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The cult of the bodhisattva, including the messianic Maitreya Buddha of the future, attracted a strong following from the seventh century onward in Southeast Asia, as it did elsewhere in the greater Asian world. Alongside Maitreya, the most popular Buddhist savior was Avalokiteshvara, the embodiment of compassion. Bodhisattvas are readily distinguished from Buddhas by their princely mode of dress, including crowns and diadems. Maitreya is identified by a representation of a stupa in his headdress; Avalokiteshvara, by a depiction of his spiritual mentor, Amitabha Buddha.

These cults and associated imagery evolved in the great monasteries (mahaviharas) of India. In Southeast Asia, strong localized styles soon emerged, with major cult images appearing throughout the region.

The four-armed form of Avalokiteshvara was the bodhisattva par excellence. Summoned in times of peril, Avalokiteshvara as "Lord of the world," Lokeshvara, assumed a syncretic quality, merging Brahmanical and Buddhist notions of divine saviors. While the bejeweled bodhisattva, the princely savior, was favored in India, an unadorned, ascetic-like figure was preferred in the seventh and much of eighth century in Southeast Asia. These representations display the bodhisattva dressed only in a simple cloth skirt, embodying the ascetic pursuit of spiritual perfection.

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