The Golden Lands: Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand & Vietnam by Vikram Lall
reviewed by Jame DiBiasio
10 October 2014 — From Sri Lanka to Tibet to Japan, the expression of Buddhism through art and architecture tells a wider tale. Vikram Lall, a practicing architect and teacher in New Delhi, wonders at the mind-boggling diversity of Buddhist buildings. Indeed, the variety on hand in Bagan alone is a testament to the endless creativity of presenting a uniform set of philosophical and religious tenets.
Buddhism’s expansion has largely been a process of coexistence with other faiths rather than a premeditated program of displacement. Lacking a central organized Vatican, there is freedom to interpret Buddhism to suit local styles.
Some of the greatest monuments in Southeast Asia—the Shwezigon in Bagan, the Bayon in Angkor—housed local spirits as well as Buddhist imagery. In Shwezigon’s case, the purpose was to lure the masses with the local spirits, called nats, and thereby expose them to Theravada Buddhism. At the Bayon, the inclusion of animist and Hindu statuary was meant to help Angkor’s first Mahayana Buddhist king secure his position among the displaced and hostile Hindu aristocracy.
Lall traces such developments through the story of Buddhist architecture. Meant to be the first volume of a series spanning Buddhist architecture across Asia and the world, The Golden Lands focuses on Southeast Asia. He plans five more volumes, each covering a different geography, with the final one meant to incorporate contemporary Buddhist architecture in both Asia and the West.
Buddhist tolerance led to syncretism—a combination of various beliefs—making Lall’s task huge but fascinating.
He shows how the spread of the religion from the Ganges plain has manifested itself in many ways, from the square towers of China, creating the pagoda, to the giant stupa-temples such as Borobodur. Similarly, Lall traces how the humble caves that sheltered monks during India’s rainy season have evolved into the grand monasteries of Korea and Japan, or how the reliquaries built by King Asoka in India’s 3rd century BC morphed into the bell-shaped chedis of Thailand.
These iterations reflect indigenous traditions and materials. The monasteries of Bhutan are made of mud and doubled as forts; Upper Myanmar’s plains are dotted with brick temples; the Vietnamese Tran dynasty favored wood.
Despite all of these variations, they each perform the task of translating the core ideas of the Buddha, the Dhamma (teachings) and the Sangha (the priesthood or, sometimes, the community). This could be in the form of replicating the original Indian troika of building forms: the stupa, the temple and the monastery. Or it could reinvent these in other ways, sometimes adding new dimensions, such as the Japanese courtyards.
Another theme that assumes importance when considered on a global scale is how many recipient cultures initially sought to replicate the Indian design, only to later assert local forms.
For example, many of Bagan’s temples sought to recreate the layout and logic of earlier Indian examples. The Mahabodhi temple in Bagan is the most obvious example, as it was a replica of the Mahabodhi temple in Bodhgaya, India, where the Buddha attained enlightenment.
Although Bagan’s buildings represented the evolution of various precursors over centuries (including the Pyu of Upper Burma and the Mon of the south), it was also the most directly influenced by Indian immigrants. The kings of Bagan also enjoyed strong political ties with the Buddhist rulers of Sri Lanka, which brought with it a sharing of religious doctrine.
But later dynasties, while even more steeped in the Theravada orthodoxy first cemented by Bagan’s kings, shifted away from this overtly Indian style. The temples at Mandalay, the most important religious center in Myanmar for the past three centuries, reverted to wood, a medium used by the Pyu before the rise of the Burmans.
In other cases, the arrival of Buddhism, and its use to bestow political legitimacy upon the ruler, was sudden and the trade and migration links to India were weaker. The Indonesian candi (temple) and the design of Borobodur were imported wholesale from India, with no local references. The rise of Islam in the 13th century left Buddhism no opportunity to develop a more indigenous style there.
For a book such as this, the visuals are just as important as the text. Lall and his researchers have spanned the continent. The production team numbers a dozen people aside from Lall, plus seven contributing photographers. This is an ambitious project, and the photos, maps and architectural images are used well. Lall and his editor, Joan Foo Mahony, have executed a thoughtful design. After a brief but important introduction to the faith’s architectural roots in India, they cover six countries, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. Each of those is analyzed through the lens of its architectural history, the characteristics of the local Buddhist architecture, and finally select examples of buildings that best tell the story.
The project is so big, however, it would seem impossible for Lall to succeed at every level. Even his decision to focus on architecture requires him to incorporate historical and religious matters. Perhaps as a practical matter, it also restricts his bibliography.
These limitations do show up. For example, Lall asserts the mysterious faces of the Bayon and other Khmer Buddhist temples are those of Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, an important figure in Mahayana Buddhism. However, the leading theory today among Bayon specialists is the faces are a tantric representation of a past Buddha. Tantric Buddhism doesn’t get any kind of hearing in Lall’s tome, but it was prevalent at Nalanda and other centers in India in Buddhism’s twilight days there. When Muslim invaders destroyed the last Buddhist monasteries in the Ganges plain, those Tantric gurus fled to Cambodia—a new, strong Buddhist kingdom—via Nepal. These are important links to understanding Buddhist history and the faces of the Bayon are an architectural clue.
Lall is also a little too quick to portray the classic story of the importance of Mon culture on Bagan, a narrative that has been challenged by the scholar Michael Aung-Thwin. Missing from Lall’s bibliography are recent works by Aung-Thwin, the Myanmar symbolist Donald Stadtner, and the important Bayon: New Perspectives, edited by Joyce Clark.
These omissions register as a little more than just a quibble. But they do not take away from the achievement of Lall and his colleagues. They simply reveal the vastness of the subject. The idea of focusing on Buddhist architecture may seem niche, but it opens many doors, and in fairness to the author, there are only so many you can traverse before you must complete the assignment.
Lall’s visually delightful showcase of Buddhist architecture succeeds in portraying the physical result of the faith’s tolerant, cosmopolitan nature, and the dynamism with which so many cultures have made it their own. The belief system undergirding the many contrasts among The Golden Lands has been built to last.
Jame DiBiasio is the author of The Story of Angkor (Silkworm Books, 2014).