The Creative South: Buddhist and Hindu Art in Mediaeval Maritime Asia, Vol. 1

Patrick Vanden Berghe

In the past, scholarship has underestimated the role Maritime Asia (the littoral regions of Asia and the Malay-Indonesian Archipelago) played in the transfer of Buddhist and Hindu culture during the first millennium and the first part of the second. Scholars such as Andrea Acri, Peter Sharrock, and Jeffrey A. Sundberg, to name just a few, have shown that the dynamism of this area was much larger than agreed on before. From their research, a region has come to surface that was more than a passive receptor of the Buddhist, Shivaist, or any other Indic religious system. Maritime Asia held a key role in the transfer of icons, rituals, architecture, and ideas, sometimes even eclipsing the cultural centres in the Northern part of the subcontinent, Central Asia, and China.

Transfers from the South to the North

In Volume One of The Creative South. Buddhist and Hindu Art in Mediaeval Maritime Asia, new insights are presented in order to sharpen our understanding of how these maritime regions were essential in the genesis and development of new elements.

New research focuses on the fact that the peripheral kingdoms and polities were freer to innovate than the established centres. As such, they became the birthplace of rituals, art, and new models for architecture. Buddhist Monks from Nusantara and the Malay Archipelago travelled north as far as Tibet and Tang China where they spread new wisdom. 1 On one of these monks, Bianhong from Java, see: Iain Sinclair, Coronation and Liberation according to a Javanese Monk in China: Bianhong’s Manual on the abhiseka of a cakravartin, in: A. Acri (ed.), Esoteric Buddhism in Mediaeval Maritime Asia. Networks of Masters, Texts, Icons, Singapore, 2016.

The reviewed volume, “Intra-Asian Transfers and Mainland Southeast Asia,” is the first of a two-part series in which artistic and cultural innovations from the South are presented. It brings together research from junior and senior scholars. It covers a wide perspective, ranging from Javanese art to mainland architecture, but with a focus on the Archipelago and the former Cam and Khmer polities.

The first contribution, by Iain Sinclair, ‘From Melayu to Thamel and back: The Transmigration of the Eight-Armed Amoghapāśa,’ focuses on an eight-armed Boddhisatva, called Amoghapāśa. Previous scholarship stated that this figure was transmitted to the Archipelago along the India-China axis. By comparing all known examples and drawing on newly translated texts pertaining to Amoghapāśa, the author presents a new scenario in which the first images originated within the Melayu kingdom, from where it spread to the North, as far as Thamel in Nepal. The fact that many images of this deity can be attributed to the 11th-13th century Melayu-Javanese sphere has, until now, misled scholars. The preoccupation with Amoghapāśa in the Malay world, at that time, was not new; it was just coming home.  As a matter of fact, we are seeing an instance of the so-called ‘Pizza-effect,’ the phenomenon of elements of a nation's culture being exported to another place and then being re-exported in a new shape to their culture of origin. 2 The term Pizza-effect was coined in 1970 by the Austrian-born Hindu monk and professor of Anthropology Agehananda Bharati.

The second article analyses images from the Mogoa and Yulin caves (both in Gansu Province, China), which have traditionally been ascribed to Tibetan influence. Late researcher Yury Khokhlov shows that in effect these images draw on examples from the Pallava Kingdom in Tamil Nadu, India. Additionally, Khokhlov brings in proof for the role of the monks Vajrabodhi (671–741), and his pupil Amoghavajra (705–774) in propagating Indian art styles in China and the Hexi Corridor. They played a substantial role in the transfer of Chinese Buddhist religious or cultural ideas into Tibet.

The well-known Abhiṣeka, the royal esoteric initiation ritual, has always been a popular item in scholarship as it combined many important and breath-taking rites while, at the same time, retaining an obscure element. In Chapter 4, ‘Heruka-Mandalas across Maritime Asia,’ Peter Sharrock combines this Abhiṣeka with the deity Hevajra, one of the Esoteric Buddhist Herukas. Contrary to inland India and Tibet, in maritime Asia, the Heruka cult was not confined to secret monastic settings, but was a part of ‘everyday’ life as  one can see in rites and buildings across the Khmer Empire, Campa, East-Java, Sumatra and Mongol China. It is amazing to read how the author was able to restore a Heruka figure in the vicinity of Angkor Thom and how modern technology has been able to reconstruct Hevajra and Lokesvara statues in the Bayon Temple.


Indian, Cam, and Khmer culture

The next six contributions focus on Indian style art in the Campa and Khmer world and connect this subject to the larger religious history in the Southern Asian region.

The fifth chapter brings to life the well-known goddess, Prajñāpāramitā, and relates her to the reign of the Khmer king, Jayavarman VII (c. 1181?- 1218). It underlines how Prajñāpāramitā became more instrumental to the power of the king than in any other region. Jayavarman used her, the mother of all Buddhas, to link himself with the Buddha.

Next, is a contribution on Saiva ritual practices and performances in medieval Khmer society. An important role here is given to the Pasupata sect, who acted as an elite of state-sponsored ritualists. As such, they contributed much to the development of performances in temples and festivals in both Saiva and Buddhist circles. Khmer rulers and devotees embraced this sect for a much longer time than in any other region.

My own, professionally driven attention was drawn to a chapter titled ‘Libraries or Fire shrines? Reinterpreting the function of “Annex buildings” in Khmer Saiva Temples from the Prism of Early Saivism.’ I had noticed the small annex buildings with holes and chimneys and was aware that they were supposed to have acted as libraries. As a result, I was surprised to learn that these buildings can also be connected to fire (homa) rituals in Sivaism. Their possible double function is still under scrutiny, but this chapter makes it clear why this combination makes sense.

Another interesting article deals with the identity and position of the Dancing Siva within Campa. It starts with the description of seven images of this deity and shows how there was a caesura in the production between the South and North of Campa where differences in period, but also in style and the presence of additional personae can be noticed. From this it is also clear that Cam people did not copy Indian and Khmer examples but re-invented the ‘Dancing Siva’ and integrated him in accordance with their own concepts.

The last two chapters deal with remarkable objects : the Trà Kiệu Pedestal, found in present Vietnam, and the temple complexes of Hòa Lai and Po Dam, also in Vietnam. This offers new insights about their function, their visual contents (as with the Trà Kiệu Pedestal) or their building date (for the temple sites).

This edited volume does what is states in the introduction. It is a rich compendium of research aiming to better understand the rich, dynamic and multi-layered position of Maritime Asia in the first 15 centuries C.E. Notwithstanding, I found some smaller mistakes in the text: the incoherent use of left and right when referring to images, unfinished sentences and some major terms not included in the index. With that said, I am already looking forward to Volume 2.