In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies

Buddhism Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia
Pattaratorn Chirapravati, John Listopad
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0221


According to the Sinhalese chronicles the Dipavaṃsa (Chronicle of the Island) and Mahāvaṃsa (Great Chronicle), the historical Buddha made a journey to Sri Lanka to subdue the demons and make the country suitable for human settlement. Buddhist art and architecture are recorded as beginning with the arrival during the 3rd century BCE of the Buddhist monk Mahinda, the son of the Mauryan emperor Asoka. The Mahāvaṃsa also mentioned two Buddhist monks, Sona and Uttara, who are said to have been sent by King Asoka in the 3rd century BCE to a place called Suvaṇṇabhumī, which translates as “Land of Gold.” Scholars identify Suvaṇṇabhumī either as the southern part of present-day Myanmar, in particular Thaton, or the central part of Thailand. Unfortunately, no archaeological remains have been found in Southeast Asia (SEA) that can be attributed to that date. Buddhism was patronized by kings and leaders of several kingdoms of SEA; namely, Funan (in southern Vietnam), Champa (in Vietnam), Dvaravati (in central Thailand), Sri Ksetra (in Myanmar), Srivijaya (in the Thai Peninsula and Sumatra), and Zhenla (in Cambodia). At least four different branches of Buddhism spread to the region: Sarvāstivāda nikāya (which used the Sanskrit language), Mūlasarvāstivāda nikāya (Sanskrit), Theravada (Pali), and Mahayana Buddhism. The art and architecture of these early kingdoms, depending on their particular Buddhist ideology, share similar iconography, stylistic appearances, and decorative elements. SEA materials can be divided into two regions: mainland SEA (i.e., Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam) and insular SEA (i.e., Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore). Thus, books on SEA art and architecture usually cover a country, region, or specific subject (e.g., Buddhist sculpture, Buddhist painting, or votive tablets).

General Overviews

Studies of Sri Lankan and Southeast Asian (SEA) art and architecture were established as early as the 1920s by several Western scholars (e.g., British, Dutch, French, and German) who conducted research on these two regions. Coedès 1968 is a comprehensive book on early SEA history, and Le May 2004 (originally published in 1938) provides comprehensive information on the Buddhist art of SEA. Groslier 1962 and Rawson 1990 (first published in 1967) are two classic works that still offer useful introductions to SEA art. Boisselier 1994 provides excellent examples of texts and images on the topics of the buddha’s life and past lives (large numbers of examples are of SEA art). Between the 10th and the 21st centuries, the countries of mainland SEA continued to share similar religious practices of Theravada Buddhism; thus, Buddhist art and architecture of this region are closely related in terms of iconography and architectural elements. However, Buddhism declined and disappeared from the insular region after the 13th century, and Islam became the most important religion of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

  • Boisselier, Jean. The Wisdom of the Buddha. Discoveries. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994.

    Provides excellent examples of texts and images on the topics of the buddha’s life and past lives, a large number of which are of SEA art.

  • Coedès, George. The Making of South East Asia. Translated by H. M. Wright. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966.

    Provides excellent descriptions of history, archaeological remains, and epigraphy. An important work; however, some of the theses have been supplanted by more-recent research.

  • Coedès, George. The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Edited by Walter F. Vella. Translated by Susan Brown Cowing. Honolulu, HI: East-West Center Press, 1968.

    An English translation of Les états hindouisés d’Indochine et d’Indonésie (Paris: De Boccard, 1964), it provides comprehensive studies of the development of the early kingdoms of SEA from 1st to the 15th centuries. An important early work; however, some of the theses have been supplanted by more-recent research.

  • Girard-Geslan, Maud, ed. Art of Southeast Asia. Translated by J. A. Underwood. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

    Perhaps the best overview of the art and architecture of SEA. Each country is covered in an essay written by an area specialist: Marijke J. Klokke, Albert Le Bonheur, Donald M. Stadtner, Valerie Zaleski, and Thierry Zephir. The chapter on Thailand is outdated.

  • Groslier, Bernard Philippe. The Art of Indochina: Including Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Translated by George Lawrence. Art of the World. New York: Crown, 1962.

    A groundbreaking book on mainland SEA art, with firsthand archaeological fieldwork. It was first published in French (Indochine: Carrefour des arts) in 1961 (Paris: A. Michel). It provides significant information about Buddhist and Hindu temples and is still useful.

  • Le May, Reginald. Buddhist Art in South-East Asia: The Indian Influence on the Art of Thailand. New Delhi: Aryan Books International, 2004.

    First published in 1938 as A Concise History of Buddhist Art in Siam (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), this is an important pioneering work in SEA studies. It is still useful for its illustrations, but Le May’s work has been supplanted by later research.

  • Rawson, Philip. The Art of Southeast Asia: Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Java, Mali. World of Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1990.

    Provides a good general, but dated, overview of SEA art. Buddhist and Hindu art are covered in most chapters in the book. The portions on Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam are the best; the chapter on Thailand is outdated.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.