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Historical development of Buddhist art in Cambodia

By Devik Balami at
Historical development of Buddhist art in Cambodia

In the present context, Cambodia's state religion is Theravada Buddhism but this was not in the past. If we look at the history then we will definitely get the ideas that the Cambodia has under went through several different religions. At first, they practiced animism and later on with the construction of ancient silk trade route they followed Hinduism and Buddhism. It was recorded that the state was strongly influenced by the Indian art and culture which resulted in the change in the religion - Buddhism and as well as the construction of different antique Buddhist arts - statues, murals, etc. This was also possible due to the messenger sent by Ashoka, the great with the objective to promote and spread wisdom and knowledge of Buddha. It was noted that Buddhism spread in Cambodia through two different streams. In the earlier period, Mahayana Buddhism spread here along with the Hindu influences during the period of Funan dynasty. Later, in the 13th century the second stream of Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism entered here during the Angkor Empire. In between this two religion, Cambodia was ruled by series of Hindu kings with occasional Buddhist kings- Jayavarman I of Funan, Jayavarman VII, and Suryavarman I. Therefore Cambodia had been ruled by several kings with different religions but they were co-existed peacefully throughout Cambodian lands.

buddhist art of buddha head statue

Historical development of Buddhist art in Cambodia

In the 3rd -6th century, Cambodia was ruled by Funan kingdom. Actually, it was the capital city and the kingdom was expanded into Burma and in the south Malaysia. As other south Asian countries were under the influence of Indian Gupta tradition, Cambodia was also influenced by the political and cultural aspects of India. Hence antique Buddha arts that were constructed during that period were no different from the Buddhist arts that were found in ancient India. As time passed by the Buddhist arts were localized by the local artists.

In the 9th -13 century, during the rule Hindu Khmer Empire, there was constructed many arts and images of Hindu deities but later along with Mahayana Buddhist dominated the vast area. This resulted in the construction of sculpture of Buddha and Bodhisattvas as well. It is recorded that under the Khmer Empire alone, more than 900 temples were built-in Cambodia and in neighboring areas. Major Buddhist temple complex was built in Angkor, a capital city which was at the center of development in that period. However, many antique Buddha statues and antique Buddhist arts were stolen due to organized looting. The unique features of Khmer Buddhist art manage to express intense spirituality through divinely beaming expressions, in spite of spare gestures and slender lines. This type of activities supports that there was religious tolerance in Cambodia in the earlier period which helped to developed Buddhist art and as well as spreads Buddhism even during the rule of Hindu kings.

Cambodian art of Vishnu riding Garuda

Type of Khmer Art

As we already know that Khmer dynasty actually follows Hindu ideology since they were also influenced by Indian civilization. The artist basically follows stone carving techniques evolved in Indian civilization but later they developed their own unique Khmer style. The dynasty also experiences conversion in religion when some of the Kings converted into Buddhism. Therefore the Khmer dynasty provided a unique Khmer Hindu art as well as Khmer Buddhist art. The unique Khmer Hindu art includes the sculpture of Hindu deities such as Lord Shiva, Vishnu, Brahmans, Ganesh and many other gods and goddesses, as well as Hindu mythical monsters such as the serpent nags, the demon Kali, and the mythical lions. Khmer Hindu art also portrayed the epics of Hindu myths such as Mahabharata and Ramayana in large sculptures.

The Buddha statues were appeared and enshrined in many temples only in the later centuries of the Khmer dynasty. Among the statues, the most astounding Buddha statues are found in Angkor Thom (Bayon). The magnificent Buddha statues constructed in this area is four-faced Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara sculptured on fifty towers. Apart from the Buddha statues installed in Bayon, there are other sculptures also which portrays the important life events.


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