Cultural Selection: Bengali Artistic Influences in Southeast Asia

© Pyae Phyo Thet Paing / Youth Eyes on the Silk Roads UNESCO

Religious activities and trade were one of the most significant factors in the cultural contacts between Bengal region and Southeast Asia. Notably, the key location of Bengal region (East of the Indian Subcontinent and modern Bangladesh) along the Maritime Silk Roads. This region had a special artistic influences in Southeast Asian regions, especially in architecture and diverse artistic movements.

Bengali architecture influenced Southeast Asian lands, modern Myanmar and Indonesia (notably Java Island). At the end of the 8th century AD, an unusual form of temple architecture was popular in the Bengal region. These temples had a unique cruciform plan at the centre of the monastery. Architectural elements with the same characteristics were found in temples in Burma region, modern Myanmar.

Another example of these cultural influences include the Ananda Temple in Bagan (modern Myanmar) built in the 11th century AD under the ruling of King Kyanzittha. At these times, Buddhist and Vaisnava monks travelled to Burma from the Indian Subcontinent and discussed commonalities about the beauty of the temples of their region. Therefore, the King Kyanzittha heard the monks and decided to build and design a temple with these western inspirations. Although, the Ananda Temple display its eastern origins, the western features remain obvious and demonstrate its uniqueness. Even today, the Ananda Temple is considered as a masterpiece of architecture.

Moreover, Buddhist temples in central Java also demonstrates the Bengal influence in Southeast Asia. As an illustration, Chandi Sevu – one of the biggest Buddhist Temple in Java – built in the 9th century AD, as well as other temples of the area, were quite inspired by the Paharpur (Somapura Mahavihara) monastery in the Bengal region.

Besides architecture, the development of bronze techniques coming from the Bengal region – belonging to the Pala School of Art – has had an influence on ancient Javanese art. Hindu-Javanese bronzes have not been conceived within the Pala School of Art movement. However, different features and models of the bronzes definitely display the influence of the Pala School of Art in Javanese art. In this way, several Pala bronze sculptures coming from the Bengal region were found in Southeast Asia. These sculptures were likely carried by the inhabitants of the Bengal region to Java, Sumatra, and Burma where their art style and design eventually became popular.

A collection of bronze sculptures from Mainamati-Chittagong (in the South East of modern Bangladesh) of the pre-Pala and post-Gupta period determined the existence of a local Centre for Buddhist Art in this region. This centre of art was a significant hub for the expansion of this art movement towards eastern regions, notably to the Burma region.

Thereby, it can be said that the Bengal artistic movements and architecture deeply influenced Southeast Asians culture thanks to the exchanges along the Maritime Silk Roads. Hence, Southeast Asian arts and style remain unique because of the use of the local traditions along with Bengal artistic elements.


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