Fine Arts Collaborations

Animism in the Arts of Southeast Asia

Type/Category: Seminar/Sacred Universe

Date: 8-9 August 2019 (Thursday-Friday)

Venue: Sri Burapha Auditorium, Thammasat University (Tha Pra Chan Campus), Bangkok, Thailand

*Please click the venue link above to view a map of auditorium location (seminar) and eateries within the vicinity (lunch will not be provided).

Fee: None (but please register online at the button below)

Concept Note:

The region of Southeast Asia share varied belief systems of Animism, which are maintained and integrated with religions of today. Over the past two decades concepts related to Animism have evolved. These concepts have moved from colonial perspectives, beyond the disciplinary boundaries of religion and anthropology, and are now widely used in the humanities and social sciences. Animism encompasses the belief that objects, sacred places, animals and natural phenomena possess a distinct spiritual essence. Such beliefs continue to be a crucial force in the religious lives of Southeast Asians and provide significant inspiration for various art forms within the region.

This seminar aims to uncover the significance of a shared belief system of Animism in the creation of various art forms in Southeast Asia.

Associate Professor Chedha Tingsanchali of Silpakorn University will be giving an on-site lecture at the Bangkok National Museum. He will guide you through and discuss the animistic origins and practices of particular objects on display in the permanent collection of the Museum. Places are limited and will be allocated on a first come first served basis, so please register. (*This on-site lecture is now full – However, online registration for the seminar portion to be held at Sri Burapha Auditorium, Thammasat University is still open.)

The objectives of the event are to:

  1. Share the beliefs, traditions and arts related to Animism in Southeast Asia that have produced artistic inspirations;
  2. Review the studies relating to Animism in the arts of Southeast Asia;
  3. Provide a platform for knowledge sharing and discussion.

Listed as follows (in alphabetical order of SEAMEO member country) are the distinguished speakers with paper/presentation title and abstract:


Brunei Darussalam is part of the Malay world. Before it became an Islamic state, Brunei experienced cultural periods of animism and Hinduism-Buddhism. Islamic thought in Brunei tampered the belief of animism as well as Hinduism-Buddhism. However, through Brunei folklore and its traditional literature we can find the remains of elements of animism. Therefore, this paper will discuss and examine elements of animism embodied in Brunei folklore. The material of Brunei folklore in reference will focus on folk tales and proverbs in relating to the taboo of two animals namely ‘ambok’ (monkeys) and ‘ayam’ (chickens). By looking at the structural elements of the folklore it will assist our understanding of why the people of Brunei consider these two types of animals as a taboo that brings bad fortune to them. However, due to the teachings of Islam, beliefs about the two animals, monkeys and chickens, are no longer maintained. In fact, they have been incorporated as a part of the Brunei cultural heritage.

Keywords: Brunei folklore, Monkey and Chicken, Taboo, Islam, cultural heritage


Ta Reach, literally translated as the Royal Ancestor, is an impressive eight-armed statue of Vishnu – the Hindu Preserver of the World. It was the most important deity worshipped at Angkor Vat and its statue was made and consecrated inside Angkor’s central tower in the 12th Century.

From approximately the 16th Century, Angkor Vat has been a Buddhist temple. During this period the statue of the Grand Vishnu was transferred to the main gate of the 3rd enclosure at the western entrance of Angkor Vat: a marginal position within the temple when the central sanctuary was closed off as a stupa for Buddhism.

Since then, the statue has gradually become a local deity and a spiritual guardian of the Angkor community.  Today, not only locals but worshippers living in all parts of the world still travel to Angkor Vat to pay homage to Ta Reach, not as a brahmanic god, but Neak Ta, an animistic deity of the local community. Worshippers will visit for a variety of reasons, such as for protection, to chase away bad luck, ask for good business, to bear children or to acknowledge marriages.

An annual festival is held at Angkor Vat in homage to Ta Reach at the end of the harvesting season. Either a man or woman acts as a messenger, medium or incarnate of Ta Reach by receiving individual requests from worshippers. As a spiritual representative of Ta Reach, the medium performs the rite of responding to all supplications. This paper will explore how meaning and audience response in connection with the statue of Ta Reach have changed. It will discuss the ritual practices performed and the spiritual value of the statue of Ta Reach to worshipers today.

Keyword: Angkor Vat, Vishnu, Ta Reach, Neak Ta, Community Spiritual protector, medium, performing art, agrarian rite, animistic beliefs


Most of the Dayak Basap tribe live in Sangkulirang-Mangkalihat Karst Area in East Kalimantan Province, Borneo, Indonesia. One of the more well-known sub-Basap tribes is the Muara Bulan Basap living in the karstic-forest of Tutunambo. The extreme landscape of the karstic-forest features impressive cliff faces and magnificent caves. Despite palm oil farmers encroaching onto their land since 2010, the Muara Bulan Basap still hold strong Animistic beliefs, especially in the ornaments of tropical forest flowers, leaves and liana (aerial roots). There are four basic types of ornaments, each with their own supernatural function: Wakaroros, Akar Mompong, Rungga-rungga and Beringin Duduk. They are thought to have healing properties, possess the spirits of ancestors and guardians of the forest, or are connected to a holy animal or supernatural power. These ornaments are consulted for a range of reasons, such as when entering a sacred cave or for luck when hunting. The Basap people only make these ornaments for special events and despite their beautiful aesthetics and use of bright colours, they are not considered decorative pieces of art. As such, once they have completed their function, as spiritual containers, they are abandoned on the ground or in the forest. Consequently, these ornaments are difficult to document. This paper explores the Basap’s Animistic worship of spiritual beings through ornamental objects.


The Baci Ceremony is a specific ceremony in Lao, which has been practised for hundreds of years and has its origins in the ancient customs of past generations. Lao people believe that a human being is a union of 32 organs, each having a spirit or Khuan (Lao word for spirit) to protect them. The Baci or Sou khuan is a well-known traditional ritual and an important part of Lao culture. It has a profound significance for Lao people, and is popular with visitors to the country. It represents a mixture of Animism, Brahmanism, Buddhism and spirit worship. The tradition follows the belief that a human being’s main body parts are inhabited by 32, or even more, spirits. In some circumstances, these spirits may leave the body to wander around and may lose their way in the universe, thus causing a person to become weak and vulnerable to dangers. It is therefore important to call the missing spirits back; this ceremony is performed on important occasions such as births, weddings, farewells, visits, Lao New Year, etc.

This paper will describe what the Baci ceremony is, and why and how it is performed.


The pua kumbu, an animistic Iban textile is a warp-patterned textile produced by using a tie-dye resist technique and woven on a back-strap loom. Its production involves a complicated process of preparing the threads, warping, counting, selecting, folding, tying of warp threads and dyeing before the weaving “begins”: these processes are accompanied by various taboos and beliefs. The pua kumbu possesses a unique identity as each design carries a name, a rhyme or a story. Different tone of color signifies a distinctive piece. Internationally, the tie and dye technique has been referred to by many academics and scholars as ‘ikat’ as in the Malay-Indonesian terminology. However, in Iban, the technique is simply known as “kebat”. The pua kumbu in Iban community functioned as a protective blanket during healing and rituals in which many of the designs have been considered sacred and only to be passed down within the family. With a strict taboo to be observed, the designs of pua kumbu has been protected by traditional intellectual property rights for decades. Hence, many beautiful designs died with the proprietors. Many Iban weavers have  embraced Christianity, and might not weave pua kumbu due to the animistic taboos that need to be observed and conducted. However, a handful of Christian Iban weavers syncretized their beliefs. Their devotion to this animistic belief and practice is still deeply rooted in the process of weaving. Although pua kumbu has been in existence in Iban community and the knowledge has been passed down through the teaching and demonstrations, a non-verbal method, this traditional practice is still present in a small Iban community in Sarawak. Most recently, the state government of Sarawak has emphasized that the pua kumbu should be commercialized as haute couture. This paper attempts to discuss in depth the significance of the existence of the pua kumbu, a canvas of documentation of Iban animistic art and belief, the present Iban, and Malaysian cultural heritage in general.


Animism plays a significant historical and contemporary role in Myanmar. There are many types of spirit figures known as nats or lords, from nature spirits of trees and water, to the national pantheon of the ‘thirty-seven nats’ who were said to have been banished by an eleventh century CE king with the institutionalization of Buddhism. The wedding ceremony of one of the thirty-seven nats, U Min Kyaw (“handsome king”), illustrates the continuity of animism in the living presence of the spirit during celebrations that actualize the supernatural through a shaman or nat kadaw to satisfy human desires. During the wedding ceremony of U Min Kyaw and many other nats today, the nat kadaw is often trans-sexual, and the celebration is accompanied by gambling, drinking and merriment to bring wealth to all participants. Why do animists accept the nat U Min Kyaw as a supernatural power and how do animists and spirit mediums marry with him? These and other issues are discussed in presenting the process of the wedding ceremony held in Myanmar. An important and often overlooked aspect of the celebrations is the continuity of traditional arts in the music, songs, dress, dance and meals in this ceremony. This research uses participant observation and key informant interviews to collect data during the ceremony to demonstrate the central concept of a wedding between a spirit and a human being and how it fulfils the participants’ desires to explain why this type of animism is still practised in Myanmar.

Keywords: supernatural power, nats, nat kadaw, human needs, arts, satisfaction, U Min Kyaw


The contemporary concept of the Babaylan has conflated meanings to those who subscribe to special figures that embody supernatural powers found in Philippine communities. They may be ordinarily a neighbor performing everyday tasks but transform on certain conditions or in settings that may call for such mysterious actions. In more urban settings, Babaylan characters are now construed as a female or a transgender being that have mystical powers to heal, prescribe amulets, divine, teach and perform rituals. In several communities, however, they may also be male that possesses the same abilities – in all, they are known to the believers as wise and benevolent with extraordinary abilities.

It is said that to be a Babaylan, one must be willing to give up mundane existence and go through a difficult process of apprenticeship. They are known to transcend this world and communicate with the other through trance, prayers and kinship reckoning. While valorized in their communities, they are also seen as dangerous since they are misunderstood, harboring malevolent spirits and have the ability to perform sorcery akin to witches in the West. This may be the reason for their popularity despite historically being marginalized by colonial powers, dismissing their powers as myth.

This paper focuses on the performativity of the Babaylan in Philippine communities that has parallels in research that has been done in Southeast Asia of similarly imbued characters believed to have supernatural powers. It will look at previous data that I collected on healers and village priests in Northern Luzon, some of whom may have been secretly recruited by religious missionaries during the Spanish colonial period in their vocation to convert natives, as well as used as examples of dissident figures in contrast to the goodness that the Christian God represents. This precarious and liminal position of the Babaylan – of being betwixt and between – makes these characters powerful central figures that loom large in our myths and from which we draw inspiration in times of crises.


It is only the human intellect that can conceive of a metaphysical existence where life is extended beyond mortal death. This argument hinges upon the presence of an immortal soul, an animating supernatural essence. Since the idea of eternal life is a human vision, the shape or form of the deity would arguably be anthropomorphic: as man is made in the likeness of God, so gods are imagined to be in the likeness of man. The concept of theophany where the deity takes on a form that is meaningful for the human audience began with the Greeks and is particularly well-developed in Christian religious discourse. Notions of theomorphism or anthropomorphism have for thousands of years been central to many Eastern and Middle Eastern religion, but theories regarding these concepts are less well-developed in Western scholarship. This essay fills in the gaps in the world knowledge of Asian theophany with particular reference to Chinese and SE Asian spiritual practices, and proposes that the puppet, as animated anthropomorphic form, is the very emblem of animism in art and religious icon par excellence.


For Thai people in the upper north (Lanna culture) and some in the northeast (Lan Xang culture), there exists a unique funeral tradition for monks (only for important ones) in which the coffin is built in the shape of a prasat (palace) on a Husadilingu. The Husadilingu is a mythical bird in ancient Hinduism with great power, a mix between a swan, an elephant and a lion. During a funeral of this tradition, a throng of people in black, led by monks, will trail the majestic Husadilingu prasat coffin along the streets, from a temple to a royal cemetery. Then, the Husadilingu will be shot and the palace coffin will be burnt in flames. This ritual is a proclamation of the greatness of the deceased monk who performed outstanding deeds while alive and a send-off for him to return to heaven. In this context, the Husadilingu functions as an angel accompanying the spirit of the deceased to an afterlife.


The long historical belief in Animism and ancestor worship together with Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism in Vietnam has had a tremendous influence on the country’s folk art. It has become a kind of syncretic art because the Vietnamese do not make the distinction between the secular and sacred as clearly or precisely as most Westerners do in viewing the common strands of religion in Vietnam. Traces of Animism in Vietnamese folk art is mostly found in decorative objects located in major religious places. The belief in good and evil spirits created many forms of good and evil deities because these beliefs hold that all phenomena and forces in the universe are controlled by spirits.
Before the 20th Century, the Vietnamese did not perceive Animism as defined by Edward Burnett Taylor; they used the term “vật linh” (sacred animals) or “vật thiêng” (mascots) to describe it. Animism in the Vietnamese context manifests in animals, objects, weapons, ritual implements, sacrifice, tree stumps, rocks, or the things and phenomena of nature, such as rain, wind, thunder and lightning (Dinh Hong Hai, 2018). This paper examines the historical contexts and the influence of Animism in Vietnamese folk art. It also shows how Vietnamese folk art has been shaped by Animism and how the arts changed during a period of economic development and modernization, known as “doi-moi”, in Vietnam after 1986.

1) The Appearance of Animism in Vietnamese Folk Art
2) Conception and Classification of Vật linh in Vietnam
3) Popular Animism in Vietnamese Folk Art
4) The change of Animism in Vietnamese Folk Art after “doi-moi”

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