Cultures & Traditions

Buddhism in Southeast Asia

The beliefs and ways of life in South Asia significantly influenced the states and kingdoms of Southeast Asia, which adopted many Indian customs and adapted Indian styles of sculpture and architecture, as well as literature, dance, religious rituals, and court ceremonies to their native beliefs. At the same time, throughout Southeast Asia, as in India itself, indigenous practices and beliefs endured, intermingling with outside and foreign influences and evolving over time in ways that synthesized the old and the new. Buddhist monks, as well as Brahmans, traveled to Southeast Asia on merchant ships, and Buddhism had a visible influence in the region starting around the 4th century.

Representations of the historical or Shakyamuni Buddha and the events of his life make up a large portion of artistic production. Several key characteristics such as distended earlobes and the top-knot hairstyle (ushnisha) identify the Shakyamuni Buddha_._

Sculptures of the Buddha appear in the chapels or image halls of Thai Buddhist monasteries that are used for group worship and monastic ceremonies. Most of these spaces contain a central, colossal Buddha that is surrounded by smaller Buddha images. Buddha figures represent “the triple gem”: the Buddha himself, dharma (Buddhist doctrine or law), and the monkhood (sangha). Thus, worshipers visiting Buddhist monasteries and temples face the Buddha image and touch their foreheads to the floor three times in honor of these three aspects.

Adapted from

  • Anne Bromberg, The Arts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Himalayas (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 203;207.

  • DMA Connect, 2012.