Webinar on “Indianisation and Indigenisation of Southeast Asian Hindu and Buddhist Architecture”

In this webinar session, Prof Chotima Chaturawong addressed a long time-span phenomenon that contributed to shaping Southeast Asia’s landmark Hindu and Buddhist monuments in both Continental and Island Southeast Asia. 


Tuesday, 5 October 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar titled “Indianisation and Indigenisation of Southeast Asian Hindu and Buddhist Architecture” by Professor Chotima Chaturawong, an architecture historian who specialises in  Myanmar and Southeast Asia. The webinar was part of the Temasek History Research Centre’s Archaeology and Art History Programme of Southeast Asia and was moderated by one of the programme’s conveners, Dr Helene Njoto.

Professor Chotima Chaturawong
Professor Chotima Chaturawong gave an overview of the periodisation of Hindu and Buddhist architecture in the region and the characteristics of each period. Dr Helene Njoto moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Chotima Chaturawong began with a brief introduction to the arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Both religions spread mainly through trade networks and followed monsoon winds. She then gave an overview of the periodisation of Hindu and Buddhist architecture in the region and the characteristics of each period. The Early Indianisation period spreading from 1st to 7th century in the mainland, one of the main Indian influence characteristics being square plan single-cell structures with or without a circumambulatory gallery.  

However, Professor Chotima noted that temples were never strict imitations of their Indian counterparts. On the contrary, they presented many variations. They were also the result of reinterpretations and the expression of local knowledge. These variations also depended on the materials available locally (brick in mainland Southeast Asia and mainly stone in insular Southeast Asia). The so-called « Golden period » showcased more maturity from the 8th to the 10th century in insular Southeast Asia through examples from Central Java, and from the 9th to 13th century in the mainland such as in Khmer architecture of the Angkor period, Cham architecture and the architecture of the Pagan Dynasty.

As Buddhism dwindled in India, the localisation phenomenon increased in Southeast Asia. This so-called “indigenisation” period saw the construction of among the most prominent buildings and architecture styles from the 10th-13th-16th century onwards known to this day in Asia. These include buildings from later periods, such as from the East Javanese period, the Late Cham period, and in Myanmar and Cambodia buildings built following the fall of Pagan and Angkor. 

Drawing from her own research, Professor Chotima gave a few examples from 19th and 20th centuries central Thai, Burmese, Mon, and Pa-o Buddhist architecture. She showed how Thai and Burmese are heirs to Theravada Buddhism being neighbours and sharing an ancient history at their border. She demonstrated how in Bangkok, Buddhist temples developed a division between public areas (Buddhavasa) and private areas for monks (Sanghavasa) during the reign of King Rama IV (. 1851-1868). In the public area, buildings were aligned along an axis, a feature unknown in India. Another example of localisation and reinterpretation of Indian (in this case Srilankan) architecture was taken from King Mindon’s reign (r. 1853-1878): Royal monastic compounds where the central monastery of the abbot was surrounded by smaller monasteries, a feature inspired by Sri Lanka. Other examples are Mon monasteries in Moulmein, Myanmar and a Pa-o monastery in Lampang, northern Thailand which were built by teak merchants. Professor Chotima observed that Burmese, Mon, and Pa-o monastery floor plans had a sleeping area for monks situated to the west, south, and east and west of the main hall, respectively.

The webinar was attended by a large audience of 206 attendees mainly from Asia, Europe, Australia and the USA. Many questions were asked about Chinese influence in Southeast Asian temple architecture, about Buddhist architecture in Early Singapore history, about the agency of Indian master builders during the “Indianisation” period, the role of women and the role of monks, vocabulary concerns about the difference between “monasteries” and “temples”, and the difference between Thai and Lao architecture. 

Over 200 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)