Southeast Asian Art Research Paper

This sample Southeast Asian Art Research Paper is published for educational and informational purposes only. Free research papers are not written by our writers, they are contributed by users, so we are not responsible for the content of this free sample paper. If you want to buy a high quality research paper on history topics at affordable price please use custom research paper writing services.

From highly decorated pottery and small bronze utilitarian objects to the great stupa of Borobudur in Java, Indonesia, and the monumental temple complex at Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, Southeast Asia’s astonishing array of art and architecture was the product of innovation, invention, and transformation of cross-cultural influence, especially Hinduism and Buddhism.

Southeast Asia has some of the most distinctive and impressive art traditions in the world. From earliest times into the present the countries in mainland and insular Southeast Asia have been centers of artistic innovation and the recipients and transformers of artistic influences from outside. The names Indochina and Indonesia point to some of the outside influences but they mask a deeper sense of cultural layering, innovation, and invention.

The Earliest Art

Some of the earliest pottery and bronze artifacts in the world have been discovered in small rural villages in northern Thailand. Starting about 3600 BCE, fine decorated pottery was made at sites such as Ban Chiang and Non Nok Tha. The oldest examples from Ban Chiang are a grayish pottery decorated with incised designs, followed in about 1000 BCE by striking beige-colored pots with fine geometric shapes and restrained painted decoration in red ochre pigment. The final phase, lasting until about 250 BCE, includes elaborately shaped vessels with a profusion of painted linear decoration usually forming complex swirls.

The Bronze Age in Southeast Asia began about 2000 BCE with utilitarian implements found at Non Nok Tha. The discovery of these artifacts indicates that Southeast Asia, one of the first areas in the world in which people mastered the art of shaping bronze. Large-scale use of bronze in Southeast Asia occurred much later, however, from about 500 BCE to about 350 BCE. Some magnificent large-scale works distributed over a vast area of mainland and insular Southeast Asia date from that period. This Dong Son culture, so named after the first site unearthed in northern Vietnam, produced, among other objects, decorated socketed axes, elaborate bronze flasks, and, most famously, more than two hundred impressive metal drums. The drums are decorated with linear designs typically including a sun and star pattern at the center of the tympanum, around which images of circling birds and geometric ornaments appear in concentric rings. Some examples include three-dimensional frogs situated at the edge of the tympanum. Along the sides long narrow boats with plumed passengers are aligned as if in a procession. The symbolism of heavenly bodies and water suggests the drums had a religious significance, but they may have been used in warfare or in burial or ceremonial rituals.

Bronzes have been found as far as Lake Sentani in West Papua, Indonesia. This wide distribution, combined with the great diversity of styles throughout the Indonesian archipelago, indicates that trade in these artifacts, as well as Roman coins and early Indian items, took place prior to the formal entry of Buddhist and Hindu art from India in the ninth century CE. Powerful rulers most likely commanded the production, export, and import of valuable and elaborate artifacts.

Indian Influences

The earliest contacts between western Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, and India were most likely in the form of trade carried forth by merchants originating in both India and the islands of Southeast Asia. The Chinese were also part of this early commerce and, traveling as Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims, may have played an important role in diffusing these religious beliefs. It is uncertain precisely when this trade began but the earliest Indian and Chinese accounts vaguely refer to Indianized sites in Funan in the third century in Cambodia, and the Srivijaya dynasty centering on Palembang in South Sumatra. Large quantities of (Chinese) Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) ceramics date the Sumatran sites to about the seventh to the ninth centuries. It appears that no invasion or colonization from India ever occurred. Southeast Asian rulers transformed social and religious concepts into practical models for their own society.


Metropolitan Buddhist and Hindu art from India became prevalent beginning about 800 in the Dieng plateau of central Java with a series of elaborate stone religious buildings. The earliest, built under the Sailendra rulers (778–864), are Buddhist and include the most impressive monument of ancient Indonesia, the great stupa of Borobudur.

A stupa, intended to be a monument to the Buddha, is often a giant reliquary containing some part of the body of the Buddha within its structure. It also functions as a cosmic model, incorporating the cardinal directions and the idea of the rotation of the universe around an axis. The sculpture on a stupa takes the viewer through the stages of enlightenment, beginning at the level of the everyday world, moving through the story of the life of the Buddha, and then beyond into the realms of nirvana. The stupa at Borobudur does all of this, but in a new design and on a massive scale. Built of approximately 57,000 cubic meters of stone, it has been called the largest unified work of art in the world.

Stairways lead up to the rectangular lower levels of the monument. At each tier one turns left and walks past subtly carved relief panels depicting the life of the Buddha amplified with details drawn from daily life in ninth-century Java. There are carvings of large outrigger sailing vessels and court ladies all done in a style derived from fifth-century Indian traditions but modified in a uniquely Indonesian way. Figures have a rounded sensuality with delicate features and gestures. As one goes higher in the monument there are more images of seated Buddhas, until at the highest rectangular levels there are niches with three-dimensional seated Buddha figures in them. At the upper levels rectangular tiers give way to circular tiers, and relief sculptures are replaced by open bell-shaped stupa forms. Free-standing Buddha images can be seen inside through the openwork of these smaller stupas. The pinnacle of the monument is a solid dome-shaped stupa that marks the center and axis of Borobudur.

Buddhist and Hindu dynasties competed and succeeded each other on the basis of trade and political intrigue rather than religion. In fact, religious dynastic labels are based upon the emphasis they placed upon a single religion rather than the exclusion of the other, and religious sites and statues often blend both Hindu and Buddhist concepts and iconography. The finest Hindu monument in Indonesia, reputedly constructed in 856 by King Ratu Baka, is Prambanan (also called the Lara Jonggrang complex). It consists of three tall temples, each dedicated to one of the three major Hindu deities. The largest and central candi (pronounced “chandi”), or temple, is dedicated to Siva. Flanking it are smaller temples dedicated to Vishnu and Brahma. The high temple symbolizes the sacred mountain where Siva lives with his consort Parvati. Although obviously derived from Indian sources, the architecture of the temple complex is not a direct copy but a reinterpretation. As at Borobudur, which is located nearby, the sculpture offers subtle variations based upon Indian sources but with gentler poses and facial expressions. The reliefs on the temples illustrate the two greatest Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabarata. An interesting detail in one relief shows a building rendered in linear perspective— more than five hundred years earlier than that technique was codified in Italy. Smaller temples face the three major temples. These are dedicated to the mounts of the three deities; Nandi, the bull whom Siva rides, Garuda, the bird that Vishnu rides, and Angsa, the goose for Brahma.

As Islam began its move into Indonesia in the thirteenth century, the Hindu-Buddhist rulers move eastward on the island of Java, establishing the Singasari (1272–1293) and Majapahit (1293–1520) dynasties. There they continued to create great temples such as Candi Singasari and Candi Panataran. Eventually Islam became the dominant religion on Java, and the Hindu-Buddhist rulers moved onto the island of Bali. Despite the conversion to Islam, Hindu epics still play a vital role in the court and everyday culture in Java and elsewhere in contemporary Indonesia. Most famous are the shadow puppet (wayang kulit) performances and masked dances accompanied by a gamelan orchestra and singing of the Hindu epic, the Ramayana. Bali today is the only Hindu area outside of India and Indian diaspora communities.

On Bali art and religion merge seamlessly, and in some way or another nearly everybody engages in the production of art, music, and dance. The island is dotted with temples, shrines, and palaces. The large active volcano Gunung Agung is sacred to the inhabitants, and rituals performed in its main temple, Pura Besakih, are performed to maintain the order of the universe. Like Prambanan, Besakih is dedicated to the three major Hindu deities, but the architecture is quite different. A massive stone stairway leads up the slope of the mountain, and on the terraces above there are thatched wooden buildings somewhat resembling pagodas that represent Mount Meru, the mountain of the gods at the center of the universe in Hindu cosmology.


In Cambodia, the Khmer Empire, which began its rise in the seventh century and was at its peak in the ninth through twelfth centuries, fashioned equally impressive arts that combined Hindu and Buddhist influences. One of the most remarkable world monuments is Angkor Wat. Begun around 1113 by the ruler Suryavarman II (d. c. 1150) and completed around 1250, Angkor Wat is a veritable city of art. It includes a giant stone temple complex surrounded by moats with bridges and sculpted buildings and towers. (The site is set amidst large rectangular artificial lakes that provide water for the planting season.) The lotus-bud-shaped redented towers are a distinctive feature of the architectural style, itself a unique Khmer blend of Hindu and Buddhist elements. Relief sculptures, integrated with the architecture, also use a Khmer style portraying a range of subjects from the Hindu epics, to battles, to delicate dancing maidens. The faces are delicately carved with squarish chins and rather thick, broad lips that sometimes have bow-shaped mustaches. The eyebrows flow across the ridge above the nose, also forming the double curve of an archer’s bow; hair is rendered in even-lined patterns. The figures as a whole have a subtle meditative look. Many of the reliefs that depict action scenes use a great number of figures to create kinesthetic patterns throughout compositions of rhythmically repeating curves.

Although smaller than Angkor Wat, nearby Angkor Thom is also remarkable. The main structure, called the Bayon, has high towers at the periphery of the main buildings. The sides of the towers have giant faces carved on them that are thought to represent the ruler Jayavarman VII (c. 1120–c. 1215), the monarch who commanded the construction of the site. The serenely stylized portraits blur the distinction between rulers and gods, suggesting that Jayavarman VII is a devaraja, a king who has the attributes of a god.

Burma (Myanmar)

The great Buddhist movements of Burma (Myanmar) originated in 1056 under King Anawratha in the fertile Irawaddy River basin extending to the Salween River delta. From its beginnings, Buddhism in Burma incorporated an indigenous belief in spirits called Nats (originally meaning “lords”) that had dominion over a group or object. At first these spirits were impersonal and local—the Nat of a tree or a hillside, for instance), but eventually a panoply of thirty-six “national” Nats, each a distinct personage with a life history, became the subject of much Burmese art; Buddha, in fact, is considered the thirty-seventh Nat. Hence Buddhist temples are as much Nat-houses as they are dedicated to Buddhism. The earliest large-scale Buddhist site is the city of Pagan. This city, a tremendously impressive collection of hundreds of temples, shows the evolution of their architectural tradition from Indian sources to a distinctive Burmese style.

Perhaps the most impressive monument is the giant Schwe Dagon stupa in the city of Rangoon (Yangon). Construction began in the fourteenth century under the ruler Binnya U; the resulting 22-meter-high monument was then modified many times during the next four hundred years. After an earthquake it underwent reconstruction from 1763 to 1776 to reach its present height of 99.4 meters. The white, bell-shaped form of the stucco and brick monument closely resembles prototypes in Sri Lanka, particularly at the fifth-century site of Annuradhapura. Numerous shrines resembling Chinese pagodas and an array of Buddhist sculpture surround it.


After contact with the Burmese kingdom of Pagan, the tribal peoples of Thailand adopted Buddhism. The cities of Chiengmai in the north and Ayuthia in the south became early centers for the spread of the new religion. From its beginnings, the southern part of Thailand was dominated by Cambodian Khmer civilization. But in 1287, when the Mongols invaded Pagan, three powerful Thai chiefdoms combined to form the kingdom of Sukhodaya and spread Buddhism to all parts of Thailand. The cannons of Therevada Buddhism prevalent in Thailand fixed the sculpture style, making it difficult to chronicle changes over time but also making it easy to identify Thai Buddhist imagery: slender forms and tall spire-like head protuberances.

When the capital of Thailand was moved to Bangkok in 1767, numerous buildings were constructed as very ornate versions of wooden architecture in other parts of Southeast Asia, particularly Burma. The Temple of the Emerald Buddha in the royal palace compound is typical with its steep roofs with dragon finials at the gables. The gables emerge in sections from within each other as they do in Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Chinese and Indian Influences in Vietnam

Chinese influence predominated during their occupation of Vietnam during the second century BCE to the tenth century, and rose again in the thirteenth and fourteenth century, especially regarding the symbolism of the dragon in folklore and myth, and as a decorative motif in art. (For Vietnamese peasants, dragons represented a four-fold deity—clouds, rain, thunder, and lightning); for rulers, dragons became, as they did in China, a symbol of authority and power.) Dragon imagery is found in sculpture, painting, and architecture, and the Chinese influence is remarkable in the brick tiles (dating to about the tenth century) at the Co Loa citadel near present-day Hanoi.

Influenced by early Hindu civilization, the loose federation of states that comprised the kingdom of Champa, whose population comprised several ethnic groups, flourished in the south and central part of Vietnam in an area then called Annam. Much of its contentious history, from its founding in the second century CE to the time it was absorbed almost entirely by the Vietnamese, can characterized as a period of struggle against the Chinese (depending on the Chinese dynasty in power), a greater sense of freedom with the independence of the Vietnamese in the tenth century, and to a lesser extent its relationship with Java. The brick temples of the Champa, much influenced by Hindu elements of design, consisted of tall tower structures with flame-like arches over the doorways; the exterior walls are decorated with bas-relief columns adorned with carvings of flowers and leaves. Sandstone lintels and ornamental corner pieces are carved with the figures of gods and animals sacred to the Hindu. Cham sculpture is especially distinctive; and yet similar in some ways to the Khmer aesthetic, with very square faces, very thick broad lips and exaggerated bow-shaped eyebrows that at times extend across the forehead as a rope-like ridge. Halos typically had foliage that resembled a mass of worms. While these figures are indeed imposing, polished figures from later periods convey austerity and unearthly calm.

Tribal Arts

In the remote parts of Southeast Asia, the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia and distant islands of Indonesia, many tribal groups either resisted or missed the larger metropolitan influences coming from the west and north. Some extraordinary and unique art traditions from these locales have only recently caught the attention of the outside world. In the highlands of mainland Southeast Asia ethnic groups such as the Hmong, the Ahka, and the Yao produce intricate embroidered and dyed costumes and spectacular jewelry, particularly in silver.

Indonesia is particularly rich in these cultures. On the island of Nias, off the west coast of Sumatra, the inhabitants build large and impressive houses. One royal palace is 20 meters high, supported underneath by over 100 gigantic pillars. There are also elaborate megalithic monuments in the villages that memorialize the dead and commemorate sumptuous feasts that raise the status of the rulers. In Nias, and many other parts of tribal Southeast Asia such as Sumba, islands in South Malukku, and among the Batak peoples of Sumatra and the Toraja peoples of Sulawesi, elaborate gold jewelry celebrates status and is rich in symbolic value.

The Toraja people on the island of Sulawesi are also known for their fine architecture, but their highest artistic achievement centers on their funeral rites. To memorialize a high-ranking chief an enormous banquet is prepared as hundreds of people sing and dance in their finest attire and jewelry. Special houses are constructed for the guests and to serve the ceremonial purposes of the funeral. Life-sized wooden effigies called tautau are placed in grottos as testimonials to the fame of the ancestors.

Modern Art

Time-honored arts still flourish throughout Southeast Asia. Fine textiles, jewelry, traditional weaponry, and architecture can still be found in great abundance. As in cultures around the world, however, long-established ways of life and their accompanying artistic traditions are changing and to some extant vanishing under contemporary economic, religious, political, and technological influences. In much of Southeast Asia newer forms of contemporary art are being created that express the individual ideas of the artists and contemporary social and political conditions. Today, not only Southeast Asia’s traditional art, but also the art created by its contemporary artists, particularly those from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia, can be now seen in the museums and galleries of New York, London, and Paris.


  1. Barbier, J. P., & Newton, D. (1988). Islands and ancestors. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  2. Bellwood, P. (1979). Man’s conquest of the Pacific: the prehistory of Southeast Asia and Oceania. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Bellwood, P. (1997). Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  4. Bernet Kempers, A. J. (1959). Ancient Indonesian art. Amsterdam: Tropenmuseum.
  5. Bulbeck, D. F., & Barnard, N. (2000). Ancient Chinese and Southeast Asian Bronze Age cultures. Taipei, Taiwan: Southern Materials Center.
  6. Coedes, G. (1968) The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  7. Coe, M. (2003) Angkor and the Khmer Civilizations, New York: Thames and Hudson.
  8. Feldman, J. (1994). Arc of the ancestors. Los Angeles: Fowler Museum.
  9. Fontein, J. (1990). The sculpture of Indonesia. New York, Harry N. Abrams.
  10. Grosslier, B. P. (1962). The art of Indochina. New York: Crown.
  11. Holt, C. (1967). Art in Indonesia. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  12. Higham, C. (1996). The Bronze Age of Southeast Asia. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  13. Jessup, H. (1990). Court arts of Indonesia. New York: Harry N. Abrams.
  14. Jessup, H. (2004) Art and Architecture of Cambodia, New York: Thames and Hudson.
  15. Kandahjaya, H. (1995). The master key for reading Borobudur symbolism. Bandung, Indonesia: Yayasan Penerbit Karaniya.
  16. Miksik, J. (1990). Borobudur: Golden tales of the Buddha. Boston: Shambhala.
  17. Rawson, P. (1967). The art of Southeast Asia. New York: Thames and Hudson.
  18. Soebadio, H. (1992). Art of Indonesia: from the collections of the national museum of the Republic of Indonesia. New York: Vendome Press.
  19. Somers Heidhues, M. (2000). Southeast Asia: A concise history, New York: Thames and Hudson.
  20. Taylor, P., & Aragon, L. (1991). Beyond the Java Sea. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.
  21. Wagner, F. (1959). The art of Indonesia. New York: Crown.
  22. White, J. C. (1982). Ban Chiang: Discovery of a lost Bronze Age. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

See also:

Free research papers are not written to satisfy your specific instructions. You can use our professional writing services to buy a custom research paper on any topic and get your high quality paper at affordable price.


Always on-time


100% Confidentiality
Special offer! Get discount 10% for the first order. Promo code: cd1a428655