Most Khmer art is linked with Hinduism or Buddhism and was greatly influenced by Indian art. Nearly all the Khmer art that remains with us to day is in the form of sculpture and most of this is stone sculpture associated with temples. The few examples of bronze sculpture that remain are regarded as great treasures. The Khmers may have produced paintings but there is little evidence of it. There are few experts on Khmer art. Most of them are in France or the United States.
An exhibition of Khmer art and sculpture from Angkor Wat and other archeological sites in Cambodia wowed observers in Paris and Washington D.C. The pieces on displayed, many of which are normally housed in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, included a curvaceous 7th century sculpture of the Hindu goddess Durga Mahisasuramardini; a huge 11th century bronze Vishnu head that was once part of a 20-foot-high figure; and a 12th-century sandstone head of Jayabarman IV, with a gentle smile and remarkable serene, contemplative expression.
Time art critic Robert Hughes wrote that "some of the greatest stone carving and bronze work in human history” were made by the Khmers. He said its appeal was its "scale, continuity and shear aesthetic majesty....There is very little of the eroticism of Indian sculpture: bare breasts and torsos, but no full nudes, and no copulation.” Other have used words like tranquility, spirituality and sereneness to describe the attraction of Khmer art.
In the 1,000 year history of Khmer art, not one single name of an artist or sculptor was ever recorded. The range of subjects is rather limited—images of Buddha, Nagas (the seven-headed serpent), “asparsases” (women that inhabited the heavens), and Hindu gods like Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha. The art is best viewed in the context that it was made, namely to decorate temples Some bas-reliefs depict historical events, episodes from Hindu literature, and scenes from everyday life. There is a creature depicted in a little picture on the Angkor Wat which some have said resembles a Stegosaurus. Others have pointed out that it looks more like a chameleon or a Mountain Horned Dragon, both found in that area.
The most common form of traditional painting is wat murals. Because of destruction during the Khmer Rouge period, few historic wat murals remain in Cambodia. In the 1960s, art historians Guy and Jacqueline Nafilyan photographed 19th-century murals, providing a record of this lost cultural heritage. The best known surviving murals are at the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh, Wat Rajabo in Siem Reap province, and Wat Kompong Tralach Leu in Kompong Chhnang Province. In the last decade, wat murals have seen a resurgence, but Cambodia's surviving older murals are generally more refined and detailed. [Source: Wikipedia]
Religious Contexts of South Asian and Southeast Asian Art
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, the three great religions that developed in the subcontinent, share certain basic beliefs: that time is cyclical, and the universe is created and destroyed in endless cycles; that the world is transitory and the appearance of permanence is illusion (maya); that all living beings are born and reborn in different lives and bodies (samsara); and that one’s good and bad deeds (karma) accumulate from life to life and determine the form in which one is reborn. The goal is to accumulate enough good deeds to finally be released from cycles of birth and rebirth by attaining nirvana (extinction or quiescence) in Buddhism, or moksha (release or liberation) in Hinduism. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Over the centuries, as these religions have evolved, they have incorporated a variety of physical disciplines and esoteric and magical practices such as yoga, meditation, trance, breath control, and the repetition of mantras (words of power). An essential feature of all three religions is a holistic view of life: all forms of life—gods, demons, humans, animals, and vegetation— are integrally connected. Although Buddhists and Jains believe in maya, samsara, karma, and eventual release (as Hindus do), they reject caste, Hindu gods, sacrifices, and the power of the priestly caste (Brahmins). The founders of Buddhism and Jainism both lived in the sixth century B.C. and were born in the warrior, or kshatriya, caste.
Buddhism and Hinduism in Southeast Asian Art
Hinduism and Theravada, Mahayana, and Esoteric Buddhism had spread throughout Southeast Asia by the seventh century, and important monuments and sculptures of both faiths survive from that period onward. Throughout the region, ancient indigenous animistic and pantheistic beliefs survived and complemented the tenets and practices of the Indic faiths. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Theravada Buddhism spread to Sri Lanka at an early date and is still the dominant religion there. It was also carried along sea routes to Thail and and Burma (Myanmar). It is the form of Buddhism still practiced in those countries today, as well as in Cambodia and Laos. In neighboring Vietnam, the population is largely Mahayana, perhaps due to the proximity to China, where the Buddhism that still exists is largely Mahayana. In Indonesia, Hinduism and Esoteric Buddhism, which had coexisted peacefully for centuries, were gradually displaced by the spread of Islam through not only Indonesia but also Malaysia in the fifteenth century. Indonesia now has the largest Muslim population in the world. Bali, however, remains largely Hindu.
Although rich and varied court art was produced in Southeast Asia, as we know from temple reliefs, religious subjects in stone and metal dominate the surviving art from the classical period (7th–13th century). Little art made from other materials has withstood the region’s tropical climate, although a few extant pieces of early wood sculpture—now very worn— point to the existence of an important earlier tradition of carving. No early textiles have survived, and we can only imagine the beauty of the ancient costumes. Similarly, paintings on palm leaves and paper deteriorated long ago, and we have only second-hand evidence for the elaborate wood carvings and murals that may have decorated palace and temple walls. Some Cambodian stone palace architecture exists, but it is devoid of such decoration.
The iconography of Southeast Asian sculpture strongly reflects Indian influences, which began to penetrate the region early in the Common Era. Buddhism and Hinduism were adopted with the identifying attributes and gestures of deities basically unchanged. Ideals of physical perfection and its representation in sculptural form, however, present quite distinct local characteristics such as regional facial types and bodies that reveal underlying musculature and skeleton.
Fewer Hindu deities are depicted in Southeast Asia than in India. Vishnu. Shiva, Ganesha, and Durga are the most popular, together with a syncretic deity called Hari-Hara, who combined aspects of Shiva and Vishnu. In Buddhist sculpture, emphasis was placed on the interceding role of bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.
Narratives Royal courts, particularly in Cambodia and Java, commissioned extensive narrative reliefs for temple walls which portray episodes from the Buddha’s life and scenes from Hindu legends and mythology. They also offer a wealth of detail about courtly and vernacular life, domestic customs, agriculture, industry, transport and architecture, music and dance. Most remain on temple walls in Cambodia and Java.
Glorifying the King and Teaching in Southeast Asian Art
In Khmer Cambodia and in Java, the devaraja (god-king) cult embodied the belief that the living king transmitted divine will through his relationship with a particular god, and that the deity’s images in the temple constructed by the king symbolized the god’s approval of the king’s divine right to rule. The devaraja cult was appropriated from India. Hindu rulers turned to Shiva or Vishnu as their patron deity. Buddhist kings derived their authority not from Buddha, who had renounced his worldly position, but from bod- hisattvas, who were still of this world and possessed extraordinary powers. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
In keeping with these beliefs, occasionally representations of the monarch were made in the image of the god, often complete with the attributes of a deity. Many of the greatest Khmer temple-mountains were centered on a funerary shrine—the inner core of Angkor Wat, for instance— in which such statues were placed.
Along with the cosmic and spiritual truths embodied in the temple’s architectural form, extensive narrative reliefs on temple walls performed on educational role by instructing worshippers in both religious and histor- ical events. For instance, as the pilgrim ascends the galleries at Borobudur, circling each level before climbing to the next, he or she is inspired by depictions of the Buddha’s life and the compassion of bodhisattvas.
Khmer Art History and Periods of Khmer Art
After a long stay at the Central Javanese court, a Zhenla nobleman returned to the mainland and founded the Khmer Empire of Cambodia. In 802, he gave himself the name of Jayavarman II and built a capital, which he called “the mountain of the king of the gods,” in the tradition of Central Javanese rulers who called themselves “mountain kings.” He erected a temple- mountain that mirrored the abode of the gods, and established the cult of the devaraja —the god-king—in Cambodia. The Khmer kings henceforth were believed to be the physical incarnation of a god, usually Shiva but sometimes Vishnu. Perhaps because of this initial connection with Java, Javanese art and architecture seem to have influenced early Khmer art. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
The Khmer dynasty ruled Cambodia for the next six hundred years, expand- ing their empire into Thailand, to the borders of Myanmar, into northern Vietnam, and south into Malaya. In the ninth century, the capital was moved to Angkor, which over the next three centuries became a vast royal city of palaces, canals, reservoirs (for rice paddy cultiva- tion), and temple-mountains, the most famous of which is Angkor Wat, built in the twelfth century.
Khmer art is divided into three categories: 1) pre-Angkorian art from the 6th to 8th centuries, featuring Indian and Buddhist images and influences, and remarkably refined craftsmanship: 2) the high-Angkorian art from A.D. 802 to 1431, featuring Hindu and Buddhist stone, bronze and wood sculptures commissioned by the great Angkorian kings; and 3) the post-Angkor period, beginning after the sacking of Angkor by the Siamese in 1431.
To appreciate Khmer art, Hughes wrote, “one has to shift gears: to be immersed un an extremely slow-moving tradition to which the idea of innovation, beloved in the west meant little or nothing..” Jo Anne Lewis wrote in the Washington Post, "Unlike Greek art, Khmer at does not develop in nice, neat, linear lines. Shifts are subtle, having less to do with style than degrees of balance between realism, idealism, simplification and refinement, expressions of power and expressions of humility...The greatest Khmer carvers showed an extraordinary ability to balance these elements.”
Prehistoric Khmer Art
Several prehistoric sites are known in Cambodia (inc. Samrong Sen, Anlong Phdao, Melou Prei, and Laang Spean). It is believed that many more prehistoric sites exist, but have yet to be discovered. However, remnants of circular earthwork villages dating from the Neolithic times are found in the province of Kompong Cham. [Source: National Museum of Cambodia =]
Ancient stone, bronze tools and weapons, enigmatic bronze drums similar to those found at the Dong Son site in Vietnam (thought to be used in rain and war ceremonies), and ancient ceramics have been found and documented. Current archaeological research into Cambodia’s extensive prehistory will no doubt provide better insight into the lives of the people who made these objects, and give us a more concrete time-frame for their dates of manufacture. =
Ancient Ceramics in Cambodia
Recent archaeological excavations at Angkor Borei (in southern Cambodia) have recovered a large number of ceramics, some of which probably date back to the prehistoric period. Most of the pottery, however, dates to the pre-Angkorian period and consists mainly of pinkish terracotta pots which were either hand-made or thrown on a wheel, and then decorated with incised patterns. [Source: National Museum of Cambodia =]
Glazed wares first appear in the archaeological record at the end of the 9th century at the Roluos temple group in the Angkor region, where green-glazed pot shards have been found. A brown glaze became popular at the beginning of the 11th century and brown-glazed wares have been found in abundance at Khmer sites in northeast Thailand. Decorating pottery with animal forms was a popular style from the 11th to 13th century. Archaeological excavations in the Angkor region have revealed that towards the end of Angkor period production of indigenous pottery declined while there was a dramatic increase in Chinese ceramic imports. =
Direct evidence of the shapes of vessels is provided by scenes depicted on bas-reliefs at Khmer temples, which also offer insight into domestic and ritualistic uses of the wares. The wide range of utilitarian shapes suggest the Khmers used ceramics in their daily life for cooking, food preservation, carrying and storing liquids, as containers for medicinal herbs, perfumes and cosmetics. =
Early Indian-Influenced Khmer Art
After Indian political and religious ideas began permeating Cambodia (around the time of Christ), a tradition of casting bronze Hindu and Buddhist divinities emerged. This tradition reached its pinnacle of output and skill during the Angkor period. The large bronze figure of the ‘Reclining Vishnu’ (late 11th century) demonstrates the level of mastery which Khmer bronze artists achieved. The museum’s Bronze Gallery contains bronzes dating from the 7th to 20th century. [Source: National Museum of Cambodia =]
Besides the objects which were made in veneration of religious divinities, the other types of bronzes on display can be divided into two categories: ritual objects and secular goods. Many of the ritual objects in the collection, including popils (stylised candle holders), bells, bowls and conches for ritual water, are still used in a variety of Khmer ceremonies today. Many of the secular goods are objects which would have been bestowed by the royal court as insignia of rank for officials. These include ornate hooks for palanquins, gilded rings from the handles of parasols, fans, and military or official seals. =
Pre-Angkor Period Art
Pre-Angkor Art had an elegant form and refined detail and was similar to Indian Gupta art. Distinctive features included slightly S-shaped rather than frontal profiles, clothing carved in very low relief, and accurately rendered but seemingly diaphanous anatomical details. Describing a pre-Angkor sculpture, Hughes wrote: "There is a perfect balance between abstraction of the limbs, the rich linear details of the costume and benign, almost feminine roundness.”
The oldest known Khmer stone sculptures date to the early 6th century and were found in cave temples which were carved into the side of Phnom Da, a small hill near Angkor Borei. Angkor Borei, today a small town in the Mekong Delta region, was a major city-centre within what is thought to have been the first large-scale centralised Khmer state (c.1st-6th century; often called ‘Funan’ as it was denoted in Chinese annals of the period). Recent excavations at a site known as Angkor Borei and earlier work at Oc-Eo are confirming that this region was the site of important kingdoms that predate the Angkor empire - those of Funan and Zhenla (Chenla). [Source: National Museum of Cambodia =]
The Phnom Da sculptures were carved from single blocks of fine-grained sandstone and depict both Buddhist and Hindu divinities. Although the sculptures reveal traditional Indian stylistic influences, one can also see that the Khmer artists strove to break away from their mentors. Moving away from the Indian tradition of sculpting in high-relief, the Khmers attempted to make free-standing statues, supported by an arch or by an attribute of the divinity (such as a piece of clothing or a hand-held object). =
In the 7th and 8th centuries, the power base shifted north to the plains east of the Tonle Sap Lake. Funan’s dominance ended when King Isanavarman I established the first capital of this new power centre (called ‘Zhenla’) at ‘Ishanapura’ (Sambor) in present day Kompong Thom province. In the 8th century, Zhenla was divided into two competing powers, ‘Land Zhenla’ and ‘Water Zhenla’. This situation remained until Jayavarman II set up a capital on Mount Mahendraparvata (Phnom Kulen) in the Angkor region in 802 and successfully unified the Khmer people. =
The majority of the sculptures from Zhenla and Funan depict Vishnu, while another popular deity, Shiva, is usually symbolised by a linga (stone phallus). Pre-Angkorian sculptors often combined these two Hindu divinities into one deity, called Harihara. Statues of Buddha and other Buddhist divinities were also popular with pre-Angkorian artists of both Funan and Zhenla. The Zhenla period saw an increase in relief carvings on stone lintels and pediments. =
Hari-Hara is a stone statue of a four-armed deity combining the Hindu gods Shiva and Vishnu from Cambodia in the Pre-Angkor period (A.D. late 7th–early 8th century). His image symbolizes ultimate unity despite apparent duality. The right side of his body is Shiva, identified by the stylized locks of mat- ted hair on his tall chignon. His matted hair refers to an aspect of Shiva’s character in which he is the great ascetic. Half of Shiva’s vertical all-seeing eye is depicted at the center of the right side of Hari-Hara’s forehead. The outlines of the second arms behind the first can be seen behind the upper forearms. In one of his missing right hands he would have held a trident, and the other hand might have been extended toward his worshippers in a gesture allaying fear. Hari-Hara’s left side, the Vishnu side, is identified by the plain tall crown which Vishnu traditionally wears. He would have held two of his usual attributes, the conch and the battle mace, in his left hands. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
The figure wears a sampot, a long wraparound garment drawn between the legs from the front. One end is fastened at the waist in back. The other half falls from the waist down the front in symmetrical pleated folds. Only one side of the sampot covering the thighs has folds, another sign of Hari-Hara’s dual nature. Though simplified, the subtle indications of muscle and bone on the legs and torso are rendered more naturalistically than they would be in Indian sculptures. There is a subtle play between the human and the superhuman here. The pure physicality of the figure is evident in the muscles, broad shoulders, and stocky legs. The serene smile and the open, staring eyes create a spiritual counterpoint.
Angkor Period Art
Cambodia is rich in sandstone deposits. Throughout the Angkorian period, sandstone was quarried from the Kulen hills (to the north of Angkor) and floated on rafts along rivers and canals to the building sites. [Source: National Museum of Cambodia =]
The first recognisable art style of the Angkorian period is the Kulen style (c.825-75), named after the hill on which Jayavarman II built his capital and had his royal consecration ceremony initiating the cult of the devaraja (god-king) which would be followed by all subsequent Angkorian kings. This style was the first to dispense with supporting arches - as a result the figures became heavier. The body is sculpted rigidly upright with distinctive Khmer features - round faces and broad brows. =
The Koh Ker style (941-944) shows another interesting development with gigantic figures - human and animal, captured in dynamic movement. ‘The Wrestlers’ and the ‘Monkey Kings, Valin and Sugriva’, are good examples of this style. In contrast, the Banteay Srei style of the late 10th century is unique in the intricacy and richness of the decoration, and the warm tones of the pink sandstone. The statues of the Baphuon style (1010-1080) are slim and graceful. This was made possible by adding subtle supports behind the ankles. The eyes are often incised and they may have been fitted with gems and precious metals. =
The Angkor Wat style (1100-1175) presents the highest achievements in architecture and ornamentation of buildings and bas-reliefs. Besides the world famous Angkor Wat temple, Phimai temple (in Thailand) was also constructed during this period. Sculpted figures are upright, muscular and formal, and are prominently adorned with ornate belts and jewelled necklaces and bracelets. =
The Bayon style of the late 12th to early 13th century, produced a great number of Buddhist images due to the religious preference of King Jayavarman VII. Still highly revered today as one of the greatest Khmer kings, Jayavarman VII, although a devout Buddhist, was tolerant of other religions as evidenced by the combination of Hindu and Buddhist symbols in Bayon art. An example of this is the portrayal of Buddha wearing a diadem (ornamented crown) similar to that normally worn by Vishnu. The intention was to portray the Buddha as a powerful universal monarch in keeping with the contemporary images of Hindu gods. Another defining aspect of the Bayon style is the development of portraiture-particularly the portrayal of royalty in the guise of Buddhist deities. =
The high-Angkorian period begin in A.D. 802 with establishment of the Khmer capital at Angkor. "The sculpture of high Angkor tends to be more severe, and augustly withdrawn than earlier work." Hughes wrote. Khmer art from the mid 8th century ro the mid 9th century has an architectural rigidity, distinctly-defined body parts, and deep incising in either a vertical or horizontal direction. From the mid 10th century to the 11th century the figures are softer and the profiles are unified. Their is less emphasis on drapery and headdresses.
As Khmer art evolved over time it became more Khmer and less Indian, especially in the case of male figures that come across as quite fit and virile. Describing a 9th century Vishnu statue form Siem Riep, Hughes wrote, "The face...bears an imperious expression, and he god's four hands, grasping his symbolic attributes—a club for knowledge, a ball signifying the earth, a chara of disk symbolizing power and a conch betokening water—are the embodiment of serene contemplation
"There is immense energy is some Khmer pieces," Hughes wrote, "like the 10th century pediment from Banteay Srei, a marvel of crisp carving an design of which the epic hero Bhima is seen leaping into the air to strike down his enemy."
The Standing Uma is a Khmer style stone statue from the Angkor period (ca. 975). Sculptures of the Hindu goddess Uma, also known as Parvati, the wife of Shiva, appeared frequently in Khmer temples beside or near her consort. She is believed to be the ideal wife and mother and her form is meant to symbolize the perfect balance between purity and sensuality. The sculptor of this figure visualized these qualities with great sensitivity and skill. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
The simplified, full volumes of her shoulders, breasts, and thighs flow har- moniously one into another in a natural and sensuous manner. The stone surfaces, especially the areas of flesh, were originally highly polished, which would have added to the figure’s visual appeal. Uma’s gentle smile, her serene expression, and the slight weight shift of her body create a sense of grace and ease.
The form-fitting sarong reveals her weight shift and emphasizes her curvaceous silhouette. Part of the wraparound fabric falls in elegant linear swags in front, partially covering the simple central folds which flare outward at the hem. Small holes in her earlobes indicate that actual ear ornaments were originally attached. Uma’s only other adornment is her elaborate coiffure. The hair was braided in many thin strands and pulled up through the inside of a cylindrical basketry form. The braids were then arranged in loops in three descending bands. These few areas of detail contrast wonderfully with the texture of smooth flesh. Moving down from the top of the figure starting with the loops of the coiffure and the shapes of Uma’s eyebrows and jaw, notice how the sculptor created a three- dimensional and linear harmony of curving shapes, both large and small.
Describing an image of one of Buddhism’s most beloved Bodhisattvas, Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts of The Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “A bronze Avalokiteshvara statue with silver inlay from the 12th–13th century is identified by the tiny figure of a seated Buddha that appears in his braided hair. Unlike the hieratic, frontal, and iconic images that typify many Southeast Asian sculptures, this figure is portrayed in a less formal pose, turning subtly from a frontal axis with his left shoulder slightly raised. From every point of view the sculptural forms are interesting. The sculptor adapted this pose from the traditional pose of royal ease in which deities were often depicted in South Asian art. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
“Prana fills Avalokiteshvara’s body and pulls the skin taut so that the forms seem to flow one into another with no interruptions of anatomical detail. The smooth bronze surfaces reflect light, further emphasizing the sculptural volumes and creating pleasing contrasts with the raised details of jewelry and coiffure. Although the sense of muscle and bone has been downplayed, the figure looks completely natural, an effect due in part to the bodhisattva’s arresting expression and the almost portraitlike quality of his face. A mood of serenity and gentleness perfectly suited to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, is created by his slightly averted gaze and the faintly smiling lips. Glass inlays originally would have enlivened the hollowed-out eyebrows, pupils, mustache, and chin beard. The figure is one of the finest surviving large Khmer bronzes, of which only some two dozen remain.”
Standing Four-armed Vishnu
The standing Four-armed Vishnu is a stone sculpture from the Angkor period in the second half of 11th century. Vishnu faces the worshipper directly in a symmetrical frontal pose with weight equally distributed on both feet. His body swells with prana, creating smooth simplified volumes that flow seamlessly one into the other. The sense of serenity created by the expression on Vishnu’s face is reinforced by the pleasing repetition of circular forms. Notice the shape of the face, the arch of the eyebrows, the shape of the pectoral muscles, and the outline of the shoulders. The tall crown, neck, arms, and legs are all variations of the cylinder. The pose is frontal, static, and symmetrical, creating a sense of permanence and grandeur. However, the figure is also imbued with an underlying sense of realism, of the muscle and bone beneath the taut surface. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Vishnu is identified by his tall undecorated crown and by the attributes he holds. In his upper left hand is the conch shell—a war trumpet— and in his upper right hand is a chakra, a discus used as a weapon. The upper part of a battle mace is in his lower left hand, and his lower right h and would have grasped an orb, a symbol of the earth. The meaning is clear: as protector and preserver of the universe, Vishnu is ready to restore order should calamity threaten.
Unlike South Asian stone figures, which were usually high-relief sculptures, Southeast Asian stone figures were carved completely in the round. In Cambodian figures, a horseshoe-shaped support which was part of the original block of stone rose from the base to the back of the crown, supporting the hands and head. In Vietnam, the upper hands were joined to the crown by an arc of stone as a means of support. On this figure, only a small fragment of the arc remains and can be seen on the right side of the crown.
Deified King (Jayavarman VI?)
All but one of the Khmer rulers were Hindu and were identified with either Shiva or Vishnu. It is thought that each devaraja may have commissioned a statue of himself to be placed in his temple-mountain. Such figures expressed in visual form the king’s divine right to rule. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
Because a bronze statue thought to be of the deified King Jayavarman VI features gestures and adornment that do not identify it with Shiva, Vishnu, or any other known deity worshipped by Khmer royalty, it may be a devaraja image. If so, it is the only one known to have survived. His hands, torso, and face, though devoid of anatomical detail, are portrayed naturalistically, while the lower half of the image is more stylized and rigid. Our attention is drawn to the figure’s upper body by the imperious gaze, the hand gestures, and the luxurious adornment. A wide, patterned belt decorated with jeweled pendants circles the figure’s hips. His sampot is depicted in precise linear folds and the cloth’s front end falls under and over the belt in an elegant fishtail design. Although such precision in real cloth seems impossible even with starching and pressing, the style of royal sampots were high-fashion items of the time. As in so much Cambodian freestanding sculpture, the smooth surface of the flesh provides a pleasing contrast to the details of costume and to the raised decoration on the anklets, bracelets, armlets, and necklace.
This figure is not only one of the largest, most complete Cambodian bronze sculptures known, it is also in excellent condition. The only missing pieces are the top of the crown (perhaps originally of solid gold), part of the ear pendants, and the inlays of the eyebrows, pupils, mustache, and beard. The gilding is original.
Post-Angkor Period Art
Not long after the end of Jayavarman VII’s reign, stone art production and monumental temple building become almost non-existent in Khmer culture. With the wide-spread conversion to Theravada Buddhism (c.15th century), wood becomes the primary medium for Khmer sculpture. Although wood would have certainly been used for statues since pre-Angkorian times, due to its susceptibility to rapid decay, only a small number of wood statues have survived from the late Angkorian period. [Source: National Museum of Cambodia =]
In post-Angkorian wood sculpture, artists began applying one or two layers of lacquer which played a decorative as well as protective role. Also during this period, artists developed the technique of decorating wood figures with encrusted ornaments - frequently using ivory, mother-of-pearl, or vitrified lead inlays. Most of the wooden statues in the museum’s collection were carved in the last few centuries. One can see varied influences in many of the post-Angkorian works of art. =
Cambodia's best-known stone carving adorns the temples of Angkor, which are "renowned for the scale, richness and detail of their sculpture". Cambodia is rich in sandstone deposits. Throughout the Angkorian period, sandstone was quarried from the Kulen hills (to the north of Angkor) and floated on rafts along rivers and canals to the building sites.
The stone carving skill of the ancient Khmer was basically inherited from the Indian civilization, however, it was later evolved into its own unique Khmer style. The Khmer sculptures were carved from stone with great craftsmanship and many of them represent the Hindu deities such as Shiva, Vishnu, Brahmans, the elephant god Ganesha and many other gods and goddesses, as well as Hindu mythical monsters such as the serpent naga, the demon kala, the giant makara, and the mythical lions. Some large sculptures even portray the epics of the Hindu myths such as Mahabharata and Ramayana.
In later centuries, the Buddha statues appeared and enshrined in many temples. The most astounding Buddha statues are found in Angkor Thom (Bayon) where the magnificent statues of four-faced Bodhisattava Avalokiteshvara, the lord Buddha, were sculptured on fifty towers. Although each sculpture bears the common characteristics of the supernatural being it represents as described in the epics or myths, its details reveal the personal imagination of its sculptor. In addition, some sculptures depict the important events such as the war against its foreign invaders while some reveal the everyday life of the Khmer people such as the relief carvings of Angkor Thom.
In modern times, the art of stone carving became rare, largely because older sculptures survived undamaged for centuries (eliminating the need for replacements) and because of the use of cement molds for modern temple architecture. By the 1970s and 1980s, the craft of stone carving was nearly lost. During the late 20th century, however, efforts to restore Angkor resulted in a new demand for skilled stone carvers to replace missing or damaged pieces, and a new tradition of stone carving is arising to meet this need. Most modern carving is traditional-style, but some carvers are experimenting with contemporary designs. Interest is also renewing for using stone carving in modern wats. Modern carvings are typically made from Banteay Meanchey sandstone, though stone from Pursat and Kompong Thom is also used. [Source: Wikipedia]
Use of bronze-casting began in Cambodia sometime between 1,500 and 1,000 B.C. It is widely assumed that this technology was introduced to Southeast Asia through contact with the Chinese, but the possibility of independent development of bronze casting in Southeast Asia has yet to be conclusively ruled out. Whatever the case, bronze-casting had become a major industry throughout mainland Southeast Asia by A.D. 500— at which time bronze was used to make a wide range of tools, weapons, ritual objects and ornaments.
One of the great pieces of art was the 46-inch-long (119 centimeters-long), 11th century bronze torso found at West Baray. It was part of figure whose entire length was estimated at 6 meters (20 feet), the largest piece of Khmer art known. The location of the torso was found by a villager who said the Buddha came to him in a dream and told him where the statue was. The four arms on the torso suggest the image suggest was part of larger sculpture of Vishnu reclining on a serpent and is sometimes called "Vishnu in Cosmic Sleep.”
Later the head was found. Describing it Hughes wrote, "Despite is corroded and battered state, its missing eyebrows and moustache (which would have been gold) its empty eyes, it radiates an extraordinary power amounting to magnetism." The entire sculpture was originally part of a fountain that sat on an island in the middle of a 5-mile-long man-made lake. It may be the largest bronze piece ever cast in Southeast Asia.
In the 12th century attention was shifted more to bas-reliefs “Bas” means “low or shallow” are refers to the degree or projection of the reliefs, which are usually made by carving away the background and leaving the behind the design. Occasionally the method is reversed and the design is sunken. Parts of some reliefs have a polished appearance. It is not clear wether polished after they made or developed a polished appearance after being repeatedly touched.
Many of the most memorable works in Angkor are bas-reliefs. Many of scenes from Indian epics. Some are battle scenes, some depict ceremonial events, others, scenes from everyday life.
Richard Stone wrote in National Geographic, “Angkor's daily rhythms also come to life in sculptures that have survived centuries of decay and, more recently, war. Bas-reliefs on temple facades depict everyday scenes—two men hunched over a board game, for instance, and a woman giving birth under a shaded pavilion—and pay homage to the spiritual world inhabited by creatures such as apsaras, alluring celestial dancers who served as messengers between humans and the gods. The bas-reliefs also reveal trouble in paradise. Interspersed with visions of earthly harmony and sublime enlightenment are scenes of war. In one bas-relief, spear-bearing warriors from the neighboring kingdom of Champa are packed stem to stern in a boat crossing the Tonle Sap. The scene is immortalized in stone, of course, because the Khmer were successful in battle. [Source: Richard Stone, National Geographic, July 2009]
Khmer Buddhist Art
Buddhists have traditionally aspired to creates with an element of sereness. In Khmer art, Buddha is often depicted meditating, seated on the coiled body of a serpent. His hands rest on his lap and multiple serpent heads spread in back of him. Standing Buddha convey different meanings through gestures and positions of the hand. Reclining Buddha lie on their right side with one hand folded under the head.
A number of Bodhisattvas are depicted. One of the most common is Avalokitesvara, “the god of compassion,” who is known in Cambodia as Lokesvara, “Lord of the World.” He is typically a small figure on the had of an image and carries a book, lotus and rosary in his four arms. Sometimes he has eight arms and hold various objects, The faces on the towers at Bayon are believed to be Avalokitesvara.
Seated Transcendent Buddha Vairochana
A bronze with silver inlay Khmer Buddha statue from the Angkor period (the last quarter of 10th–first quarter of 11th century) from Banteay Shrei probably represents Vairochana. In Esoteric (Vajrayana) Buddhism, Vairochana is the Buddha of the zenith, the most important of the five cosmic Buddhas. He sits on a double- lotus seat in the cross-legged yogic position of meditation, with the right leg over the left and the soles of both feet facing up. His diaphanous monk’s robes closely follow the simplified forms of his body, creating continuous, smooth surfaces that harmonize with the Buddha’s serene expression and gentle hand gestures, which signify teaching (the right hand) and meditation. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]
The pyramidal form of this sculpture rises up from the base to the ushnisha at the top of the Buddha’s head. The feeling of serenity expressed by the stable and balanced composition perfectly visualizes the attainment of nirvana. The Buddha marks—the ushnisha, the snail-like curls of the hair, the three auspicious neck rings, and the urna—were canonized centuries earlier in South Asia, as was the double-lotus throne, the traditional support for deities. In addition to the small halo behind the Buddha’s head, two holes at the back of the throne suggest that a much larger halo framed the body. Were this figure’s small size to be enlarged to lifesize, it would closely resemble the many sculptures of meditating Buddhas that line the terraces of the great Javanese stupa of Borobudur.
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourism of Cambodia, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
Last updated August 2020