Indic Origins:

Cultural Diffusion vs. Assimilation

FIGURE 1: Comparison Between Angkor Wat (1113-1150) and Kandaryamahadeva Temple (c. 1030)

The profiles of the two temples juxtaposed in figure 1 are among the most familiar in all architecture and both are often cited as among the finest and most representative achievements of their respective architectural traditions. – the Kandariya Mahadeva temple at Khajurahu, India (1025 -1050 C.E.)  and Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.(1120-150 C.E.)  They date from within a century of each other and are dedicated to one of the Hindu Trimurti or Trinity, Shiva and Vishnu respectively. They share a distant ancestor in the first free-standing Indian temples such as those at Deogarh, Aihole and Mamallapuram, themselves descendants of the earlier rock-cut  monasteries as Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta which were based on still more primitive wooden prototypes. Finally, both were designed as “temple mountains” symbolizing Mt. Meru, home of the Hindu pantheon, where those prolific deities could descend and bless their devotes. One approach to this album, then, might be to ask how and why the Khmer arrived at such a strikingly different solution for ostensibly similar objectives? 

This introduction aims to equip the users of this catalog with the basic vocabulary and grammar needed for a closer reading of an ancient, if unfamiliar, formal language or tradition  in which the genesis of a temple or architecture and the genesis of the universe or cosmogony were inextricably linked. It outlines five broad perspectives for tracing the evolution of Khmer temples: a) the mandala as a fundamental design tool b) the aedicule, a model or miniature of the shrine, as the basic module for its construction c) the axial projections of these aedicules to articulate a temple’s spatial dimensions d) the role of symmetry and asymmetry in achieving a temple’s liturgical program and e) the paradox of an architecture attempting to express a formless, empty absolute. 

Khmer religious and architectural practices were profoundly influenced by the development of Hinduism and Buddhism on the Indian subcontinent during the centuries before and after the initial contact horizon with Southeast Asia, the early centuries of  the first millennium C.E.  Anthropologists often distinguish two models of cultural transfer – diffusion and assimilation. The former is usually associated with conquest or colonization and characterized by an unequal power relationship between source and recipient, exemplified by Latinization under the Roman Empire. The latter occurs through a non-coercive, hence freely selected, adoption of elements of one culture by the elites of another, as happened between Renaissance Italy and the courts of early modern Europe.