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Stupa in Asia

Tracing Indo-Cambodian relations through Magnificent Stupa Architecture


Southeast Asia was under Indian influence from around the 3 rd century BC until the 15th century AD, when Hindu-Buddhist influence was absorbed by local politics. India had established trade, cultural and political relations with Southeast Asian kingdoms in BurmaThailand, Indonesia, Malay PeninsulaCambodia and, to a lesser extent, Vietnam. To understand the stupas and pagodas that one can see throughout Asia, it is helpful to first appreciate the design of the earliest stupas, which can be found in India and Sri Lanka. These stupas exerted great influence on later designs. This article is based on the influence of later Stupas, not from India to Cambodia, but rather from Cambodian or South-east Asian countries to India. I have focused on the Votive stupas of Sarnath with a few examples from other Buddhist sites of India, and the similarity and the influence on the Indian stupa from the outer side are explored.

At Sarnath, located near the confluence of the Ganges and the Gomati rivers in Uttar Pradesh, India, only structural stupas made of brick with mud mortar and stone with dry masonry can be seen. Through excavations from British times to the 20 th century, researchers exposed many monolithic, clay, terracotta, metal, seal and other types of votive stupas.

Ancient Buddhist monasteries near Dhamekh Stupa Monument Site, Sarnath

Ancient Buddhist monasteries near Dhamekh Stupa Monument Site, Sarnath (Wikimedia Commons)

The transmission of Indian culture to distant parts of Central Asia, China, Japan, and especially Southeast Asia is certainly one of the greatest achievements of Indian history. None of the other great civilizations - not even the Hellenic - had been able to achieve a similar success without military conquest. Local traditions refer to the establishment of political authority by Indians over most of South-East Asia.

According to Cambodian annals, an exiled prince of Indraprastha founded the kingdom of Cambodia. Around the first century AD, Kaudinya founded a kingdom in Cambodia (Phungtian, 2000). The Buddhist monks of the Cambodia region were learned, and in the fifth century some were said to have been invited to other South East Asian countries to translate Buddhist texts from Indian languages to their own.

Historical Relations

Indian traders, adventurers, teachers and priests continued to be the dominating influence in Southeast Asia until about 1500 AD, and Indians often ruled the earliest states in these regions. Hinduism and Buddhism both spread to these states from India and for many centuries existed there with mutual toleration. The South Asian peninsula was known as Suvarnabhumi or Suvarnadvipa, the land or island of gold (Sharan,1986:23-29). Indians traveled to the Far East through the land or sea routes. Over time trade led to political and cultural relations. Trade relations may have begun around 200-300 BC.

Indians traveled to the Far East through the land or sea routes for trade. Relief panel of a ship at Borobudur, 8th-9th century

Indians traveled to the Far East through the land or sea routes for trade. Relief panel of a ship at Borobudur, 8 th-9th century (Wikimedia Commons).

The first of these ‘Indianized’ states to achieve widespread importance was the Kingdom of Funan founded in the 1st century AD in what is now Cambodia — according to legend, after the marriage of an Indian Brahman into the family of the local chief. These local inhabitants were Khmer people (Herz, 1958, 11, 57). Funan flourished for some 500 years. It carried on a prosperous trade with India (Sharan, 1986:23-29). In the seventh century, Cambodia (Wolters, 1974) had a succession of rulers who patronized Hinduism and suppressed Buddhism (Brown,1965). It was not until the ninth century that Buddhism began to receive some royal patronage from the rulers.

A map of Southeast Asia in 400 AD, showing the Kingdom of Funan

A map of Southeast Asia in 400 AD, showing the Kingdom of Funan (Wikimedia Commons)

Cultural and Religious Relations

The interactions between India on the one hand and various parts of Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 1 stcentury AD (Coedes, 1966). Historically, India-Cambodia relations are a product of Hindu and Buddhist religious and cultural influences, emanating out of India in the 4th-6th century AD, to various parts of South-East Asia (Banerji, 1972). Though Cambodia, like most of its neighbors, is a Buddhist nation, there is a strong influence of Hindu rituals, idolatry and mythology. The pervading influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indian architecture, is borne out by the structures at Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon, Baphuon, and other religious and historical sites in Cambodia (Coedes, 1963). This is glorious testimony of the profound cultural and social basis of India-Cambodia historical relationship.

The pervading influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indian architecture can be seen at the spectacular Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The pervading influence of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Indian architecture can be seen at the spectacular Angkor Wat, Cambodia (Jonjon Pascua / Flickr)

Subjective Stupa Architecture of Southeast Asia in light of Sarnath

The most significant architectural feature of Southeast Asia is the Buddhist stupa (Banerji, 1933), known in India from the 1st century BC, but no doubt dating from earlier. The most neglected art and architectural specimens, stupa are very important in Buddhist Art and Architecture. Both the solid stupa and the open temple can be found throughout the region. The famous architectures of Angkor Wat and Pagan in Cambodia and Burma, dating from around the 12th century, are in the open Hindu and Buddhist style. With the arrival of Buddhism in Cambodia (Mazzeo, 1978), and subsequently Japan and China, the Indian architectural tradition underwent another transformation (Bhattacharya, 1924). In the 2nd century, Kanishka, a ruler in northwest India, built a stupa in the form of a masonry tower to house some Buddhist relics. From this region, Buddhism made its way towards China along the Silk Road. Kanishka's tower proves a fruitful model. In the hands of Chinese, Cambodian and Japanese architects, this type of stupa evolved into a style that was tall, slender, and with stairs, tiers, and platforms. With the Sarnath stupa, we have the evidence of stupa architecture from Cambodia such as Royal Palace at Phnom Penh.

The Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The Royal Palace at Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Featured image: Chaukhandi Stupa on a hill, Sarnath (Wikimedia Commons).

Part 2: The magnificent stupa architecture of Southeast Asia.

By Dr. Sachin Kumar Tiwary


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Coedes, George, 1966, The Making of Southeast Asia, H. M. Wright, Berkeley

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Sarkar, H., 1993, Studies in Early Buddhist Architecture of India, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt Ltd., New Delhi, p.83

Sharan, Mahesh Kumar, 1986, Political History of Ancient Cambodia, Vishwavidyalaya Publishing, New Delhi, pp.23-29

Wolters, O. W., 1974, “North-Western Cambodia in the Seventh Century”, BSOAS 37, 2


Dr. Sachin Kumar Tiwary

Sachin Kr Tiwary, born on 1st February 1985 in the Chaibasa (Singhbhum district of Jharkhand), has a great passion for the field of archaeology right from his college days. He had passed Graduation and Post Graduation from Banaras Hindu University and... Read More

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