How does religion affect art in Southeast Asia?




The quality and quantity of religious art found in Southeast Asia is an incredible testament to influence of theology on the people of this region. This can be clearly illustrated in not only the architecture, but in the sculpture and paintings that originate from this part of the world. As such there is not always a clear distinction as to the particular religion influencing a piece of artwork. “Indigenous nature and ancestor worship, Hindu-Buddhist, Muslim, and Christian beliefs co-mingle in various degrees among the peoples of the region.” (Roxas-Lim13) This quote highlights on the religious diversity of the region which includes the mainland countries of Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, and Malaysia. The maritime countries include Brunei, East Malaysia, East Timor, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore. (Wikipedia) This wide range of geographic as well as religious cultures gives rise to a similar but inevitably diverse mix of art and culture. This highlight on religious art movements is not specific to Southeast Asia. As seen in this wiki on Art from India religious beliefs effected art in many different cultures.

Although the focus of this research is to highlight on the artistic culture of this region and the religious influence on it, the inclusion of a brief history of the region as well as a description of the development of religion must also be present. Southeast Asia was originally populated around 45,000 years ago. It was evident that maritime trade was in full effect by 5000 BCE with some ships being ocean worthy made it as far as Madagascar. The people of Southeast Asia were originally said to be animist (the idea that the soul lives in all things both human, animal, plant, etc…), but was replaced first by Hinduism and soon after Buddhism. These beliefs held firm until the induction of Islam in the 11th century. Trade and warfare greatly influenced the shift in religion of the region.

One of the main focuses of ancient Southeast Asian art was the large scale religious temples built to honor of both Buddhist and Hindu deities. There are many sites which throughout this area of the world that not only still exist today but in some ways dwarf the religious architecture of any other culture in the world. A key example of this would be the temple at Angkor Wat. The monument was built in dedication to the Hindu gods Shiva (the creator), to Vishnu (the preserver of the universe), and to Brahma (who raised the earth) (Scarre and Fagan 368). The sheer size and detail of the temple are incredible. From the basis of construction the temple was laid out to illustrate religious ideas and deity worship. This included the ideas of cosmic alignment and as such the temple is built to display different solar and lunar events throughout the year. To accomplish this temple was built to precise specification allowing it to accurately display yearly occurrences such as the summer and winter solstice.

The detail in which the temple was decorated is profound. Almost every surface of the temple has been carved with items of religious nature such as the huge relief carvings illustrating such scenes as the hells and heavens of Hindu where depictions of punishment are prominent and even detailed to illustrate the crimes committed that would earn you this particular punishment. Reliefs on other sections of the temple tell the stories of Hindu religion, giving accounts of the life of Krishna.

Not only was the layout important as it associates to the cosmos but also the position in relation to the highest peak in the country. In Cambodia the mountain is Phnom Kulen. Eact country has a different mountain of worship such as Maha Meru in Java, Phan Si Phan in North Vietnam, and Gunung Agung in Bali. These high peak moutains are all said to be in relation to the Himilayas. The religious importance of the mountains includes the belief that the tallest peaks are center of the universe where the gods reside. The mountains all have clear directional points and gods, guardians, and rituals to represent each direction.

Sculpture Buddhism
The sculpture found at the temple of Angkor Thom in Cambodia illustrates the Buddhist influence of the region. The sculptures are usually done in a likeness of Buddha. This includes being set in religious posed that symbolize more than just aesthetics. Not only were these sculptures used for religious purposes but the attention to detail proved that they were also made as a dedication to an individual. Facial design gives each figure an identity; though they have share similar form characteristics such as the closed eyes and grin of contentment. The sculptures are renowned for the attention to natural aspects such as the display of eyes under closed eyelids as well as lines found naturally in the skin. The ways in which the sculptured figures are shown also have a very uniform quality. The ears are always portrayed elongated with vertical slits that at one time possibly held earrings. The headdress usually contains an image of Buddha along with the hair being tightly coiled in Buddhist curls.
In larger scale sculptures of Buddhist faces and or Buddhist demons known as rakshasa holding water spirits known as nagas are found

all over religious temples such as Angkor Thom in Cambodia. These sculptures and there positioning highlight aspects of the creation

story in the belief system of Southeast Asia. Their position plays a huge role in the worship of Buddha and the insurance of good crop

yields. The origins of these sculptures at the Temple of Angkor Thom are traced back to Jayavarman VII’s, the builder of Angkor

Thom, conversion to Buddhism.


Sculpture Hinduism

Sculpture is not limited to the worship of Buddha however. Many examples of Hindu Sculpture have also been found throughout
Southeast Asia. These sculpture frequently one of the three deities of Hinduism. Though they are from the same religion the same deities can be told apart by certain attributes that make them individual. Brahma is usually shown with 4 heads, 4 faces, and 4 arms. Each face is usually shown mouthing the four Vedas of Hinduism. Of the three deities Brahma is unique in that in his depictions he usually lacks the inclusion of a weapon. Not only were these illustrations uniform in nature, they also had mythological stories associated with the attributes given to them.

Sculptures of Shiva usually illustrate the god is meditation position or in the act of dancing. He is portrayed with 4 arms, of which one holds a trident while the other a deer. Shiva is also shown with a third eye as well as a crescent moon on his forehead. Shiva is more widely worshiped Hindu god and in the case of Shavian Hinduism referred to as the supreme god resulting in the abundance not only of Shiva sculpture, but of shrines dedicated to him as well. BronzeShiva_4608.jpgThe god Vishnu is the third god of Hindu religion. Like Shiva, Vishnu is sometimes viewed as the supreme god in Vaishnavite. The god Vishnu is again illustrated in the typical Hindu deity form having four arms. In the case of Vishnu, the god is portrayed holding a chakra wheel, a mace, a conch shell and a lotus flower. These attributes again have specific meaning to the god as well as a mythological story to explain their3119.jpg significance. It is important to note that each of the gods was explained to have more than one idealistic form and be able to take the gender of either male or female depending on what form the chose to be.

Although there is a focus on the architecture and sculpture, usually due to the fact that in many cases large scale items were able h2_1989_238_41.jpgh2_1998_213.jpgto be recovered for the most part intact. The range of art from Southeast Asia spanned from ceramics and painting to writing, textiles, metallurgy and dancing. Southeast Asian ceramics was much as in their sculpture illustrated huge attention to detail. The focuses of the craftsmen exceeded that of simple utilitarian vessels and spread to simply artistic forms such as figures and detailed containers that were much more than painted jars. Ceramics contained much of the same religious subject matter as discussed earlier, but also broadened to include figurines of everyday people and animals. Ceramics also included highly decorated pieces of kitchenware such as plates and cooking containers. The combination of relief designs and painting attributed to the creation of brilliant ceramics which give the idea that the focus in this time was more than just utilitarian. The decoration of everyday objects proved that this was a culture culturally prospering.

Everyday Items
Everyday decorative items were not limited to ceramics. All sorts of items including weapons, chew boxes, and clothing became objects of the artistic sphere. The malay keris, a sword with symbolic importance was crafted with highly detailed carvings and inlayed with precious metals and stones. In some cases they may have even included beadwork and animal parts such as a hornbill’s beak or human inclusions such as a tassel of hair. re-exposure-of-keris-nogososro-utuh.jpg

Southeast Asia is rich in material culture, much of which is tightly entwined with the religious for the region. The theological importance of these findings is immeasurable to the people of Southeast Asia. In many cases the cultural practices and religious beliefs that resulted in the art forms found in Southeast Asia are still practiced today. As such this is a living example of culture. Beautiful archaeological sites such as Angkor Wat were at least reasonably preserved by the geographical layout as well as the growth of the jungle around it. This isn’t to say that human influence did not both negatively and positively affect these sites. In most cases looting did take place, and in reality does still take place in the form of black market art dealings. On the positive side the people of Southeast Asia work to preserve their culture both for religious reasons as well as economical ones. Sites such as Angkor Wat not only serve as religious locations but also in present day as tourist destinations. In hope of preserving these sites archaeologist must advocate both correct preservation practices as well as assist in the actions taken against black market art dealings if the culture of this region is to remain intact for years to come.