SOAS University of London

History of Art and Archaeology

Buddhist and Hindu Art of the Maritime Silk Route

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2022/2023
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Taught in:
Term 2

In this course we look at the origins of Esoteric Buddhism in India and some of the key texts which underpinned this form of Buddhism throughout Asia. It also examines the iconic and architectural Buddhist platforms that mushroomed across Asia from the ninth century CE. We then visit the great temple complexes erected as ceremonial and ritual centres of Buddhist empires in Southeast Asia. The course therefore complements other MA History of Art courses which explore the Esoteric Buddhist architecture of Tibet and the Buddhist art of East Asia, as well as courses on the Indian Temple.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

• Familiarity with the history of the expansion of the sacred art that embodied the fundamental ideas of Esoteric Buddhism and gave rise to ceremonial and ritual centres  along the Maritime Silk Route from the eighth to the 13th centuries CE.
• An understanding of the political, religious and social contexts in rapidly increasing complexity that generated the rich cultural heritage visible in the monumental temple sites that now attract millions of tourists.
• A basic familiarity with the key pantheons embedded in the major texts that fuelled the success of this politicised form of Buddhism – Tattvasamgraha-tantra (STTS), Mahavairocana-sutra (MVS), Karandavyuha-sutra (KVS), Guhyasamaja-tantra (GST), Hevajra-tantra (HT).
• An enhanced knowledge of the approaches and methods of the art historical discipline that has enabled scholars and connoisseurs to reconstruct the history of these societies from the material and textual record.
• Awareness of the resources available for future research and of the current trends in scholarship in exploring and understanding this cultural heritage.  


  • One hour Lecture, one hour Seminar

Scope and syllabus

The sacred monuments that arose in emerging states bordering the Maritime Silk Route from the 8th-13th centuries attest to a rapid, transforming and sustained transmission of Buddhist and Hindu Tantras between India and China in this period. This course explores the key texts and the remarkable individuals that together made this fundamental change possible. The major body of evidence for this flow of religious and artistic ideas along the southern shipping lanes is to be found in the vast monumental sites of Java, Champa/Vietnam, Cambodia and pre-Thailand. We therefore visit the temple complexes erected as ceremonial and ritual centres of Buddhist and Hindu kingdoms that flourished on the burgeoning trade route with China. The leading Buddhist gurus from India became the first mandarins of the Middle Kingdom. The course therefore complements other MA History of Art courses which explore the Esoteric Buddhist architecture of Tibet and the Buddhist art of East Asia, as well as courses on the Tamil temples..

Lecture 1:  Introduction to esoteric Buddhism; its origins, foundational beliefs and techniques, and a survey of its rapid expansion outside India as evidenced in its sustained contributions to sacred art and architecture from the eighth century to today.
Lecture 2: The great monasteries of Bihar, Orissa, Bengal in northeast India (Vikramasila, Kesariya, Ratnagiri, Paharpur) where the key texts of esoteric Buddhism were developed and the meditative, iconic, architectural and ritual platforms and technologies were devised for the expansion of Buddhist kingdoms under the Pala dynasty.
Lecture 3: The tantras: an introduction to the great Esoteric Buddhist texts that supported and led the spread of Buddhist dynasties under the Palas and throughout Asia STTS, MVS, KVS, GST, HT.
Lecture 4: Mandala in stone: the temple platform for the creation of new royal ceremonial and ritual centres based on the Vajradhatu and Garbhadhatu mandalas. The Kesariya (Bihar) model evolves in Central Java as triads of linked temples: Borobudur-Pawon-Mendut and  Sewu-Bubrah-Lumbung.
Lecture 5: Buddhist pilgrimage across the maritime trade route leads to Buddhism rooting itself in ‘Lin-yi’, a loose federation of Cham coastal settlements in present day Vietnam, and the first refuelling stop after China. Buddhism fluoresces with the new Esoteric platform at the huge ninth century temple complex of Dong-duong, Champa, whose major icons are conserved in the Danang Museum.
Lecture 6: Nalanda to Srivijaya and back: a direct link is traceable in the production of sacred bronzes in the Ganges Valley monastery of Nalanda and the foundries of the Sailendra dynasty in Central Java and Sumatra.
Lecture 7: The Pala-Khorat connection: new research into elaborate Esoteric Buddhist bronzes found in the Khmer-occupied Khorat plateau and Peninsula of present day Thailand is now beginning to reveal a parallel direct link in an interconnected Buddhist world between the sacred bronzes made in Orissa and Comilla and the Buddhists of the western Khmer Empire.
Lecture 8: East Java: a century before Islam takes over, another Esoteric Buddhist empire radiates out from the transformation temple-mandala of Candi Jago in East Java.
Lecture 9: Esoteric Buddhism reaches and eventually conquers Angkor.  The Buddhists who were expelled from pre-Angkorian Cambodia in the seventh century achieve a strong revival with the Bat Chum temple of the tenth century. King Jayavarman VII later imposes his version of Esoteric Buddhism as the state religion at the Banteay Chhmar temple, now at last under restoration, and in the massive Bayon temple at the heart of a capital which rivalled China’s in 1200 CE.
Lecture 10: Slide Test

Method of assessment

  • One 2 500 words essay (worth 70%)
  • One slide test (worth 30%)

Suggested reading

  • Bernet Kempers, A.J. (1933) The bronzes of Nalanda and Hindu-Javanese art E.J. Brill, Leiden
  • Chakrabarti, D. K., (1995:185-202) ‘Buddhist Sites across South Asia as influenced by Political and Economic Forces" World Archaeology, Vol. 27, No.2, Buddhist Archaeology (Oct. 1995)  URL
  • Donaldson, T.E. (2001) Iconography of the Buddhist sculpture of Orissa Abhinav Publications New Dehli
  • Bunker, E. and Latchford,D. (2011) Khmer Bronze Masterpieces Chicago: Art Media Resources.
    Davidson, R. (2002) Indian Esoteric Buddhism: a social history of the Tantric movement Columbia University Press, New York
  • Hock, N. (1987) Buddhist ideology and the scriptures of Ratnagiri, seventh through thirteenth centuries PhD Berkeley
  • Jacques, C. (2006) The Khmer Empire Trans. T. White, River Books, Bangkok
  • Jordaan, R. E. (1996) In praise of Prambanan Leiden, KITLV
  • Kinney, A. R. (2003) Worshipping Siva and Buddha: the temple art of East Java Univ. of Hawai’i Press, Honolulu
  • Linrothe, R. (1999) Ruthless compassion Serindia, London
  • O’Brien, K. (2008) Sutasoma: the ancient tale of a Buddha-Prince Orchid Press, Singapore
  • Pott, P.H. (1966) Yoga and Yantra: Their Interrelation and Their Significance for Indian Archaeology trans. R. Needham, Nijhoff, Hague
  • Rawson, P. (1973 revised 1978) The art of Tantra Thames & Hudson, London
  • Samuel, G. (2008) The Origins of Yoga and Tantra: Indic Religions to the 13th century CUP
  • Scheurleer, P. L. & Klokke, M. J. (1988) Divine Bronze: ancient Indonesian bronzes from A.D. 600-1600 E.J. Brill, Leiden
  • Sharrock, P.D. (2007:230-80) ‘The mystery of the face towers’ in Bayon, New Perspectives ed. Joyce Clark River Books, Bangkok
  • Sharrock, P.D. (2009: 49-64) ‘Hevajra at Banteay Chmar’ A curator’s choice: Essays in Honor of Hiram Woodward, Jr The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery
  • Sharrock, P.D. (2011) ‘Kirtipandita and the Tantras’ Udaya 10 Phnom Penh, New York
  • Snellgrove, D. (1959:204-18) ‘The notion of divine kingship in Tantric Buddhism’ The Sacral Kingship: contributions to the central theme of the VIIIth international congress for the history of religions (Rome, April 1955) vol. IV E.J. Brill, Leiden
  • Snellgrove, D. (1959) The Hevajra-Tantra, a critical study Oxford University Press London
  • Studholme, A. (2002) The origins of Om Manipadme Hūm SUNY, Albany
  • Woodward, H. (2004:329-54) ‘Esoteric Buddhism in Southeast Asia in the Light of Recent Scholarship’ Journal of Southeast Asian studies 35.2


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules