This is the first international loan exhibition to explore the sculptural art produced in the earliest kingdoms of Southeast Asia. From the first millennium onward, powerful kingdoms emerged in the region, embracing much of Indic culture to give political and religious expression to their identities. Early Hinduism (Brahmanism) and Buddhism arrived early, first witnessed by Sanskrit inscriptions, and shortly thereafter by a proliferation of large-scale religious imagery.
Some 160 sculptures are featured in the exhibition, principally associated with the identifiable cultures of Pyu, Funan, Zhenla, Champa, Dvāravatī, Kedah, and Śrīvijaya. These are the "lost kingdoms," whose identities and sometimes very existence only emerged from the historical shadows in the twentieth century, as a result of pioneering epigraphic and archaeological research, much of it recent. The artistic achievements and cultural parameters of these early kingdoms bring new understanding to the beginning of state formation in Southeast Asia and broadly define the modern political map of the region today. The surviving corpus of early religious art from these kingdoms is our principal window onto these cultures.
Many of the exhibits are monumental, and a significant number are designated as national treasures. The National Museums of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Myanmar, as well as the Musée Guimet, Paris, and major museums in the United States are all lenders. Many of the works have never traveled outside their source countries before. Myanmar is making its first ever international loans to this exhibition.
The majority of the works are in stone, with others in bronze, gold, silver, terracotta, and stucco. Among the masterpieces in the exhibition, highlights include a sixth-century Cambodian Buddha Offering Protection; a spectacular Krishna Holding Mt. Govardhana from the hill shrine of Phnom Da, in southern Cambodia; a late seventh-century Avalokitesivara discovered in the Mekong delta of Vietnam in the 1920s, arguably the most beautiful image of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion in Southeast Asia; an Uma of startling naturalism that likely embodies a portrait of a deceased Khmer queen of the first half of the seventh century; an ascetic Ganesha from the eighth-century religious sanctuary of My Son in central Vietnam; and a Dvaravati kingdom terracotta sculpture Head of Meditating Buddha, a sublime representation of Buddhist meditation from the seventh century.
"When the Metropolitan Museum of Art gives its all to an exhibition…and the art involved is as rich as a massed chorale and as haunting as a single-voice chant, no institution on earth can produce more impressive results."—New York Times
"It may well be the exhibition of the year."—Apollo
The exhibition is made possible by the Placido Arango Fund, the Fred Eychaner Fund, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Additional support is provided by Jim Thompson America, Inc. and Bangkok Broadcasting & T.V. Co., Ltd.
The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and
the Henry Luce Foundation.
Additional support is provided by the Doris Duke Fund for Publications.
Rare surviving objects from early India and farther west discovered in Southeast Asia served as prestige goods for local rulers, evincing their power to attract from afar. More significantly, as a bronze oil lamp from Byzantium found on a trade route connecting early Pyu Myanmar with Mon Thailand bears witness, they also served as models for local artists employed in the service of Hinduism and Buddhism. The bronze pedestal jar and the stem dish exhibited nearby—found in Malaysia and Vietnam, respectively—represent otherwise lost categories of objects preserved only in chance finds. Large quantities of Roman coins dating from the first to fifth century have been recovered in southern India and Sri Lanka. Some circulated to trade centers in Southeast Asia such as Oc Eo in the Mekong Delta and early urban settlements such as U Thong in central Thailand. Of lasting impact were images of the Buddha and bodhisattvas, mostly in bronze but occasionally in stone, imported to Southeast Asia, that served as models for local artists. As no trace of imported Brahmanical imagery survives, the knowledge of making holy images was likely brought by itinerant Brahman priests, who would have overseen their production.
These sculptures demonstrate the persistence of indigenous spirit-cults during the Hindu-Buddhist period in Southeast Asia. The adoption of Indic religions in the region was highly successful, largely due to the receptivity of preexisting animistic belief systems. Personified nature-spirit deities, or folk geniis, embodying the spirit of the land, rivers, rocks, and trees were widely worshipped, some into modern times. In Indic Sanskrit they are known as yakshas and nagas, and in Southeast Asia they provided a belief system upon which Indic ideas could be comfortably grafted. Prosperity and wealth-enhancing deities metamorphosed into Kubera, Indic king of the yakshas and guardian of riches. In an Indian setting, Kubera is typically depicted surrounded by jars overflowing with jewels; in Southeast Asia, with luxuriant plant forms. The earliest Cham-language inscription belongs to fifth-century central Vietnam and praises the "divine serpent of the king," affirming the protective role of naga cults in early Cham kingship. Other yakshas appear as obese dwarfs, often decorating the bases of Buddhist monuments. Such grotesques are understood to represent pre-Buddhist nature-cult deities submitting to the authority of the new religion.
The earliest Buddhist inscribed steles in Southeast Asia were found on the Malay Peninsula, in the river valleys of Kedah that served as trading and transshipment centers. These steles are commemorative, erected as thanksgiving for safe passage; one identifies its patron as a ship captain named Buddhagupta. They witness the role of Buddhist merchants in the spread and support of the faith. Central to this section of the exhibition are precious objects recovered from the oldest undisturbed Buddhist relic chamber in Southeast Asia, known as the Khin Ba stupa mound, discovered in the ancient walled Pyu city of Sri Ksetra, in central Myanmar, datable to the late fifth to sixth century. On view are a silver Buddha, warrior plaques, and miniature silver stupas. The spectacular sandstone slab that was the chamber cover provides an example of the earliest known stupas to mark the landscape of Myanmar's first Buddhist cities. Beyond are a series of Buddha images—from Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Vietnam—showing the universality of the Buddha's message expressed in distinctive regional styles. The Khmer Buddha at the center of the room bears the oldest Pali inscription known in Southeast Asia. The Sri Ksetra meditating Buddha in the stupa room contains the longest Sanskrit inscription known from ancient Myanmar.
Southeast Asia's earliest recorded rulers were highly responsive to Hinduism, as exemplified by their embracing of the Brahmanical god Vishnu as an ideal model of divine kingship. Rulers dedicated numerous shrines to Vishnu. In this gallery are a number of large-scale sculptures from such sanctuaries along with other avatars, or "appearances," of Vishnu, including Krishna Govardhana and a unique form of the horse-headed Kalkin. In the mature iconography of the four-armed Vishnu, he holds a discus and a conch shell in his raised right hands and a club and the earth in his lower hands and wears a plain crown. This corpus is distinguished by superbly modeled musculature, a minimalist approach to decoration, and an unprecedented ambitious scale.
Widely worshipped alongside Vishnu was the goddess Durga Mahishasuramardini, an aspect of Shiva's consort, Uma, who, uniquely in Southeast Asia, is closely aligned to Vishnu. Although represented in her benign form, she stands on the severed head of the buffalo-demon Mahisha, a motif readily understood in societies that celebrated buffalo sacrifice as a life-affirming rite. Together, Vishnu and Durga allowed local rulers to identify themselves with the forces of righteous governance that these gods embodied.
These works explore the cult of Shiva and his family, including his wife, Parvati, and their children, Ganesha and Skanda, and the overarching role of Shiva as divine protector embodied in the linga. Seventh-century Khmer priests and artists generated new ways of expressing Shiva's identity not seen in India. Shaiva devotionalism as practiced by Khmer rulers reflects their belief that success in kingship flowed from immersion in the grace of the Indic gods. These were personal cults enacted in a Hindu landscape, enlivened by identified holy places (tirthas). The latter were not understood as surrogate places of worship but rather as sacred places whose efficacy was equal to those in India. Seventh-century Cambodia was, in the mind of those local rulers committed to Hindu devotion (bhakti), a world permeated and defined by Shiva's presence.
The symbols of Shiva's pervasiveness in early Southeast Asia are numerous: a Shiva footprint (shivapada), a silver sacred bull, the trident, the precious metal one-faced linga cover (lingakosha), and the ubiquitous linga itself. The unique lintel depiction of the Lingodbhavamurti myth, which depicts Shiva revealing himself supreme over the other Brahmanical gods, together with a royal consecration, known as abheskha, highlights the extent to which seventh-century Southeast Asia was Shiva's land.
The Buddhist art of central Thailand was associated with the prosperous kingdom of Dvaravati, about which little is known beyond traces of its urban landscapes and sculptural record. Its patrons created large-scale public art, which must have dominated such major cities as Nakhon Pathom and U Thong.
This Buddhist art is an expression of state identity, represented by the most monumental works in the exhibition: stone Buddhas, sacred wheels of the Buddha's Law, and narrative steles and reliefs. The monumental tradition is represented by the throne crossbar belonging to one of the great Buddhas originally installed at Nakhon Pathom and by the large Buddha heads, a reminder of the fragmentary archaeological record of surviving Dvaravati art.
Sophisticated modeling and highly finished surfaces help distinguish this art as one of the most sophisticated of its age. While it model is Sarnath monastic art of northern India, the sensitive and distinctive facial modeling is uniquely Dvaravati. An important aspect of this legacy are the terracotta and stucco narrative reliefs that decorated the paths walked by devotees circumambulating sacred Buddhist monuments. This style was at its height in the seventh and eighth centuries.
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.
During the late eighth century, a new expression of the savior bodhisattva appeared in Southeast Asia, inspired by developments in India that promoted esoteric forms of Buddhism. As seen below, richly bejeweled eight and twelve-armed forms of Avalokiteshvara prevailed, marking a new chapter in Southeast Asian Buddhist art. The most important multi-armed bodhisattva icon known in Southeast Asia is the Amoghapasha exhibited here. He displays eight radiating arms, giving expression to his unlimited capacity to grant boons and blessings.
The late eighth century marked the beginning of a new age of Asian internationalism in which the kingdoms of Southeast Asia were linked through thriving trade networks. Religious ideas, rituals, and imagery circulated rapidly, unifying the region and integrating it into greater Asia as never before. Advanced Buddhist teachers at the great Indian monasteries such as Nalanda and Vikramashila generated new visualizations that were canonized in art and transmitted throughout the Buddhist diaspora in the service of advanced Mahayana Buddhism. Southeast Asia was now part of a pan-Asian Buddhist world.