai kingdom of Sukhothai emerged and adopted Theravada Buddhism, which had been transmitted from Sri Lanka. Because Theravada Buddhism dictates that only monks can reach Nirvana, the construction of temple complexes to house more monks played a particularly important role in the evolution of artistic expression in Southeast Asia.

Relief of a smiling Buddha, 9th-13th century, Buddhist Art
Relief of a smiling Buddha, 9th-13th century, Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, Cambodia, stone.

Beginning in the 14th century, the main factor that transformed the religious environment of the area was the spread of Islam to the maritime areas of Southeast Asia, overrunning Malaysia, Indonesia, and most of the islands as far as the Philippines. On the continent, Theravada Buddhism continued its expansion into Burma, Laos and Cambodia.

Buddhist Art in Laos

Historians believe that Theravada Buddhism first reached Laos during the 7th-8th centuries CE via the kingdom of Dvaravati. Until the 11th century, the country remained under Khmer authority, but the Buddhist works of art that were created betrayed the artistic influence of the Khmer tradition of Theravada.

Seated Buddha, c. 14th century, Buddhist Art
Seated Buddha, c. 14th century, Wat Sen Soukharam, Luang Prabang, Laos, gilt bronze.

The first distinctly Lao kingdom of Lan Xang was founded in the 14th century. It is at this moment in history that we see the emergence of an artistic style that is purely Lao, despite the numerous influences that the country received from its neighbours (Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand). The images of Buddha created during this time period illustrate the fact that the Lao artists were attempting, like the Thai artists of the Sukhothai period, to represent the Buddha as he was described in the sacred texts. Thus was produced a stylised iconography of this man, emphasising his superhuman characteristics. Featuring an oval face, a nose becoming more and more hooked, and prominent earlobes, these images evolved linearly, toward the creation of an image of Buddha that appeared thin and sinuous. Later, beginning in the 18th century, the representations of the Buddha would present a new hieratic character, one almost archaic in nature.

Today, images of the Buddha are frequently created performing uniquely Lao gestures, such as calling for rain, and striking uniquely Lao poses such as showing the Buddha lying down and welcoming death, ready to achieve Nirvana.

Buddhist Art in Cambodia

Even though we have very few sources explaining the appearance of Buddhism in Cambodia, the trajectory of the displacement of Buddhism in Southeast Asia suggests that the religion was introduced by the Funan Kingdom (the first kingdom to exist in the territory that became modern-day Cambodia) around the 3rd century CE The Buddhist works from this pre-Angkorian period show a strong influence of the Môn culture from the neighbouring Dvaravati Kingdom.

In 802, Jayavarman II unified the Khmer Kingdom and founded its capital, Angkor, north of Tonlé Lake. Until his reign, the Khmer Empire was primarily Hindu but tolerated the existence of Buddhism. The artistic works of this period show a notable style borrowed from Hindu art. This solemn and majestic style developed in parallel to Buddhism itself, which imposed the idealisation of forms, despite the hardness of the available materials.

Reclining Buddha, c. 12th century
Reclining Buddha, c. 12th century, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia

Buddhism was tolerated by the Hindu Khmer Kingdom until the capital was sacked by the Cham people in 1177. Following this, the Khmers, by decision of their monarch, Jayavarman VII (1181-1227), reached the apogee of their civilisation under a new state religion, Mahayana Buddhism. 

Abandoning the stylised canons of the previous Hindu era, Buddhist artists produced a new realist style filled with serenity, which gave birth to the now characteristic Angkorian smile. The most popular representation was that of the Buddha protected by the serpent-king Mucilinda, which was favoured by many artists; in Cambodia, the serpent plays a role in the creation myth of the Khmer people, and thus the figure holds a particular significance. 

The end of the reign of Jayavarman VII brought the country toward its decline. In 1431, the capital was taken by Siamese invaders and Cambodia was colonised, which put an end to the Khmer Empire. Later, the development of Theravada Buddhism, which would become the dominant religion, would not permit Cambodian art, in the absence of a real imperial patronage, to be renewed in the Khmer style.

Buddhist Art of Burma

Buddhism spread to Burma (Myanmar) at the same time that it reached Thailand. Initially dominated by the Mahayana theology, Buddhism in Burma eventually shifted, due to Sri Lankan influence, toward Theravada Buddhism, which became more prominent beginning in the Bagan period (1044-1287). Burmese Buddhist art, following the Theravada tradition, does not offer a large variety of figures, but the artists produced a very large number of works that were dispersed across all of Southeast Asia. The Burmese believed that one could acquire more merit by multiplying the number of images of the Buddha that were produced. This explains the proliferation of works that exist today, as well as the multitude of identical representations of the Buddha that can be found in each Burmese temple (for example in niches, or painted on the walls).

Seated Buddha, c. 14th century
Seated Buddha, c. 14th century, Yadanar Theinka Paya, Inwa, Burma, stone.

Two representations of the Buddha were particularly predominant in Burma. The first, the Bhumisparsa mudra, can be found in most Buddhist works, sometimes as the focus of the work, other times as a detail around which a different theme is organised. The second common representation is an adorned Buddha, whose style contradicts the Theravada tradition. However, it appears that this intrusion of Mahayana influence was only a pretext for artists lacking variety.

In 1287, the Mongols sacked the city of Bagan, putting an end for a time to the Burmese empire, but this did not have a large influence on artistic creation, as Buddhism remained, as it is today, the majority religion of the country.

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