The powerful and rich Hindu civilization of the Gupta era couldn’t extend its influence to the West because it stumbled upon the barrier of Iran that was experiencing its peak period under the militarized state of the Sassanids. Sassanid Iran acted as a wall that forced the Indian trade to take the sea route of the Southeast and the result was the spread of Indian culture in that area of the Asian continent. From the 4th century onward a kind of “Magna India” was gradually established throughout Southeast Asia. The Hindu kingdoms never practiced a political colonization: the religion, culture and language of India spread parallel to its commercial contacts and the travel of its merchants. Thus, without ever using force, the powerful intellectual influence of Hindu culture imposed Sanskrit* as the sacred language of the literature and the court of those countries while the people continued to speak the local languages.
In general terms the art of Southeast Asia included the artistic production of 3 different focal points: the Khmer civilization that developed in the territory of modern Cambodia from the end of the 6th century to the beginning of the 14th century, the art of the island of Java about the same time, and the art of Thailand the country of the Thai from the 14th century.
Art during the Khmer Empire
The Khmer empire (from 802 to the fall of Angkor in the 15th century) was the predecessor state to modern Cambodia. At the height of its power, the Khmer empire ruled over most of mainland Southeast Asia and parts of Southern China, from the tip of the Indochinese Peninsula northward to modern Yunnan province (China) and from Vietnam westward to Myanmar. During its peak in the 11th to 13th centuries, Angkor (the capital of the empire) was the largest pre-industrial urban center in the world.
The art of the Khmer empire (which developed until the invasion of the Thai that arrived from the North around the year 1300) is divided by specialists into three periods called Archaic, Classical and Baroque. The first (or Archaic period) was cemented before the middle of the 7th century under the reign of Isanavarman I who founded Sambor Prei Kuk, the kingdom’s capital, whose ruins today are inside an impenetrable jungle. There are remains of temples with a square floor plan most of them built with bricks and with polygonal towers reminiscent of the Indian shikhara. But the clearest influence of Hindu art, especially that of the Gupta period, can be seen in the Buddha statues very similar to those of Sarnath from the Gupta period and a famous figure of Lakshmi* now in the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh which can be considered as the prototype of the female figures sculpted during the first Khmer style (or Archaic period). This statue directly derived from the Indian canon of female beauty and the splendid way of representing her hair, the rich decoration of her belt, her naked body and the serenity of her face make it an unforgettable work of art.
The constructions ordered under the reign of Jayavarman II (802-850) date towards the end of the Archaic period. Jayavarman II was a prince who lived in the court of the Shailendra (in Java) and who later returned to his home country impregnated with the Javanese culture and certainly was eager to imitate it (his reign was contemporary with the artistic masterpiece of the art of Java: the Borobudur temple). It seems that it was during his reign that the formula that constitutes the most characteristic feature of Khmer architecture was invented: the mountain-temple*. Indeed, the temple of Ak Yum in the western Baray is like a three-floor brick pyramid crowned by five towers arranged in quincunx*.
The Classical period began at the end of the 9th century under the reign of Yasovarman I (889-910) and lasted until the middle of the 12th century. Yasovarman I founded Angkor, the world-famous capital of the Khmer empire “discovered” in the jungle of Cambodia in 1860 by the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who actually didn’t discover it (it was always known to the Khmer people and by some westerners) but who did popularize it in the West. Yashovarman I built a gigantic artificial lake, the eastern Baray seven kilometers long by 1,800 meters wide to provide water for the city as well as irrigation for the rice fields. At the center of this large water surface was a hill, the Phnom Bakheng on top of which was built a mountain temple with five overlapping terraces in the shape of a pyramid 13 meters high crowned by four towers at the corners and one at the center.
In 967 was built the temple of Banteay Srei which, by exception in the Khmer art, was not linked to a king’s name but to the Brahmin Yajnavaraha a fervent follower of the cult of Shiva, whose immense culture was sustained by an insatiable curiosity. Located 20 kilometers northwest of Angkor, the Banteay Srei reveals the personality of its founder in every detail. Formed by several concentric quadrangular enclosures in which the typical access pavilions are opened, it seduces the visitor above all by the thousand small figures that twist between the foliage of the architraves and the decoration. The pink sandstone of the walls was chiseled like a jewel and hold pediments of a very original profile. These pediments contain narrative reliefs with characters that illustrate episodes of the sacred legend.
But the highlight of the second Khmer style (or Classical period) was during the reign of Suryavarman II (1113-1150), the king who built Angkor-Wat the huge Vishnu-inspired temple that covers an area of ca. 163 hectares and that served simultaneously as a sepulcher to its founder reason why it is oriented towards the setting sun. Its rectangular enclosure is 1,000 meters long by 800 meters wide. The doors, covered by monumental pavilions, open at the ends of the axes of each of the rectangles that constitute the successive enclosures. The towers of Angkor-Wat are shikharas similar to those of the north of India, but whose square floor plan becomes star-like thanks to the curvature of its edges that gives these towers their characteristic profile. These towers’ moldings and horizontal elements harmoniously overlap. But perhaps the most surprising thing about Angkor-Wat is the enormous amount of low reliefs that together sum up several kilometers in length and that represent men and women, animals, geniuses, titans and gods reflecting the great drama of the cosmic manifestation. It is an endless tapestry in stone with a great power of magic-religious suggestion. Its extraordinary artistic quality is reminiscent of certain precious ivories. In the reliefs of Angkor-Wat the delicate modeling of the living flesh is combined with the grand hieratic immobility that evokes the Egyptian sculpture of the Old Kingdom period.
The exempt sculpture* of the Khmer Classical period doesn’t even come close to the unique beauty of the Angkor-Wat reliefs. The almost square faces, the body represented by conventional modeling, and the lips appeared tight in a characteristic grin. Typical of this time are the statues of sitting Buddha in a meditative attitude protected by the Naga serpent.
The Baroque period or third Khmer style was centered on the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), a fascinating character, a fervent Buddhist against the Brahmanism of all his predecessors. His portrait statues express the strength and energy radiating from his forehead and tight lips, but his strength and energy seem veiled behind his drooping eyelids as if he was in meditation.
Jayavarman VII rebuilt Angkor, then ravaged by the invasion of the Cham, and restored most of the monuments of the country. At the same time he covered his kingdom with Buddhist temples, monasteries, shelters for pilgrims and hospitals for his subjects. But his most extraordinary work was the urban complex of Angkor-Thom (“The Great Capital”) surrounded by a square enclosure of 3 kilometers on each side and centered around the world-famous Bayon temple with its enormous towers with sculpted human faces representing the king as Bodhisattva dominating the four cardinal directions. They are four gigantic faces in each tower that appear as gentle protectors of the universe. Angkor-Thom was a temple-monastery in which thousands of monks lived and whose immense concentric enclosures contained the king’s palaces and the government’s administrative centers. In these buildings of the Baroque period are the statues and reliefs of Buddhist themes in which the famous “Khmer smile” is featured. They are all faces with narrowed eyes that express the calm and strong serenity of one who is detached from all things and feels a sweet compassion for the suffering of all beings.
In the 14th century the Thai looted Angkor which was then abandoned by its inhabitants. The tropical climate favored the rapid growth of the surrounding vegetation and a dense jungle quickly covered all buildings to the point that the knowledge of the place or its location were practically lost. Its “discovery” for the Western world in 1860 attracted the attention of the French School of the Far East (École Française d’Extrême-Orient) which began its restoration, a task that since 1898 has been continuing almost with no interruption.
Devata: A smaller deity in the Hindu tradition. There are male and female devatas. In Hinduism, the devatas that guard the eight, nine and ten cardinal points are called Lokapala (Guardians of the Directions) or, more specifically in ancient Java tradition, Guardians of Nine Directions. Every human activity has its devata, its spiritual counterpart or aspect.
Dvarapala: (From the Sanskrit meaning “door guard”). A door or gate guardian often portrayed as a warrior or fearsome giant, usually armed with a weapon, the most common being the gada (mace). The dvarapala statue is a widespread architectural element throughout Hindu and Buddhist cultures, as well as in areas influenced by them like Java.
Exempt Sculpture: A sculpture that has no contact with any wall. It is independent of any surface, except for the base on which it sits, and because of that, it can be seen from any angle. Exempt sculpture has aesthetic value in itself, unlike the monumental or relief sculpture which are adhered to some vertical element and whose function is mainly ornamental.
Lakshmi: The Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. She is the wife and shakti (energy) of Vishnu, one of the principal deities of Hinduism. Lakshmi is also an important deity in Jainism and found in Jain temples.
Mudra: (From the Sanskrit meaning “seal”, “mark”, or “gesture”). A symbolic or ritual gesture in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. While some mudras involve the entire body, most are performed with the hands and fingers. A mudra is a spiritual gesture and an energetic seal of authenticity employed in the iconography and spiritual practice of Indian religions.
Quincunx: A geometric pattern consisting of five points arranged in a cross, with four of them forming a square or rectangle and a fifth at its center.
Sanskrit: A language of ancient India with a history going back about 3,500 years. It is the primary liturgical language of Hinduism and the predominant language of most works of Hindu philosophy as well as some of the principal texts of Buddhism and Jainism. Sanskrit, in its variants and numerous dialects, was the lingua franca of ancient and medieval India.
Temple Mountain: The dominant scheme for the construction of state temples in the Angkorian period. This style of temples was an architectural representation of Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hinduism. The style was influenced by Indian temple architecture. Enclosures represented the mountain chains surrounding Mount Meru, while a moat represented the ocean. The temple itself took shape as a pyramid of several levels, and the home of the gods was represented by the elevated sanctuary at the center of the temple.