Book of the Week

The Golden Lands

Weighing in at nearly 4 ½ pounds, Golden Lands is a hefty book, but don’t let that scare you – it’s a gentle giant! Vikram Lall’s insights into the religious architecture of Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are invitingly well written and worth every ounce.

Lall begins his treatment at Southeast Asia’s architectural beginning – as a humble chain of trading posts between India and southern China in which Buddhism spread and shrines were built as early as the 5th century. It wasn’t long before the stupas got taller, the pagodas got wider, more roofs appeared atop the wats and sprawls of Buddhist monuments blossomed in the deep jungle.  Soon, each of the six disparate regions developed its own “architectural vocabulary.”

His book is most enlightening, however, when Lall explains how builders used architecture to express religious beliefs and wield political power. Hsinbyume Pagoda in Myanmar, for example, is encircled by undulating arches that symbolize the seven seas surrounding the cosmic center of the universe. Likewise, the architects of Manuha temple placed giant statues of Buddha in claustrophobic spaces to emphasize worldly oppression. Lall does a masterful job explaining how light, shape, width, height – even the cardinal directions – express ideology.

In addition, he provides site diagrams and deeper analysis of how different architectural traditions blended. Vietnam’s style was particularly influenced by Chinese architecture. The temple complex at Angkor Wat in Cambodia was originally a Hindu monument to Vishnu until architects renovated it to reflect Theravada spirituality.

The analysis in Golden Lands is complemented by luxurious, oversized photographs. Pagodas rise from Tran Quoc temple in Hanoi, colorful statues and “prangs” gleam at Wat Arun in Bangkok and bas-relief faces adorn the towers of Bayon in Cambodia. With its bountiful content, the book is probably too heavy for a day-pack but is nonetheless a worthy, enlightening primer to the region’s spiritual past.

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