Cultures & Traditions

The Influence of India in Southeast Asia: Thailand

The many peoples of what is known today as Thailand began as worshippers of nature and natural forces, with a way of life based on farming. Thai architecture originated in wood, bamboo, and tile, although stone buildings later were created on Khmer models. Early Thai art was influenced by the Buddhist arts of the Pala dynasty (8th-12th centuries) in eastern India and also by the arts of Sri Lanka.

At its height the Khmer Empire (8th-13th cen­turies) dominated a large portion of Thailand. At that time, the arts of Thailand were closely related to Khmer art. In the later 13th century Khmer power declined, mainly due to the rising strength of the Cham rulers in Vietnam. The Khmer no longer controlled central Thailand where a series of independent Thai kingdoms arose with the establishment of Thai rulers at Sukhothai and Chiang Mai. These kingdoms created a lavish art of their own that owed much to the Khmer example, but had a local sense for linear designs and elongated proportions. In the next few centuries, these centers developed distinctive art styles, where Buddhist works were created abundantly. The major Thai kingdoms were Sukhothai (c. 1279-1438), Ayutthaya (1351-1767), and Lan Na (1292-1774). These kingdoms patronized Buddhism, principally Theravada.

Thailand today still adheres to Theravada Buddhism, the earliest form of Buddhism that emphasizes the life and teachings of the historical Buddha. Theravada Buddhism does not include the elaborate pantheons found in the Mahayana school of Buddhism in the Himalayas, and in central and eastern Asia.

Adapted from

Anne Bromberg, The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Have: Yale University Press, 2013), 205; 233.

Web Resources

  • UNESCO
    Learn more about the Sukhothai Kingdom.
  • UNESCO
    Learn more about the Ayutthaya Kingdom.
  • UNESCO
    Learn more about the Lan Na Kingdom.