Southeast Asia

Topic 5: Southeast Asia

  • The cultures of Southeast Asia reflect long periods of both Indian and Chinese influence. The monuments which draw the attention of art historians are concentrated in the areas (and eras) of Indic influence. These monuments were produced by dynasties using Indic cultural borrowings to establish or reinforce their own prestige or legitimacy.

  • On the island of Java, the massive Buddhist monument known as Borobudur testifies both to Indian influence and the persistence of local cultures. The structure of Borobudur was created in the century by rulers of the Sailendra dynasty. A vast structure built on an actual hill, its plan forms a mandala (a map of the Buddhist cosmos), and it features no fewer than 72 Buddha figures set into individual domes. While temples in the form of mountains or mounds are a feature of Indian Buddhism, Borobudur is nevertheless unique and scholars speculate that its form and function are best explained by ties to native traditions.

  • The best known monumental structure in Southeast Asia, the temple of Angkor Wat, also reflects cultural borrowing from India by Khmer rulers. Angkor Wat was built by the Khmer ruler Suryavarman II in the twelfth century CE as a temple to Vishnu, one of the three most important Hindu Gods. (The others are Shiva, adopted as a principle god by other Khmer monarchs, and Brahma, the creator). The temple complex contains numerous stone bas-reliefs in a highly refined style; many depict scenes from Hindu myth and legend. Angkor is considered the finest monument of Khmer art and architecture.

  • Close to Angkor Wat is Angkor Thom, a royal complex built somewhat later by King Jayavarman VII, a follower of Mahayana Buddhism. The most important structure in Angkor Thom is the temple known as the Bayon, whose most distinctive feature is the enormous stone faces found atop its towers, each face carefully constructed from multiple blocks of stone. Their gentle smiles suggest that they may represent or refer to the Bodhisattva of Compassion, a key aspect of Buddhahood in the Mahayana tradition; their resemblance to known portraits of Jayavarman VII imply that the king may have intended to identify himself as a Buddha.

Related Links:
India & Southeast Asia Quiz
South, East, and Southeast Asia, 300 BCE - 1980 CE Overview and General Concepts
AP Art History Quizzes
AP Art History Notes