The Lost Kingdoms of Early Southeast Asia

Head of meditating Buddha, Central Thailand, 9th century, recovered from Wat Phra Ngam, near Phra Pathom Chedi, Nakhon Pathom, Nakhon Pathom province, and donated to the National Museum by Phrathep Suthee in 1916, terracotta, height 17 cm, width 15 cm, National Museum, Bangkok, Cat. 118

THE FLORENCE AND Herbert Irving Asian Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, is home to one of the most extensive and comprehensive collections of Asian art in the West: It boasts more than 35,000 objects, from paintings and prints to metalwork and ceramics, and spans from the third millennium BC to the 21st century. The department’s major spring exhibition, however, Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century, is indebted to an array of outstanding international loans.

From 14 April until 27 July, the Met’s Tisch Galleries is displaying national treasures lent by a handful of countries in Southeast Asia, as well as  institutions in Europe: pieces have been lent to the museum by the national museums of Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar; the Musée Guimet, Paris, and major museums in both the UK and the US  have also given generous loans. A number of these pieces have never travelled outside of their home countries, and the government of Myanmar has signed its first-ever international loan agreement so that its national treasures can be a part of the exhibition.

As Thomas P. Campbell, Director and CEO of the Met, explains, it is rare for exhibitions nowadays to provide a great level of exposure to previously unfamiliar material of such significance. Yet until recently, little was known about the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms – whose identities, and often very existence, only emerged in the 20th century – that flourished in Southeast Asia from the early 5th to the 9th century.

Despite a heightened Western awareness of Southeast Asia as a region, early Southeast Asian art has only recently been valued for its originality and aesthetic powers. Recent excavations and field research have enabled scholars to redefine the cultural and social complexities of the region; it is now viewed alongside India and China as a region with great artistic traditions and styles – and as the source of some of the most powerful Hindu-Buddhist art.

Lost Kingdoms is the first exhibition to present the newly emerged religious art that was created in Southeast Asia all those centuries ago. The exhibition will reveal the artistic and cultural achievements of the Hindu and Buddhist kingdoms in the form of newly discovered architectural and sculptural relics. The exhibition is going to use these works, and the sculptural traditions of the formerly unknown kingdoms, as a lens to explore the first millennium of Southeast Asian history. The exhibition is organised thematically, allowing the curators to establish links and connections across the region with seven sections representing the major narratives that have shaped its cultural identity.

The exhibition traces the evolution of both mainland and insular Southeast Asian sculpture from the early influence of Indian and Western imports, through the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism, to the emergence of Buddhist art as an expression of state identity, and its dissemination in the new age of Asian internationalism.  About 160 sculptures, associated with the identifiable cultures of Pyu, Funan, Zhenla, Champa, Dvāravatī, Kedah, and Śrīvijaya  are on show. The exhibits range from bold sculptures to a delicately inscribed grave stele. A significant number of the pieces are monumental, and the majority are carved in stone, with a few in bronze, gold, silver, terracotta, and stucco.

‘Imports’ is the first section – and the first piece of the puzzle. From the first half of the first millennium AD onward, Southeast Asia underwent a process of ‘Indianisation’, adopting and adapting Indic works and ideas; the powerful kingdoms of the region assumed aspects of Indic culture to give political and religious expression to their own identities. This section features rare surviving examples of works of art and other objects from India and further West that were discovered in Southeast Asia. These exotic pieces served as models for local artists commissioned to create their own works in the spirit of the new faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism. The show encapsulates the diversity of Southeast Asian responses to Indic ideas and religious ideologies across the region.

Southeast Asia’s cultural legacy attests to its close connections with India; its works are evidence of the artistic dialogue between the two regions. It was through a great love of Mediaeval India that John Guy, Florence and Herbert Irving Curator of South and Southeast Asian Art in the Department of Asian Art at the Met, came to Southeast Asian art: ‘This drew me into the Hindu-Buddhist world of Southeast Asia and the nature of the, at times, symbiotic relationship of their artistic traditions’.

The arrival of Hinduism and Buddhism did not signal a dissolution of everything else spiritual; local traditions and ideas indigenous to Southeast Asia endured and are very visible in the artworks that the Met will have on display. Another section presents objects that demonstrate the persistence of nature cults in the Hindu-Buddhist period. It was in fact largely because of the receptivity of Southeast Asia’s pre-existing belief systems, and its strong native traditions, that imported Indic religious ideologies could be adopted into the region so successfully. ‘Nature Cults’ explores Southeast Asian spirits and nature cult deities and the place that they assumed alongside imported religious systems.

Two Indic religions, Brahmanism and Buddhism, were introduced into Southeast Asia early on through merchant trade. Later, both Brahman priests and Buddhist monks served as spiritual and temporal advisors to local rulers, and helped to spread Indic beliefs and faith. As Guy explains, Indic ideologies offered Southeast Asian leaders: ‘a cultural package which promised to enhance their status and power as rulers of emerging kingdoms’. The exhibition also celebrates the achievements of the Southeast Asian sculptors of the 5th to  8th century, whose patrons, the emerging elite, were responding to the Indic ideas and imagery now being promoted in the region.

It was their shared response to Indic ideas and imagery that generated the rich stylistic identities and artistic traditions that the exhibition will represent. Each kingdom responded to the imports through its own artistic inclinations, and the results reflect the cultural diversity of the region. Indian artistic imagery was adopted, but cast very much in Southeast Asia’s own style – and modified to serve its own social and political ends.

‘Arrival of Buddhism’ explicitly explores the early expressions of the Buddhist faith in Southeast Asia. This section includes precious objects from the 5th to 6th century found in a unique relic chamber in the ancient walled Pyu city of Sri Ksetra, in central Myanmar. It also features a series of life-size Buddha images – from Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam – that show the universality of the Buddha’s message expressed in distinctive regional styles. Among other masterpieces on show, is a 6th-century Buddha ‘Offering Protection’.

In keeping with Hindu and Buddhist art in India, many of the Southeast Asian works in the exhibition have a strong narrative element.  As Guy explains, they tend to either allude to major Indic myths exploring creation legends or allegorical Buddhist tales in the form of Jataka stories. Guy highlights one particularly remarkable object: a 7th-century Khmer lintel. This piece depicts the performance of a King’s consecration ceremony, making it, in Guy’s words, ‘a unique record of the enactment of Indian ritual in a Southeast Asian royal context’.

The responsiveness of Southeast Asia’s earliest-known rulers to Hinduism is illustrated in ‘Vishnu and his Avatars’. Embracing Vishnu as an ideal model of divine kingship, these rulers dedicated numerous shrines to the god. A selection of large-scale sculptures from such sanctuaries will be on view.

‘Shiva’s World’ presents another cult, to Shiva, the provider of over-arching protection. The spotlight here is on the Khmer artists, who generated new forms of expressing Shiva’s identity not seen in India. Devi, as Shiva’s Consort Uma, is another highlight. Unique in terms of its startling naturalism, the portrait is said to perhaps embody that of a deceased Khmer queen of the first half of the 7th century.

Buddhist art was not only used as an expression of religious inclination and direction; it was also a sign of state identity. ‘State Art’ has a focus on artworks commissioned by the Mon rulers of the Dvaravati kingdom of central Thailand. This section showcases some of the most monumental works in the exhibition. It includes several large-scale sandstone standing Buddhas, sacred wheels of the Buddha’s Law, and steles depicting stories from the present and past lives of the Buddha.

The final section, ‘Saviour Cults’, is dedicated to the cult of the Bodhisattva, the Buddhist saviours, and their dissemination throughout Southeast Asia. This tradition, which originated in India, evolved independently in other parts of Asia, where it developed its own cult images and shared iconographical language. A Dvaravati kingdom terracotta sculpture created in the 7th century, Head of Meditating Buddha, is one sublime representation of Buddhist meditation. A late 7th-century Avalokiteshvara, discovered in the Mekong delta of Vietnam in the 1920s, is said to be one of Southeast Asia’s most beautiful images of the Buddhist embodiment of compassion.

The exhibition tracks the circulation of religion among the kingdoms through international trade routes. In the late 8th century, religious ideas, rituals and images spread and resulted in a shared visual language in the service of Mahayana Buddhism – a new age of Asian internationalism had begun. The sharing of such religions as Buddhism and Hinduism was one of the ways in which the disparate cultures of Asia came together; though distinctive in a number of ways, many of their artworks reveal similarities in form
and iconography as a result of shared religious roots.

John Guy stresses that though the

footprint of the early Southeast Asian kingdoms mirrors, in part, the modern political map of the region today, the exhibition’s objective is to heighten awareness and appreciation of the region’s antiquity and heritage – not necessarily its future. The purpose of the exhibition is to alert the public to the early kingdoms’ contribution to Asian, and indeed world, culture. As Guy pointed out, the mid-first millennium cities of mainland Southeast Asia were arguably as large and sophisticated – judging by the legacy of their devotional art – as most in Europe at the time.

Lost Kingdoms uses the surviving body of early religious art from these formerly unacknowledged kingdoms to explore their cultures and bring their names and reputations to the fore. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition, introduced by Guy and including explanatory texts written by a team of experts in the field. The featured objects are photographed on location, and it includes maps and a glossary of place names, providing geographical context. The catalogue, published by the Met and distributed by Yale University Press, will undoubtedly become an invaluable resource, and is a watershed study of Southeast Asia’s artistic and cultural legacy in itself.

The Met has been collecting Asian art since the late 19th century, and its collection spans the continent’s disparate traditions and cultures. Lost Kingdoms is seen as groundbreaking partially because it includes such a vast array of international loans, partly because it is the first show to explore the sculptural art produced in the earliest kingdoms of Southeast Asia. The show attests to cross-cultural exchange and international artistic partnerships – ones forged recently, and in the distant past.


Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century, from 14 April to 27 July, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

A symposium: New Perspectives on Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture, 5th to 8th Century, is on 17 May.