Notes: (1) Most terms entered here are either specific to Southeast Asia, or have a distinctive meaning or importance within that region. For the reader's convenience, some basic terms from Indian art are also included. Additional terminology can be found in the Glossary of Indian Art elsewhere on this website. (2) In abbreviations, NM=National Museum, c=century, T.= temple
The bell-shaped or dome-shaped upper part of a stupa.
A small, slanted, vertical member that is placed upon the corners of a Khmer tower in order to complete the tower's profile. Discussion, Example (Phimai)
Turning away evil, as the kala, the chinthe, the dvarapala, and similar guardian figures.
apsaras (singular; the plural is apsarasas)
A celestial dancer, one of the beautiful maidens who delight the inhabitants of paradise. The celestial realms were conceived of as analogous to earthly courts with palaces, gardens, kings and nobles, dancers, and musicians. In southeast Asia, from around the time of Angkor Wat, relief carvings of apsarasas took on special importance in temple decoration. Iconography (Sikhoraphum), Wat Phu, Angkor Wat, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm
The curved upper part of an opening, such as a window or door. Structural arches physically span the opening. When a structural arch is extended in depth, it becomes a vault (ceiling). Important types for Southeast Asia include the semicircular arch (or barrel vault), corbeled arch, and true arch (structural pointed arch). The lintel is not technically considered to be an arch, because it is straight rather than curved. Often a non-structural arch is applied as decoration above a lintel. Wat Maheyong (lintel), Wat Maheyong (structural lintel + non-structural pointed arch), Wat Kudidao (true arch), Nan-Hpaya (barrel vault), Htilominlo (relieving arches)
The Bodhisattva of Compassion, known in Japan as Kannon and in China as Guan-Yin. A supremely important Mahayana Buddhist saviour deity. Srivijaya, 8c (Bangkok NM)
A temple complex whose approach is laid out upon a very long, usually east-west, axis. The plan is unusual in Khmer temples, and when present, seems to be related to the natural features and geography of the site. Wat Phu (Laos), Phnom Rung (Thailand)
baray (pronounce: bar-EYE)
A very large, rectangular, shallow excavated reservoir for holding and releasing water. A baray such as the middle baray at Wat Phu might be 200m x 600m (600' x 1800') in length and width, but only about 5m (15') deep. Khmer Barays had multiple functions - religious, as symbolic of the oceans surrounding Mt. Meru; economic, as the source of irrigation water during the dry season; and political, as monumental demonstrations of the power of the Khmer kings. Wat Phu (Laos), Angkor Wat (Cambodia)
A passageway whose cross-section is a round (semicircular, or "Roman") arch. Nan-Hpaya
The gesture of Buddha's "calling the Earth to witness," pointing or touching the ground to prove his right to Buddhahood. In response, Bu Devi (the Earth goddess) confirms Buddha's past meritorious lives, by wringing out her hair at the Buddha's feet. From her hair pours a flood of sacred waters, every drop symbolizing a deed of merit performed in his previous incarnations. U-Thong, 12c-13c (Bangkok NM), Lan-Na, 15-16c (Bangkok NM), Kyauktawgyi T. (Mandalay), Libation of Merit (Pagan)
In Mahayana Buddhism, an enlightened being who postpones entry into Nirvana in order to help others achieve salvation. In Theravada Buddhism, a Buddha such as Gautama or Maitreya in a previous incarnation before full Buddhahood.
[Thailand] A temple building that is used for sermons, ordinations, and other monastic services, and may also house a Buddha image.
Hindu creator god with four directional faces. With Indra, Brahma accompanies the Buddha in his descent from Trayastrimsha heaven. Nan-Hpaya, Ananda T. (Pagan)
A Hindu prince (about 560-480 BC) named Siddhartha Gautama, also called Shakyamuni, who renounced the world, achieved spiritual enlightenment through the practice of meditation, and founded the Buddhist religion. Later Buddhism recognizes various past and future Buddhas in addition to the historical Gautama. A Buddha is distinguished by 108 (= two squared, times three cubed) special markings on his body, including: the urna, a whorl of hair in the center of the forehead; the ushnisha, a knot of hair on top of the head; and three folds of flesh around the neck. In Thailand (Sukhothai style and later), the top of Buddha's head is often surmounted by a flame that represents spiritual wisdom. The four body postures represented in the art of Southeast asia are: standing, walking, sitting, or lying down. The most important hand gestures (mudras) are bhumispara (calling the Earth to witness), varada (giving), abhaya (fear not), dharmachakra (setting in motion the wheel of the law), and dhyana (meditation).
chattra, or chattravali
The honorific umbrella on top of a stupa.
A stupa (Buddhist reliquary) in Southeast Asia. Chedi is the Thai word; zedi is Burmese.
A lion-like creature that guards the entranceways to temples. In later Burma, often crowned and human-headed. Shwedagon Paya, Double-Bodied (Ananda T., Pagan), Prasat Phimai, Preah Ko
A triangular arch formed by horizontal courses of brick that are built up and in from each side until they meet at the top of the arch. Similarly corbeled vault, corbeled roof.
Churning of the Sea of Milk
A Hindu myth in which gods and demons cooperate to churn the primordial ocean, in order to produce amrita, the elixir of immortality. relief (Angkor Wat), naga bridge (Preah Khan), nage bridge (Angkor Thom)
In simplest terms, the personal god (tutelary divinity) of the king. Philosophically, the divine aspect (deva) of the king (raja). Each Khmer king associated himself with a particular divinity, usually a form of Shiva, who protected the king and validated his rule. Moreover, the concepts of king and god overlapped each other: both were powerful, revered, blessed, rich, and the like. The devaraja represented their intersection: a fragment of the god, that also belonged to the king. This divine spark was worshiped in a state temple, by the king himself, during the king's life; and in the king's funerary temple after his death. The idea in Southeast Asia comes from India, but is not unique to that part of the world: there are reliefs in Egypt that depict Pharaoh sacrificing to himself, and the ancient Romans also sacrificed to the divine spirit (genius, in Latin) of their Emperor. In Cambodian art, the kings, and also their queens, were frequently portrayed as the gods or goddesses with which they were associated. Jayavarman II (Preah Ko)
A human-shaped figure, usually of a god or warrior, that guards the entrances to temples. Phimai, Preah Ko
Erawan, or Airavata
The three-headed elephant upon which Indra rides. Mahamuni Shrine (Mandalay), East Mebon (Angkor), South Gate (Angkor Thom), East Gate (Banteay Srei)
A Jayavarman VII-style tower that presents four carved faces overlooking the cardinal directions. The faces probably represent Jayavarman VII as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or as some other deity. For a discussion of this identification and some of its alternatives, see the entry (below) for the South Gate at Angkor Thom. Royal Palace (Phnom Penh), Ta Som, South Gate (Angkor Thom), Bayon-1 (Angkor Thom), Bayon-2 (Angkor Thom), Gopura V West (Ta Prohm)
[Thailand] A foreigner; the word is derived from the Thai pronunciation of "French."
A bird-man, Vishnu's mount. Garuda is the enemy of snakes, and can often be seen grasping them in his claws. His iconography encompasses a variable mixture of human and avian features, but usually includes at least a pair of wings and a beak. Preah Khan (Angkor), Elephant Terrace (Angkor Thom)
A gateway that leads through an enclosure wall and into a temple precinct; often elaborated with its own pediment, roof, and lintels.
An amusing, exaggeratedly distorted figure. The word comes from the grottoes of ancient Rome, where such figures are painted on the walls. Sulamani T. (Pagan)
[Pagan] A temple proper, as opposed to a stupa. Temples have an interior space for worship that can be accessed from the outside. Stupas have a solid interior and cannot be entered. Although the word "gu" literally means "cave," the Pagan temples developed from early free-standing temples in North India. In Pyu-style temples, the Indian sikhara is replaced by a stupa-like finial. Nan-hpaya
A goose, the animal on which Brahma rides. Nan-hpaya
A square railing that surrounds the pole on top of a stupa
The King of the Gods in early Hinduism. His domain is the sky; he is associated with rainstorms, and carries a thunderbolt (vajra), like the Greek god Zeus. His elephant mount Airavata symbolizes clouds and thunder. In later Hinduism, Indra retains his formal title but becomes subordinate to Vishnu and Shiva, and is also pressed into service as the dikpala (directional guardian) of the East. In Buddhism, Indra and Brahma accompany Buddha in his descent from Trayastrimsha heaven. Shwe-zigon (Pagan), Ananda T. (Pagan), Banteay Srei (Cambodia)
Stories of the Buddha's past lives, in which he demonstrated the virtues of compassion and self-sacrifice that ultimately led to his final incarnation, victory over Mara, and enlightenment.
kala, or kirttimukha
A partial "monster" face usually seen on lintels above a temple entrance, where it serves a protective (apotropaic, or turning-away-evil) function, with garlands depending from the kala's mouth. The lower jaw is usually missing but sometimes present. Infrequently, a pair of tiny arms may be sketched in below the face. Usually called "kirttimukha" in India, although some experts make a distinction between the two terms according to whether the face is biting down on the garlands (Kirttimukha) or isolated from them (Kala).
A pot symbolizing fertility and abundance, like the European cornucopia ("horn of plenty"). Nan-Hpaya, Phnom Rung
(Burma) A monastery.
A Hindu goddess, Vishnu's consort and symbol of good fortune and wealth. Her primary attribute is the lotus flower. Nan-Hpaya, Prasat Kravan, lustration (East Mebon)
Auxiliary temple buildings that are found in pairs, one on each side of the main axis of a temple, and aligned to that axis, in front of the temple platform. These buildings are called "libraries" because they were formerly thought to contain copies of the scriptures. Their actual function is unknown, but by now the term "library" is unfortunately imbedded in the literature. They might have been storerooms or treasuries, containing temple paraphernalia, or possibly shrines containing the sacred fire. Bayon (Angkor Thom), Banteay Srei
A rectangular crosspiece that spans an opening such as a door or a window (see: arch).
A type of Buddhism that emphasizes the assistance of savior-like figures (Bodhisattvas) in helping devotees to achieve salvation.
The Buddha of the Future, who will appear at a time when the Buddhist teachings have been lost, in order to reestablish the Dharma.
A composite animal that is a sort of sea-monster, like a sea-snake with crocodile head and an elephant's trunk. It is a key part of the decoration on many temple lintels and arches, with garlands of foliage or, often, another snake issuing from the mouth. Nan-Hpaya, Phnom Rung, Kamphaeng Yai, Wat Burapharam (modern)
See victory over Mara
A multi-headed naga that sheltered the Buddha under his hood during a rainstorm. The subject is frequently represented in Southeast Asian sculpture. Chaiya, 1240 (Bangkok NM), Lopburi, 13c (Bangkok NM), Naga Yon, 19c (Amarapura)
A symbolic hand-position, used when depicting a divinity. Common mudras include –
anjali (palms together as if praying: submission, adoration)
abhaya (palm out, fingers pointing up: "fear not")
bhumisparsha (fingertips touching the earth: Buddha calling the earth to witness his steadfastness)
dharmachakra (fingers intertwined: preaching)
dhyana (palms cupped in lap: meditation)
varada (palm out, fingers down: giving a blessing)
vitarka (palm out, thumb and forefinger touching in "OK" sign: teaching)
The snake or dragon, a creature of myth and legend. In Southeast Asia, nagas take on many roles:  They represent the lunar clans of dynastic origin myth, in which a naga princess who is native to the region marries a solar clan prince from India.  Conflict between Aryans and indigenes may underlie the symbolism of Garuda (Vishnu's mount, a solar symbol) clutching the naga in his claws.  Nagas appear on the balustrades of temple causeways and platforms ("naga bridges"), where they personify the rainbow as a bridge between the earthly and celestial worlds. Often represented in art are  the serpent Shesha, on which Vishnu reclines during his cosmic sleep;  the faithful Mucalinda, who shelters Gautama Buddha during a storm; and  Vasuki, the cosmic serpent who is "roped" into Churning the Sea of Milk. naga bridge (Phimai), naga bridge (Phnom Rung), multi-headed naga (Phnom Rung), makara disgorging naga (Phnom Rung), makara disgorging naga (Kamphaeng Yai), cruciform terrace (Angkor Wat), relief of Churning the Sea of Milk (Angkor Wat), naga bridge with Churning the Sea of Milk (Preah Khan), naga bridge with Churning the Sea of Milk (Angkor Thom)
A bull, Shiva's vehicle. The courtyard of most Shiva temples includes a sculpture of Nandi, who kneels riderless and faces the shrine in adoration. Preah Ko
The native, animist gods of Burma. In earlier times they may be portrayed as generic nature spirits, but in later times the most important of them are given individual names, attributes, and histories. Dancing Nats (Pagan), Ananda Temple (Pagan), Indra as King of the Nats (Pagan), 37 Nats (Pagan), Mahamuni Shrine (Mandalay)
1. In East Asia: A tall, slender tower with multiple storeys, each storey being demarcated by a distinctive type of roof that curves upwards at the corners, and that functions as a stupa, temple, or similar memorial. 2. In Southeast Asia: A paya.
The moment of the Buddha's death and entry into nirvana, or final transcendence. Represented in art by an image of the Buddha reclining on his right side with the head pointing north. Manuha (Pagan), Wat Pho (Bangkok), Wat Yai Chai Mongkol (Ayutthaya)
(Burma) "holy one," used as a title for stupas, temples, and similar buildings.
An engaged, shallow, rectangular column.
The Khmer-influenced tower of a Thai temple. It is shaped like an elongated tube, with multiple layers and a variety of embellishment. Origins, Buddhasawan
(Thai) A temple, with tower, that is elevated on a terrace.
A temple plan that has five towers arranged in an "X," as at Angkor Wat. Sikhoraphum, East Mebon, Ta Keo
Cutting back the corners of a structure into a series of indented right angles. This stabilizes the structure, introduces a pseudo-curvature in plan, and enhances its perceived verticality in elevation. Phimai, Wat Chai Watthanaram
A distinctive ceramic ware of 14c-15c Thailand. example (Bangkok NM), putative origins.
One of the Hindu Great Gods, symbol of the creative and destructive power of nature, and master of Yoga. His attribute is the trident, and he rides the bull Nandi. The central image in Shiva temples is the linga. Khmer kings usually associated themselves with a particular manifestation of this god.
Immediately noticable, on most Cambodian temple reliefs of apsarasas, are the sideways-pointing feet of the dancers. Technicallly, the reliefs are so shallow that a volumetrically extended foot would simply not fit. Artistically, the Cambodians tended to avoid figural perspective. Culturally, their sideways- pointing feet are also consistent with politeness (one should not point one's feet towards a superior). When goddesses appear in shallow relief, the feet are splayed apart rather than side-by-side; guardian figures usually have their feet set normally upon the floor. discussion (Pre Rup), Sikhoraphum, Prasak Kravan, Angkor Wat
A domed memorial building with a solid core and that enshrines relics of the Buddha or other important persons. The relics are buried inside the solid interior. Actual relics might include ashes, hairs, bone fragments, or other cremated remains. Symbolic relics might include jewels, statues, or texts.
Stupas range in size from three hundred feet tall to less than six feet tall. They are made of brickwork, stone, or bronze, often gilded or whitewashed. It is considered meritorious to renew their exterior coatings periodically, sometimes to such an extent that their original decoration can no longer be made out.
The most important architectural parts of a stupa, from the bottom up, are: 1. a square, elevated platform which supports the rest of the structure, and around which the worshipers circumambulate clockwise; 2. The anda (body) of the stupa, shaped like an inverted bowl or bell; 3. if the stupa is bell-shaped, a tapering neck which extends upward from the body of the bell; 4. a yasti (pole), which symbolizes the world axis; 5. the harmika, a square railing which encloses the pole as a sacred space; and 6. a set of chattras (umbrellas), centered on the pole and diminishing in diameter towards the top, which signify honor and protection like the umbrellas held over the head of kings, abbots, and other important people. Shwedagon Paya (Rangoon, Burmese style), Wat Maheyong (Ayutthaya, Sri Lankan style)
An architectural figure that supports a superstructure; for example, a classical Atlas or caryatid. Wat Phra Kaeo, Wat Prasat Burapharam, Angkor Thom, and in India
A building, essentially the house of the god, with interior space that is used for worship. Temples in Southeast Asia may be Buddhist, Hindu, or both. Their basic nomenclature is the same as temples in India. The most important part of a temple is the sanctuary, which includes both the garbhagriha (shrine that houses the main image of the god) and the sikhara (tower that is built over the shrine). The sikhara symbolizes Mt. Meru, the home of the gods (like Mt. Olympus in the West). Usually, a mandapa (entrance hall) provides access to the shrine. In some temples an antechamber, called the antarala, is built between the mandapa and the garbhagriha.
Most temples in Southeast Asia face East, towards the rising sun. Exceptions include: Angkor Wat (W), Phimai (SE), Preah Pithu (W), Preah Vihear (N), Preah Khan (W)
The home of the gods on Mount Meru. Also called "The Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods." Here Buddha preached a sermon to his reborn mother and to the gods, after which he descended again to earth, accompanied by Brahma and Indra. In depictions of this scene, Brahma (four heads, hair piled up, holding a parasol over the Buddha) is on the viewer's left; Indra (one head, wearing a crown) is on the viewer's right. Many variations are possible: the positions of Brahma and Indra may be reversed, Indra may hold the parasol, and one or both deities' attributes or headgear may be omitted or altered. Walking Buddha (Bangkok NM), Shinbyumei Paya (Burma), Walking Buddha (Pagan), Seated Buddha with Brahma and Indra (Pagan)
The area between an arch and its lintel.
Victory Over Mara, or Temptation Of Mara
An event in which the meditating Buddha triumphs over Mara, a demon who sent horrific and seductive visions (the Army of Mara and Daughters of Mara) to distract him from achieving his goal. At the climax of the event, Buddha calls the Earth to witness the merit of his past lives and his right to receive enlightenment. Ta Prohm (Angkor)
A temple building that houses the principal Buddha image.
One of the Hindu Great Gods, who upholds cosmic law and righteousness through many incarnations. His attributes include the chakra (a disk or wheel that is both a weapon and a solar symbol), conch (blown before battle), orb (symbolizing the earth), and club. His best-known avatars (incarnations) are Rama, the hero-king of the Ramayana, and Krishna. He rides Garuda, a bird-man who is the enemy of snakes and is usually depicted grasping them in his claws. Sukhothai, 14c (Bangkok NM), Wat Phu, Krishna Killing Kamsa (Angkor Wat), Krishna (or Vishnu) Killing Two Enemies (Angkor Wat), Arjuna and Krishna (Angkor Wat)
A walled monastic complex in Southeast Asia that typically contains shrines, temples, chedis, and other monastic and religious buildings. Southeast Asia today is mostly Buddhist. Historically, though, wats can be Hindu, Buddhist, or mixed Hindu/Buddhist. Usually there is a surrounding cloister with sculptures of the seated Buddha, bas-reliefs (as at Angkor Wat), or paintings (as at Wat Phra Kaeo). The principal shrine is typically surmounted by a prang and represents Mount Meru, the traditional home of the gods. In Buddhist wats, chedis entomb relics of the founder, his family, Buddha, or other revered persons. Services are performed in the ubosot (main chapel, or "ordination hall") and in the lesser chapels (bots). The principal image of the Buddha is housed in the viharn ("image hall"). Libraries contain copies of the scriptures and monastic texts, and there are separate buildings for dining, sleeping, administration, etc. Royal wats, which are private temples for the use of the royal family, do not have a resident community of monks, but otherwise follow the above pattern.
An auspicious nature-spirit, guardian of wealth and symbolic of fertility and abundance. Dvaravati, 8c-9c (Bangkok NM)
The Lord of the dead and directional guardian of the South, multi-armed and holding clubs. His mount is the buffalo. Angkor Wat, Phimai, Leper King (Phnom Penh NM), Bakong (Angkor)