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Ancient civilizations of Southeast Asia. History and culture.

Doshgon civilization

Study issues

The Dong Son civilization as such has relatively recently entered the category of the main civilizations of the ancient East.

At present, this assessment of the culture of the most ancient states of the Austric peoples who inhabited Southeast Asia and adjacent regions is generally recognized, but its detailed characterization as a civilization has not yet been proposed. This is due to its late discovery, at the beginning of the XX century, relatively little study so far, and most importantly — the almost complete absence of written monuments and their lack of translation, as, indeed, the small number of uncovered urban centers and their insufficient excavation.

The idea that rice-growing Austric peoples, and especially the main ones — Austroasiates and Austronesians-formed civilizations already taking into account the social and cultural experience of distant neighbors, which was widespread until the 60s of the XX century, also played a role. The fact that these peoples had their own early-class cultural center, their own civilization, whose experience was primarily perceived by the peripheral part of these peoples, and had a profound impact on them, became clear quite late. Meanwhile, the Dong Son civilization was formed at the beginning of the first millennium BC. in the lower reaches of the Red River, in the northeastern part of the Indochina Peninsula, among the Laquiets (ancestors of the Vietnamese), whose language belonged to the Austroasiatic family of languages.

The social and cultural structure of the early class society that emerged there had all the features of an ancient civilization, and the art that grew up on its basis was one of the few completely independently developed great arts in the world.

Spiritual culture

The spiritual culture of the Dongshon people was dominated by the veneration of ancestral spirits, which gradually formed a special religion of class society, which later for a long time got along with world religions and Confucianism. At the same time, the cult of the gods of the forces of nature, the opposition of the gods of earth and heaven, did not develop. It is no coincidence that in Dong Son art we do not see images of gods and monsters, while images of people (as many researchers believe, some of them are ancestors) — a huge number. A number of researchers suggest the existence of a solar cult among the Dongshon people. There is a lot of data about the veneration of the sky, birds, etc. With certainty, we can say that the Lakviets had a spherical or concentric model of the Universe, in which certain “rings” corresponded to people, animals, birds; in the center of the sphere (circle) there was a “star” with a canonized number of rays. There is evidence of the existence of a fertility cult among Lakviet rice farmers, as well as among other agricultural peoples, which is indicated by paired images of a man and a woman at the time of sexual intercourse.

Features of the spiritual life of the ancient Dongshon Lakviet people are inherent in representatives of other Austric peoples. The latter, without participating in the creation of the Dong Son religion, adopted many of its elements, developed them and supplemented them. And this would not have been possible without a fundamental closeness in the spiritual realm in the past and without regular extensive contacts at the moment of perception. Most importantly — the need for complex cults and complex religious arts to serve them emerged in the early class societies of the Austrians, as well as the ability of the Dong Son civilization to meet this demand for centuries. But this process of cultural exchange, which was accompanied by a rapid economic (Iron Age) and social (the emergence of states in all the major river valleys of Southeast Asia) upsurge, proved insufficient, and an active understanding of the social and cultural experience of more remote and more developed centers began: Indo-Dravidian in the West and Han in the North. The Dong Son civilization in the center of its spread went from its origin, through its heyday to its decline, which occurred due to some reasons that are still unclear to us.

The decline was associated with a change in the religious beliefs of its bearers, which was expressed in the disappearance from the practice of the cult of almost all the leading samples, while preserving the main objects of worship themselves. The initial contacts between the Laquiets and the Han Chinese did not lead to the spread of the elements of spiritual life inherent in the latter, but may have indirectly contributed to an increase in the role of text in comparison with pictorial methods of storing religious information. It is significant that the late stage was not accompanied by the spread of Chinese elements either in an artistic manner or in a set of images and plots.

Realistic art

The Dong Son civilization is known for its distinctive realistic art that served cult purposes. They demanded a realistic rendering of the details of the rite, and the rite itself concerned many aspects of people’s daily life, which was reflected in art. People were depicted most often within the framework of canonized compositions, and these compositions are binary on the main ritual object — a bronze hollow truncated cone, open from below, and having a flat disk on top; by late tradition, it was perceived as a drum. They are also called” Dong Son drums ” in modern literature.

Binarity consists in the fact that on the flat upper disk there are two complex groups of scenes, each of which is similar to the other, but occupies the opposite half of the “ring”. Perhaps this is how the world of the living and the world of the dead are represented. As far as can be seen, an important function of Dong Son art, with its detailed reproduction with small modifications of the same ritual scenes and related actions — is to record the rite. In this respect, they functionally correspond to the text of the rite description in other religions.

Dong Son cone ("drum"). Bronze. Mid-1st millennium BC

Dong Son cone (“drum”). Bronze. Mid-1st millennium BC

On the cone there are images of soldiers on a warship and on foot. Weak stylization of images on the early, actually lakvietskih products allows you to learn a lot about the cult. For all its realism, precision of detail, and proportionality, this is only a “sign” of the ship, since there are birds and animals between the ships. The scene is not considered by the master as an image of a ship afloat. But in the ship itself, everything is realistic, except for the occasional stork-a sacred bird of the Dongshon people and all the peoples who have adopted the Laquiet beliefs. Otherwise, it is a ship in battle, with archers shooting, warriors with spears and raised battle axes, with a signal drum, water supplies and, finally, with the commander stabbing a prisoner with a spear. Below you can see the “band of warriors”, individual figures in cartouches depict foot soldiers in huge helmets with feathers, going into battle.

On all these products, the scenes either differ slightly within the limits allowed for a particular artist, or they differ noticeably, but they always form a group of similar subjects related to the most detailed compositions on the largest “drums”. Here we are talking, apparently, about versions of the rite. So, people in boats can be unarmed, the scene of preparation for a feast can be absent, and so on. The main components — a flying heron and a procession of warriors in feathered helmets-also exist on “poor”, small “drums”. By the way, they last the longest at the end of the existence of a given culture, when the rite was either already replaced by another, or was transmitted to an increasing extent by text. It should be emphasized that not just various real people are depicted, but a standard set of scenes with explicitly fixed semantics. This is a mythological story and a ritual scene at the same time.

Magic practice

Dongshon art speaks of the existence of a certain magical, sacrificial (killing a prisoner), cult (cult of the sacred bird) practice among Lakviets, and a developed military rite. The basis of the ideological practice of the Dongshon civilization was apparently quite complex magical actions, and we can also talk about sympathetic magic, especially since at the next stage of development of the Dongshon ideology, images of frogs “causing rain” appear on the “drums”. According to the late practice traced by ethnographers, the ritual use of “drums” was intended to regulate people’s relations with otherworldly forces within the framework of procedures performed by people without the participation of images of the gods and without the leading role of priests. These fundamental features are inherent in the ancestral cult in the form that can be traced in later documents and ethnographic data for the Austric peoples, especially their Austroasiatic part (Hmong).

The system of cult plots on sacred “drums” is the most striking characteristic of the Dong Son civilization precisely as an early class one and based on the cult of ancestors. First of all, the main figure is not God or the priest, but man. But a person is at the moment of performing a religious rite or preparing for it, and not “just a person” (which, however, is impossible as a mass phenomenon at this stage of social development). Moreover, according to the degree of complexity, according to the degree of signification, which is already sufficiently standardized, the art of this civilization can be attributed to the next stage after the art of primitive society—to the first stage of the art of class societies. This point of view is supported by the realism of the images themselves and, what is much more significant, the realism of the compositions that convey the relationships between people in the team: the destruction of rice, the worship of a cult, joint participation in a battle on a ship.

Dong Son cultural influence

Among other things, the fact that Dong Son subjects are strictly canonized indicates the cult character of these images. It is obvious that behind them there were very specific religious texts, the set of actors of which and some relations between these persons can be restored. At the same time, the peoples who adopted the Dongshon cults were alien not only in their content (which led to the refusal to reproduce certain plots or their rapid stylization beyond recognition), but also in the manner of expression. This was manifested both in the rejection of strict realistic graphics of Dong Son art in favor of a more flexible (in the state of Dien, northwest of Aulak) or more decorative (in Indonesia) manner, and in the rejection of the normativity of composition and a set of actors, when the object of the image is simply all the typical figures of people and scenes of economic, military and religious life, It is necessary to mention the phenomenon of “secondary realism”, in which along with Dongshon images in style, meaning and function in the art of the recipient peoples, their images appear weakly or almost uncivilized: in Dien and in Indonesia, the familiar experimental innovations of the Namviets who lived to the northeast of Aulak stand apart.

They are much closer to “nature” than the images of the Dong Son style of these same peoples, and the stylization, which is clearly still at an early stage, is different for each people. It is obvious that the Dongshon people had adopted the very principle of realistic plot composition, which soon began to be transmitted by “local means”. It is equally obvious that it could not have been perceived without a corresponding text and rite, i.e. religion. The Dongshon people did not develop in those centuries, as did their closest neighbors, a purely hieratic art, generally atypical for the cult of ancestors and the philosophies that arose on its basis (hieratic art means emphasizing the greatness of God, his rule over everything). This distinguishes the Dong Son religion from the religions of the early Nile and Mesopotamia civilizations of the pre-Written and Early Written periods. The absence of images of god and even more often than others of the repeated image of a somewhat different person is somehow connected, apparently, with the predominance of the ancestral cult.

During its heyday, in the VI— IV centuries BC, and in some areas even later, Dong Son art gave rise to a number of local variants. Its rapid acceptance by other (but not all) Austric peoples of the most economically developed regions of” proto-Southeast Asia ” was facilitated by two factors already mentioned: the fact that the population of the main rice — growing valleys moving to a class society needed a developed ideology, and the fact that the basis of religious beliefs of all these peoples is the cult of ancestors.

It should be recalled that the cult of ancestors has largely survived to this day and determines a lot in the spiritual life of the peoples of Southeast Asia. The Lakvietes were the first to create a more complex religious system on this basis; they later practiced this cult more widely than others.

In the early stages, the Dongshon civilization spread towards the Malacca Peninsula of Indonesia, as well as up the Red River; in the later stages, it spread to the northeast, to the lands of the Namwyet kindred Lakwyet, where its own state was already formed, the creators of which apparently did not practice the Dongshon cult at the time of the state’s formation. This once again confirms the fact that in the presence of kinship of varying degrees of proximity in the circle of developed peoples of “proto-Southeast Asia”, Dongshon civilization was formed in a rather limited center, and spread through perception as the “demand” for the ideology of class society and corresponding art forms arose. The spread of the Dong Son religion was clearly not due to the migration of Dong Son people in any noticeable numbers to other places, although their sea and land contacts were significant.

Various Southeast Asian cultural schools

The fact that Dongshon culture was not imposed, but was voluntarily perceived, is also indicated by the fact that we see only a part of Dongshon religious and artistic samples among our neighbors, namely: on the one hand, those closest to a particular people (this part of the Dongshon complex is specific for each of them), on the other-those who occupied a key position in Dongshon religion (this part is the same for everyone: the flying stork, the profession of warriors, the star in the center of the “sphere of the universe”). There was also another image that is associated with the presence of a deep initial closeness of the Austric peoples. This is an ornament in the form of a double helix (Latin letter S); its varieties are diverse among the Austric peoples, but in many of them they were unified under the influence of the Dongshon variant of the double helix.

The most interesting schools that emerged under the influence of Dong Son art can be considered schools:

  • in the Malay-Javanese world,
  • in the Thai-Austroasiatic environment of the state of Dien near the island of Dali (in modern times). Yunnan),
  • and also in Namviet (Namviet State — the territory of Guangxi and Guangdong)

In Dien, while preserving the somewhat modified Dong Son norms for some products, “drums” were made in the local manner, using local images, with the addition of abundant ritual small plastic on the upper plane. In the art of Dien, the style of ornament has changed, the plot of a religious holiday on the upper plane of the instrument has disappeared, but cult images of the tiger and snake revered here have appeared, by the way, almost not found among the lakviets. The second most popular type of Dong Son sacred art-small bronze plastic-has reached an exceptional development in Dien, enriched by the features of”secondary realism”.

Among the Austronesians, first of all, the main thing in the religious plot was preserved — the flight of a stork and a procession of warriors in helmets with feathers. At the same time, there were their own sacred images (figures and faces), stylized Lakvieta and flourished its own decor. In the southern school, the “weaving” of new images into the fabric of the old composition prevailed, while the composition itself, unlike Dien’s art, quickly lost its realistic features, was stylized until the original version was completely lost.

The Namwiet school no longer created its own images of people, new elements were ornamental signs, which indirectly reflected the spread of Han culture here. And here the images of a flying stork and a procession of warriors remained the longest, with the first being gradually replaced by the image of another bird, and the second being quickly stylized and turned into an ornamental motif. It is important that the results of stylization in the north-east of the Dong Son range and in its south were completely different. The basis was the same — the cult and art of the Dongshon civilization of its heyday, while the ways of further development were unique among other peoples.

Destruction of Dong Son culture

In the late Dong Son period (II—I centuries BC), traces of the studied art disappear, and since the beginning of our era in the Red River Valley and in the valleys immediately to the south of it, the production of corresponding cult objects has continued. But the ancestral cult itself is still preserved here. Thus, we are talking about some kind of change in the cult practice or the disappearance of some kind of ancestral cult. It is hardly accidental that the beginning of the decline in the production of “drums” coincided with the spread of Buddhism from India and with the beginning of attempts at cultural assimilation of Laquiet by the Han Chinese. In the I-II centuries AD. The cult associated with “drums” was persecuted by the Han administration, they were confiscated and melted down. But all this was already after the gradual disappearance of complex compositions from them and the appearance of cast images of frogs “causing rain”. The cult of these latter was most likely inherent in the Namviets, since on their territory there are only late products with frogs, and among the Lakviets they appear around the time when the Lakviet state of Aulak was captured by the Namviets at the end of the third century BC.

Perhaps the main role in the gradual disappearance of Dong Son cult practice was played by the spread of Buddhism from the first century AD among the Laquyets, which gradually became their main religion, and not by the political control of the Han Chinese. It is noteworthy that this practice lasted the longest in the mountainous regions adjacent to the center and main peripheral centers of the Dong Son civilization (the mountains of the northeast Indochina Peninsula and the Xijiang River basin) and on part of the islands of Indonesia. At the same time, the cult of the ancient bronze drum as a symbol of supernatural forces protecting the Viet state, as guardian spirits along with the ancestors of the Vietese emperors, has long been preserved in the culture of the Vietese; the two cults were connected in the consciousness of the medieval Vietese.

Somewhat earlier, probably by the eighth century, the traditions of Dong Son art were replaced. This once again shows that the decline of Dong Son art is not the decline of the ideological system that gave it birth. Initially, the world of images on the cult object disappeared, much later — the object itself, and the ancestral cult itself, served by other objects and other images, still exists.

The widespread acceptance of the social and cultural experience of the ancient Indians and partly of the ancient Chinese, which began mainly around the turn of our era, was not the first time that the Austrians perceived the norms of class society, but it went much faster than usual in such situations.

Civilizations of the first millennium BC.

With the development of independent centers of class society on the former periphery of Dong Son civilization and on its “distant approaches”, the unity of the Austric cultural complex began to disintegrate. These processes marked the transition from the early period of the ancient history of Southeast Asia (I millennium BC) to late antiquity (I/II—IV/VII centuries AD). Among the ancestors of the Mon-Khmer and Austronesian peoples in Central and Southeastern Indochina, in the north of the Malacca Peninsula and on the islands of Western Nusantara, among the Proto-Burmese groups and Mons of Western Indochina, as well as among some Thai-Austroasiatic groups of modern Yunnan, the formation of the culture and ideology of early class states took place with increased contacts with ancient Eastern civilizations.

Pediment of the Shiva temple. Kambujadesa. X century AD

Pediment of the Shiva temple. Kambujadesa. X century AD

The inclusion of Brahmin cults in the ideological system and the spread of Buddhism from India and Sri Lanka in the first half of the first millennium AD naturally led to the implantation of certain general canonical principles of cult architecture and iconography. And at first acquaintance with them took place, apparently, through local South Indian and Sri Lankan samples of buildings (chaityas, shikhars, stupas) and cult plastics primarily of southern schools (Amaravati, early Pallavas), as well as Guptas.

However, excavations have shown that in the most developed centers of the south of the Indochina Peninsula, such as the cities of Bapnoma, by the time the monuments of the Indo-centric circle appeared, there was already an autochthonous tradition of construction using brick and stone and corresponding temples were erected that served the early Khmer animistic cults.

There was a religious and secular visual plastic, ornamental and decorative art with a system of deeply original images and motifs. In the II—V centuries AD, Bapnom and outposts of sea communications in the Southern Seas on its imperial territories (especially peninsular, Mon-Austronesian) were zones of wide contact of local culture with Hinduism and Buddhism and the earliest forms of adaptation of the latter to the traditions of the cult of ancestors and deities-spirits of nature, to the rich arsenal of religious and mythological images of Austric peoples. In architecture, this was expressed primarily in the construction of shrines associated with the Hindu cult of the King of the Mountain in the guise of the highest hypostases of Shiva.

Temple construction

The continuity of royal power was sanctified by the monarchical cult of linga as a phallic symbol of the sacred power of the monarch. The late Apnom Kurungs (kings) of the Lunar Dynasty of the fifth and early sixth centuries built temples of Shiva in the form of Girisha and Maheshwara in the Angkor Borei region, which was considered a divine analogue of the King who dwells on the sacred Mountain. This tradition was inherited in Chenla (the forerunner of Kambujadesh)with its main shrine, Lingi Wat Phu.

Another significant center of temple construction associated with this range of ideological ideas was the ancient Tyampa (from the middle of Central to the northern part of South Vietnam), where the dynastic cult of Shiva — Bhadreshvara, known among the Khmer people as Eisor as the King of the Mountain, existed since the IV century AD, and Shivalinga temples were built in the temple city of Mison. Although the archaeological material for this early period is rather poor, there is every reason to believe that these factors served as an important basis for addition even before the sixth century AD. early forms of the regional type of monumental temple construction, which gave rise to the classical architecture of the Middle Ages, namely, the type of “temple-mountain”.

The tower-like or pyramidal-terraced (with a tower top) construction of the “temple-mountain” has become a stable model of temporary and local (Austroasiatic and Austronesian) architectural trends due to the contamination of the general canonical Hindu and Buddhist image of the cosmic Mount Meru with local Uranic ideas and an original megalithic construction tradition. The latter is probably connected with the ancient Mons and the ancestors of the Malay peoples. In the Bapnomian era, important constructive and artistic techniques were formed, which were later developed by Khmer architects — such as the use of bricks and laterite, false vaults, piece decoration, etc.

On a regional scale, early class art was shaped by both Shaivism and Vishnuism, with which a significant part of sculpture is associated, and Buddhism. The second most important architectural image belongs to the spread of Buddhism, which, along with the image of the “temple-mountain”, formed the structural basis of the cult architecture of the ancient and early medieval states of Southeast Asia. This stupa is bell-shaped or helmet-shaped. The earliest forms of this Buddhist memorial and cult structure developed under the influence of the Amaravati and Sri Lankan designs. The stupa was most widely used at first among the Mons of Lower Burma and Thailand and in the early Burmese Pyu kingdoms on the Middle Irrawaddy. In these areas of Central and Western Indochina, the development of monumental art was closely linked to Hinayana Buddhism.


The Bodhisattva. Central Java, 8th century.

The Bodhisattva. Central Java, 8th century.

The oldest works of “Indianized” cult iconography known in Indochina and the Nusantara Islands are images of the Buddha in the style of the Amaravati school and its Sri Lankan variants of the II-III centuries A.D. In the Buddha iconography, focused on Indian samples of the Gupta era (IV-V centuries A.D.), some local features of the transfer of decor and composition are noticeable. These are statues from Dong Dong (Vietnam), Pong Tuk (Thailand), Sungei Bujang (Malacca Peninsula). Although the iconography of Hinayana Buddhism was generally more conservative and uniform than that of Hinduism and later Vajrayana Buddhism, the Late Buddhist iconography of the fifth and sixth centuries, among which massive wooden sculpture stands out, can be attributed to the first rise of monumental ancient Khmer sculpture, which preceded the appearance of the early classical style.

The local art of stone and wood processing and bronze casting had deep roots, and the production of anthropomorphic stone and metal Buddhist sculpture took root quickly. In the Sonoma civilization, it was undoubtedly inspired not only by the mutual enrichment of intra-regional traditions, but also by the acquaintance with the great pictorial tradition of antiquity. All this was reflected in the features of the early classical pre-Angkor Phnom Da style (first half of the sixth century), in which images of the Buddha and especially Vishnu and other Hindu gods already harmoniously combine elements of the influence of several Indian schools with the features of conventional anatomical modeling of the body and ethnic appearance adopted by the Khmer people.

At the turn of antiquity and the Middle Ages, it is important to note certain political and ideological factors that largely determined the nature of classical art of the peoples of the historical region of Southeast Asia. This is the presence of large state associations —

  • Chenli (Kambuji),
  • mon Dvaravati in the Thao Phraya basin,
  • Early Burmese kingdom of Tarekkitara (Srikshetra) in the Irrawaddy Valley,
  • Dali (Nanzhao) in present-day Southwest China,
  • Austronesian Tyampa States,
  • Srivijai (centered on Sumatra Island),
  • Matarama on Java Island

As well as the further development of the official cult of the monarch-god in the shell of Hinduism and Buddhism, various traditional forms of ancestral worship; the spread of “broad path” (Mahayana) Buddhism and especially the mystical ideology of Vajrayana Buddhism. In connection with these factors, there are the most important achievements of artistic culture, which formed the direct basis of early medieval classical norms.

  1. The architectural image of the “temple-mountain” gave rise to intra-regional models – Khmer prasat, Cham kalan, Javanese chandi, Malay biaro. All these are tower — like shrines, and then (mainly among the Khmer people) terraced shrines, i.e. tower temples built at the top of a step pyramid – “mountains”. Each of the most significant local areas of architecture by the eighth century AD. It brought its own aesthetic originality to the regional tradition: Javanese – through the classically clear, “order” tectonics and harmony of constructive and decorative principles, Khmer-through the plastic richness, solemn elegance of architectural forms and the development of spatial and ensemble principles, Cham – through the strict monumental expressiveness and ornamental load of free-standing brick temples.
  2. The leading directions of sculpture are primarily associated with the above-mentioned architecture, i.e. with Hindu temple complexes, mainly with the Shaivite design of the idea of the sacredness of the monarch’s power and his posthumous cult. These are outstanding examples of the plastically accurate and ethnically recognizable, but at the same time generalized idealized human type in the statues of Khmer Hindu gods from Sambor Prey Kuk and Prasat Andet, especially the popular image of Harihara (Shiva — Vishnu). This is the sensuous expression and decorative element in the Early Nyama sculpture of Mison and the abstract spiritual focus of the appearance of Indo-Javanese cult characters from the Chandi Dieng group. All these are monuments of the VII-VIII centuries.
  3. The development of its own standards of monumental art at the turn of antiquity and the Middle Ages is also observed within the framework of Buddhist canons. In the architecture of the states of Central and Western Indochina, the predecessors of the Tai and Mon Burmese, this was mainly in the direction of the development of the stupa-dagobah complex and the interior sanctuary under the stupa-shaped top, as well as the traditional use of such building structures and techniques as a pointed arch and vaulted lobby, brickwork, etc. In iconography, an important factor was the influence of the Mon Dvaravati style. The spread of Vajrayana in the seventh century A.D., with the sophisticated fantasy of its mythology, the ideal of a Bodhisattva savior and a complex cosmology, served to enrich classical architecture and plastic art in pre-Angkor Cambodia, in the Javanese and Malay states. Evidence of this is the Central Japanese cult complex Borobudur (late VIII — early IX centuries AD), which reproduces the teleological model of the Buddhist universe, a unique building that combines the image of a sacred Mountain, stupa and pyramid and carries a complex system of narrative reliefs and statuesque images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
  4. In the Vietskian cultural area during the period of “northern dependence”(I century BC—IX century AD), the expansion of the institutions of Chinese civilization encountered the vitality of the traditions of the early class society of the carriers of the Dong Son civilization — Laquiet, especially their folk culture and traditions of the ancestral cult. The perception and adaptation of Dhyana Buddhism was accompanied, as far as can be judged from the scanty evidence of that time, by the appearance of some significant monuments of architecture, plastic and ornamental art, marked by distinctive features (religious Buddhist and civil structures in Daila and Luilau, models of stupas from Tienzu, various funeral equipment).

The artistic heritage of the ancient societies of Southeast Asia played a significant role in passing the baton of cultural values that formed an integral part of the traditional culture of the region’s largest ethnic groups.

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