Cultures & Traditions

The Influence of India in Southeast Asia: Cambodia

The first significant kingdom in this area is best known by its Chinese name, Funan, spanning approximately the 1st to 6th centuries CE. Contact with India is revealed through various Sanskrit inscriptions and historical references in India and China. Indeed, the peninsula of Southeast Asia was one ter­minus of the network of Silk Road trade routes, as objects from the Mediterranean world and Persia are found here. The peoples of mainland Southeast Asia also interacted with the many cul­tural groups of Indonesia, an artistic and economic exchange that endured for centuries. Timber, for instance, has remained an important trade good from the forests of both the Malay penin­sula and Cambodia to the present day.

The arts of Funan and its successor kingdom of Zhenla, from the 5th to 8th centuries, include both Hindu works represent­ing deities, such as Vishnu, Shiva, Durga, and Hari-Hara (a deity that is a composite of Vishnu and Shiva), and Buddhist sculptures that ultimately derive from south India. Even in this early period, however, the style of these artworks shows the broad, calm treat­ment, the upright stability, and the use of ornament blending into large smooth surfaces that were to remain common in later Cambodian sculpture. It is in this early period, too, that the creation of stone temple architecture, so distinctive a feature of Khmer art, began.

For some 600 years, from the 8th to 13th cen­turies, the Khmer empire ruled much of mainland Southeast Asia from its capital of Angkor in northern Cambodia. Here the Khmer people erected major temples, and their rulers were considered god-kings, associated with Shiva, Vishnu, or other Hindu deities. Jayavarman II is generally considered the founder of the Khmer empire. Around 800 he established his royal court, where he stressed both his role as a god-king and parallels between the temples he built and the gods’ abode of Mount Meru. He regarded Shiva as his personal deity and established a cult of the royal linga.

The next few centuries saw Angkor become a great city with elaborate temples. Some kings, like Suryavarman I, patron­ized both Hinduism and Buddhism, although the Khmer kings remained predominantly Hindu. Great monuments like the Baphuon (11th century) and Angkor Wat (12th century), with their supremely rhythmic and elegant relief sculptures on themes from the Hindu epics as well as scenes from daily and ceremonial life including military processions and dance, mark a high point in Cambodian art.

In 1177 Angkor was captured by the Cham rulers from Vietnam. This was the beginning of the decline of Khmer power, though this trend was interrupted in the 13th century by Jayavarman VII, who reestablished Khmer rule at Angkor and committed himself to the support of Buddhism. His construction of the Bayon complex in the center of Angkor Thom remains his greatest achievement. The Bayon temple mountain is a Buddhist monument, celebrated for its colossal faces carved in relief, often interpreted as representing bodhisattvas. The site also includes Hindu motifs, for example gods and demons churning the ocean of milk, a Hindu myth of creation, depicted on the bridge approaching the Bayon.

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), 203-204.

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