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Buddhism: Visual & Material Culture: Southeast Asia & Sri Lanka

Last Updated: Nov 16, 2022 11:07 AM

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Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia are centers for the preservation of local artistic traditions. Chief among these are manuscripts, a vital source for our understanding of Buddhist ideas and practices in the region. They are also a beautiful art form, too little understood in the West. The British Library has one of the richest collections of Southeast Asian manuscripts, principally from Thailand and Burma, anywhere in the world. It includes finely painted copies of Buddhist scriptures, literary works, historical narratives, and works on traditional medicine, law, cosmology, and fortune-telling. This stunning new book includes over 100 examples of Buddhist art from the Library's collection, relating each manuscript to Theravada tradition and beliefs, and introducing the historical, artistic, and religious contexts of their production. It is the first book in English to showcase the beauty and variety of Buddhist manuscript art and reproduces many works that have never before been photographed.

Lammerts Dynamics cover artBuddhist Dynamics in Premodern and Early Modern Southeast Asia, edited by D. Christian Lammerts. ISEAS Publishing, 2015.

The study of historical Buddhism in premodern and early modern Southeast Asia stands at an exciting and transformative juncture. Interdisciplinary scholarship is marked by a commitment to the careful examination of local and vernacular expressions of Buddhist culture as well as to reconsiderations of long-standing questions concerning the diffusion of and relationships among varied texts, forms of representation, and religious identities, ideas and practices. The twelve essays in this collection, written by leading scholars in Buddhist Studies and Southeast Asian history, epigraphy, and archaeology, comprise the latest research in the field to deal with the dynamics of mainland and (pen)insular Buddhism between the sixth and nineteenth centuries C.E. Drawing on new manuscript sources, inscriptions, and archaeological data, they investigate the intellectual, ritual, institutional, sociopolitical, aesthetic, and literary diversity of local Buddhisms, and explore their connected histories and contributions to the production of intraregional and transregional Buddhist geographies.

 

Bacus Glover Sharrock cover artInterpreting Southeast Asia’s Past: Monument, Image and Text, edited by Elisabeth A. Bacus, Ian C. Glover, and Peter D. Sharrock. NUS Press, 2008.

The volume covers monumental arts, sculpture and painting, epigraphy and heritage management across mainland Southeast Asia and as far south as Indonesia. New research on monumental arts includes chapters on the Bayon of Angkor and the great brick temple sites of Champa. There is an article discussing the purpose of making and erecting sacred sculptures in the ancient world and accounts of research on the sacred art of Burma, Thailand and southern China (including the first study of the few surviving Saiva images in Burma), of a spectacular find of bronze Mahayana Buddhas, and of the sculpted bronzes of the Dian culture. New research on craft goods and crafting techniques deals with ancient Khmer materials, including recently discovered ceramic kiln sites, the sandstone sources of major Khmer sculptures, and the rare remaining traces of paint, plaster and stucco on stone and brick buildings. More widely distributed goods also receive attention, including Southeast Asian glass beads, and there are contributions on Southeast Asian heritage and conservation, including research on Angkor as a living World Heritage site and discussion of a UNESCO project on the stone jars of the Plain of Jars in Laos that combines recording, safeguarding, bomb clearance, and eco-tourism development.

Kerlogue Arts cover artArts of Southeast Asia by Fiona Kerlogue. Thames & Hudson, 2004.

The pagodas of Burma, the temples of Angkor, the great Buddhist monument of Borobudur - these achievements of powerful courts and rulers are part of a broad artistic tradition including textiles, applied arts, vernacular architecture, and village crafts. Covering Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Burma, and the Philippines, Fiona Kerlogue examines the roots and development of the arts of this distinctive region from prehistory to the present day. Broadly chronological, the book traces the different religions that have shaped the region's historic cultures - Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity - finishing with an exploration of the arts of the postcolonial period. With nearly 200 illustrations, over 100 in color, a glossary of names and places, and suggestions for further reading, the book is a comprehensive introduction to the arts and culture of Southeast Asia.

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With vivid photography and insightful commentary, this travel pictorial shines a light on the Buddhist art and architecture of Borobudur. The glorious ninth-century Buddhist stupa of Borobudur--the largest Buddhist monument in the world--stands in the midst of the lush Kedu Plain of Central Java in Indonesia, where it is visited annually by over a million people. Borobudur contains more than a thousand exquisitely carved relief panels extending along its many terraces for a total distance of more than a kilometer. These are arranged so as to take the visitor on a spiritual journey to enlightenment, and one ascends the monument past scenes depicting the world of desire, the life story of Buddha, and the heroic deeds of other enlightened beings--finally arriving at the great circular terraces at the top of the structure that symbolizes the formless world of pure knowledge and perfection.

Fontein Dharmadhatu cover artEntering the Dharmadhatu: A Study of the Gandavyūha Reliefs of Borobudur by Jan Fontein. Brill, 2012.

The Gandavyūha, a sacred text of Mahāyāna Buddhism, is an allegorical tale of the pilgrimage of a youth named Sudhana, who visits fifty-three spiritual mentors to receive their instruction in the Conduct of the Bodhisattva. His miraculous journey on the path towards Enlightenment inspired the sculptors of Borobudur (9th century C.E.) to illustrate the tale in 460 bas-reliefs on the higher galleries of this great Javanese monument. During the 1920s N.J. Krom and F.D.K. Bosch identified many of the panels, but most of their findings, written in Dutch, remained unnoticed. Entering the Dharmadhātu compares the complete set of panels with three early Chinese translations of Central Asian and Indian Sanskrit manuscripts of the Gandavyūha. This first identification of the entire series in English concludes with a discussion of the new perspectives on the meaning, symbolism, and architecture of Borobudur that a reading of the Gandavyūha suggests.

 

Kinney et al cover artWorshiping Siva and Buddha: The Temple Art of East Java by Ann R. Kinney, Marijke J. Klokke, and Lydia Kieven. University of Hawai'i Press, 2003.

This work, a study of the temples created in East Java between the tenth and sixteenth centuries, fills an important scholarly lacuna. The arts of Central Java, home of the great Buddhist monument, Borobudur, and Hindu Prambanan, have been given thorough scholarly attention. The architectural and sculptural treasures of the East Javanese kingdoms of Kadiri, Singasari, and Majapahit, are little known in comparison, yet beautiful and significant in Indonesian history. The author presents the major sites of these three historical periods, and discusses their architecture and sculpture. The many narrative reliefs illustrating sacred and secular literature have been painstakingly identified. The reader is thus able to follow their stories and understand where, why, and how they fit into the visual program planned for each temple and their relation to historical events and the wayang theater. These descriptions are augmented by extensive site summaries. 

Frédéric & Nou cover artBorobudur by Louis Frédéric & Jean-Louis Nou. Abbeville Press, 1996.

Nothing anywhere in the world quite compares with the dimensions and magnificent bas-reliefs of the Borobudur, an enormous Buddhist monument erected on the Island of Java in the late 8th century. Declared World Heritage by the UNESCO and restored between 1975 and 1983, it is very popular in the East and has begun to become known to western tourists. Built in the middle of the island and surrounded by volcanoes, the Borobudur – a square-based pyramid with circular terraces – symbolises the union of heaven and earth. For this first time this book offers an insight into the heart of this stone mandala, enabling readers to understand the Buddhist pantheon of Mahayana by interpreting the scenes of daily life and Indo-Javanese rites sculpted upon it. The photographs of the monument’s magnificent architecture and complex symbolism are by Louis Nou.

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For centuries, wherever Thai Buddhists have made their homes, statues of the Buddha have provided striking testament to the role of Buddhism in the lives of the people. The Buddha in Lanna offers the first in-depth historical study of the Thai tradition of donation of Buddha statues. Drawing on palm-leaf manuscripts and inscriptions, many never previously translated into English, the book reveals the key roles that Thai Buddha images have played in the social and economic worlds of their makers and devotees from the fifteenth to twentieth centuries. Author Angela Chiu introduces stories from chronicles, histories, and legends written by monks in Lanna, a region centered in today’s northern Thailand. By examining the stories’ themes, structures, and motifs, she illuminates the complex conceptual and material aspects of Buddha images that influenced their functions in Lanna society. Buddha images were depicted as social agents and mediators, the focal points of pan-regional political-religious lineages and rivalries, indeed, as the very generators of history itself. In the chronicles, Buddha images also unified the Buddha with the northern Thai landscape, thereby integrating Buddhist and local conceptions of place. By comparing Thai Buddha statues with other representations of the Buddha, the author underscores the contribution of the Thai evidence to a broader understanding of how different types of Buddha representations were understood to mediate the “presence” of the Buddha. This book focuses on the Thai Buddha image as a part of the wider society and history of its creators and worshippers beyond monastery walls, shedding much needed light on the Buddha image in history.

Cummings & White cover artBuddhist Temples of Thailand: A Visual Journey Through Thailand's 42 Most Historic Wats by Joe Cummings & Dan White. 2014.

This book follows the sweep of empire through the country's different temple-building eras and regions. Through profiling 42 of the most prominent wats it explores Buddhism's development throughout the kingdom and underpins the belief system's dynamic interplay with contemporary life and its everyday role in Thailand's vibrant culture. Beyond highlighting the most significant complexes, murals and Buddha images, the book explores the daily rituals, regular festivals, and key architectural elements of this diverse religious form. This expanded edition features two additional temples that were not included in the first edition.

Lefferts & Cate cover artBuddhist Storytelling in Thailand and Laos: The Vessantara Jataka Scroll at the Asian Civilisations Museum by Leedom Lefferts & Sandra Cate, translated by Wajuppa Tossa. Asian Civilisations Museum, 2012.

This richly illustrated, full-colour volume offers an innovative study of the long, painted scrolls of Northeast Thailand and Laos that depictthe Prince Vessantara Buddhist birth story. A 31-metre scroll in the Asian Civilisations Museum provides the focus for this popular narrative. The scroll is reproduced in its entirety, with comparative illustrations from other scrolls. The authors analyze these scrolls in the context of the Bun Phra Wet – the Thai-Lao and Lao ceremony in which they are used – and consider the complex interplay of text, art, ritual, and belief which occur in these performances.

 

McGill Emerald Cities cover artEmerald Cities: Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775–1950, edited by Forrest McGill. Asian Art Museum, 2009.

This is a lavishly illustrated catalog of artworks from Thailand and Burma, and provides an introduction to one of Asia's richest and least known artistic traditions. Focusing primarily on decorative and religious objects from the nineteenth century, Emerald Cities brings to light the lively, yet often strained, interchange between the regions of central and northern Thailand (Siam) and Burma. While representing the latest art historical scholarship, Emerald Cities is also an accessible entry into the world of Thailand and Burma, and highlights such luxuriant and spectacular artworks as gilded and mirrored ritual vessels, black lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, and vibrant, colorful paintings. These objects convey an exotic and exuberant ambiance which transports the reader to a lost time and place, one unlike any other.

McGill Kingdom of Siam cover artThe Kingdom of Siam: The Art of Central Thailand, 1350–1800, edited by Forrest McGill. Art Media Resources, 2005.

In 1686 King Louis XIV of France had the great Hall of Mirrors in the Versailles specially prepared to receive, with exceptional pomp and ceremony, a group of foreign envoys. The envoys brought with them two shiploads of gifts for the court. In fact, they delivered so many objects of gold, silver, and lacquer that the French complained that their list would be as long as a book. The envoys had been sent from the kingdom of Ayutthaya, or "Siam" as it was known in the West. Though little remembered today, Ayutthaya was one of the largest and most important kingdoms of Southeast Asia. Founded in 1351, the kingdom flourished for more than four hundred years - longer than China's Ming dynasty. The envoys' gifts reflected its trade activity - more than fifteen hundred pieces of porcelain (mostly Chinese), Persian, and Indian carpets, and many other objects from Japan and China were given to the French king and his relatives. Despite the kingdom's power, prosperity, and influence, it was completely destroyed by a devastating invasion from neighboring Burma in 1767. As a result, many Ayutthaya artifacts, especially made of fragile materials, were destroyed, and the kingdom's splendor gradually faded.

Cate Making Merit cover artMaking Merit, Making Art: A Thai Temple in Wimbledon by Sandra Cate. University of Hawai'i Press, 2002.

Sandra Cate's pioneering ethnography of art-making at Wat Buddhapadipa, a Thai Buddhist temple in Wimbledon, England, explores contemporary art at the crossroads of identity, authority and value. Between 1984 and 1992, twenty-six young Thai artists painted a series of temple murals that continue to attract worshippers and tourists from around the world. Their work, both celebrated and controversial, depicts stories from the Buddha's lives in otherworldly landscapes punctuated with sly references to this-worldly politics and popular culture. Schooled in international art trends, the artists reverse an Orientalist narrative of the Asian Other, telling their own stories to diverse audiences and subsuming Western spaces into a Buddhist worldview. In her investigation of temple murals as social portraiture, Cate looks at the ongoing dialectic between the "real" and the "imaginary" as mural painters depict visual and moral hierarchies of sentient beings. As they manipulate indigenous notions of sacred space and the creative process, the Wat Buddhapadipa muralists generate complex, expansive visions of social place and identity.