Art and Architecture of Southeast Asia before 1200 CE

An ancient wall painting depicting the awakening of the Buddha Taṇhaṅkara in Upali Thein temple, Bagan, Myanmar / Photo by Jacklee, Wikimedia Commons

The art and architecture of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by Indian religions and artistic styles.

Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh / 08.12.2018
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief

Sculpture in Southeast Asia

Overview: Influences on Southeast Asia

A bronze standing Buddha: Sculpted in the Mon Dwaravati style, this bronze statue from the 7th century has an idealized rather than realistic physical form, including shell-like curls for hair.

The communities and cultures of Southeast Asia were in direct contact with India through trade routes and were heavily influenced by Indian religion and art. The Pali and Sanskrit languages, Indian script, and Hindu epic literature—such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata—were transmitted to Southeast Asia during this period.

Hinduism and Buddhism were brought to the region and became the main religions practiced from about the 1st century BCE to the 13th century CE. These influences played a considerable role in shaping the art and sculpture of Southeast Asia.

Sculpture in Southeast Asia

Between the 1st and 8th centuries CE, several Indic kingdoms competed for dominance in Southeast Asia, particularly the Cambodian Funan and the Burmese Mon. Most of the Southeast Asian sculpture of the period 300–600 CE was heavily influenced by the style of the Gupta Empire in India, which patronized Buddhist art in the Greco–Buddhist style.

Buddhist art in Thailand was shaped both by direct contact with Indian traders and the expansion of the Mon kingdom. In later periods, Chinese influences predominated in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and more wooden sculpture survives from across the region.

Buddhist Sculptures

Southeast Asian Buddha statues of this period were characterized by a purity of statuary and a delicacy in portraying the folds of clothing. Symbolic, shell-like curls were used to render the hair of the Buddha. Somewhat less attention was paid to the realism of artistic details. A number of votive tablets and Sanskrit inscriptions are also found in the region.


The birth of Brahma: This unfinished pediment is a fine example of Hindu art in the style of Champa. The relief sculpture shows the birth of the Hindu god Brahma from a lotus growing from the navel of Vishnu.

The Indic civilization of Champa flourished along the coasts of what is now central and southern Vietnam from 500 CE onward. This civilization left an impressive artistic legacy of sandstone sculptures, both in the round and in relief. These sculptures expressed religious themes and synthesized elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and indigenous cults. They depicted common themes, such as Hindu and Buddhist deities and icons , as well as scenes from daily life.

The Cham created freestanding sandstone sculptures in the round, as well as high and bas-relief carvings of sandstone. In general, they appear to have preferred sculpting in relief, and they excelled at sculpture in high relief .

Cham sculpture went through a marked succession of historical styles, the foremost of which produced some of the best works of Southeast Asian art. The subject-matter of Cham sculpture is drawn mostly from the legends and religion of Indian civilization. Many of the sculptures are representations of particular Hindu and Buddhist deities, most prominently Siva but also Lokesvara, Visnu, Brahma, Devi, and Shakti. Such sculptures may have served a religious purpose rather than being purely decorative.

Painting in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asian painting from 300–600 CE mostly took the form of frescoes and reflected Hindu and Buddhist themes.

Southeast Asian Painting from 300–500 CE

Very little Southeast Asian painting from 300–600 CE has survived to the present day, owing to the heat and humidity of tropical and subtropical weather. One can only hypothesize the styles and techniques that painters would have used based on evidence gleaned from sculptures (which are far more durable and have survived), contemporary painting styles in India (which played a large role in influencing Southeast Asian art), and literary texts that talk about painting. The few examples of painting that do survive are frescoes on cave or temple walls.


Artists worked in perishable mediums, painting mostly on wood, cloth, and palm leaf, none of which have withstood the rigors of the Southeast Asian climate. The most durable forms of Southeast Asian art are sculpture and architecture in stone.

It is likely that stone sculptures, both in relief and in the round , were originally painted in bright colors, but these have worn away over the course of time, leaving the underlying stone exposed. Frescoes, usually executed on cave temple or monastery walls, were the most common form of Southeast Asian painting.


The themes most commonly depicted would probably mimic those found in contemporary Southeast Asian sculpture—primarily religious themes from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which originated in the Indian subcontinent, were introduced to Southeast Asia from the 1st century BCE to the 1st century CE.

Southeast Asia subsequently came under the influence of several powerful Indic dynasties , which established kingdoms, practiced and spread Hinduism and Buddhism through the region, and patronized art that reflected their religious beliefs.

Hindu art commonly depicts figures from the Hindu pantheon, including the gods Shiva and Vishnu and the divine female creative principle or Shakti. Buddhist art depicted images of the Buddha, the Bodhisattvas or enlightened beings, apsaras or celestial dancers, and tales and parables from Buddhist lore, including the Jataka tales—stories about the previous incarnations of the Buddha, both in human and in animal form.

It is also possible that Southeast Asian painting would have depicted court and battle scenes, animals both real and mythical, and scenes from daily life. In Thai art, the most frequent narrative subjects for paintings included the Jataka stories, episodes from the life of the Buddha, the Buddhist heavens and hells, and scenes of daily life. Some of the scenes are influenced by Thai folklore instead of following strict Buddhist iconography .

Frescoes in Sigiriya

Sigiriya fresco: The frescoes at Sigiriya depict graceful female figures bearing flowers.

The most famous surviving examples of Southeast Asian-style frescoes are to be found in the rock fortress and palace ruin of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka. These date from about the 5th–6th centuries CE and depict graceful female figures bearing flowers. These figures are hypothesized to be apsaras, or women of the king’s court.

The paint is applied in sweeping strokes, using more pressure on one side than the other and results in deep colors toward the edge. These frescoes are reminiscent of the contemporary frescoes in the Ajanta caves in India, which are masterpieces of Buddhist religious art and depict figures from the Buddhist pantheon and scenes from the Jataka tales.

Northern-Style Temples in Southeast Asia

North Indian temples are often simpler and less orthodox than those in South, and all people are permitted to worship within them.


India’s temple architecture was developed from the creativity of Sthapathis and Shilpis, both of whom belong to the larger community of craftsmen and artisans called Vishwakarma. A small Hindu temple consists of an inner sanctum; the garbha graha or womb-chamber in which the idol or deity is housed; a congregation hall; and sometimes an antechamber and porch.

The garbhagriha is crowned by a tower-like shikara. At the turn of the first millennium CE, two major types of temples existed:

  1. The northern or Nagara style .
  2. The southern or Dravida type of temple.

The Northern Style

In contrast to the elaborate appearance of South Indian temples, most temples in North India are very simple in design. This is thought to be due, at least in part, to the constant attacks Hindus have suffered from Muslims historically in this region. North Indian temples also tend to be less orthodox than those in the south. In many cases, all castes and categories of people are permitted to enter the innermost sanctum of these temples and worship the deity personally. However, in such cases, the deities are not adorned with valuable jewelry.

The innermost heart of this type of temple is a sanctum where a deity (usually cast in fixed stone) is present, followed by a large hall where lay worshipers can stand and obtain darśana, or divine audience.

Darśana is a Sanskrit term meaning sight, vision, apparition, or glimpse, and is most commonly used for visions of the divine in Hindu worship. These visions are either of a deity, a very holy person, or an artifact . An individual can receive darśana, or the blessing of a particular deity, within the temple, or from a saintly person, such as a great guru.

Hindu temple at Tilla Gogian: A small Hindu temple consists of an inner sanctum, a congregation hall, and sometimes an antechamber and porch. It also contains the garbha graha, or womb-chamber, in which the idol or deity is housed.

In this type of temple, there may or may not be a number of additional corridors and halls, in addition to these aforementioned worship rooms. However, in all cases, there will be space for devotees to circulate the temple in a clockwise fashion. In Hindu culture , this kind of circumambulation is a mark of respect. Many of these temples were destroyed during the Islamic rule of India during the Mughal Empire .

Śikhara, a Sanskrit word that means mountain peak, refers to the tallest tower in Northern Hindu temple architecture. Because the sikhara tower is always situated over the sanctum sanctorum, where the presiding deity is enshrined, it is the most prominent and visible part of this temple’s architecture. Originally, the sikharas were homogeneous in design but, over time, secondary sikharas, which are smaller and narrower, have been plated on to the sides of many of these main sikharas.

Notable Northern Temples


[LEFT]: Kedarnath Temple: Kedarnath Temple dedicated to Shiva, in Kedarnath, Uttarakhand.
[RIGHT]: Adinath Jain Temple: Sikhara in Khajuraho.

The Somnath Mandir, a temple in Gujarat, is considered to be one of the twelve jyotirlinga shrines of Lord Shiva and has a history dating as far back as the beginning of the common area. Delhi’s Chhatarpur Temple, notable for its size, is one of the largest Hindu temple complexes in India.

Southern-Style Temples in Southeast Asia

South India gave rise to the Dravida style of architecture and is where most of the largest Hindu temples are found.


A Hindu temple is a place of worship for followers of Hinduism . A characteristic of most temples is the presence of murtis (statues) of the Hindu deity to whom the temple is dedicated. They are usually dedicated to one primary deity, the presiding deity, and other deities associated with the main deity. However, some temples are dedicated to several deities, and others are dedicated to murtis in an iconic form .

Many temples are in key geographical points, such as on a hilltop or near waterfalls, caves, and rivers. The main architectural styles in India are the Nagara style of North India and the Dravida style of South India.

The Dravidian Style

Kapaleeswarar Temple: The tower (gopuram) of the Kapaleeswarar Temple, a typical South Indian temple complex in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Dravidian architecture was an architectural idiom that emerged in the Southern part of the Indian subcontinent, or South India. This style of architecture consists primarily of temples with pyramid-shaped towers constructed of sandstone, soapstone, or granite.

Dravidian-style temples consist almost invariably of the three following parts, arranged in differing manners according to the age in which they were executed.

  1. The porches, or mantapas, which always cover and precede the door leading to the cell.
  2. Gate-pyramids, or gopuras, which are the principal features in the quadrangular enclosures that surround the more notable temples.
  3. Pillared halls (chaultris or chawadis), which are used for many purposes and are the invariable accompaniments of these temples.

In addition to these, a South Indian temple usually has a tank, called the kalyani or pushkarni, to be used for sacred purposes or for the convenience of the priests. Dwellings for the priesthood are typically attached to this kalyani.

The Brihadishwara Temple at sunset in Thanjavur, India: The large vedic brahminical temples of southern India follow the pan-Indian Sanskrit agama scriptural traditions.

Rituals within these temples tend to be orthodox and elaborate, especially in the large vedic brahminical temples that follow the pan-Indian Sanskrit agama scriptural traditions. Apart from the main fixed stone deities, processional deities made of panchaloha (an alloy of gold, silver, copper, zinc, and tin) are bathed, dressed, decorated with valuables, and taken out in processions for festivals throughout the year.

The richer the temple, the more elaborate the festivals. However, many ancient temples in small villages with great architectural and historical heritage value languish for lack of funds for maintenance.

Notable Temples in South India

Chettikulangara Devi Temple: The Chettikulangara Devi temple in Kerala is one of the most famous examples of South Indian architecture.

Most of the largest Hindu Temples are found in South India, and specifically in Tamil Nadu. Many large bannabs (grand stone temples) still stand in South India. Famous South Indian temples include the Tirumala Venkateswara Temple in Andhra Pradesh, the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, the Chettikulangara Devi temple in Kerala, among others.

Monumental Reliefs in Southeast Asia

Sculpture and architecture were intimately connected in Southeast Asia, and monumental reliefs were used to decorate the walls of buildings.

Overview: Relief Sculpture

Relief is a sculptural technique that gives the impression that the sculpted material has been raised above the background plane. This is accomplished by cutting into a flat surface of stone or wood, thereby lowering the field and leaving the unsculpted parts seemingly raised.

Reliefs depicting figures that are at least life-size or bigger or are attached to monuments of some sort are termed monumental reliefs by art historians, thus distinguishing them from small metal or ivory reliefs, portable sculptures, and diptychs.

Monumental Reliefs in Southeast Asia

Monumental reliefs represent an important facet of ancient Southeast Asian art, where sculpture and architecture were intimately connected with one another. As a result, relief sculpture was generally used to decorate the walls of buildings—particularly Hindu and Buddhist temples—and was accomplished on a very large scale.

It was greatly influenced by Indian styles and techniques, and it generally portrayed religious themes with high iconographic precision. Court and battle scenes, scenes depicting daily life and the customs of the people, and animals (both real and mythical) were other common subjects.

Most of ancient Southeast Asian relief sculpture was done in bas-relief, where the projecting images have shallow overall depth, although the kingdom of Champa in southern and central Vietnam excelled in haut-relief sculpture, which was marked by much greater depth and undercut areas.

Notable examples of monumental reliefs include Borobodur in Java, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Sanchi case in India, and many South Indian temples, including the Unakoti group of sculptures at Kailashahar, Tripura, India.


Lalitavistara Deva listening to Dhamma: Detail of carved relief from Borobudur, depicting a figure from the Buddhist pantheon.

The most famous examples of monumental relief sculptures in Southeast Asia are to be found in the 9th-century Buddhist temple of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia. Built during the rein of the Indic Sailendra Dynasty , the temple is constructed to reveal many different levels of terraces, many of which are heavily ornamented with intricate bas-reliefs.

In total, there are 2,672 individual bas-reliefs, 1,460 of which depict narratives from Buddhist lore, including the birth and life of the Buddha. The remaining 1,212 are solely decorative.

Khmer Temples

The Churning of the Sea of Milk: This episode from Hindu mythology is depicted in bas-relief on the south of the east wall of Angkor Wat’s third enclosure.

The Khmer of Cambodia were also renowned for their monumental bas-reliefs, which usually took narrative form to depict stories from history and mythology. They decorated the tympana (semi-circular arched spaces above a doorway), walls, and ceilings with complex scenes.

The earliest surviving example of Khmer narrative bas-relief sculpture comes from the 10th-century Hindu temple of Banteay Srei, which has carved tympana and towers that depict scenes from the great Hindu epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

The most famous example of Khmer bas-relief sculpture is undoubtedly at the 12th-century Hindu temple of Angkor Wat, which has 13,000 square meters of narrative bas-reliefs on the walls of its outer gallery.


The reliefs have a diverse range of themes. They depict mythical, spiritual beings from the Buddhist pantheon such as bodhisattvas , apsaras (celestial dancers or musicians), gandharvas (male nature spirits), and asuras (demons). They also depict images of people, such as the king and queen, princes, priests, courtiers, soldiers, servants, and commoners.

Many of these reliefs provide glimpses of scenes of daily life; for example, the relief sculptures from Borobudur depict scenes from 8th-century Java, including courtly palace life, a hermit in the forest, commoners in the village, temple and marketplace scenes, native vernacular architecture , and flora and fauna. These bas-relief sculptures have served as a reference for historians in the study of ancient Javanese architecture, weaponry, fashion, and transportation.

King and queen with their subjects: The bas relief from Borobudur Temple depicts a palace scene of a king and queen accompanied by their subjects. It is strongly suggested that the relief depicts an actual scene of the Sailendran royal court.

In addition, a group of 160 panels of monumental relief sculpture provides a complete illustration of the law of karma or the principles of cause and effect. There are depictions of both praiseworthy activities (including charity and pilgrimage) and blameworthy activities (ranging from gossip to murder), with their corresponding rewards and punishments. These panels provide particularly complex scenes of daily life, depicting the full panorama of samsara (the endless cycle of birth and death).

Provided by Boundless, published by Lumen Learning under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.