Buddhist art

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Garbhadhatu (Sanskrit) or Taizo-kai (jp.) - Mandala

The Buddhist art , hereinafter especially architecture , sculpture and painting related to Buddha , the Dharma ( "teaching") and the Buddhism in general, developed since its beginnings around 2500 years a complex and varied system of iconography and symbolism . It has its origin on the Indian subcontinent in the centuries immediately after the death of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni (approx. 563 to 483 BC).

For the representation of Buddhist music, see Buddhist music .

In its earliest phase, Buddhist art was aniconical , so there were no representations of the Buddha in human form . It experienced its first heyday under the reign of King Ashoka (approx. 268–232 BC), who was instrumental in spreading Buddhism on the subcontinent and beyond in Central Asia and Sri Lanka , and, according to tradition, also in Southeast Asia contributed. The first portraits, especially sculptures, of the Buddha were created around the 1st century in the northern Indian regions of Gandhara and Mathura . With the spread of Buddhism in the countries of Central, East and Southeast Asia, there was also a variety of mutual influences with many other Asian cultures and a complex and differentiated iconography.

Aniconic period (5th century BC to 1st century AD)

"Great Stupa" ( Sanchi , India, 3rd century BC)
The five first disciples of the Buddha with the Dharmachakra as a symbolic representation of the Buddha as well as the teaching.

The origins of Buddhist art are no longer clearly traceable today. The oldest known works of art assigned to the Buddhist world of faith come from the field of architecture. These are stupas , i.e. initially hill-like structures that were originally built to store relics of the Buddha. The earliest artistic representations can also be found on such stupas, in the form of bas-reliefs . The oldest among them, however, do not show any clearly Buddhist content, but scenes that may well come from pre-Buddhist times; such as an apparently grieving woman, naked and with loose hair, or yakshas , well-meaning nature spirits already known from the Indian tradition. The oldest reliefs that can be clearly assigned to Buddhism date from the 2nd century BC. Chr.

Although the art of the Indian subcontinent could already look back on a long tradition of figurative representations at that time, the Buddha was initially not shown in human form. Instead, he and the contents of the teaching were represented by various symbols, most of which are still part of Buddhist art today:

  • The lotus blossom , because of its property of not allowing dirt or water to adhere to its surface, the symbol of purity and the immaculate Buddha nature . In a closed or opening form also as a symbol of the birth of Siddhartha Gautama .
  • The Bodhi tree ( poplar fig , Latin Ficus religiosa ), the tree under which the Buddha experienced Bodhi (“enlightenment” or “awakening”). The symbol of the tree has its origins in part in pre-Buddhist fertility cults and as the "tree of life". Sometimes an empty throne is also depicted under the tree, which, like the tree itself, is supposed to remind of the awakening of the Buddha.
  • The wheel of teaching ( Sanskrit : Dharmachakra , from Dharma “the teaching” and Chakra “the wheel”), which symbolizes the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path . It is also intended as a reminder that with his first discourse in Sarnath , the Buddha “ struck the wheel of teaching for the first time” and thus made the Dharma known to the world. The Dharmachakra was depicted both in reliefs and on top of free-standing columns that King Ashoka had set up throughout his empire (see also: Edicts of Ashoka ).
Lion capital, 3rd century BC BC, India
"Buddhapada", 1st century, Gandhara
  • The lion , symbol of the rule and the royal origin of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni ("the sage from the house of Shakya"). At the time of King Ashokas, the Buddha was also known as the "Lion of Shakya". Like the Dharmachakra, the lion was also a symbol of Buddhism, which under the reign of Ashoka was depicted on the pillars erected in many places. The coat of arms of India today shows the capital of the lion column that stood in Sarnath.
  • The footprint (Sanskrit: Buddhapada ), a symbol that the Buddha “shaped” the Dharma in the world, is often provided with a number of other symbols (e.g. the Dharmachakra).
  • The stupa , symbol of the cosmos and especially of nirvana .

During the 2nd and the beginning of the 1st century BC In the 2nd century BC, sculptures, reliefs and paintings that showed various episodes from the life of the Buddha and were often attached to stupas as friezes , votive tablets and to illustrate the Dharma for those who could not read became increasingly important. Although images of people were part of the works, the Buddha himself was represented by one of the symbols mentioned above. The reason for this may lie in a statement he made in a discourse (narrated in the Dighanikaya ), according to which he had refused to be pictured after his death, his entrance into the Parinirvana and the passing away of his body. In addition, there is also the opinion among religious historians that the monks or artists did not seem to be able to depict the Buddha - who had left everything earthly, human, material and mental behind him.

Iconic period (1st century to today)

Gandhara, 1st century
Mathura, 2nd century

In southern India, the tradition of representing the Buddha represented by symbols was retained until the 2nd century (see Amaravati school). As early as the 1st century, however, the first figurative representations of the founder of the religion appeared in two northern regions. Some researchers suspect that such images could have existed before, but that they were carved from perishable materials such as wood or painted on fabrics or sheets that were also used as writing material and are therefore no longer verifiable. So far, however, no archaeological evidence for this assumption has been found.

Gandhara and Mathura

In the regions of Gandhara (today: eastern Afghanistan , northwestern Pakistan at times as far as Punjab ) and Mathura (south of today's Delhi ), the first artistic-religious representations of the Buddha were created around the same time and mutually influencing one another. From which of the two cultures the older representation of the Buddha in human form originated, it has not yet been possible to clarify clearly. In any case, the artists of Mathura were stylistically rooted primarily in the Hindu- Indian tradition. In the Gandhara style, on the other hand, the close contacts with the Hellenistic culture that had existed for several centuries are clearly visible. During his last campaign, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) had in 326 BC. Also Taxila (near Peshawar ), capital of the country since the time of the Achaemenid Darius I (549–486 BC), was conquered. Gandhara became part of the world empire of Alexander and remained under the influence of the Hellenistic empires even after his death (see also Bactria ). In this way, the Buddhist world of faith mingled with the artistic and aesthetic tradition of ancient Greece and later also provincial Roman art. In the 1st century BC Both Gandhara and Mathura were finally conquered by Kushan and both remained under his sphere of influence for several centuries. Only in the 5th / early 6th century did the rule change again with the conquest by groups of the Iranian Huns ( Kidarites and Alchon ). During this period, King Kanishka , who promoted Buddhism in general and Buddhist art in particular, gained special importance .

The partial amalgamation and mutual influence of the Indian-influenced art of Mathura and the Hellenistic- influenced Gandharas produced a new formal language that was fundamental for all later Buddhist styles, Graeco Buddhism .

Even if it is not certain where the first anthropomorphic images of the Buddha come from, the traces of the two original traditions can be seen in sculptures in particular: the wavy hair, the robe covering both shoulders, the sandals or the decorations come from Gandhara Corinthian art known acanthus leaves.

From Mathura, however, came the finer and closer to the body garments that only cover the left shoulder, the lotus as the base on which the Buddha rests, or the representation of the wheel (“Dharmachakra”) in the palm of his hand.

In India, Buddhist art developed from these beginnings over several centuries. The craftsmanship of the sculptors Mathuras, especially with the use of pink sandstone, became particularly important during the Gupta period (4th-6th centuries).

It was here that the form of representation was found which ultimately became formative for almost all Buddhist countries in Asia. Century had generally prevailed: the body slender and in perfect proportions, long pierced earlobes that are reminiscent of his childhood and youth as a prince, a topknot as an indication of his life as an ascetic and finally the half-closed eyes that do not catch the viewer's gaze reply, but are turned inward in meditative absorption. Representations of the Buddha have been characterized by an idealizing realism since that time.

In India , Buddhism, and with it Buddhist art, was gradually almost completely displaced from the 10th century onwards by the increasing strength of Hinduism and Islam, which was advancing from the West .

With the further spread of Buddhism - parallel to the development of the major main directions Theravada as well as Mahayana and Vajrayana - several artistic traditions emerged that have as much in common as they often took on very specific forms. Traditionally, they are assigned to two main currents - southern (Theravada) and northern (Mahayana) Buddhism. While proportions and attitudes were idealized even more strongly in northern Buddhism and served as a symbol of the "superhumanity" of the awakened, giving it practically divine traits, the representations of southern Buddhism remained more oriented towards a human form.

Northern Buddhism

Northern Buddhism found its way in the form of Mahayana, starting from Gandhara, first on the Silk Road to Central Asia and China , then further east to Korea and Japan and via China to Vietnam . A form of its own, with a very diverse and special iconography, emerged with the Vajrayana in Tibet . Northern Buddhism, like Mahayana in general, is characterized by a sometimes very complex pantheon of various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas .

Central Asia

A merchant and a monk, Bäzäklik , Xinjiang ,
ca.9th century

The Buddhist Gandhara existed until the 7th century, until the Islamization of large parts of Central Asia . In addition to the stylistic art of the sculptors, the Buddha statues by Bamiyan were also part of the legacy of this early Buddhist culture.

Due to its location, Central Asia had repeatedly been a region of encounter between the early high cultures of China in the east, India in the south and the Persian Empire , later also the empires of Alexander the Great , the Seleucids and finally the Romans in the west. As early as the 2nd century BC During their expansion to the west , the Han Chinese came into contact with Hellenistic cultures. Trade relations were formed and finally various trade routes that are known today under the collective name of the Silk Road . Along these routes, Buddhism also spread and stupas, monasteries and finally a number of smaller Buddhist empires emerged in the oases along the Silk Road. A particularly large abundance of Buddhist buildings and works of art from that period can be found in the eastern parts of Central Asia, the northwest of present-day China ( Turkestan , Tarim Basin , Xinjiang ), including murals and reliefs in a number of cave monasteries , pictures on canvases, sculptures and Ritual objects, of which the older ones clearly show the influence of Gandhara art. Written records in the Gandhara script ( Kharoshthi script ) were also found in the oases. With the increase in trading activities, the influence of China grew very quickly and the culture and art of the people along the routes also changed.


Legends tell that the first Buddhist monks at the time of King Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. Came to China . A distribution from the 1st century is certain. From the 4th century an independent and diverse Buddhist art developed, especially in the field of sculpture and wall painting, later also in the form of scroll paintings . The historical Buddha Shakymuni as well as Amitabha , the Adibuddha Vairocana and various Bodhisattvas ( Avalokiteshvara and others) were depicted .

Wei, China, 6th century
Tang, China, Sept. 7–9. Century
Leshan , China, 8th century
Buddha Tejaprabhā and the Five Planets , 897
Song, China, 13th century
Ming, China, 16th century
Northern Dynasties

The Mongolian - Turkish - Tibetan dominated empires of the northern dynasties ( Northern Wei , Eastern Wei , Western Wei , Northern Qi , Northern Zhou ) were geographically far removed from the Indian origins of Buddhism. In the 5th and 6th centuries, a style developed there that featured abstract, schematic forms of representation. At the beginning ( Wei dynasties ) the depictions showed features that corresponded to the idols traditional in this region: broad forehead, sharp nose bridge and small smiling mouth. The aureole surrounding the head tapers upwards and is reminiscent of the shape of a leaf. Often, based on the Indian model (see also Ajanta ), shrines and memorials were created in caves. Portraits were mostly carved from the rock in the form of bas-reliefs, rarely also as high-reliefs. The most famous examples of this style include the sculptures in the Longmen Grottoes (from the 5th century, Northern Wei, Tang; near Luoyang , Henan Province ). Up to the 6th century, a large number of clay sculptures were made, after which an increasing number of small bronze-cast images were made, which also ended up in neighboring Korea.

Tang Dynasty

The Sui and Tang dynasties that followed the northern dynasties increasingly turned to Indian sources. Numerous Chinese Buddhist monks traveled to India between the 4th and 11th centuries. Among them Xuanzang in the 7th century , to whom we owe a report on the Buddha statues of Bamiyan, among other things . This cultural exchange with the India of the Gupta dynasty, which, after the end of the Kushan empire, had ruled over large parts of the subcontinent from the 4th century onwards, meant that the Chinese sculptures of this epoch also followed the requirements of the Indian- Buddhist art approached: while Buddha and Bodhisattva representations were previously rather slim and in the tradition of Gandhara covered from the neck to often over the feet by long robes falling in waves, they now became "thicker" and often showed the body partially uncovered (right Shoulder, upper body). "Three beauty folds" are shown on the neck, lotus blossoms are increasingly used as a decorative element and the aureoles are now gradually becoming circular. The posture depicted was still rather unnaturally rigid, but at the same time the face became increasingly human and natural. From the 7th century onwards, a new style of its own emerged: the face was clearly rounded, the hair was arranged in a complicated manner and decorated with various pieces of jewelry. In addition to sculpture, paintings were initially predominant on the walls of monasteries and caves. By the end of the Tang Dynasty, however, a very skillful form of painting on scrolls had also developed. The artists preferred the rather sparse depictions of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the mostly richly decorated motifs of bodhisattvas or gods adopted in Buddhist teaching. For a long time, the Tang Dynasty was very open to influences and cultures from other countries. In the 9th century, towards the end of the Tang power, this cultural openness was finally turned into its opposite and in 845 the ruler Tang Wuzong issued a ban on all foreign religions. The Nestorian Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism were affected . Buddhist monasteries were closed, their property confiscated and the remaining Buddhists forced to practice the Dharma underground. Most of the Buddhist artwork from the Tang Dynasty era was destroyed in just a few years. This also largely brought the development of Buddhist art in China to a standstill.


As one of the remaining traditions, Chan Buddhism, which combined Buddhist and Taoist elements, continued to exist. During the southern Song dynasty (1126–1279) in particular , Chan Buddhism flourished, when monasteries were centers of culture and education. From the 12th century onwards, this school developed into Zen Buddhism in Japan .


Korea, August 8–9 Century

In the 6th century Buddhism became known in Korea through China and through contacts with the steppe peoples of Central and North Asia . The early Buddhist art of Korea was shaped by Chinese influences as well as the original Korean traditions: geometrically abstract shapes that were also adorned with luxurious jewelry of traditional style. In contrast to the often lavishly decorated images of various deities by Chinese artists, Korean artists soon preferred clearer, less ornate depictions of transcendent Buddhas such as Vairocana . A tradition that later had a strong influence on the development of Buddhism in Japan.

Asuka, Japan, 7th century


Also in the 6th century, Buddhism finally reached Japan through monks from Korea and China and was already widespread there in the 7th century. Due to the location of the Japanese islands, on the easternmost foothills of the Silk Road, traditions of Buddhist teaching and art that were suppressed and suppressed further west in India, Central Asia and China were able to survive there. Initially, the art mainly adopted the styles of Korea, but was influenced in part by the art of the Japanese Asuka period (593–710).

Nara time
Nara, Japan, 8th century

During the Nara period (710–794), Japanese artists and monks increasingly traveled to the China of the Tang Dynasty and, on their return, brought sculptures, pictures and writings to Japan. At that time, Chinese art was heavily influenced by Indian art from the Gupta empire, and so its characteristics also came to Japan: murals showed similarities with the paintings in the Indian Ajanta caves, realism was already under Korean influence during the Asuka period Recognition was further strengthened, the folds of the robes became simpler and clearer and the smiles on the faces of the portraits gave way to a calmer, more indifferent expression. From the middle of the 8th century, Japanese Buddhist art gradually moved away from the styles of its western neighbors. Buddha images became increasingly imposing in posture and stature. Sculptures were made in large numbers and increasingly from clay and wood (using Japanese painting techniques) instead of bronze. Among the few large bronze statues still erected, the Daibutsu ( Japanese "great Buddha") in Tōdai-ji from 749 is one of the most important. In addition, numerous temples (Japanese "Ji") and monasteries were built, including the five-story pagoda of Hōryū-ji in Nara, with its golden hall, or the Kōfuku-ji . Paintings and (partly colored) ink drawings served mainly to illustrate sutras and still followed mostly Chinese and Central Asian models.

Heian period

The Heian period (794–1185) was characterized by a turn to the esoteric schools of Buddhism with their numerous transcendent Buddhas (Vairocana, Amitabha, Maitreya and others) and Bodhisattvas. This was accompanied by the development of a Japanese style that was clearly detached from earlier influences (Tang, Gupta). The Heian period is considered to be the heyday of Japanese Buddhist art. Wood, which was usually gilded or lacquered, prevailed as the preferred material of the sculptors, only scented wood remained untreated. Artful mandalas were created in painting , which serve as models to this day and are often copied. From the 12th century, the visual arts concentrated primarily on the representation of motifs from the Amida schools (Japanese for "Amitabha").

Kamakura time
Nio guardian sculpture, Tōdai-ji , Unkei , 1203

Buddhist art in Japan experienced a final high point during the Kamakura period (1185–1333). Especially in the field of sculpture, very realistic and lifelike representations were made from wood, often painted and with eyes made of glass. In addition to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, important monks were also immortalized in this way. Unkei and Kaikei appeared and made the sculpture of a new form. In drawings and paintings, the tendency towards realism was sometimes even exaggerated and pictures emerged that today appear like caricatures.

Tea ceremony

From the 12th and 13th centuries, in addition to the widespread Amida schools, another very special form developed: Zen Buddhism. The Zen master Myōan Eisai had the Chan studied -Buddhismus in China and in Japan Rinzai founded -School of Zen. His student Eihei Dōgen Kigen developed the Sōtō school based on this. Zen art developed a number of very special forms of expression, such as: penmanship ( Shodō ), Zen garden art , ink drawings ( Sumi-e ) or poetry ( Haiku ). What they have in common is the endeavor to represent the “essence” of the manifestations of the world in an impressionistic and unadorned way, non- dualistic . The act of creating a work of art is more a religious practice than just the creation of an art object - it is itself an expression of the pursuit of enlightenment (Japanese satori , see also Bodhi ) at the moment. On this basis, other forms of practice also developed, such as the art of arranging flowers ( Ikebana ), the tea ceremony (Sadō) or archery ( Kyūdō ). Ultimately, from this point of view, every activity can be viewed as an art with both aesthetic and spiritual significance.

Japan is now one of the largest Buddhist countries in terms of population. A total of around 80,000 Buddhist temples, some of them very old, are counted, many of which are made of wood and are regularly renewed.

Tibet and the Himalayan region

gilded statue, Tibet

In the 5th – 6th In the 19th century, the Vajrayana ("diamond vehicle") - from the western point of view a form of "magical" or "esoteric" Buddhism - from a combination of Brahmanic - Hindu traditions (use of mantras , yoga , burnt offerings), namely Tantrayana , was in northern India . and Buddhist teachings. In the 8th – 9th In the 19th century, Tantric Buddhism was introduced into Tibet by Padmasambhava (also Guru Rinpoche ), who came from the area of ​​the earlier Gandhara . The art of Tibetan Vajrayana was initially in the tradition of Graeco Buddhism and also had influences from Bengal and China.

One of the most important developments within Tibetan Buddhist art is the creation of mandalas . These are very precise and precisely defined representations of "heavenly / divine palaces" which usually show a Buddha or a Bodhisattva in the center, usually a square surrounded by a circle. Outside, depending on the motif, a variety of different figures (other Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, gods and demons, important monks) or other symbols (ritual objects, buildings, abstract geometric shapes) can be integrated. The style of the portraits followed primarily the Indian Gupta period and Hindu art. Mandalas served - and continue to serve - as meditation objects, which are intended to help the practitioner concentrate on the respective motif and the teaching content expressed with it.

In addition to painted mandalas on thangkas or on walls, the sand mandala developed as a special form. Such a picture is created by several monks as part of a superordinate ritual in mostly days of work from different colored sand and immediately destroyed again after completion; the sand is swept up and, for example, scattered in a river.

In architecture, mandalas also served as a template for the floor plan and arrangement of the buildings in temple complexes. The access portals, residential buildings, prayer halls and sanctuaries were arranged like in a mandala so that the two-dimensional symbolic templates were actually depicted in three dimensions.

In Tibet, sculptures were mainly made of wood and metal, only rarely of stone. After the 16th century, the influence of Chinese styles grew.


Nha Trang, Vietnam, 20th century

Although Vietnam is geographically in the area of ​​the countries of southern Buddhism, since Buddhism was mainly made known there through China, it is traditionally counted as northern Buddhism. From the 1st to the 9th century, the north of the country ( Tonking ) was in the direct sphere of influence of China and adopted both Confucianism and Mahayana Buddhism from there - and with it the art that was connected with these teachings.

In the south of today's Vietnam - at that time partly part of Funan , partly part of Champa - Indian influences also reached the region directly by sea. Mahayana Buddhism was known early on, but Hinduism was predominant here.

The southern, "Indianized" style, which was very similar to the art of the Khmer of the Angkor period - both of which were influenced by the art of Java - lasted into the 15th century, until Champa was conquered by Vietnam (1471) and itself finally dissolved completely in the 1720s. A number of temples and statues made of sandstone have survived from the Cham era. Wood was also used for religious works of art from an early age. The oldest known evidence of this is a hardwood Buddha statue from the 6th century (now in the Ho Chi Minh City Historical Museum ).

Buddhist art flourished during the Mac Dynasty (15th to 17th centuries). A statue of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (1656) dates from this period and is still considered one of the most important Buddhist works of art in Vietnam.

Southern Buddhism

Angkor, 12th century
Ayutthaya, approx. 14./15. Century

Southern Buddhism spread in a first wave as early as the 1st millennium in Sri Lanka and via the sea along the trade routes from India to China in Southeast Asia . Both the Mahayana, which initially dominated there, as well as Theravada and Hinduism found followers in Bagan ( Myanmar , also Pagan ), today's Thailand , early Cambodia ( Funan , later Angkor ), Vietnam ( Champa ) and Indonesia . While Islam replaced Buddhism in Indonesia and the southern Malay Peninsula , Theravada became the predominant school in continental Southeast Asia from the middle of the 2nd millennium onwards, coming from Sri Lanka. Along with the belief systems of India, language and writing ( Pali , Sanskrit , Devanagari, etc.) as well as artistic forms of expression of the subcontinent found their way into Southeast Asia. The direct contact with traders and scholars from the countries of India had a great influence on the development of cultures for more than 1000 years, which regionally also formed very specific and clearly distinguishable traditions and styles.

In the period from the 1st to the 8th century, the first major state structures developed in Southeast Asia. In the south of what is now Vietnam and south-east Cambodia, Funan arose ; further west, in the area of ​​today's Myanmar and the hinterland, the kingdoms of the Mon arose . These early empires were particularly influenced by the Indian Gupta style. In addition to Buddhist images (sculptures, votive tablets) and inscriptions in Sanskrit, a large number of depictions of Hindu deities have also been found throughout the region.

Around the 9th century, the kingdoms of Srivijaya and the Sailendra dynasty had formed on the islands of what is now western Indonesia , which produced a rich Buddhist art and architecture (see also Borobudur ). In the north, on the mainland, the Khmer empire of Angkor became a major regional power and was repeatedly in competition with the eastern empire of the Cham . Angkor and Champa were initially mainly Hindu, but were also characterized by a high degree of syncretism , which combined Hindu with Buddhist and pre-existing regional traditions. Both countries developed similar forms of artistic expression, which can be seen particularly in architecture. By the end of this period, all of these countries had largely converted to Mahayana, and Theravada finally took hold from the 13th century. The newly formed kingdoms of the Thai ( Sukhothai , later Ayutthaya ) in the west of Angkor also took over the Theravada from Sri Lanka.

While Islam largely displaced Buddhism and Hinduism in the southern regions ( Malaysia ) and on the islands (Indonesia, Philippines ) from the 14th century , Theravada Buddhism remained the dominant religion in continental Southeast Asia and spread further ( Cambodia , Thailand , Laos , Myanmar ).

Avukana ( Anuradhapura ), 5th century
Gal Vihara ( Polonnaruwa ), 12th century

Sri Lanka

Dagoba in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Golden Chedi , Bangkok, Thailand

At the time when Buddhism lost its importance in India, at the end of the Gupta period in the 7th century, Theravada Buddhism had already gained a foothold in Sri Lanka for several hundred years and had a decisive influence on the culture. Individual finds, such as a bronze statue of Tara from the 8th / 9th centuries. Century also testify to temporary influences of Mahayana Buddhism.

Relics were of particular importance here, such as a tooth of the Buddha, which is kept in the temple of the tooth in Kandy , or a Bodhi tree , the Mahabodhi , in the temple of the ancient capital Anuradhapura , which is said to have grown from a branch of the tree under which the Buddha was placed Had attained enlightenment. In the Buddhist architecture of Sri Lanka a new one was added to the usual temple buildings: the Bodhighara , a shrine in honor of the Bodhi tree. Instead of pictorial representations of the tree as they were known from India, a living tree was the focus of the shrine.

One of the most significant developments in religious art in Sri Lanka was the further development of the stupa. Starting from its originally hemispherical vault, it was stretched upwards, was given a bell-like shape and became a so-called dagoba (stupa). The artists dispensed with the reliefs and additions known from India (access gates, etc.) and gave the buildings smooth, unadorned surfaces that focused on the overall form. Together with Theravada Buddhism, this architecture, starting from Sri Lanka, later found spread throughout Southeast Asia and became the forerunner of the Thai chedi and the Laotian that .

Very rich and finely worked reliefs can be found on another specialty of Sinhalese art: the "moonstones". These semicircular flat stones lay at the entrance thresholds of religious buildings and showed floral motifs (lotus, vines, flowers, leaves) and animals (cows, elephants, lions, geese) in concentric arches. Its importance is to lead the visitor over from the earthly, material world with its animals, plants and other phenomena into the inner world.

Portraits of the Buddha were stylistically based on the statues of the Indian Amaravati and Gupta traditions and preferably showed him in a meditating position (in the " lotus position ", hands in his lap) or often lying on his side, his death or, more precisely, the entrance symbolizing into the Parinirvana .

Myanmar (Burma)

Bagan, Myanmar

As the direct neighbor of India, the areas of today's Myanmar were exposed to Indian influences from an early age. The Mon that in the southern regions of the Andaman Sea moved into present-day Thailand and in the mountainous hinterland to enter the tradition should, according to v in the 3rd century. Was introduced to Buddhism by ambassadors from King Ashoka. Early Buddhist temples such as Peikthano date back to between the 1st and 5th centuries. The Buddhist art of the Mon was mainly influenced by the Indian styles of the Gupta period and the subsequent epochs. With the expansion of the Mon in large parts of continental Southeast Asia, this art also found its way into the traditions of the peoples living there. From the 11th to the 13th centuries, thousands of stupas and Buddhist temple buildings were erected in the Bagan Empire , of which around 2000 can still be seen today. Museums in Rangoon and Mandalay house a large number of statues, often gilded and richly adorned with jewels, from that era and even from the time when Bagan was already conquered by the Mongols (1287).

Borobudur, 9th century
Angkor, 12th century
Angkor, 12th century
Sukhothai, 14th century


The cultures that arose on the Indonesian islands (especially Java and Bali ) had been strongly influenced by Indian Buddhist culture since the 1st century. These island empires in turn had a strong influence on the fine arts of continental Southeast Asia (especially architecture, sculpture).

While on the mainland with Funan and later Angkor (see below Cambodia ) largely Hindu states emerged, the Buddhist kingdom Sri Vijaya (approx. 8th – 13th centuries) was formed with the center on Java . This maritime empire, whose sphere of influence extended far into the Malay Peninsula, mainly adopted the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions under the rule of the Sailendra dynasty . The Borobudur Temple Mount , the largest Buddhist building in the world, and an ornate statue of the female Bodhisattva Prajnaparamita are among the most important examples of Buddhist art of that time .


In the area of ​​today's South Vietnam and Cambodia , Funan was one of the earliest state structures in continental Southeast Asia. In its heyday (3rd - 6th centuries) Funan reached in the west to the borders of today's Myanmar and in the south to Malaysia. Funan was above all a trading empire and was located on the busy shipping routes between India and China. India, in particular, had a great cultural influence: writing, religions and art were adopted and, in some cases, merging with its own traditions, new styles and forms of expression emerged. In contrast to the countries of northern Buddhism, the beliefs and arts from India reached Southeast Asia by sea. Although Hinduism was the predominant religious practice for a long time, Mahayana also found followers early on.

In the 9th century, the Khmer Empire of Angkor emerged as a late successor to Funan . Shiva and Vishnu (to whom, for example, Angkor Wat was dedicated) were the most revered gods. From the 12th century, Buddhism experienced a new heyday under King Jayavarman VII. Structures such as the Bayon with its multitude of towers were built, each with meter-high images of the face of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (known here as Lokeshvara ) or the Ta Prohm Monastery University , which was consecrated to Prajnaparamita. The art of the Khmer spread through large parts of Southeast Asia through the expansion of the empire of Angkor and became the style for the arts of Thailand, Laos and the Cham (Vietnam).

Characteristic for the representations of the Buddhist art of Angkor are the secular expression of the faces of the Buddha and the Bodhisattvas and the clarity of the flowing lines that do without the opulent decorations, as they were often used in China, for example.

At the transition from the 13th to the 14th century, King Srindravarman was the first Khmer ruler to come to power who was a follower of Theravada Buddhism. At the same time, the empire of Angkor, also through the strengthening of the Thai empires in the west, gradually experienced the decline of its predominant role. These changes were also reflected in art. No more large temples were built and depictions of the previously very popular Lokeshvara were now obsolete. Buddha statues continued to be made, albeit rarely from stone, but mainly from gold and bronze. In style, they were similar to the works of art in the neighboring kingdoms of Thailand and Laos, which also practiced Theravada: slim, elegant figures with clear flowing lines. This style is still formative for the sacred art of Cambodia today.

Thailand and Laos

Sukhothai, 14th century
Laos, 18th century

See also: Buddhism in Thailand , Buddha statue (Thailand)

In the early empires on the area of ​​today's Thailand , especially the founding of the Mon , a direct exchange with the culture of India took place via trade contacts. As in neighboring Burma (Myanmar) at that time, art was shaped by the Indian style of the Gupta period. A number of ornate statues and buildings were created, such as the Chedi of Nakhon Pathom (at 127 m, it is the tallest Buddhist building in the world).

From the 9th century onwards, Thai artistic traditions were heavily influenced by the styles of the neighboring kingdoms of Angkor in the east and Sri Vijaya in the south. At that time, Mahayana Buddhism was predominant, which is also evident in the various representations of various bodhisattvas.

At the beginning of the 13th century, as in the rest of Southeast Asia, there was a turn to Theravada Buddhism, which spread from Sri Lanka. At the same time, the early Thai empire of Sukhothai came into being . In art, this went hand in hand with a change from styles resembling Khmer art to clearer, less embellished and sometimes almost abstract-geometric representations. Buddha figures had elegant, softly flowing forms, with apparently transparent robes and an oval head crowned with a flame (Sanskrit: ketumala ). During the ensuing period of the Ayutthaya Empire (14th – 18th centuries), this style was further refined, the statues often gilded and inlaid with precious stones. This period proved to be a style-forming factor up to the present day. A specialty of Thai Buddhist art are statues of the walking Buddha.

The origins and development of the Buddhist art of Laos were closely linked to the neighboring Thai kingdoms. The preferred material in architecture and sculpture was wood, which was mostly painted and varnished. Until the end of the 15th century, the images were very similar to those of Sukhothai. From the 16th century onwards, an independent style developed: the Buddha statues became increasingly slender and provided with very long arms and legs.

Buddhist art in the 20th and 21st centuries

Statues praising the great Tian Tan Buddha (天壇 大佛) ( Lantau Island , Hong Kong , built from 1990–1993)
Tibet, 20th century

In general, the production of new portraits, pictures, ritual objects or buildings in the countries of Asia, which can look back on a Buddhist culture that is usually well over a thousand years old, is very traditionally oriented. The features of Buddha images such as posture and hand gestures ( mudras ), details such as the pierced ears and hairstyle as well as the symbolism (Bodhi tree, lotus, Dharmachakra etc.) are canonized and precisely defined in their meaning. Newly created statues and images follow traditional patterns, whereby the symbolism inherent in them is in the foreground and not the individual artistic expression of the artist.

In addition to this very traditional art, modern forms of expression also emerged, not least through contact with Western culture. Especially in countries like Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Sri Lanka or Bali (Indonesia), where there was an intensive exchange with the cultures of the “Occident”, artists take up motifs from Buddhist iconography, combining them partly with Western artistic forms of expression and partly with Further developments of regional styles. With this they create modern, new Buddhist works of art. However, these are almost always primarily art, with a religious background, but not created for religious practice. In the representations, be it sculpture or painting, the traditional images of the Buddha or Buddhist iconography and design language are adopted, e.g. B. painted well-known statues and placed them in a new, more artistically than religiously significant context. Sabine Grosser, for example, presents contemporary artists who deal with their Buddhist lines of tradition using the example of five artists from Sri Lanka. They not only take up Buddhist iconography, but also reflect Buddhist themes with new artistic forms. In this context, new forms of remembrance culture play an important role. (cf. Grosser 2010)

With the exception of a few areas in the Himalayan foreland, Buddhism had disappeared from India by the 12th century. It was only the British colonial rulers who finally took on the largely orphaned temples, uncovered them and began restoration work ( Sanchi , Ajanta , Mahabodhi Temple of Bodhgaya, etc.). In the middle of the 20th century, the supporters of the reformer BR Ambedkar (first justice minister of independent India), who propagated the conversion to Buddhism as a way out for the Dalits , the "casteless", resumed the largely forgotten traditions and started replicas and photographs to use ancient Buddha images as objects of religious practice. Statues and pictures were also donated from other Buddhist countries, especially Japan, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Thailand, in order to equip the newly built Buddhist temples based on old models. In addition, the production of portraits began again in India itself. Since the "new" Buddhist culture of India is still relatively young, no fixed canon has yet emerged in iconography. The styles and characteristics adopted from the old traditions mix with the often very colorful forms of expression of everyday Hindu art in the country.


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Web links

Commons : Buddhist Art  - Collection of Images, Videos and Audio Files
Tibet, Himalayan region
  • Rama IX Art Museum Virtual museum with examples of almost all contemporary Thai artists (English)
This article was added to the list of excellent articles on April 15, 2005 in this version .