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...

6. The Sculpture and its Reciprocal Influence

At first, I would like to memtion the judge of M. C. Subhadradis Diskul for the establishment and the influence of Buddhist art in South East Asia:

“From about the 5th to the 7th century A.D., through the spread of the Indian Gupta and Post-Gupta cultural influences, the historic arts of South East Asian became firmly established. Their general trend seems to be the same in every country. At first they more or less copied the art of their cultural masters but then the native influences slowly crept in until these arts became independent from their prototypes and varied according to each country, each having its own characteristics. They resemble a tree with the same roots and trunk but which spreads out into many branches.”[1]

Of couse as mention above South East Asian had been established their own some Buddhist schools of art as: Dvaravati (7th–11th), Srivijaya (8th–13th), Angkor (9th–13th).

And they have also certain interchanges among themselves:

“The influence of the Cham Dong– Duong art during that of the Khmer Kulen; the Khmer Angkor Vat style on that of Binh Dinh of late Champa; the strong Khmer influence on the Lopburi art in Thailand and the return of the Thai Ayudhya and Bangkok styles on the present Cambodian art; the influence of the Indian Pala art through Pagan in Burma to the northern Thai art school or that of Chiengsaen; the influence of the Thai late Chiengsaen art on that of Laos; the Dvaravati influence from Thailand on some Khmer and Indonesian Buddha images; the Central Javanese art influence on the Cham art of Mi Son A-1, the Khmer styles of Kulen, Prah Ko and Banteay Srei as well as on Malaysia, on the middle Dvaravati period, the Srivijaya art in Thailand and the Burmese Pagan period.”[2]

These, we can see in each character on each country as:

“The Cham style has that particular flavor, which a inherent in the Khmer monuments, of a perfect blending of spiritual grace with a sublime voluptuousness-something of the spiritual innocence of nature. Nevertheless, the work has a definite character and enchantment of its own, derived partly from the ethnic features of the Cham people.”[3]

Those reciprocation also was mention by W, Zwalf:

“Another state in north central Thailand, Si thep, also produced extraordinary stone sculpture in the same period, Buddhist and Hindu, in a style equally linked with metropolitan Cambodian art.”[4]

Beside that in the South of Malay peninsula the author also assess that:

“Similarly in south Thailand, in small states in the mountainous Malay peninsula, magnificent early Buddhist stone sculpture was carved in a style suggesting close contacts with Cambodia during this period.”[5]

Some Buddhist images were found in South East Asia such as a Buddha figure in bronze found at Dong Duong (Vietnam), a standing Buddha found in Vicinity of Kutei, eastern Kalimantan, Indonesia, that some scholars were recognized:

“It was produced in or about the year 300 and exhibits distinctly the features characteristic of Amaravati style during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. This dividingline did not, however, prevent Indian influences of every kind extending further afield from Indochina, to southern China. Some of them infiltrated directly, but for the most part they avoided this obstacle by way of the much-frequented maritime trade-route between India, Indonesia, Funan and Tongking”[6]


“The classic Southern India Buddha type evolved from the Amaravati-style Buddha of the Satavahana period (firstfourth centuries). The most spectacular metal sculpture belonging to this school is the famous Dong Duong Buddha, excavated in 1911 at the Mahayanist monastery of the same name, founded in the ninth century in Quang Nam Province, Champa, central Vietnam.”[7]

The standing Buddha founded in Kalimantan Indonesia, it also shows the late Amaravati South Asian influence that D.P. Sharma was judged:

“The oldest bronzes of Indonesia are the standing Buddhas dated between fifth to seventh centuries. They were found in Sumatra, central and eastern Java, east Kalimantan and west and South west Sulawesi. These metal images show the late Amaravati South Asian influence.”[8]

But the standing Buddha of east Kalimantan is:

“The left hand holds the robe end in a manner reminiscent of the Dong Duong Buddha.”[9]

Based on the images, the sculpture style and architecture that B. Ph. Groslier admit that; In the north-west, in what is today Burma and Siam, there existed from the 6th century onwards, if not earlier, colonies in which Hinayana was professed. These bore the stamp of Amaravati and Ceylonese culture and artistic styles, as was the case with the early settlements in Indonesia. But in the 7th century a distinctly individual art developed in Dvaravati, one of the successor-state of Funan. It was the product of the spirit and sense of form innate in the Mon people. Yet it would never have come about without the far-ranging stimulus exercised by classical and post-classical Gupta art, or the monumental rockcarvings at Ajanta, Elora, and elsewhere, the fertilizing influence of which was felt in Indonesian art as well. The type of Buddha figure produced in Dvaravati became a prototype followed in one way or another throughout Indochina.[10]

The extremely important of Buddhist art is the Angkor period. The Angkor art are widespread almost of South East Asian. And close to those is Cham art; “The centre of Buddhism here was the monastery of Dong Duong, built in 875. It was founded by the ruler, and characteristically enough was dedicated to Lakshmindralokeshvara. This name consists of two Hindu elements (Lakshmi and Indra) and one Buddhist element (Lokeshvara), and shows very clearly that syncretism was prevalent in this area, as it was in the Khmer Empire and Indonesia as well.”[11]

Actually South East Asia lies on the place that is the meeting place of west and east of trade connection. This led to the spread of Indian culture. The Indians probably came from both the north and south of their country.

According to the archaeologist actually South East Asian before the influence of Indian culture, here had been already of their culture:

“Palaeolithic or early Mesolithic tools and paintings have been found in Anyathia (Burma), Kota Tampan (North Perak), Hoa Binh (Vietnam), Khwae Noi (mistakenly called Fing Noi in Thailand) and Laso at Celebes (Indonesia). The people who produced these artifacts are supposed to be Proto-Melanesians who are now living on scattered islands in the Pacific Ocean as well as the aborigines in Australia.”[12]

Among of their culture,

Hoa-Binh was founded almost all of South East Asia:

“Then comes the Hoabinian culture, a Proto–Neolithic form, which was found on Hoa Binh sites in vietnam, in Laos and in Malaya. It is considered to have coexisted with the appearance of a crude basket pottery. Again in the most recent levels of the Hoabinian figures an independent Proto-Neolithic called Bacsonian in Tonkin. Here the pottery improves and there appear burials by inhumation with an elaborate ritual. This last stage may be dated to the beginning of the 3rd millennium B.C.”[13]

So that when Indian culture came to this place, it was native influence to become it own characteristics. And established the schools such as: Dvaravati (7th–11th), srivijaya (8th–13th), Angkor (9th–13th). These schools are influence each other to bursts forth into flower of their characteristics. That we see, the structures of Champa are closely related to that of Angkor Cambodia, but almost all the temples are isolated.

Or James Fergusson had compared the Angkor, Borobudur with Ramesvaram (Indian temple) as:

“There may have been as much, or nearly as much, labour bestowed on the colonnades at Ramesvaram as on this temple; but otherwise the Indian example cannot compare with either of these two. It has literally no outline and practically no design; while both Angkor Vat and Borobudur are as remarkable for their architectural designs as for their sculptural decorations.”[14]

James Fergusson also observed the temples:

“The mechanical arrangements of the galleries or colonnades above referred to are as perfect as their artistic design. These will be understood from the diagram, (Woodcut No. 461) on one side is a solid wall of the most exquisite masonry, supporting the inner terrace of the temple. It is built of large stones without cement, and so beautifully fitted that it is difficult to dectect the joints between two stones.”[15]

R. C. Majumdar in Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East based on the observation of Mr. Coedès to pointed out the closely of styles of Champa, Pre-Khmer and Javanese of art.[16]

So that Buddhist doctrine and culture spread by way of the trade—routes in South East Asia commercial settlements were the first centres of Indian influence, and Buddhist communities soon sprang up in them. They contained huge Buddhist monasteries which transmitted India’s religious and artistic heritage to the peoples of South East Asia. Through pilgrims, missionaries and textual commentators proved to be one of the most effective means for blending Indian culture with that of Southeast Asia. Still more important for the historian of Buddhist art in South East Asia was the fact that these monks brought with them works of art as well as texts. They copies of standard cult images and buildings in the form of small plastic figures, models, etc. In this way the religious content of the images was transmitted over great distances, as were certain styles that became sanctified through the models on which they were based. This tradition played an important part in establishing the oecumenical unity of Buddhit art throughout South East Asia.

This clearly by the analysis of Dietrich Seckel:

“Another reason for this was that direct connections could be maintained with Burma, and thus with Ceylon. Powerful influences on Dvaravati style were exerted by Khmer art, particularly in the Lopburi area during the 11th and 12th centuries. More important than this was the fact that Dvaravati was the source of the iconographic and formal repertoire of all Hinayana art in Indochina, which subsequently, from the 13th century onwards, had a decisive influence upon the culture and art of Thailand.”[17]

Sachchidanand Sahai, in book of Cultural Interface of India with Asia religion, art and architecture, edited by Anupa Pande & Parul Pandya Dhar had also recognized the contact and similarity that of Angkor and Cham’s Stupas:

“Louis Finot, continuing with this idea in 1911, recalled that some of the Cham tower, notably Po Nagar at Nha Trang, have as a terminal motif, a crowing stone in the form of a linga, and also that lingas are frequently carved with human faces. He formulated a theory that the towers at the Bayon, with a somewhat phallic form, were enormous lingas sculptured with faces, sheltering those worshipped in the shrines inside.”[18]

Bachchan Kumar has also examines whether the primitive art style of Champa has any common features with the art of Cambodia, Java and India. And he points out that:

“The Cham kingdom established friendly relations with Indonesia, an extreme that is reflected in the style of the Dong Duong complex, Khmer had also invaded the Cham territory and annexed Champa, whose influence is clearly apparent in the style of My Son.”[19]

Beside that Bachchan Kumar also shows us that:

“The Dong Duong complex was probably one of the largest monuments not only in Champa but also throughout the entire sphere of Indian culture in South East Asia.”[20]

A variety of Buddhist ethnic groups have inhabited South Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia where Buddhism has encompassed quite distinct cultures, each with its own art style. The most notable are the Mons, the Khmers, the Thai and the Javanese. The rich rice plains of Thailand and Cambodia, South Vietnam and the tropical climate, combined with irrigation systems, assured the development of prosperous states. However, underpopulation has been a chronic problem, and a major objective of war and conquest was the acquisition of population to grow food and build up the state’s resources.

Buddhism reached the area from India by the early centuries of our era, but its first surviving remains date from the fourth or fifth centuries. The earliest sculptures are bronzes from India or Sri Lanka. They no doubt served as models which were copied, but local styles developed rapidly. The first known state in Thailand is that of the Buddhist Mon flourishing from the sixth to the eleventh centuries in central Thailand. It is referred to today as Dvaravati, from the appearance of this name on excavated coins. A rich heritage of sculpture, both Hinayanist and Mahayanist, in terracotta, stone and bronze, as well as remains of stupas, survive from this splendid Buddhist culture. At Prakhonchai and Ban Fai have revealed masterpieces of lostwax bronze casting closely akin to Cambodian art. They are our only indications of Buddhist states in northeast Thailand of the highest sophistication in the seventh and eighth centuries. Another state in north central Thailand, Si Thep, also produced extraordinary stone sculpture in the same period.

Our knowledge of the early Khmer kingdoms in Cambodia dates from the sixth century. Here Hinduism and Buddhism often within a single period were honoured and followed by the rulers. Superb stone sculpture has survived from there early kingdoms, some of it Buddhist, together with numerous, mainly Hindu, brick and stone temples based on Indian prototypes but magnificently decorated in the Cambodian idiom.[21]

In Cambodia the twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw an extraordinary growth of an empire, with a profusion of building and carving quite unique in world history. This period saw the creation of Angkor Vat, one of the greatest stone temples in the world, and included in the last decades of the empire the creation of a complex Buddhist temple, Bayon with large towers bearing huge faces generally interpreted as images of the deified king in the form of a Bodhisattva. In all the lands under Khmer domination, including much of Thailand, vast quantities of sculpture were produced.[22]

The mammoth Cambodian empire collapsed in the thirteenth century, and the country languished into modern times on a relatively small scale. There was continual confliet with new neighbours, the Thai, whose first state appeared in the thirteenth century at Sukhothai in north central Thailand. This kingdom was according to its stone inscription, relatively egalitarian under a just and tolerant king, in strong contrast with Cambodia’s highly stratified society and deified kings. Its religion was Hinayana Buddhism following close links with the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka.

The Champa with Buddhist temple is Dong Duong in A.D., 875, was an important centre of Cham Buddhists.

“It most striking feature is the tendency towards extreme in both scale and arrangements. The same tendency is also seen in the decorative pattern. The heaviness in the monument is also seen. It gives the impression of a solid, heavy and somewhat monotonous structure. The arches no longer have an aesthetic appeal of refinement.”[23]

This temple was dedicated to Lakshmindralokeshvara. This name consists of two Hindu elements and one Buddhist element, and show very clearly that syncretism was prevalent in this area, as it was in the Khmer Empire and Indonesia as well.[24]

A substantial quantity of bronze Buddhist images datable from this period, have been recovered from the Dong Duong, and these indicate features in common with contemporary finds from other regions of South East Asia. The Buddha figures again show the inspirations of the Indian post-Gupta tradition that simultaneously reached Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia.[25] The majority of the bodhisattva figures, on the contrary, appear to be more closely related to the Pallava and Calukya styles of south India.

In the case of Funan, as the same case of the countries of South East Asia, Indian culture came direct from India as this is explicitly by stated in the Chinese texts.[26] Saivism, Vaisnavism and Buddhism gained admission into and flourished side by side in Funan. The arts also made its influence felt. The temples and images of Buddha, Bodhisattva and gods similar to those in India of Gupta and post-Gupta styles.[27] So the culture of India has been one of the world’s most powerful civilizing forces. That so why Dr. Ram Ranjan Das has been observes Vietnamese, and South East Asian, virtually owe their very existence to the creative influence of Indian ideas which took deep root, and had blossomed in glorious manner in those countries.[28] he has also assumed that the art of these indiansed kingdoms owed its extraordinary qualities basically to the genius of the peoples of the native soil. For although the modes may be Indian, the expression and the content are local.[29] So we can assume that although Vietnamese and South East Asian was influenced by Indian Buddhist art but in reality the art of this region developed to a radiant grade. They receiving influence from outside but they did not get dissolved by outside.

Footnotes and references:


Perala Ratnam, Studies in Indo-Asian Art and Culture, Vol 3, Delhi 1974, p. 25.


Perala Ratnam, Studies in Indo-Asian Art and Culture, Vol 3 Delhi 1974, p. 27.


Heinrich Zimmer, The Art of Indian Asia, Vol 1, New York: 1968, p. 151.


Buddhist, Art and Faith, ed by W. Zwalf, London: 1985, p. 175.




Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 51.


Cultural Interface of India with Asia Religion, Art and Architecture, ed by A. Pande & P. P. Dhar, Delhi: 2004, p.162.


Ibid, p. 251.


Cultural Interface of India with Asia Religion, Art and Architecture, ed by A. Pande & P. P. Dhar, Delhi: 2004, p. 163.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 53.


Ibid, p. 55.


Perala Ratnam, Studies in Indo-Asian Art and Culture. Vol 3, Delhi: 1974, p. 23.




James Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, Vol 1, Delhi: 1998, p. 383.


James Fergusson, History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, Vol 1, Delhi: 1998, p. 383.


R. C. Majumdar, Suvarnadvipa Hindu Colonies of the Far East, Vol 2, New Delhi: 2004, p. 342.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 53.


Ibid, p. 177.


Bachchan Kumar, The Buddhist Art: Vietnamese Perspectives, Delhi: 2007, p. 114.




Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, trans by Ann E. Keep, London: 1964, p. 55.




Bachchan Kumar, The Buddhist Art Vietnamese Perspectives, Delhi: 2007, p. 113.


Dietrich Seckel, The Art of Buddhism, London; 1964, p. 55.


Pande & P. P. Dhar, ed, Cultural Interface of India with Asia Religion Art & Architecture New Delhi: 2004, p. 163.


James C. M. Khoo, ed, Art & Archaeology of Fu Nan Pre-Khmer Kingdom of the Lower Mekong Valley, Bangkok: 2003, p. 7.


Heidi Tan, ed, Vietnam from Myth to Modernity, Singapore: 2008, p. 28.


Dr. Ram Ranjan Das, Art Traditions of Cambodia, Calcutta: 1974, p. 5.


Ibid, p. 21.

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