Analyzing the Impact of Indian Architecture on the Architecture of Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia

by Sriranjani Srinivasan

A useful contribution for a better understanding of what was hastily called "Indianization" of Southeast Asia. Architectural point of view.

Analyzing the Impact of Indian Architect plan section borobodur map

Publication: World Academy of Science, Engineering and Technology International Journal of Architectural and Environmental Engineering Vol:13, No:5, 2019

Published: 2019

Author: Sriranjani Srinivasan

Pages: 14

Language : English

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Comparative studies on Indian and Southeast Asian architecture are usually flawed by lack of depth, hasty generalizations, and what historian Victor Lieberman called external point of view.” In this instance, however, the author makes her point with several well-observed, pertinent points:


The shrine entrances in the north Indian examples have an elaborate over-door or outer frame composed of three, five, seven or more concentric elements, the saklas extending on either side beyond the jambs, and offer the lintel with a central motif — an ihamrga or an icon the lalatabimba. This starting from the Gupta period, is found variously elaborated in the north Indian temple styles of later period, and adopted by the Calukyas and their successors in the Deccan. An invariable component of the sakhas of the over door was the sarpasakha two large snake forms, one on either side, held at the top by their tail ends in the talons or beak of a garuda (eagle) forming the lintel crest or lalatabimba. The kala makara has just a leonine crest (kala) with the two fantastic makaras rising from its mouth and trailing down the door jambs of the doorway or niche with the heads of the makaras resting on the ground on either end of the sill, a feature akin to the sarpa-sakhaa of the north Indian and the Deccan temples with the variation of the makara element of the torana being borrowed from the typical south Indian forms. 


The Javanese adaptation of the Indian makara — torana — sarpa — sakha — lalatabimba complex of motifs and their transformation into the characteristic kala makara form, tending more to a pointed apex and its extension in the prasats or temples of Khmer architecture would thus be easily understood. In many examples outside Java one could still discern the sarpa-sakha motif on the shrine doorways or niche openings. In the earliest phase of Cham architecture, as in Hoa-lai, the superstructure of the southern tower displays an arch showing its identity with the kudu arch of the south Indian vimanas.

Circumambulation [Pradaksina]

We find that in most of the south eastern countries that soft stones, like sandstone, limestone or even laterite (as in Orissa and Kerala) mostly for foundations (or hearting as in Cambodia) were adopted except in Indonesia where the hard volcanic stone andesite or trachyte was employed following the Pallava-Pandya-Chola hard stone tradition, a significant feature in the art history of the countries concerned. Furthermore, the masonry, as in the Indian monuments, was of dry order, with no mortar or cementing materials being used in the construction; so that in their building technique and the structural principles adopted were eventually the same as in India.
Pradaksina or circumambulation constituting an important ritual in Indian worship, whether of the Buddhist or of the Saiva-Vaisnava or of the other sects, the design of the temples, whether of the open-to-air or of the hypaethral type, or of the roofed type, had to provide for such a feature which is found again faithfully repeated in the plan and layout of the South-Eastern stupas and temples. The hypaethral temple with the object of worship open to the air, as in the vriksa caitya or Bodhimanda, reflecting the earlier trends of animistic or treeworship and of the stupa, starting primarily as a funerary tomb (sariraka), becoming secondarily a reliquary of objects associated with the hallowed great (paribhogika) and ending as the commemorative (uddesika) monument — all symbolic of the master and likewise reflecting the cults of ancestor — worship of the earlier peoples and the roofed sanctuaries enshrining the object of worship — symbolic or anthropomorphic forms of the deity venerated, both appealed to the almost similarly conditioned people of these lands, where too animism and megalithism prevailed earlier to the onset of the organized Indian religious ideas. Thus the borrowal by the Southeast of Indian temple types, both in their function and form and exhibiting very little modification in the beginning resulted. The provision of such elaborate circumambulatory in the monuments of Borobudur, Parambanan and Angkor, to mention the most well-known, would suffice to illustrate this trend. The enhancement of the stature of the monument — stupa or temple, by mounting it on a high square platform with steps (sopana) provided on the cardinal sides would be another feature of Indian origin. This particular feature can be found emphasized in not only the three monuments mentioned.

Chinese Background

Related as they were to the Chinese world and constantly connected with it from proto-historic times, these South Eastern countries interposed between India and China were indeed open to prolonged Chinese cultural diffusion, though limited to small areas. The Chinese political power did have the effect of slowing down the progress of the Indianization of these countries. Once the impact of Indianization started in early historic times, the aspect of dependence of these countries on China was completely altered. Continued diffusion of the three great Indian religious currents — Saivism, Vaishnavism and Buddhism — naturally resulted in their absorption and assimilation, according to the respective native genius of common elements, religious ideas, philosophy, ritual traditions, identical themes of symbolism and iconography, and canons of architecture — all mostly derived from Indian sacred literature and technical treaties that formed a common patrimony. Naturally, also local history, legends, beliefs and traditions did influence the format of the matrix of their respective art, architectural and iconographic expressions. Indianization was facilitated more by adoption of the Indian language of religion, philosophy and technology, namely Sanskrit and even the Indian Pallava — Grantha variety. And once the language and script were learnt, the study and comprehension of the treaties and the diffusion of the contents were easy. 

India between 5h and 12th centuries (author’s map)

Main photo: Borobudur, plan and sectiob (photo by the author)

Tags: architecture, India, Southeast Asia, Ancient Cambodia, stupa, Indianization, Indian influences, India-Cambodia cultural ties, Borobodur, Indonesia, candi, Southeast Asian architecture, reliefs, temples, comparative studies, lintels, sculpture, trees, treeworship, Saivism, Buddhism

About the Author

Sriranjani srinivasan2

Sriranjani Srinivasan

Sriranjani Srinivasan is an Indian practising architect, a professor of architecture in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, a researcher with the MEASI Academy of Architecture in Indian and Southeast Asian architecture history, an a Carnatic singer.

Focusing on sustainable architecture, engineering and development, she is Associate Vice President of Global Network for Zero (GNFZ). Prior to that endeavor, she founded The Affordable Green Company to promote recycling, sustainability and climate action. Sriranjani is an educator through and through. 

Watch Sriranjani Srinivasan contribution, India and Souteast Asia: The Architectural Connect” (February 2022), part of the Decode Series online conferences organized by Jaya School of Architecture, Poonamallee, Chennai, Tamil Nadu.