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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