Published on July 18, 2009
SUKHOTHAI Sukhothai art is distinctive; it demonstrates technological and formal properties consistently, setting it apart from art produced in other parts of Southeast Asia. How do you see and appraise Sukhothai Buddha images? What are some of the formal, technological and symbolic attributes that distinguish Sukhothai representations? In your discussion refer to specific images or types of images. In the art of mainland Southeast Asia, Buddhism has been and remains to be a prevalent theme. However, the Sukhothai style of Buddha images rose to prominence in 14th century as distinctive from what went before in the region and the world. The style reached its zenith in the mid-14th century, setting a standard for the arts in the Thai region, and is consistently referred to as the golden age of Thai art. Characterised by its iconic oval-shaped head, flame-like ushnisha, perfectly arched eyebrows and “boneless” limbs, the classical Sukhothai Buddha images have been described to possess “ethereal” beauty to the extent of being “surrealisitic”. Even though the Sukhothai image may seem aesthetically driven, or expresses a desire for originality as suggested by George Coedes as if an attempt to assert their newly gained independence from the Khmer rule, the aim of the monks who fashioned the Sukhothai image was not to innovate or create a lifelike figure but to replicate as closely as possible to the 32 lakshanas of a great man. In their attempt to bring the image closer to the original purpose, the result is an aesthetically beautiful and distinctive image of the Buddha. With reference to a fine example of a Sukhothai image – the Walking Buddha of Wat Benjamabopit, here are some of the characteristics that set the Sukhothai bronze sculpture apart from other Buddha images. The little curls of the hair are modelled in distinctive coils, close to the skull. The coils rhythmically dot over the top of the Buddha’s head and meets at a point on the centre of the forehead. The protuberance that symbolises the wisdom of the Buddha, or ushnisha, is prominent and is surmounted with a high finial in the form of a flame. This characteristic flame now signals the divine luminescence and transcendent glory that was once symbolised by the nimbus in other Buddhist styles. This Sukhothai innovation, though possibly influence by Sinhalese traditions, is later adopted by contemporary and subsequent schools of art in Thailand. Upon the perfectly oval face of the Buddha are the sweeping curves of the eyebrows that join and merge to form the bridge of a long and aquiline nose. The Buddha’s eyes are downcast, with the curves of the lids balancing out the curve of the eyebrows. The sense of introverted serenity is further enhanced with the gentle upturned smile. The fleshy and full forms of the face echo the voluminous body and limbs, giving the sculpture an overall visual harmony. The bronze sculpture stands frontally with broad shoulders and swelling chest that hints at a certain yogic breathing practice. The left hand of this bronze sculpture is in vitarka-mudra while the right hangs pendent. The right hand appears bone-less and is sinuous like an elephant’s trunk. This is the literal interpretation of the lakshana that says that the Buddha should have arms smooth and rounded like the trunk of the young elephant. The fingers are modelled delicately with a slight backward curl, like a lotus near bloom. In the later Sukhothai images of the 15th century, the fingers (sans the thumb) are rendered almost at the same length. However, this is not the case for this 14th century Sukhothai bronze sculpture. This bronze Buddha is draped, hinted merely by low relief edges, in open mode fashion with right shoulder exposed. The characteristic notched fishtail of the shoulder flap streaks down to the navel. Like the Gupta-Sarnath Buddha, the drapery cleaves tight to the body of the Buddha and is rendered smooth without many folds. This expresses the omniscience and transcendence of the Enlightened One, dematerialising the drape and
released from the trappings of this world. The wavy edges and the characteristic “hook” of the drapery give the viewer the sense of the Buddha in motion, as if caught in a breeze. The Buddha is portrayed as walking, with the left foot placed forward. The asymmetrical posture of the figure is balanced out visually with the left foot and the pendent right arm. The feet are made completely flat to echo what the holy text has suggested that the Buddha’s steps would level the ground. The slightly raised right foot hints at the subsequent lotus blooms upon the ground that the Buddha walks upon. The Sukhothai School of Buddhist is arguably the first to produce the Buddha in all four postures referred to in the ancient text, namely seated, standing, reclining and walking. However, the Walking Buddha, though rare elsewhere, is significant and symbolic and more than one way for the Sukhothais, resulting in the establishment of this new iconic type. It is presumably inspired by a Sri-Lankan mural painting of ‘The Descent from Tavatimsa Heaven’, where Gautama Buddha retreated to preach to his mother. It is one of the oldest subjects in the Buddhist narrative. A 14th century stucco relief at Wat Traphang Lang depicts that narrative scene with the Buddha descending a flight of stairs, in a manner almost like the bronze image of Wat Benjamabopit, with left hand presumably in vitarka-mudra and right hand pendent. In Sukhothai, walking is one of the prescribed meditative exercises, with reference the pacing Gautama Buddha did during the third week following his enlightenment. Walking is also symbolic of the mission of the believers of the Buddhist faith to go to the ends of the earth and preach. Looking at the bronze image of Wat Benjamabopit, it is also possible that the viewer gets a sense of an implied crowd or audience who listens to the Buddha as he walks and preaches (with his gesture of discourse). The choice of material for this bronze image, like the many other classical Sukhothai images of the 14th century, is also significant. Earlier probable prototypes that culminated to the classical Sukhothai image were relief stone sculptures. As the style evolved, the Sukhothai Buddhas, especially the Walking Buddhas, were fashioned to be freestanding and in the round. Sandstone was not available locally while the limestone at hand was too brittle for the Sukhothai ideals; so two materials were eventually the choice for the Sukhothai images – colossal images of up to 30 feet were made of stuccoed brick, while the smaller images were made in bronze through the lost wax technique. The use of bronze allowed the sculptors to suggest the smooth skin of the Buddha to which dust would not adhere. The smoothness of bronze, with additional gilding, adds on to the radiance that is to emanate from the Enlightened One, giving it that further “ethereal” quality. The lost wax technique, a technique that the Thais probably learnt from the Mons, allowed the sculptors to form minute details that can be transferred onto the cast bronze. In the strive towards spiritual expressionism and in their insistence to emphasize every detail that marks the Enlightened One, the Sukhothais have arrived a style of image that has been cherished not only spiritually, but also aesthetically by the people of the Kingdom then. The stylistic innovations that came about with the Sukhothai art with their spiritual intent, though not conceived artistically as understood today, is what makes it so interesting and particularly unique and distinctive. The great influence of the Sukhothai image extends beyond its time and still continues to inspire and pique the interest of contemporary artists, academics and devotee alike.
THE BAYON / TEMPLE MOUNTAIN The Bayon at Angkor Thom is one of the most distinguished creations in Southeast Asia. What are some of its distinguishing features? In your answer pay attention to aspects of its plan and design, its form and its symbolic content. After the sacking of the old capital at Angkor Wat by the Chams, King Jayavarman VII successfully sought his vengeance by driving out the enemies. Having secured the throne, he had the difficult task at hand – to rebuild the city physically, psychologically and spiritually, for the fall of Angkor Wat in 1177 was a devastating experience for the Khmers. A new mystical and religious framework was re-established and Jayavarman VII allowed the prevailing Hindu tradition to fade in the background and drew on the concepts of Mahayana Buddhism as the Kingdom’s new spiritual ballast. The Bayon of Angkor Thom, fascinating and distinctive, was the physical manifestation of this new religious and political regime in the Khmer Kingdom under Jayavarman VII’s rule. Interestingly, even though the religion has changed, several concepts did not change. Jayavarman VII, like his predecessor, embarked on his large-scale building project that reflected his religious beliefs onto the landscape. The religious beliefs were not, however, exclusive but somewhat syncretic, for there were visible elements from the Hindu cosmology found in the Angkor Thom. This signals certain absorption of the Hindu religion into the expansive and accepting nature of the Buddhism practiced then, with room for everyone in this new city. It would have been like “making real” the world of the gods in the Khmer Kingdom. He replaced the linga with the image of the Buddha, considering himself to be the incarnation of Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. In this respect, the Devaraja has become the Buddharaja. Jayavarman VII, just as his predecessors did, believed firmly that he was truly a cakravartin, or the universal ruler. The Bayon, then, serves as a site to propagate and perpetuate his glory. In practice, all that changed was the name, not the concepts. Apart from the religious conception that makes that slightly differed, there are several interesting aspects that makes the Bayon a distinctive creation. Jayavarman VII’s city, Angkor Thom, was built over the site of Udayadityavarman II’s city with the temple- mountain, the Bayon, at the heart of it. The Bayon is surrounded by three enclosed walls and stands on three ascending levels. The outermost enclosure features a gallery of bas-reliefs celebrating the victory of Jayavarman VII’s naval victory over the Chams on the Tonle Sap. These scenes gave honour to the military prowess of Jayavarman VII and served as constant reminder for the people. They were also intersperse with scenes of everyday life, with the people going about their daily matters despite the wage of war. The natural background was also rendered in great detail. The bas-reliefs are now, not only dominated by gods and kings as in Angkor Wat, but also by the commoners. The inclusion of the common people is significant, especially after the humiliating and devastating defeat at Angkor Wat. There was then a compelling need for Jayavarman VII to win the favour of the people that he ruled over. It was also necessary for the Khmer people to reinstate their belief in their sovereign whom they recognised as the rightful link between heaven and earth, and the guarantor of their lives. Besides, without the recognition and glorification from the people, his rule in the Kingdom would have been futile. Ascending upwards, the second level features the face-towers that the Bayon is so famously renowned for. There are a total of 16 such towers, located at the four axial entrances and the four corner towers. Each side of these towers features faces, now popularly identified as Lokeshvara. As we continue ascending to the
third level and moving deeper and closer to the principal prasat (or Khmer temple tower), we would be able to see a 12-foot seated Buddha in dhyana-mudra. The Buddha is seated on the coils of the mythical serpent Muchalinda, who had raised on his coils and sheltered with his seven heads the Buddha in a flash flood during his meditation to Enlightenment. The Buddha here is reminiscent of the faces that we saw earlier on the face-towers on the second level. It has been suggested that the features of the Buddha, and the ones on the face towers, are that of Jayavarman VII. There are inscriptions that state that there are 25 images of Jayabuddhamahanatha (Buddha the Great Victorious Lord) in the main temples of the empire. All of which must bear semblance to Jayavarman VII in meditating attitude. The Muchalinda Buddha statue in the Bayon, especially being the King’s very own temple-mountain, would most likely be one of them. Though these images express a more human, intimate and almost naturalistic beauty, it is highly improbable that these images were meant to be portraits of the King in the Western sense. With the prevailing concept of Devaraja, Jayavarman VII who saw himself as an emanation of Lokeshvara probably wanted to infuse some of his physical traits with the bodhisattva in order draw a more direct connection. An apotheosis takes place here where the physical qualities of the sovereign are subsumed into the divine sphere and manifested in sculpture. The connection is made complete; the sovereign and the divine are then presented as one and inseparable. In the more complete name of Lokeshvara, Avalokiteshvara also mean the “Lord that looks down”. In this manner, we can appreciate the compassionate Lokeshvara faces on the face-towers that have been poised in the four cardinal directions (in a way, in all directions), has set his caring and watchful gaze over the Khmer people. The apotheosised images of the King and the divine, as guardian of the people, would probably serve as a comforting reminder and protective symbolism that everything would be okay. The principal prasat, which is found in the core and highest level of the temple-complex, have a circular plan, probably inspired by the Indian conception of a stupa. Around the cell forms the path to perform the pardakshina, where the devotees circumambulate around the prasat in a clockwise fashion. Different from Angkor Wat, here, the shrine of the Devaraja was replaced by the stupa. Around the circular cell of the principal prasat, there are eight radial shrines with porticos, probably symbolic of the chakra, the Buddhist Wheel of the Doctrine that consists of eight spokes. The prasat, nevertheless, is a towering structure that pierces into the skies, symbolic of a Buddhist’s aspiration of rising from the mundane to the spiritual. It provided, for the devotee, a meeting point where the humans could come in contact with the divine, seeking a path liberated from worldly desires. The tower-shape structure is shaped like a mountain as representative of Mount Sumeru, the abode of the gods and axis mundi. In the cosmological dimension, the universe unfolds in space and time around Mount Sumeru. The sun and moon revolves around this cosmic axis in a clockwise fashion, providing the basis for pardarksina of the prasat. It provides the link between the heaven, earth and the underworld. The prasat, as representational of Mount Sumeru, then forms a parallel focal point in the Khmer Kingdom – everything unfolds from this axial centre and is watched over and governed by their Sovereign who is also divine. The entire temple-complex, especially the subsidiary towers and the moat, helps complete the cosmological experience, replicating the divine landscape of the four subsidiary peaks of Mount Sumeru and the cosmic oceans that surround it. Jean Boisselier said that, “Yet while Angkor Vat may be considered the Cartesian masterpiece of Khmer architecture, Angkor Thom is incontestably the greatest expression of its genius.” In many ways, with the sacking of Angkor Wat in 1177, Jayavarman VII was able to draw on the knowledge and experience from his predecessors. With Angkor Thom and his prized temple-mountain Bayon, he was able to reunite his Kingdom from chaos with a re-presentation of the worldview and assert his status as cakravartin. He focused his efforts on rebuilding the Kingdom not merely on the physical aspect but also reassuring them psychologically and comforting them spiritually. The result arising from these various circumstances was an architecture wonder that is truly distinguished.
ANGKOR WAT / TEMPLE MOUNTAIN The temple mountain is an important concept for the study of architecture and sculpture in Southeast Asia. How would you define the temple mountain? What are some of the ideals related to the temple mountain? How are these ideals transformed into architecture and sculpture? In your discussion, refer to specific buildings or monuments. Discuss aspects of their design, form and symbolic content that interest you. The mountains have been a prominent feature in human thought, imagination and representation. Aspects, such as its height and elevation, remoteness and visual prominence are qualities that indicate something extraordinary and otherworldliness. These aspects of the mountains are, thus, often associated with superiority, power, an ascendance to heavenly sphere and also as a meridian that links the spheres of existence. Although inspired by Indian symbolism and architectural dictates, the temple-mountains of the Khmer Kingdom evolved to a unique architecture type of their own, resulting in a micro-cosmic symbol. These temple-mountains take on the meaning ascribed to the mountains previously together with the religious symbolism that the Khmer adopted from India. It has since been venerated and esteemed as the domain of gods and the axial centre of the universe, just as the mountains were regarded. Very often, these temple-mountains, in its nuclear form, take on the form of a stepped pyramidal tower, consisting of the main sanctuary cell set upon a base, surmounted by a steeply tapering roof that ascends into the sky. Subsidiary towers that are built upon the same base and the various architectural elements that make up the temple complex are cohesively employed to express the fullness of the cosmological concept. A natural hill, or an artificially created one, would sometimes be exploited to place the principal temple-mountain upon the highest point of ascendance in the temple complex. The lower levels that precede, usually in the form of concentric, enclosed galleries, would provide for the necessary approach and preparation toward the principal temple-mountain. The four directions of space, with the temple oriented east, are also invoked when building the temple complex. Typically, the devotee would “ascend” through the complex by means of padarkshina, by circumambuating in the clockwise fashion. The conception of the temple-mountain is closely related to the Brahmanistic cosmology, where Mount Meru (or in the case of Buddhism, Mount Sumeru) is the principal mount – the abode of gods and the axis- mundi that interlinks the heavenly, terrestrial and sub-terrestrial spheres. Mount Meru is characterised by its surrounding four peaks and cosmic ocean. The sun is said to orbit around Mount Meru in a clock-wise fashion. The universe unfolds in space and time around Mount Meru. The peaks of Mount Meru are where the devas dwell whereas the underworld, the realm of the apsaras, plunges into the depths of the earth in an upside-down projection of the mountain. Supporting the universe with his seven-fold hood is the mythical serpent Vasuki. The Khmer temple-mountain structure, or the prasat, in its towering form is, hence, envisaged and built like Mount Meru. The entire temple complex typically manifests the complexity of the cosmology that appropriates the temple-mountain structure. The Devaraja concept runs hand-in-hand with the concept of the temple-mountain. The ruler of the Khmer Kingdom believed in their divine ancestry and their right as cakravartin, or the universal ruler. They often identified themselves with a deity, usually Shiva of the Hindu trimurti. The use of “varman” in names of the ruler speaks of their direct association with Shiva. The rulers, during their reign, would build huge temple complexes in honour of their chosen deity. The temple complexes would house their temple-mountain as a physical manifestation of their divine abode, which is Mount Meru, and reflected the truth of their divine
reality. The people, under the rule of the Sovereign, is then absorbed into the manifestation of the cosmology as the divine citizens of the Devaraja who is their guardian and guarantor of their lives. H. I. Jessup in her article on ‘Temple-Mountains and the Devaraja Cult’ hails Angkor Wat as “the supreme manifestation of the temple-mountain”. Angkor Wat, conceived as an “architectural expression of a micro- cosmos”, has indeed, in numerous ways, exemplified the concept of the Khmer temple-mountains. Suryavarman II built the great Angkor Wat as his state temple, and is dedicated to Vishnu, the second deity of the trimurti. As holy and sacred ground, Angkor Wat is separated by an enclosure and a moat. The axial entrances and corners are punctuated by cruciform gopuras. These gopuras are projected outwards from the principal temple structure towards the four cardinal directions like an extension of the royal and divine power through the universe. The moat is symbolic of the cosmic ocean that surrounds Mount Meru. The complex is approached from the west by a magnificent paved causeway lined with colossal Naga balustrades. The multi-headed serpent, as part of the causeway, forms the link between the world of men (the cloistered city around Angkor Wat) and the world of the gods (the temple). The Naga is considered a mythical aquatic creature and bore special significance on the farming people of the Khmer Kingdom whose livelihood and survival depended largely on water and rain. It also recalls an ancient Khmer legend of the Naga-rainbow that connected the earth with the heavens. The enclosure, moat and the Naga balustrades are common elements that precede the temple-mountain, as seen in early temple-mountain complexes, such as the Bakong Temple. However, the temple is unusually oriented west, which then dictates pardarkshina to be performed reversed. It has been suggested that the westward orientation is due to its dedication to Vishnu who is associated to the western quadrant of the universe. It has also been proposed that Angkor Wat was meant to be Suryavarman II’s funerary mausoleum, as west is associated with the dead. Angkor Wat stands on a three-stepped hill, with its central tower built on the apex soaring over 200 feet. Each step is surrounded by a gallery. The galleries feature scenes related to the mythology of Vishnu, and in particular, the Indian epic Ramayana that tells the tale of Rama, an incarnate of Vishnu, and a prototype of the perfect King. The use of the Ramayana narrative is significant because, amidst its various themes, it speaks of the conduct of a good and righteous King. In some respects, the Ramayana narrative could be seen as reminder for the Sovereign to rule justly and wise. However, it is also probable that Suryavarman II, who has identified and apotheosised himself with Vishnu, is, in a way, self-appraising his righteous rule and victory over the enemies through the epic. This idea can be further used to analyse a huge narrative panel on the East Gallery: the Churning of the Ocean Milk, which is especially significant to the concept of the temple-mountain and the intrinsic concept of the Devaraja. Within the idea of the temple-mountain, the Churning of the Ocean Milk narrative provides an account of the genesis and a visual representation of the sustaining force of Mount Meru (embodied in the temple-mountain). In respect of the Devaraja concept and the absorption of the common people into the cosmology, life, in the form of the sea of milk, is also represented as fertile and potent. But it requires the cooperation of everyone in the Kingdom, as represented by the devas and asuras pulling on opposite ends the mythical snake Vasuki, for its fulfilment. The scene is also politically hospitable for Suryavarman who identified himself with Vishnu. Vishnu is rendered standing upon the mythical turtle, fiercely holding onto Mount Meru as the ocean is churned to stabilise it. As such, the scene seems to bespeak of Suryavarman, who was supposed a great ruler, as the bedrock of the Kingdom, providing it stability and security. It seems to provide self-edification to the King as well as reassurance to the people. The journey of the devotee deeper into the core of the Angkor Wat temple complex, closer to the principal prasat dedicated to Vishnu, is also one of ascendency. It is like the devotee ascending the mountain, closer
and closer towards the divine realm. The prasat, standing at the apex, then, provides that converging point between the man and the divine. The temple-mountain enables the gods to descend to the terrestrial realm and take temporary residence in it. The devotee ascends physically, just as their aspiration to rise above the mundane, and meets with the divine. The tapering form of the pyramidal roof further suggests an ascendance into an unperceivable height, extending into the heavenly sphere and connecting with the divine. The roof also features repeated miniature renditions of the principal prasat and other architectural elements superimposed onto it. On one hand, the repetition of motif is visually reminder of the chants of prayer. On the other hand, it also symbolically represents the unfolding, manifestation and re-manifestation of time and space takes place at the cosmic mountain. Four subsidiary prasats, that reproduced the principal prasat but slightly shorter, completes the entire landscape of Meru as the four surrounding peaks. The entire temple complex seeks out to manifest Mount Meru and its entire cosmological landscape in the Khmer Kingdom. With the innumerable elaborate carvings of apsaras with the finest drapery and adornment in the gallery walls, Angkor Wat was to provide a foretaste of heaven. Only then can it be a place fitting for the Devaraja. The Khmers, especially in the case of Angkor Wat, took the expression of Mount Meru to another level. Infused with their idea of Devaraja, the temple-mountain stands for more than just an expression spiritual devotion but also an expression of social and political prowess.
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