Vietnamese Buddhist Art

by Nguyen Ngoc Vinh | 2009 | 60,338 words

This essay studies Vietnamese Buddhist Art in South and South East Asia Context.—In the early spread of Buddhism to Vietnam, three primary sources are investigated: Chinese histories, Sanskrit and Pali literature and local inscriptions and art: Initially Buddhist sculptures were carried from India to Vietnam by monks and traders. The research are o...

By the word ‘South East Asia’ I would like to limit myself only to those countries that had received strong Indian cultural influence and strong contacted with South Vietnam in the past, namely: Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia.

South East Asia lies between India and China and her civilization received the impetus from these two large countries: The mainland and the Malay Peninsula.

South East Asia has, as is well known, been one of the finest creations of the efforts of French and Dutch archaeologists working in these lands during the last half a century and more. Though much work still remains to be accomplished, one very interesting fact has already emerged clearly from these studies; it is that ideas and institutions, whose origins and rise can be traced in India proper, were carried over to the colonies, where, under the impact of new conditions, they developed new features unknown in the mother country. The credit of restoring the early history of South East Asian the period when Indian cultural influence was predominant goes exclusively to Dutch scholars for Malay Peninsula and to French savants for Indochina. These scholars based their research on primary sources such as ancient inscriptions in Sanskrit, Khmer, references to this region in Chinese annals and accounts of Arab merchants and travelers.[1]

From the early period South East Asia formed one of the most important centres of trade in the world. We have already given an account of the early history of this erea, So far as it has been preserved in Indian literature in the shape of vague traditions, legends and folk stories. Before South East Asian cultural influence came in from outside the people of this region had advanced sufficiently to be able to receive and assimilate the rich store of Indian cults, literature and arts. They had already made sufficient advance in the art of navigations, were familiar with methods of irrigation for rice cultivation.

In the Main Land based on the Sanskrit inscriptions were deciphered by Dutch and French scholars and some very important work was also done by Louis Finot, Georges Coedès, M. K. Sharan….[2] They gave us the most important stages in Main Land history to be reconstructed and cast light on the political, social, and cultural policies of the Empire. In the early centuries A.D., while the Mon peoples who lived in what is now Myanmar, North, and South of the Central Plains and the Western Highlands lay the long Peninsula, and there had been port cities to serving as entrepots for Chinese, Roman, Middle Eastern and India goods, and ships crossed for the exchange. Also as the destinations of Buddhist missionaries spread. There appears to have been a gradual emergence of what is known today as chiefdom societies, conglomerates of communities in which more affluent and proficient ones exerted some political control over less prosperous ones. The chiefdom centers as communities with sufficient resources to inspire subchieftain allegiance, Buddhism was also playing an important role in the establishment of political control. Buddhism with its universal beliefs provided a cultural vocabulary that could be shared with nearby and not so neighboring communities. And this as well known as ‘Dvaravati’ was one of several chiefdom networks known to have existed in the Plains in the first millennium A.D. Then in Southeast of Dvaravati according to the source; South India and South East Asia, here is the hill of Ba Phnom, which gives the name Funan to the kingdom of which we hear in Chinese annals.[3]

These kings called themselves Saila-rajas, kings of the mountain. Under King Kaundinya Jayavarman (478–514)[4] the rulers of Funan acquired greater historical importance, that I had mention above the same chapter. After the death of king Rudravarman the kingdom disintegrated, and in the fifth century a group of Khmer, who had perhaps been vassals of Funan, founded an independent principality to the north of Tonlé Sap, the great lake supplied with water by the river of the same name, which constitutes the heart of present-day Cambodia. At that time with the name is Chenla by the Chinese chronicles.[5] Chenla was gradually developed until in the early ninth century with the appearance of king Jayavarman II around 190 A.D.,[6] according to Studies in Sanskrit Inscriptions of Ancient Cambodia the Angkor manarchy start since here until king Jayavarman VII, who is devotes in Buddhism. In the times of Angkor Emperors the tradition of building shrines to the ancestors were flourishing and the flowering is in the time of king Suryavarman II (1119-1150). Suryavarman built numerous magnificent monuments that reflected his power and expressed the grandeur of the age. The most important is the famous Angkor Vat, in which the court was probably established. The King was a Vishnuite, as indicated by his posthumous name Paramavishnuloka, and the cult of the devaraja may no longer have been celebrated at this time.[7]

Until king Jayavarman VII (1181 A.D.) continuing the tradition of building shrines to the ancestors, the King dedicated the Ta Prohm to his mother in 1186 and the Preah Khan to his father in 1191. These were veritable religious citadels with a huge allocation of personnel and goods. Other important buildings commissioned by the king were the Ta Som, Ta Nei, Banteay Kdei, and Neak Pean. However, his name is mainly associated with his capital Jayashri (fortunate city of victory), now known as Angkor Thom. Surrounded by walls and centered exactly on the Bayon mountain temple, Jayashri was built in accordance with defensive criteria and above all had a precise symbolic layout, which was believed to provide magical protection for the city against attacks and evil influences. Jayavarman replaced the ancient image of the Devaraja (king of the gods) with that of the Buddharaja (lord of the universe). The faces on the Bayon temple are those of Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.[8] under the Angkor monarchy their power had covered a large region from around Haripunjaya in what is now northwest Thailand borders of Burma to the north bordered on Champa, to the east with sea and to the south on the heart of the Malay peninsula. The last king of Angkor, Jayavarman IX, is known to have sent two delegations, one to China and the other to Annam (Vietnam). The last inscription in Sanskrit, found in the moat of Angkor Vat, dates until 1432, generally considered to be the date when Angkor was abandoned, the situation is highly unclear. However, the Khmer Empire was still powerful enough to support the formation of a new neighboring kingdom.

The other great event of the 13th and 14th centuries that is of significance for the advance of the Thai (Sukhothai), who were driven out of southern China and migrated southwards. At first they established contact with the Mon culture of Burma and Dvaravati–to be precise, with the kingdom of Haripunjaya (Lamphun).[9] They then soon became converted to Hinayana and spread their power over extensive areas in the western part of Indochina, wedging themselves between Burma and Khmer Empire. And established the Sukhothai Kingdom and now is Thailand.

The history of Malay Peninsula forms really an essential part of the history of the Sailendra empire, the Sailendra princess, who gave her hand to the Srivijaya prince, belonged to the Funan royal family who had founded a Sailendra kingdom in Java after settling down there as refugees from their homeland in Cambodia.[10] This area before the advent of the Buddhist emigrants in the 7th century seems more than probable from the Hindu.

Indeed all over this area circle of stone are found, either wholly unfashioned or carved into rude representations of Hindu deities, as R. C. Majumdar has been analyses:

“This period of active intercourse must also be regarded as the terminus ante quem for the Indian colonization in Malay Peninsula. For Funan was colonized by the Hindus in the century A.D., and Champa, not later than the second century A.D., it, therefore, stands to reason that the Malay Peninsula, which lies on the route to these distant countries, must have been colonized at an earlier date.”[11]

This analysis had also demonstrated that the Main land was advent in Hinduism too.

This problem also more clearly by:

“King Indravarman erected in 881 the Devaraja at Bakong under the name Indresvara, he also constructed the six towers of Prah ko, sheltering under the aspects of Siva and his spouse.”[12]

When the Sailendra dynasty had flowering all of Java then this region was advantedaged in Mahayana Buddhism:

“A remarkable feature of this Sailendra period is the use of a North India script in the early Mahayana inscriptions of this dynasty in central Java. This script closely resembles that of the 9th century inscriptions of Nalanda and is akin to Bengali. As I have pointed out in my ‘Indian cultural influence in Cambodia’ (first published in 1928) it was from Nalanda in the Pala period that Mahayana Buddhism and this North Indian script spread over Cambodia, Java, Sumatra and other places in South East Asia.”

[13] So that this evindent show that event in the Main land was advanttedaged in Buddhism too. So beside Hindu rituals and its accoutrements came to be associated with kingship and statecraft in early South East Asia, Buddhist presence was initially linked to trade, and both of them had been deeply impacted in trade, political, society and life spiritual in the first millennium A.D.

Footnotes and references:


B. R. Chatterji, History of Indonesia, Meerut: 1967, p. 10.


M. K. Sharan, Studies in Sanskrit Inscriptions of Ancient Cambodia, Delhi: 1974, p. 18.


K. A. N. Sastri, South India and South-East Asia, India: 1978, p. 152.


M. K. Sharan, Studies in Sanskrit Inscriptions of Ancient Cambodia, Delhi: 1974, p. 24.


Ibid, p. 25.


Ibid, p. 25.


K. A. N. Sastri, South India and South-East Asia, India: 1978, p. 157.


Ibid, p. 163.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 57.


B. R. Chatterji, History of Indonesia, Meerut: 1967, p. 13.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 1, Delhi: 2004, p. 70.


K. A. N. Sastri, South India and South East Asia, India: 1978, pp. 155-156.


B. R. Chatterji, History of Indonesia, Meerut: 1967, p. 11.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: