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Unit 8: 300 BCE - 1980 CE

South, East, and Southeast Asia

Images 192-212

Main Ideas:

  • Temples and other religious works were built on a grand scale to allow practitioners to more easily engage with them and engage with God

  • Many smaller regions adopted the cultural framework of their larger neighbors (South Asia → Southeast Asia; China → Korea & Japan) but added their own cultural touches in their artwork

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  • Temple buildings are generally designed to physically represent its religion's "cosmos" or "paradise," and practitioners can experience this feeling of enlightenment & unity with the divine by ascending a designated pathway through the temple

  • Other works of art use different religious imagery to showcase one's spiritual devotion or the influence of a certain religion or god

Image 192: Great Stupa at Sanchi



Great Stupa at Sanchi


Madhya Pradesh, India


Buddhist; Maurya, late Sunga Dynasty


c. 300 BCE - 100 CE


Stone masonry, sandstone on dome

  • The stupa represents Buddha's burial mound and the axis mundi, and the whole complex allows Buddhist practitioners to visualize the path to Enlightenment
    • The Stupa: Represents Buddha’s burial mound (where his relics would be deposited); The shape also represents Buddha’s meditative position

      • Top and spire represents Buddha’s head

      • Middle represents his body

      • Bottom represents Buddha’s legs when sitting in a lotus position while meditating

    • Believed that the stupa represented Mt. Meru (a personification of the Buddhist cosmos) and was at the center of the axis mundi (the Buddhist universe) and that the universe revolved around it

      • The spire at the top symbolizes this axis, and the small umbrella-like objects around the spire give it royalty and protection

      • It is believed that people have their own internal axis mundi within them (the spine), so that when people look at the stupa, they also climb their own axis mundi to reach and transform their own mind

      • Believed that the world was like a wheel (symbolizing the cycle of life) and that the center of the stupa was the unmoving center of the wheel

      • Thus, when people looked at the stupa from far away, they visualized the stupa as a personification of Enlightenment

    • ​The Gateways located at each of the 4 cardinal directions mark specific moments in Buddha’s life → Allow people to visualize the path to nirvana & Enlightenment

      • The East Gate shows Buddha’s birth, South shows his Enlightenment, West shows his First Sermon where he preached his Buddhist teachings, and the North gate shows Nirvana

      • These gates help guide people to nirvana

    • To worship the stupa, Buddhist practitioners must circumambulate the stupa (walk around it in a circle) → Allows them to view the stupa from all directions and more easily visualize the path to Enlightenment​​

Image 200: Lakshmana Temple



Lakshmana Temple


Khajuraho, India


Hindu, Chandella Dynasty


c. 930 - 950 CE



  • The sculptures and architecture all symbolize the idea of a divine connection between us and the God Vishnu
    • Hindu practitioners must complete a circumambulation through the temple to honor Vishnu → Allows for a spiritual union with Vishnu

      • They first approach the temple and walk along the base​

        • Here, they see many friezes that depict daily life, love, and war (all symbolize the idea of wealth and divine love)​

      • Then, they climb the stairs at the temple's entrance, where they see a statue of Ganesha → Symbolizes a start to prayer

        • Ganesha is associated with a start to prayer, which is why he's always worshipped first​

      • Then, they pass through all the mandapas (the towers), and the mandapas' ceilings get higher each time → Practitioners are reaching closer to God

      • Finally, the practitioners reach the sikhara (a higher tower), which has the womb chamber (described below), which they circumambulate → Allows them to connect with God

      • From outside, we can see that the temple's towers (mandapas & sikharas) slowly rise until they reach the womb chamber → Represents how practitioners slowly gain a sense of spirituality until they reach complete unity with God in the womb chamber

    • In addition to the friezes, there are many carvings of beautiful women that idealize female beauty → Gives auspiciousness and protection to the practitioners

      • There are many other sculptures of loving couples (mithuna), which alludes to divine love​

    • The womb chamber is a low-lit chamber with a statue of Vishnu → The low light allows people to form an intimate relationship with Vishnu

Image 202: Shiva as Lord of Dance (Nataraja)



Shiva as a Lord of Dance (Nataraja)


Hindu; India (Tamil Nadu), Chola Dynasty


c. 11th Century CE


Cast bronze

  • Represents the spiritual power of Shiva in setting forth time and causing the cycle of reincarnation
    • Shiva was the destroyer God: Not a bad thing, but rather one who puts things to an end so it can start new in the cycle of reincarnation

    • The ring of fire is a cosmic circle of fire that simulates the continuous creation and destruction of the universe

      • The encapsulated cosmos of mass, time, and space → Keeps reincarnating

    • Shiva’s hand symbols signify the benefits of following the path of righteousness (which leads to reincarnation)

      • His upper right hand holds the damaru, a drum whose beats sync with the passage of time

      • His lower right hand has its palm raised → Gesture of the abhaya mudra (if you follow the path of righteousness, you’ll have his blessing)

      • His upper left hand holds the agni, the flame of destruction that destroys all the matter that the damaru drum has brought into existence

      • His lower left hand is diagonal along his chest and his palm facing down → Symbolizes spiritual grace and fulfillment through meditation

      • His right foot steps on the demon Apasmara, the embodiment of ignorance

    • This would often be clothed and used in priest-led parades → Activates the spiritual power of Shiva to bring forth the world and the cycle of reincarnation

Image 208: Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings



Jahangir Preferring a Sufi Shaikh to Kings




c. 1620 CE


Watercolor, gold, and ink on paper

  • Shows that although Jahangir has absolute power and authority over his entire realm, he needs to devote himself to spirituality to make his power last longer
    • Next to Jahangir (center) there are 3 people of different ethnic backgrounds seated in addition to the Sufi Shaikh (priest) at the top → Because they all show honor to Jahangir, it shows that Jahangir has universal respect from everyone in his realm

      • 1. An Ottoman Sultan

        • Wears a turban that distinguishes himself as a foreigner

        • He presses his hands in a Mughal fashion to greet Jahangir →
          Represents his respect and humility for adopting the Mughal way of respect

      • 2. King James I of England

        • Seated gazing directly at the viewer → Shows that he feels a bit uneasy and left out

        • Wears a European attire with a lace ruff and elaborate jewelry

        • Most European kings’ portraits had them holding a sword in one hand, but here, the King’s hand is just next to his weapon → Shows that King James didn’t want to show that he was a threat to his empire

      • 3. Bichitr (artist) himself

        • Wears a yellow jama (robe) that identifies him as a Hindu → Shows that even Hindus honored Mughals

        • Puts his signature on the stool next to Jahangir’s pedestal to show is humility

    • Yet Jahangir only talks to the Sufi Shaikh → Emphasizes his spiritual devotion

      • Jahangir has more jewelry, and the Shaikh has bare hands → Contrast between material pursuits and spiritual pursuits

      • Jahangir presents him a gift (a book), which the Shaikh accepts only in his shawl (not his hands, which was a cultural taboo)

    • There are other mysterious figures that show devotion to Jahangir

      • The crouching angels below him write on his pedestal: “O Shah, May the Span of Your Life be a Thousand Years” → Emphasizes his power

      • Jahangir is seated on an hourglass, and its sand is slipping → Time is running out for Jahangir → He appeals to spirituality to grant him a longer life

        • This is why the putto (naked child) on the top left has a broken bow-and-arrow and the putto on the top right is crying (because they are all sad that Jahangir's time is running out)

Image 209: Taj Mahal



Taj Mahal


Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India


Masons, marble workers, mosaicists, and decorators working under the supervision of Ustad Ahmad Lahori, architect of the emperor


1632 - 1653 CE


Stone masonry and marble with inlay of precious and semiprecious stones; gardens

  • Exterior: Represents a glorification of Mughal rule as well as aspects of Mughal and Islamic architecture; also represents Mughal belief in balance and harmony
    • Combination of white marble and red sandstone: White symbolizes purity, and red symbolizes the power of the warriors

    • There are 4 minarets around the Mausoleum

      • Usually used by a priest for a call to prayer, but here they are likely for balance and harmony

    • There are 2 red sandstone buildings next to the Taj Mahal

      • Both buildings are built instead of one so that there is symmetry & balance in the complex, but only one is a mosque

    • The large domes are elements of indigenous Mughal architecture and are used to glorify the Mughal emperor’s rule

    • The gardens glorify Islamic rule over all the land

      • Taj Mahal is elevated so that people anywhere in the gardens can see it → Represents how Mughal power can be seen anywhere in their realm

      • Gardens have fountains and water channels, which are unique to the Mughals

  • Interior: Alludes to the Islamic idea of paradise → Glorifies Mughal rule by proclaiming the Mughal Empire as the center of paradise
    • There are 8 small rooms → Represent the 8 levels of paradise

    • The walls are inlaid with Quranic verses and other designs representing floral motifs → Floral themes link to the idea of paradise

    • The center room has two cenotaphs (with coffins inside): One for Shah Jahan’s wife (Mumtaz), and one for Shah Jahan himself → Represent how the Mughal royalty is at the center of this paradise

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  • Gained Hindu & Buddhist influence from India, but adapted Indian customs to their own indigenous cultures to create unique architectural styles on a regional basis

Image 198: Borobudur Temple



Borobudur Temple


Central Java, Indonesia


Sailendra Dynasty


c. 750 - 842 CE


Volcanic-stone masonry

  • The central Buddha at the top represents the embodiment of Enlightenment → Practitioners must walk along the designated path in a clockwise direction until they reach the top → Allows people to feel closer to Enlightenment as they walk along this path
    • Along the pathway, there are many smaller statues of Buddha (504 total) → Allows practitioners to feel closer to enlightenment through the presence of these smaller Buddhas along their path to the top

      • ​Like a mini-temple: Keeps the practitioners “in check” on their way to Enlightenment

    • There were many relief sculptures placed along the path that show Buddha's teachings and the dharma → Showcase the ideas of Buddhist righteousness that allow practitioners to reach Enlightenment

      • The relief pictured above shows practitioners on a cart on two wheels → Symbolizes the idea of the "turning of the wheel," which is a symbol of the Buddhist rule of law

    • This path also symbolizes a path from darkness to light

      • We start on the ground and next to big sculptures → Very tight, narrow, and small space

      • We end up on open terraces → Light and openness

        • This effect of light allows our soul to open up and achieve Enlightenment

Image 199: Angkor Wat



Angkor, the Temple of Angkor Wat, and the City of Angkor Thom, Cambodia


Hindu, Angkor Dynasty


c. 800 - 1400 CE