Before proceeding to descriptions of the nine-headed naga (naaga; definition 1), it seems useful to highlight the difference between Western and Asian sculpting. Page 119 of de Pouvourville’s “L’ Art Indo-Chinois” shows how much we in the West are enslaved to our way of judging what “art” is or should be and what the purpose of it is. We think that this insight of ours is universally shared and that our art, and ours alone, is at the apex of artfulness. Take a particular rendering of for instance the human body, and the question to what purpose we sculpt — “we” between brackets. On the subject of Indo-Chinese rendering of sculptures, and in particular that of the Vietnamese, De Pouvourville says: “… monumental statues never existed among them. The buildings that have statues are very clearly constructed as houses for these same statues. Never do we find images (statues) in-between pillars, nor a (mere) filling of empty spaces, nor a masquerading of shoddy renderings. It seems that for the artists of this country the human figure has always been too noble to be treated as an accessory item. And where there is one (such a rendering of an ordinary human) it’s rendered in stone, and everything is made and combined in a way to make it stand out in a handsome way (that is, in a way that shows how far he or she advanced on The Way).”
Until the export of Western art to Asia and other continents took place, and until there were stipends that allowed full-time and full-fledged Asian artists to work and study abroad, the human figure in Indo-China was not too noble to be sculpted. This has never been a consideration. It’s as if we were having a discussion on the feathers of an earthworm, as worms do not have feathers such a thing cannot be discussed.
In his travels throughout Vietnam De Pouvourville didn’t come accross any statue that in style could be compared to the Greek or Latin examples with their skilfull display of musculature and facial expressions referring to some or other all too human emotion and/or the strength or frailty of the human body itself. Indo-Chinese religious cultures were designed to go beyond the all too human towards an enlightened state of whatever kind, and only this state needs to be displayed in an idealised way, as a goal, as a model to be followed, or even as a model that the sufferer merely observes with a tinge of envy: will I ever be as content or happy? Can it be done? Therefore Indo-Chinese statues are not made for mere decoration; they represent eternal values and as such are not human in the ordinary sense of the word. They are not displayed as mere decorative items, although the house-owner displays them on lower chests in a designated corner of the house, and although restaurant-owners display them somewhere, as guardian angels, or as an indication of their religious inclination.
Same Taoïsm, and yet
As such the Indo-Chinese insight into the representative value of sculptural art differs greatly from at least the Chinese tradition of painting. This is not the place to go deep into this difference although it is of interest to note that both the Indo-Chinese and the Chinese art-forms greatly rely on Taoïsm, and could have developed into a similar form of expression, but they didn’t, not always at least. In the artistic and cultural sense of the word Indo-China is not a mere copy of China.