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13.5.9: Southeast Asia

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    Southeast Asia

    Southeast Asia is home to some of the largest and most complex religious architecture in the world.

    1st millennium B.C.E. - c. 1200

    The art of Cambodia

    The great Hindu monuments of Cambodia have long been targets of looting and trafficking.

    10th-12th century

    Angkor Wat


    Aerial view, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: shankar s., CC BY 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Aerial view, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: shankar s., CC BY 2.0)

    A temple with a lost name

    Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia is the largest religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat, translated from Khmer (the official language of Cambodia), literally means “City Temple.” As far as names go this is as generic as it gets. Angkor Wat was not the original name given to the temple when it was built in the twelfth century. We have little knowledge of how this temple was referred to during the time of its use, as there are no extant texts or inscriptions that mention the temple by name—this is quite incredible if we consider the fact that Angkor Wat is the greatest religious construction project in Southeast Asia.

    A possible reason why the temple’s original name may have never been documented is that it was such an important and famous monument that there was no need to refer to it by its name. We have several references to the king who built the temple, King Suryavarman II (1113-1145/50 C.E.), and events that took place at the temple, but no mention of its name.

    Historical Context

    Angkor Wat is dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu who is one of the three principal gods in the Hindu pantheon (Shiva and Brahma are the others). Among them he is known as the “Protector.” The major patron of Angkor Wat was King Suryavarman II, whose name translates as the “protector of the sun.” Many scholars believe that Angkor Wat was not only a temple dedicated to Vishnu but that it was also intended to serve as the king’s mausoleum in death.

    Angkor Wat. Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: Benjamin Jakabek, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Angkor Wat. Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: Benjamin Jakabek, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The construction of Angkor Wat likely began in the year 1116 C.E.—three years after King Suryavarman II came to the throne—with construction ending in 1150, shortly after the king’s death. Evidence for these dates comes in part from inscriptions, which are vague, but also from the architectural design and artistic style of the temple and its associated sculptures.

    The building of temples by Khmer kings was a means of legitimizing their claim to political office and also to lay claim to the protection and powers of the gods. Hindu temples are not a place for religious congregation; instead; they are homes of the god. In order for a king to lay claim to his political office he had to prove that the gods did not support his predecessors or his enemies. To this end, the king had to build the grandest temple/palace for the gods, one that proved to be more lavish than any previous temples. In doing so, the king could make visible his ability to harness the energy and resources to construct the temple, and assert that his temple was the only place that a god would consider residing in on earth.

    The building of Angkor Wat is likely to have necessitated some 300,000 workers, which included architects, construction workers, masons, sculptors and the servants to feed these workers. Construction of the site took over 30 years and was never completely finished. The site is built entirely out of stone, which is incredible as close examination of the temple demonstrates that almost every surface is treated and carved with narrative or decorative details.

    Carved Bas Reliefs of Hindu Narratives

    There are 1,200 square meters of carved bas reliefs at Angkor Wat, representing eight different Hindu stories. Perhaps the most important narrative represented at Angkor Wat is the Churning of the Ocean of Milk (below), which depicts a story about the beginning of time and the creation of the universe. It is also a story about the victory of good over evil. In the story, devas (gods) are fighting the asuras (demons) in order reclaim order and power for the gods who have lost it. In order to reclaim peace and order, the elixir of life (amrita) needs to be released from the earth; however, the only way for the elixir to be released is for the gods and demons to first work together. To this end, both sides are aware that once the amrita is released there will be a battle to attain it.

    Churning of the Ocean of Milk (detail), Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: John Brennan, CC BY-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Churning of the Ocean of Milk (detail), Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: John Brennan, CC BY-ND 2.0)

    The relief depicts the moment when the two sides are churning the ocean of milk. In the detail above you can see that the gods and demons are playing a sort of tug-of-war with the Naga or serpent king as their divine rope. The Naga is being spun on Mt. Mandara represented by Vishnu (in the center). Several things happen while the churning of milk takes place. One event is that the foam from the churning produces apsaras or celestial maidens who are carved in relief throughout Angkor Wat (we see them here on either side of Vishnu, above the gods and demons). Once the elixir is released, Indra (the Vedic god who is considered the king of all the gods) is seen descending from heaven to catch it and save the world from the destruction of the demons.

    Angkor Wat as Temple Mountain

    Aerial view, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: Peter Garnhum, CC BY-NC 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Aerial view, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: Peter Garnhum, CC BY-NC 2.0)

    An aerial view of Angkor Wat demonstrates that the temple is made up of an expansive enclosure wall, which separates the sacred temple grounds from the protective moat that surrounds the entire complex (the moat is visible in the photograph at the top of the page). The temple proper is comprised of three galleries (a passageway running along the length of the temple) with a central sanctuary, marked by five stone towers.

    Gallery, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: fmpgoh, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Gallery, Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Cambodia, 1116-1150 (photo: fmpgoh, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The five stone towers are intended to mimic the five mountain ranges of Mt. Meru—the mythical home of the gods, for both Hindus and Buddhists. The temple mountain as an architectural design was invented in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian architects quite literally envisioned temples dedicated to Hindu gods on earth as a representation of Mt. Meru. The galleries and the empty spaces that they created between one another and the moat are envisioned as the mountain ranges and oceans that surround Mt. Meru. Mt. Meru is not only home to the gods, it is also considered an axis-mundi. An axis-mundi is a cosmic or world axis that connects heaven and earth. In designing Angkor Wat in this way, King Suryavarman II and his architects intended for the temple to serve as the supreme abode for Vishnu. Similarly, the symbolism of Angkor Wat serving as an axis mundi was intended to demonstrate the Angkor Kingdom’s and the king’s central place in the universe. In addition to envisioning Angkor Wat as Mt. Meru on earth, the temple’s architects, of whom we know nothing, also ingeniously designed the temple so that embedded in the temple’s construction is a map of the cosmos (mandala) as well as a historical record of the temple’s patron.

    Angkor Wat as a Mandala

    According to ancient Sanskrit and Khmer texts, religious monuments and specifically temples must be organized in such a way that they are in harmony with the universe, meaning that the temple should be planned according to the rising sun and moon, in addition to symbolizing the recurrent time sequences of the days, months and years. The central axis of these temples should also be aligned with the planets, thus connecting the structure to the cosmos so that temples become spiritual, political, cosmological, astronomical and geo-physical centers. They are, in other words, intended to represent microcosms of the universe and are organized as mandalas—diagrams of the universe.

    Angkor Wat Today

    Angkor Wat continues to play an important role in Cambodia even though most of the population is now Buddhist. Since the fifteenth century, Buddhists have used the temple and visitors today will see, among the thousands of visitors, Buddhist monks and nuns who worship at the site. Angkor Wat has also become an important symbol for the Cambodian nation. Today, the Cambodian flag has emblazoned on it the silhouette of Angkor Wat.

    Video \(\PageIndex{1}\): World Monuments Fund at Angkor Wat: The Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery

    At the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat, World Monuments Fund is restoring the Churning of the Sea of Milk Gallery. Rainwater and harmful salts have leaked through the roof of the gallery, which forms the south half of Angkor Wat’s prominent east façade, damaging the fragile surface of the frieze. Without treatment, the deterioration will increase at an alarming rate, risking the eventual loss of what most historians regard as the most ambitious and finely produced stone sculptures in Khmer art.

    The Looting of Cambodian Antiquities

    by and

    Video \(\PageIndex{2}\): The looting of ancient Cambodian antiquities from Prasat Chen, the 10th century the Khmer capital at Koh Ker ARCHES: At Risk Cultural Heritage Education Series

    The Scourge of Looting: Trafficking Antiquities, from Temple to Museum


    Video \(\PageIndex{3}\): Archaeologist and legal expert Tess Davis talks about the illicit antiquities trade, and how the looting of archaeological sites in conflict zones goes to fund paramilitary groups and terrorist organizations.

    Sotheby’s Returns Looted 10th Century Statue to Cambodia


    Video \(\PageIndex{4}\): Archaeologist and legal expert Tess Davis talks about Sotheby’s attempt to auction an ancient Cambodian statue that had been looted by the Khmer Rouge in 1972; and the statue’s eventual return home.




    Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Claire André, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Claire André, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Borobudur and the concept of path in Buddhism

    Paths have been pervasive in human civilization. We are all familiar with the streets, trails, and lanes along which we routinely travel. Ancient Roman roads are utilized in some places even today. In contemporary computer culture we follow “paths” on webpages as we find our way to the information or experience we are searching for or find unexpectedly. There are simulated paths in complex first-person virtual reality video environments, where role-playing games formulate their content around the path to be conquered. The idea of path is an important concept in Buddhism, and is essential in understanding the meaning and purpose of one of the most remarkable and impressive monuments in the world: Borobudur.

    Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Claire André, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Claire André, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Located on the island of Java in Indonesia, the rulers of the Śailendra Dynasty built the Temple of Borobudur around 800 C.E. as a monument to the Buddha (exact dates vary among scholars). The temple (or candi in Javanese, pronounced “chandi”) fell into disuse roughly one hundred years after its completion when, for still unknown reasons, the rulers of Java relocated the governing center to another part of the island. The British Lieutenant Governor on Java, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, only rediscovered the site in 1814 upon hearing reports from islanders of an incredible sanctuary deep within the island’s interior. [1]

    Bodobudur, photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Bodobudur, photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Candi Borobudur’s design was conceived of by the poet, thinker, and architect Gunadharma, considered by many today to be a man of great vision and devotion. The temple has been described in a number of ways. Its basic structure resembles that of a pyramid, yet it has been also referred to as a caitya (shrine), a stupa (reliquary), and a sacred mountain. In fact, the name Śailendra literally means “Lord of the Mountain.” While the temple exhibits characteristics of all these architectural configurations, its overall plan is that of a three-dimensional mandala—a diagram of the cosmos used for meditation—and it is in that sense where the richest understanding of the monument occurs.

    Aerial photo of Borobudur (Tropenmuseum Collection)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Aerial photo of Borobudur (Tropenmuseum Collection)

    The journey

    Set high upon a hill vertically enhanced by its builders to achieve a greater elevation, Borobudur consists of a series of open-air passageways that radiate around a central axis mundi (cosmic axis). Devotees circumambulate clockwise along walkways that gradually ascend to its uppermost level. At Borobudur, geometry, geomancy, and theology all instruct adherents toward the ultimate goal of enlightenment. Meticulously carved relief sculptures mediate a physical and spiritual journey that guides pilgrims progressively toward higher states of consciousness.

    Wilson Loo Kok Wee (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Wilson Loo Kok Wee, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The entire site contains 504 statues of the Buddha. 1460 stone reliefs on the walls and opposite balustrades decorate the first four galleries, with an additional 1212 decorative reliefs augmenting the path. The relief sculptures narrate the Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma), depict various events related to his past lives (Jatakas), and illustrate didactic stories taken from important Buddhist scriptures (sutras). Interestingly, another 160 relief sculptures adorn the base of the monument, but are concealed behind stone buttresses that were added shortly after the building’s construction in order to further support the structure’s weight. The hidden narrative reliefs were photographed when they were discovered in the late 19th century before the stones were put back to help ensure the temple’s stability.

    Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Gildardo Sánchez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Gildardo Sánchez, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Borobudur, Indonesia, central stupa at the temple's apex in the distance (photo: pierre c. 38, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): Borobudur, Indonesia, central stupa at the temple’s apex in the distance (photo: pierre c. 38, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Moving past the base and through the four galleries, the devotee emerges onto the three upper terraces, encountering 72 stupas each containing a three-dimensional sculpture of a seated Buddha within a stone latticework. At the temple’s apex sits the large central stupa, a symbol of the enlightened mind.

    The experience of meaning

    While the sheer size and scope of a mandala structure such as this makes the site worthy of admiration, it is important to understand how the experience of Borobudur relates to the philosophic and spiritual underpinnings of the Buddhist religion it reifies and commemorates. Since its inception, roughly 2500 years ago, Buddhism has directly engaged what it sees as the paradoxical nature of human existence. The most essential tenet the religion promulgates is the impermanent, transient nature of existence. Transcendental wisdom via the Dharma (the Noble Eight-Fold Path) hinges on recognizing that attachment to the idea of a fixed, immutable “self” is a delusion.

    Enlightenment entails embracing the concept of “no-self” (anattā), understood to be at the heart of eliminating the suffering and dissatisfaction (dukkha) of sentient beings. This is the ultimate message expressed in the sacred scriptures that are solidified in artistic magnificence along the stone walls and railings of Borobudur. The physical movement of circumambulating the structure symbolizes the non-physical—or spiritual—path of enlightenment. In a real sense, then, the concept of path within Borobudur monumentalizes the impermanent. Like a river that is never the same from moment to moment, to physically move along the path while meditating on the spiritual message of the sutras is meant to help one fully embrace the Buddha’s paradoxical message of impermanence.

    From the Gandavyuha Sutra, Borobudur, photo: Photo Dharma (CC BY 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): From the Gandavyuha Sutra, Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Photo Dharma, CC BY 2.0)

    The texts illustrated on the walls refer to pathways as well. For instance, the Gandavyuha Sutra forms a major segment of the temple’s upper galleries. The last chapter of a larger text called the Flower Garland Sutra, it relates the story of Suddhana, a youth who commences a journey to meet fifty-three teachers while seeking the path to enlightenment. The concept of “path” is a central theme in the text. He eventually meets an enlightened being (bodhisattva) named Samantabadhra. Excerpts from the larger sutra illustrate the concepts under discussion:

    “I will lead those who have lost their way to the right road. I will be a bright light for those in the dark night, and cause the poor and destitute to uncover hidden treasures. The Bodhisattva impartially benefits all living beings in this manner.

    I vow to shut the door to evil destinies and open the right paths of humans, gods and that of Nirvana.

    Once any sentient beings see the Buddha, it will cause them to clear away habitual obstructions. And forever abandon devilish actions: This is the path traveled by Illumination.

    Sentient Beings are blinded by ignorance, always confused; the light of Buddha illuminates the path of safety. To rescue them and cause suffering to be removed.

    All sentient beings are on false paths—Buddha shows them the right path, inconceivable, causing all worlds to be vessels of truth…”

    The full text is available here.

    From darkness into light

    The idea of moving from the darkness into the light is the final element of the experience of Borobudur. The temple’s pathway takes one from the earthly realm of desire (kamadhatu), represented and documented on the hidden narratives of the structure’s earthbound base, through the world of forms (rupadhatu) as expounded on the narratives carved along the four galleries set at right angles, until one finally emerges into the realm of formlessness (arupadhatu) as symbolized and manifested in the open circular terraces crowned with 72 stupas.

    Crowning stupa, Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Paul Atkinson, CC BY-SA 2.0)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{14}\): Crowning stupa, Borobudur, Indonesia (photo: Paul Atkinson, CC BY-SA 2.0)

    However, the symbolization of enlightenment these stupas represent is not intended to be merely aesthetic. Buddhist stupas and mandalas are understood as “spiritual technologies” that harness spiritual “energies” in the creation of sacred space. The repetition of form and the circumabulatory progress of the pilgrim mimic, and thereby access, the cosmological as a microcosm. The clockwise movement around the cosmic center reproduces the macrocosmic path of the sun. Thus, when one emerges from the dark galleries representing the realms of desire and form into the light of the “formless” circular open air upper walkways, the material effect of light on one’s physical form merges concomitantly with the spiritual enlightenment generated by the metaphysical journey of the sacred path.

    Light, in all its paradoxes, is the ultimate goal. The crowning stupa of this sacred mountain is dedicated to the “Great Sun Buddha” Vairocana. The temple sits in cosmic proximity to the nearby volcano Mt. Merapi. During certain times of the year the path of the rising sun in the East seems to emerge out of the mountain to strike the temple’s peak in radiant synergy. Light illuminates the stone in a way that is intended to be more than beautiful. The brilliance of the site can be found in how the Borobudur mandala blends the metaphysical and physical, the symbolic and the material, the cosmological and the earthly within the structure of its physical setting and the framework of spiritual paradox.


    [1] Borobudur and many other archaeological sites in South and Southeast Asia often have orientalized narratives attached to them wherein colonizers “discover” or “bring to light” ancient monuments. These distortions discount the real and living history of the site.


    Ban Chiang Clay Jar


    Patterned pottery from the earliest agricultural communities of Thailand

    Neolithic cultures based on agriculture and the use of stone tools appeared throughout mainland South-east Asia between 4000 B.C.E. and 1000 B.C.E.

    Bronze technology became widespread in the northern part during the second millennium B.C.E. and iron after 500 B.C.E. The expansion of settlements, the spread of agriculture and the use of metal technology were closely connected with the Neolithic cultures of southern China.

    Ban Chiang

    Ban Chiang Clay Jar, Ban Chiang, north-eastern Thailand, 1st millennium B.C.E.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{15}\): Ban Chiang Clay Jar, Ban Chiang, north-eastern Thailand, 1st millennium B.C.E. © Trustees of the British Museum

    The site of Ban Chiang was excavated from the late 1960s. Until then the period prior to the spread of an Indianized culture in the first millennium C.E. was relatively unknown. The finds at Ban Chiang and other sites clearly demonstrated that the prehistory of Thailand and South-east Asia was far more complex than had previously been thought.

    The site at Ban Chiang was occupied from around 3000 B.C.E. to the early centuries C.E. The earliest levels are agricultural but date before the use of bronze, which began to be used from around 2000 B.C.E. Burials with grave goods were excavated in addition to large quantities of decorated pottery in a variety of styles, for which the site is famous. Elaborately decorated pots such as this one were produced in the first millennium B.C.E. A great variety of decorative motifs feature on this pottery including the red spiral patterns that densely cover the surface of this pot. These are similar to those found on contemporary pottery in southern China.

    Additional resources:

    C. Higham, The archaeology of mainland Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 1989)

    N. Tarling (ed.), The Cambridge history of Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 1992)

    © Trustees of the British Museum

    13.5.9: Southeast Asia is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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