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.

Hinduism and South Asian and Southeast Asian Art

There is no single founder or doctrine of Hinduism. It has evolved over the centuries, incorporating previous doctrines and deities, for instance, main- taining reverence for the ancient Vedic texts and adopting some of the Vedic deities but in new guises, and responding to non-Vedic religious movements such as Buddhism and Jainism. Hinduism as we know it seems to have coalesced at the beginning of the first millennium A.D.Although Hindus may select one deity for personal worship among the great gods and goddesses and the countless regional and local gods, all of these deities can be under- stood as representing the many aspects of the One. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Initially, Hinduism was centered around three male gods: Brahma, creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver and protector of the universe; and Shiva, destroyer of the universe so that from the formless void it may be created again. Brahma has never had a large number of worshippers. Shiva, Vishnu, and the Great Goddess Devi (Mahadevi) in their myriad forms are the most widely worshipped Hindu gods. They are described in the Puranas, a group of texts formulated between A.D. 200 and 800.

Shiva is worshipped as the ascetic god, remote when in meditation but also at times wild, passionate, and loving. As Lord of the Dance he both destroys and creates the universe. His cosmic dance visualizes the cycles of creation and destruction in human lives, in the history of nations, and in the universe. Shiva is also manifest in a phallic emblem called a linga, and it is in this form that he is most often portrayed in the inner sanctum of his temples. Worshippers of Shiva believe that he is the supreme god who contains and controls all creation. Whenever destructive forces, usually symbolized by demons, threaten to overwhelm the world, Vishnu descends in the form of an avatar to restore moral order. His concern for human political and social activities expresses the gentle and just-minded side of the One. It is believed that in our present universe, Vishnu has already appeared in nine incarnations, taking such animal forms as a fish and a tortoise and various human forms such as Krishna, Rama, and the Buddha. It is believed he will appear once more in the future. As Rama, he symbolizes the importance of loyalty and obedience. As Krishna, he is the divine lover as well as a slayer of demons. Krishna’s consort, Radha, and his female devotees, in their passionate longing for him, symbolize the soul’s desire to be one with God.

One of the most striking characteristics of Hinduism is the importance of goddesses. As Hinduism developed, Vedic goddesses came to the fore. Lakshmi and Sarasvati, for instance, became the consorts of Vishnu. Other goddesses, who may have been worshipped independently outside of the Vedic tradition, gradually appeared as powerful deities on their own, most prominently, Devi, who represents the essence of female power.

In the seventh century, Hinduism and Buddhism were influenced by Tantra, a new religious movement that employed esoteric knowledge to speed the believer toward spiritual liberation. The Hindu pantheon of gods expanded to include shaktis, female counterparts to male gods and personified as their consorts. Shakti is female energy, which activates the powers of the male gods and emanates from the goddess Devi. Many other goddesses represent aspects of Devi’s powers, for instance, Parvati, the beautiful, loving, and obedient consort of Shiva, and Durga. Chamunda. and Kali, whose actions and moods indicate anger, ferocity, and the horrific. This range of emotions symbolizes their multiple purposes and the variety of forms female energy and power can assume.

From its beginnings, Hinduism has possessed a remarkable ability to assimilate rather than reject new ideas. It has developed complex overlays of beliefs, cults, gods, and forms of worship. Hindus recognize no single founder or prophet. There is no single holy book similar to the Bible or Qur’an; the religion is not supervised and interpreted by a hierarchy of priests, and its great texts were not inscribed but handed down as an oral tradition. Hindu worship is based on a one-to-one relationship between devotee and god rather than being congregational. This practice intensified beginning in the seventh century with the popularity of bhakti, passionate personal devotion to an individual god or goddess. Over the centuries, a number of important poets and musician-saints emerged from the bhakti tradition whose works, such as the Gita Govinda, became classics of Indian culture.

People in South Asia and Southeast Asia have treasured, in particular, two great epics: the Ramayana (2nd century B.C.) and the famous epic poem, the Mahabharata (500–400 B.C.), both of which may be based on actual historical events. The Ramayana has been, and still is, a rich source for art.

Buddhism and South Asian and Southeast Asian Art

Siddhartha Gautama, who later became the Buddha, was born in North India in the sixth century B.C. According to legend, Siddhartha was the son of a king of the Shakya clan (hence the name Buddha Shakyamuni, by which he is often referred). At his birth, a soothsayer predicted he would become either a great military ruler or a great spiritual leader. To prevent the latter from happening, Siddhartha’s father kept him within the palace, providing him with luxuries and pleasures so that he would remain unaware of the harshness and suffering in the world. One day, already a young man, Siddhartha managed to escape from the palace. For the first time he saw an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and an ascetic holy man. He was stunned and deeply affected by their suffering. Realizing that pleasures are transitory and cannot prevent suffering, he put aside all his jewelry and fine clothing. Leaving his wife and son at the palace, he embarked on a journey to seek the meaning of life and the ways in which humans can attain peace. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

At first Siddhartha turned inward in his quest for knowledge. He went into the forest to seek the advice of holy men and to meditate. In Siddhartha’s time, yoga was already an ancient way to seek inner knowledge and under- standing of universal truths. He became an ascetic and attempted extreme forms of renunciation, nearly starving himself to death. Having recognized that extreme deprivation was not the way, he once again took food. He sat meditating beneath a bodhi tree, overnight according to some accounts and days and days according to others. The evil demon Mara, realizing that Siddhartha was close to enlightenment, tempted him with his beautiful daughters and threatened him with a powerful army. But Siddhartha touched the ground with his right hand, calling the Earth to witness his resolve to achieve enlightenment and thereby vanquishing Mara. When Siddhartha arose, he had become the Buddha, which means the Enlightened One (or the Awakened One). He realized that the causes of human suffering lay in the attachment to physical desires of all kinds, and as long as this was so, the karma-laden souls of living creatures were destined to suffer endless rebirths. Only with the complete elimination of worldly attachments could one reach release into a state of eternal selfless bliss, called nirvana, the Sanskrit word for “extinguishment.”

Buddhism was a philosophical and ethical system with the Buddha as its greatly revered founder. The Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching his ascetic doctrine, gaining an ever-growing group of followers. He taught that nirvana could only be achieved through first realizing the Four Noble Truths: that all life is suffering; that suffering is caused by desires; that to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate desires; and that this can be done by following the Eightfold Path, which includes right thoughts, right inten- tions, right deeds, and the right concentration in meditation. Nirvana can only be attained through the extinguishment of one’s ego by following the Eightfold Path.

Buddhism attracted many people for whom caste and the Brahmins’ exclu- sive control over worship were problematic. Even before the Buddha’s death, many of his followers had become monks and nuns and were settling into monasteries provided by wealthy laity as merit-producing gifts. Gradually the monks spread his teachings across northern India in peaceful conver- sions. The main focus of worship became stupas, hemispherical mounds containing relics of the Buddha or other transcendent beings and often decorated with scenes from the Jatakas (folk tales about the past lives of the Buddha). The faithful also made pilgrimages to important places in the Buddha’s life, including his birthplace, the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya where he reached enlightenment, and the Deer Park at Sarnath where he preached his first sermon. As the centuries passed, pilgrims throughout Asia came to visit these sacred sites. There they learned about the Buddha’s life and his teachings.

The earliest form of Buddhism is called the Theravada (Way of the Elders). It adheres strictly to the Buddha’s teaching and to his austere life of meditation and detachment. Theravada Buddhists believed that very few would reach nirvana. Initially, in this system, the Buddha was represented in art only by symbols, but in the first century A.D., under the Kushan rulers, the Buddha began to be depicted in human form. At about this time, a new form of Buddhism emerged called the Mahayana (the Great Way), which held that the Buddha was more than a great spiritual teacher but also a savior god. It was believed that he had appeared in perfect human form to relieve suffering with the message that, by performing good deeds and maintaining sincere faith, everyone could reach nirvana through means less strict and arduous than in Theravada (which Mahayana Buddhists called the Hinayana, or Lesser Way).

A whole pantheon of Mahayana Buddhist deities began to appear to aide the devotee—Buddhas of the past, bodhisattvas such as Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), and Vajrapani (“thunderbolt bearer”), who had evolved from the chief Vedic god Indra. Most appealing and approachable of all is the gentle Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, who can be called upon to help people in all kinds of trouble. A bodhisattva is a being who has reached the moment of spiritual transcendence but foregoes nirvana in order to guide all beings in their quest to attain enlightenment. The Mahayana faith became the more popular form of Buddhism and was carried by mer- chants and monks across Central Asia along the trade routes to China, and from there to Korea and Japan.

Another form of Buddhism, called Esoteric and also known as Tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, grew out of Mahayana Buddhism beginning in the late sixth or early seventh century. Esoteric Buddhists accepted the tenets of the Mahayana but also used forms of meditation subtly directed by master teachers (gurus) involving magical words, symbols, and practices to speed the devotee toward enlightenment. They believed that those who practiced compassion and meditation with unwavering effort and acquired the wis- dom to become detached from human passions could achieve in one lifetime a state of perfect bliss or “clear light,” their term for ultimate realization and release. Their practices paralleled concurrent developments in Hinduism.

Many new deities appeared in the Esoteric Buddhist pantheon who, in their poses, gestures, and expressions, visualize philosophical ideas. For instance, male and female deities shown in embrace express the union of wisdom and compassion. Wrathful deities symbolize protection, and their violent and horrific appearance helps devotees to overcome the passions that hinder salvation. Also central to Esoteric thinking were the five celestial Buddhas (the four directions and the zenith), who represent both the energy of the universe and the potential for wisdom within the psychological make- up of the individual.

By the twelfth century, Buddhism was concentrated mainly in northeastern India, where the Buddha lived and preached. Its near extinction seems to have been caused by Muslim invaders who destroyed the Buddhist monastic universities. Teachers and monks fled to Nepal, Tibet, and Burma. Today only a small percentage of India’s population is Buddhist.

Prehistoric Period of Southeast Asian Art and Southeast Asia’s Initial Contacts with India


Little is known about the early indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia. It is unclear how and when pottery making and metalworking were first discovered in the region and whether the sites that have been excavated represent related or separate traditions. Archaeologists have investigated only a few Bronze and Iron Age sites such as Ban Chiang in Thailand (4th century B.C.– A.D. 3rd century) and Dong-son in Vietnam (7th century B.C.– A.D. 2nd century). Their discoveries, and those made accidentally by local peoples in these modern nations as well as in Indonesia, suggest that there were well- organized prehistoric cultures whose populations had the skill and technical knowledge to make fine ceramics and cast bronze objects. To what extent such finely made objects were traded or commissioned from other centers in Southeast Asia remains unclear. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Bronze Age cultures flourished throughout Southeast Asia, and bronze utilitarian and ceremonial objects in distinct but related styles were produced in Thailand and Vietnam as well as in Indonesia. Bronze has always been a very valuable metal and this vessel was cast hollow in the lost-wax process, a difficult technical feat.

Early Southeast Asian bronze votive objects with narrative scenes are very rare. The quality of the relief is superb and forms a unique counterpoint to the naturalistic, if iconic, sculpture of the early (pre-Angkor) traditions of Southeast Asia. Describing a “Dish with Animals and Mounted Hunters” Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts wrote in , The Art of South, and Southeast Asia: “This beautiful vessel is in the form of a shallow dish set on a low splayed foot. At the center is a receptacle in the form of a lotus that may have once held a stone. Surrounding it is a narrow band of rosettes that outlines a wider frieze with trees and animals. It is encircled by a band of rectangular blocks within blocks. The main frieze, bordered near the rim with rosettes, contains highly naturalistic scenes with three hunters on horse- back in a forest setting filled with animals, some of which are fighting each other. The low relief is extremely successful in conveying the mass- ing of the figures and their lively and varied movement in the shallow space. Each of the hunters uses a different weapon: a sword, spear, and bow and arrow, the latter used in the “Parthian manner,” aimed back- wards across the horse’s rump. The smaller inner frieze depicts six animals. A feline attacks a cow in another animal combat scene. Behind the feline is an animal lying on its back, either dead or in a pose of sub- mission. Continuing around the frieze, a bull, a deer, and a rhinoceros move among miniature trees. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Southeast Asia came under the influence of Indian civilization toward the end of the first millennium B.C., when India, Sri Lanka, and mainl and Southeast Asia became involved in the network of trade along which luxury goods were moved both east and west by sea from the eastern Roman Empire to the Han dynasty in China. These sea routes were lengthy and required stopovers that changed over time due to politics and technological development. First the Thai peninsula and Mekong Delta and later some of the Indonesian islands became important way stations.

The Rise of Southeast Asian Kingdoms: 4th–9th century

Commercial centers flourished in these areas, which had long been governed by local chiefdoms. The founding myths of later Southeast Asian kingdoms indicate that Indian merchants settled in these centers and intermarried with local nobility, forming states ruled by divine kings according to the Indian model. Brahmins and Buddhist monks also came, bringing their religions, cosmologies, and concepts of social and political structure, the Sanskrit alphabet, and the rich religious literature of India. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

India continued to be a source for Southeast Asian cultures for the next thousand years. Buddhist and Hindu devotees visited holy sites in India, returning with firsthand impressions of Indian art and architecture, religious texts, and portable images of Buddhist and Hindu deities. By the sixth cen- tury A.D., kingdoms and principalities had formed in the southern part of mainland Southeast Asia, on the Thai peninsula, and on Java and Sumatra. Their political structure was based on the Indian concept of divine kingship, expressed in the Mahabharata and Ramayana, Indian epics recounting the heroic deeds of gods and rulers.

Southern Cambodia and Vietnam were controlled by the Hindu rulers of the Funan kingdom (4th–6th century), later usurped by rulers, also Hindu, of the nearby kingdom of Zhenla. The earliest surviving Funan-Zhenla sculpture dates from the sixth century. By the seventh and early eighth century, stone sculpture of this combined kingdom was created with such skill and assurance that its forms must have derived from an already ancient tradition of carving in wood.

In the eighth century, Zhenla-Funan collapsed, perhaps because the lucrative trade routes that had passed through their territories now moved by sea through the Strait of Malacca. The fleets of the Shrivijaya kingdom, which was centered on Sumatra and controlled portions of the Thai peninsula, made the sea passage safe from piracy for the first time. From 770 to 855, Central Java was ruled by kings who were most probably related to the Shrivijaya rulers of Sumatra. This Javanese kingdom was the most powerful Southeast Asian kingdom of its time. The classical style of Indonesian art flourished under its patronage, and a large number of temples, both Buddhist and Hindu, were built, including the great stupa of Borobudur.

At the same time, parts of Thailand and Myanmar were controlled by the Mon peoples, who were Theravada Buddhists. Other small kingdoms in the region were also strongly influenced by India. In Burma, Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism coexisted with Theravada Buddhism until the eleventh century, when the newly established Pagan kingdom proclaimed Theravada Buddhism the state religion. After Mongols destroyed the Pagan kingdom in 1287, Burma was divided among a number of smaller kingdoms.

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.

Southeast Asian Sculpture

Following the conventions of Indian art, Southeast Asian artists sought to visualize the spiritual perfection of the gods in idealized human form. Although the iconography was imported from India, notable differences are evident in Southeast Asian sculpture. The sculpture combines sensual forms with a strong architectonic basis, as if the sensuality of Indian sculpture had been merged with the formal, hieratic qualities of Egyptian sculpture. Although surface flesh seems to be inflated by prana (inner breath), the body is not usually as taut as in Indian sculpture. Beneath the skin surface, whose junctures are subtly indicated, there is the sense of muscle and bone. The sensuality and fecundity expressed in Khmer female figures are not as exaggerated and seem restrained when compared with the voluptuous femininity typical of Indian art. Later Southeast Asian sculptures are even more abstracted, and forms cease to have a direct relationship to the human anatomy. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

In general, a sense of dignity and restraint is created in the sculpture by an erect posture, frontal pose, and balanced forms. Serene expressions emphasize the compassion, purity, and introspection of transcendent beings. In comparison to Indian sculpture, less emphasis is placed on adornment. Smooth areas contrast with the rich patterns of the figure’s hairstyle and the pleats of the garment and the elaborate way in which it is worn. Some images were probably adorned with actual jewelry.

Unlike Indian sculptural figures, which were rarely more than carvings in very high relief as part of a stela or for display in a niche, Southeast Asian deities were often carved fully in the round. A tradition of low-relief sculp- ture also flourished. As in South Asian art, to express the power and complexity of the gods or kings, sculptures of them were sometimes represented on a superhuman scale, while lesser spiritual beings were portrayed smaller.

Functions of Southeast Asian Art

As in India, the majority of sculptures covered the exterior of temples that were circumambulated in worship. Sculptures of deities in the round may have been placed in the interior of temples and shrines, where dim light would have added to the mystery of the divine being. Why small statues were made and how they were used is not known. They may have been votive images created as gifts to temples and shrines, or intended for personal use. [Source: Steven M. Kossak and Edith W. Watts, The Art of South, and Southeast Asia, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York]

Hindu temples and Buddhist stupas were themselves objects of worship. They can be seen as microcosms of the universe, with their architectural forms replicating the cosmic mountains where the gods dwell. Typically, Hindu temples had towers that were oriented to the cardinal directions.

Sometimes the ground plan is rectangular, with the temple surrounded by walls, a plan that resembles the sacred form of the mandala. Differing versions of this sacred cosmology in brick and stone occur throughout Southeast Asia, the most famous examples being the Buddhist monuments of Borobudur in Java, the Bayon at Angkor, and the stupas of Pagan in Burma, and the Hindu temples of Angkor, in particular Angkor Wat.

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. =

Standing Hari-Hara

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. =

High-Angkor Art

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." Standing Uma

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. <>

Bronze Avalokiteshvara

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. =

Khmer Sculpture

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]

Bronze Sculpture

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]

Bas-Reliefs at Bayon

The bas-reliefs at Bayon are within two galleries. The inner one is decorated with mythical scenes. The bas-reliefs on the outer gallery are a marked departure from anything previously seen at Angkor. They contain genre scenes of everyday life as well as history scenes with battles and processions.. The relief are more deeply carved than at Angkor Wat but the representation is less stylized. The scenes are presented mostly in two or three horizontal panels.

On the ground level depict scenes from the wars between eth Khmers, Chams and Siamese. Bas-reliefs In the east Gallery depict kings on battle elephants and in war canoes, accompanied by soldiers, armed with javelins and wearing exotic headdresses; ox carts, filled food and supplies; warriors, mounted on horses and flanked by musicians; and commanders, identified by umbrellas, mounted on elephants. The quality of the bas-reliefs is good but not as fine as that at Angkor Wat however they show more humor and wit and give more insight into the everyday life of the ancient Khmers.

In the South Gallery are images of everyday life that depict fortunetellers, hospitals, taverns, markets, fishing, festivals, jugglers, beauty parlors, women giving birth, men fishing in Tonle Sap, bookies taking bets at a cockfight, monks trying to remove the sarong of a young girl, and a man pulling out his whiskers with tweezers. There are also images of wild boar fights, jugglers, wrestlers, chess players, bow hunters and princesses surrounded by suitors. One scenes shows three smiling Cambodian women cheating three Chinese by secretly adding weight to the scales with their fingers.

In the North Gallery a procession of animals includes a deer, rabbit, pig, rhinoceros, and puffer fish. Many of the reliefs in the West Gallery are unfinished. Worth checking are the ones with a holy man escaping from a tiger by climbing a tree and battle scenes with masses of warrior and elephants

On the bas-reliefs in the galleries of the Bayon, H Churchill Candee wrote, “The have homely, human things to tell and they tell them without affectation, View the galleries of bas-reliefs clockwise, always keeping the monument on the right. Do not get so absorbed with the reliefs that you forget to stop at each opening and enjoy the view of the faces on the third level.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs

The walls of many of the galleries and halls are inscribed with long, detailed bas-reliefs that together extend for more than half a mile and are believed to have taken hundreds of craftsman decades to finish. The reliefs depict Hindu myths, images of the king and his court, and representation of the Hindu heavens. Many of the most famous ones are in the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs, which contains 1,200 square meters of sandstone carvings. Some of the craftsmanship on the bas-reliefs is quite extraordinary. Some of it is mediocre. Most originally had Hindu themes. Later Khmer kings and Buddhist monks added some Buddhist images.

Many of the walls feature images of asparsases , voluptuous women that inhabited the heavens. The galleries were once filled with thousands of free standing statues of reclining standing, sitting figures. Now only 26 statues are left. Some of the statues were part of fountains and had water coming out of their belly buttons. Many were taken by invaders. Some prize statues were found in Burma.

By their beauty they first attract, by their strangeness they hold attention, Helen Churchill Candee wrote of the bas-reliefs in the 1920 .The Gallery of Bas-reliefs, surrounding the first level of Angkor Wat, contains 1,200 square meters (12,917 square feet) of sandstone carvings. The relief covers most of the inner wall of all four sides of the gallery and extend for two meters (seven feet) from top to bottom. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The detail, quality composition and execution give them an unequalled status in world art. Columns along the outer wall of the gallery create an intriguing interplay of light and shadow on the relief. The effect is one of textured wallpaper that looks like the work of painters rather than sculptors' The bas-reliefs are of dazzling rich decoration-always kept in check, never allowed to run unbridled over wall and ceiling possess strength and repose, imagination and power of fantasy, wherever one looks [the] main effect is one of "supreme dignity "wrote a visitor 50 years ago.

The bas-reliefs are divided into eight sections, two on each wall of the square gallery each section depicts a specific theme. In addition the two pavilions at the corners of the west Gallery have a variety of scenes. The composition of the relief can be divided into two types scenes without any attempt to contain or separate the contents and scenes contain or separate the contents; and scenes contained in panels which are some-times superimposed on one another-this type is probably later. The panels run horizontally along the wall and generally consist of two or three parts. Sometimes the borders at the top bottom are also decorated. Themes for the bas-reliefs derive from two main sources-Indian epics and sacred books and warfare of the Angkor Period. Some scholars suggest that the placement of a relief has a relevance to its theme. The relief on the east and west walls, for example, depict themes related to the rising and setting sun. The word bas means low or shallow and refers to the degree of projection of the relief. The method of creating relief at Angkor Wat was generally to carve away the background leaving the design in relief. Sometime, though the method was reversed giving a sunken appearance. of some of the relief have a polished appearance on the surface.

There are two theories as to why this occurred. The position of the sheen and its occurrence in important parts of the relief suggest it may have resulted from visitors rubbing their hands over them. Some art historians, though think it was the result of lacquer applied over the relief. Traces of gilt and paint, particularly black and red, can also be found on some of the relief's. They are probably the remains of an undercoat or a fixative. Several primitive artistic conventions are seen in the bas-reliefs. A river is represented by two parallel vertical lines with fish swimming between them. As in Egyptian art, a person's rank is indicated by size. The higher the rank the larger the size. In battle scenes, broken shafts on the ceremonial umbrellas of a chief signify defeat. Perspective is shown by planes placed one above the other. The higher up the wall, the further away is the scene. Figures with legs far apart and knees flexed are in a flying posture.

As the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat were designed for viewing from to lefts the visitor should, follow this convention for maximum appreciation. Enter at the west entrance, turn right into the gallery and continue walking counterclockwise. If you start from another point always keep the monument on your left. If one's time at Angkor is limited, the following bas-recommended. Those who like to linger in this wonderful gallery of bas-reliefs will always be made happy by new discoveries will return as other joys of Angkor will allow.

Description of the bas-reliefs here follows the normal route for viewing Angkor Wat. They begin in the middle of the West Gallery and continue counter clockwise. The other half of the West Gallery is at the end of the section. Badly damaged reliefs are not described here. Some others are unidentifiable.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: West Gallery - Battle of Kurukshetra

In the West Gallery is the Battle of Kurukshetra, one of longest bas-relief in the world. Extending for over 160 feet, it combines the Hindu creation myth with images of battling chariots, war elephants, heros and spear-throwing foot soldiers. This battle scene is the main subject of the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It recalls the historic was wars in Kurukshetra, a province in India, and depicts the last battle between rival enemies who are cousins (see page 54 for a description of this legend). The armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas march from opposite ends towards the center of the panel where they meet in combat. Headpieces differentiate the warriors of the two armies. The scene begins with infantry marching into battle and musicians playing a rhythmic cadence. The battlefield is the scene of hand-to-hand combat and many dead soldiers. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Chief officers and generals (represented on a larger scale) oversee the battle in chariots and on elephants and horses. The scene builds up gradually and climaxes in a melée. Bisma (near the beginning of the pane), one of the heroes of the Mahabharata and commander of the Kauravas, pierced with arrow, is dying and his men surround him. Arjuna (holding a shield decorated with the face of the demon rahu) shoots an arrow at Krsna, his half-brother, and kills him. After death, Krisna (four arms) becomes the charioteer of Arjuna.

Corner pavilion (southwest): Enter the pavilion and view the scenes facing you. Then continue clockwise around the pavilion. The bas-reliefs in this pavilion depict scenes from epic the Ramayana. EAST: A) Left, Water festival; two ships (superimposed) with Apsaras, chess players (top ship). B) Center, above the door: A god receiving offerings. SOUTH: C) Left, top to bottom. A fight between Vali and Sugriva, the monkey king; Rama shoots Vali with an arrow who lies in the arms of his wife (three pointed headdress); monkeys mourn his death. D) Center, above the door: Murder of a demon; Krsna extinguishes a fire west. E) Left: Siva sits with his wife Paravati on Mount Kailasa. F) Center, above the door: Krisna uproots trees with a stone he is tied to. G) Right: Ravana, disguised as a chameleon, presents himself at the palace of Indra.

NORTH: H) Left: The Churning of the Ocean of Milk. I) Center, above the door: Rama kills Marica, who, disguised as a golden stag, helped in the abduction of Sita. J) Right: Krisna lifts Mount Govardhana to shelter their shepherds and their herds from the storm ignited by the anger of Indra.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: South Gallery - Army of King Soryavaman II

The South Gallery depicts a splendid triumphal procession from a battle between the Khmers and their enemies. The relief's show methods used in warfare, mainly hand-to-hand combat, as they no machinery and no knowledge of firearms. The naturalistic depiction of trees and animals in the background of this panel is unusual. The central figure of this gallery is King Suryavarman II, the builder of Angkor Wat, who appears twice. An inscription on the panel identifies him by his posthumous name, suggesting it may have been done after his death. The rectangular holes randomly cut n this gallery may have contained precious objects of the temple. On the upper tier the king (seated with traces of gilt on his body) holds an audience on a mountain. Below of the place walk down a mountain in the forest. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The army gathers for inspection and the commander mounted on elephants join their troops who are marching towards the enemy. The commander's rank is identified by a small inscription near the figure. King Suryavarman II stands on an elephant (conical headdress, sword with the blade across his shoulder) and servants around him hold 15 ceremonial umbrellas. Visnu stands on a Garuda on a Garuda on a flagpole in front of the king's elephant. The lively and loud procession of the Sacred Fire (carried in an ark) follows with standard bearers, musicians and jesters. Brahmans chant to the accompaniment of cymbals. The royal sacrifice in a palanquin.

Towards the end of the panel: The military procession resumes with a troop of Thai soldiers (pleated skirts with floral pattern; belts with long pendants; plaited hair; headdresses with plumes; short moustaches) led by their commander who is mounted on an elephant. The Thai troops were probably either mercenaries of a contingent from the province of Louvo (today called Lopburi) conscripted to the Khmer army. A number of the Khmer warriors wear helmets with horns of animal heads (deer, horse, bird) and some of their shields are embellished with monsters for the same purpose.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: South Gallery - Judgment by Yama; Heaven and Hell

In the South Gallery is a relief of the Judgment of Yama, showing depictions of 37 different heavens and 32 hells, each with its own set of punishments and sufferings. Yama is the Hindu-Buddhist God of the Underworld. His assistants shove the damned through a trap door into the hells, where the punishments are set in accordance with the sins that have been committed. Law breakers have their bones broken and nails pushed into their heads. Gluttons are sawed in half. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Three tiers recount the judgment of mankind by Yama and two tiers depict Heaven and Hell. Inscriptions have identified 37 heavens where one sees leisurely pursuits in palaces and 32 hells with scenes of punishment and suffering. Draperies and Apsaras separate the two and a row of Garudas borders the tier in the bottom. The roof was destroyed by lightning in 1947 and subsequently the ceiling of this gallery was restored by the French. Traces of gilt can be on riders on horses at the beginning of the panel. The lower section of the panel was badly damaged and liter filled with cement.

Lower tier: Yama, the Supreme Judge (multiple arms, wields a staff and rides a buffalo), points out to his scribes the upper road representing heaven and the lower one of hell. Departed spirits a wait judgment. Assistants to Yama shove the wicked through a trap door to the lower regions where torturers deliver punishments such as sawing a body in half for those who overeat. Lawbreakers have their bones broken. Some of the punished wear iron shackles or have nails pierced through their heads. Upper tier: A celestial palace is supported by a frieze of Garudas with Apsaras in the skies.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: East Gallery - Churning of the Ocean of Milk

In the East Gallery is one of the most beautiful and exquisitely-produced bas-reliefs, a depiction of a Hindu myth called the "Churning of the Sea of Milk." The vast sea is churned up by a giant serpent pulled from one side by 92 demons and pulled on the other side by 88 minor gods and rows of nymphs watched over by Vishnu. The churning of the sea is believed to be the source of the Hindu elixir of immortality but also contains a nasty poison. Shiva consumes te poison to help the human race. There is an overlapping repetition of figures here that creates a sense of motion, comparable to a multiple exposure action photograph.

This is the most famous panel of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat and derives from the Indian epic Bagavata-Pourana. The Ocean of Milk is churned by gods and demons to generate Amrta, the elixir of life. the purpose of the churning is to recover lost treasures such as the sourer of immortality, Laksmi the goddess of good fortune, the milk white elephant of Indra, and the nymph of loveliness. The retrieval of these objects symbolizes prosperity. It takes place during the second ascent of Visnu, when he is incarnated as a tortoise. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The scene is decided into three tiers. The lower tier comprises various aquatic animals, real and mythical, and is bordered by a serpent. The middle tier has, on one side, a row of 92 demons (round bulging eyes, crested helmets) and, on the other side, a row of 88 gods (almond-shaped eyes, conical headdresses). They work together by holding and churning the serpent. Hanuman, the monkey god, assists. Visnu, in his reincarnation as a tortoise, offers the back of his shell as a base for the mountain Mandara, and as a pivot for the churning. He sits on the bottom of the Ocean. A huge cord in the form of the body of the serpent Vasuki acts as a stirring instrument to churn the sea.

To begin the motion the gods and demons twist the serpent's body; the demons hold the head and the gods hold the tail of the serpent. Then by pulling it rhythmically back and for th they cause the pivot to rotate and churn the water. The gods and demons are directed by three persons (identified by their larger size). Indra is on top of Visnu. On the extreme right Hanuman, ally of the gods, tickles the serpent. Upper tier: During the churning various female spirits emerge. Visnu appears in this scene again in yet another reincarnation-as a human being-to preside over the "churning "which, according to legend, lasted more than 1,000 years.

Numerous other beings are depicted such as the three-headed elephant mount of Indra, Apsaras and Laksmmi, the goddess of beauty. They churning provoke the serpent to vomit the mortal venom, which covers the waves. Afraid the venom may destroy the gods and demons, Brahma intervenes and requests Siva to devour and drink the venom, which will leave an indelible trace on Siva's throat. He complies and, as a result, he Amtrak pours forth. The demon rush to capture all the liquid. Visnu hurries to the rescue and assumes yet another reincarnation in the form of Maya, a bewitching beauty, and is able to restore much of the coveted liquid.

Just past the middle of the East Gallery there is an interesting inscription of the early eighteenth century when Angkor Wat was a Buddhist monastery. It tells of a provincial governor who built a small tomb where he deposited the bones of his wife and children. The structure is in poor condition but recognizable in its original location, directly in front of the inscription in the gallery.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: North Gallery

Victory of Visnu over the Demons: The bas-reliefs in this section of the West Gallery and the south part of the North Gallery were probably completed at a later date, perhaps the fifteenth or sixteenth century. The stiffness of the figures and the cursory workmanship reveal this change. An army of demons marches towards the center of the panel. Center: Visnu (four arms) sits on the shoulders of a Garuda. A scene of carnage follows. Visnu slaughters the enemies on both sides and disperses the bodies. The leaders of the demons (mounted on animals or riding or riding in chariots drawn by monsters) are surrounded by marching soldiers. Another group of warriors (bows and arrows) with their chiefs (in chariest of mounted on huge peacocks) follows. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

Victory of Krisna over Bana the Demon King: At the beginning of the panel Visnu in his incarnation as Krsna (framed by two heroes) sits on the shoulders of a Gruda. Agni, the god of Fire (multiple arms), sits on a rhinoceros behind him. This scene appears several times. A wall surrounding the city is on fire and prevents the advance of Krsna (mounted of a Garuda) and his army of gods. This Krsna scene also appears several times in the panel. The Garuda extinguishes the fire with water from the sacred river Ganges. The demon Bana (multiple arms, mounted on a rhinoceros) approaches from the opposite direction. Extreme right: Krsna (1,000 heads, hands across his chest) kneels in front of Siva who sits enthroned on Mount Kailasa with his wife Parvati and their son ganesa (head of an elephant) as they demand that Siva spare the life of Bana.

Battle Between the Gods and the Demons: A procession of 21 gods of the Brahmanic pantheon march in procession carrying classic attributes and riding traditional mounts. One-god battles against a demon while warriors on both sides battle in the background. A series of adversaries follow, the Kubera, God of riches (with bow and arrow), Appears on the shoulders of a Yaksa; followed by Skanda, Goe of war (multiple heads and arms), mounded on a peacock; Indra stands on his mount the elephant; Visnu (four arms) sits on his mount, a Guard; a demon (tiered heads) shaking swords; Yama, God of Death and. Justice (sword and shield), stands in a chariot pulled by horses; and Varian, God of the Water, stands on a five-headed serpent harnessed like a beast of burden.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: Corner Pavilion (Northwest)

Enter the pavilion and walk counter-clockwise. Several of the scenes are in good condition. NORTH: A) Right: The women's quarters of a palace. B) Center, above the door: An attempt to abduct site in the forest. C) Left, badly damaged: A scene from the Ramayana. Above: Tiers of monkeys and a pyre. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

WEST: D) Right: rama in his chariot (drawn by geese) returns victorious to Ayodhya. E) Center, above the door: Rama and Laksmana surrounded by monkeys. F) Left: A conversation between Sita and Hanuman in the forest; Hanuman gives Rama’s ring to Sota. SOUTH: G-) Right Visni (seated, four arms) surrounded by Apsaras. H) Center, above the door: Rama and Laksmana battle a monster (headless, face on stomach). I) Left: Rama wins an archery competition; Rama and Sita sitting together.

EAST: J) Right: Visnu (four arms) on a Garuda; Krsna (mounted on a Garuda) bring back Mount Maniparvata which he took from a demon he killed; his army carries the remains of the demon. K) Center, above the door: Discussions on an alliance. Left: Rama and his brother Laksmana. Right: Suryva, the monkey king. L) Left: Visnu reclines on the serpent Anent. Below: A group of nine gods with their mounts; 1) Surya in a chariot pulled by horses; 2) Kubera standing on the shoulders of a Yaksa; 3) Brahma riding a goose; 4) Skanda on a peacock; 5) An unidentified god on a horse; 6) Indra on a three-headed elephant; 7) Yama riding a buffalo; 8) Siva on a bull; 9) An unidentified god on a lion.

Angkor Wat Bas Reliefs: West Gallery - Battle of Lanka

This scene from the Ramayana is a long and fierce struggle between Rama and the demon king Ravana (10 heads and 20 arms), near the center. It is among the finest of the bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat. The battle takes place in Lanka (Sri Lanka) and ends with the defeat of Ravana, captor of Sita, the beautiful wife of Rama. The central figures are the monkey warriors who fight against the raksasas on Rama's side. [Source: Tourism of Cambodia]

The brutality of war is juxtaposed with a graceful rendition of lithesome monkeys. Past the center: Rama stands on the shoulders of Sugriva surrounded by arrows; Laksmana, his brother, and an old demon, stand by Rama. Nearby, the demon king Ravana (10 heads and 20 arms) rides in a chariot drawn by mythical lions.

Further on, Nala, the monkey who built Rama's bridge to Lanka, is between them leaning on the heads of two lions. He throws the body of one he has just beaten over his shoulder. A monkey prince tears out the tusk of an elephant, which is capped with a three-pointed headdress and throws him and the demon to the ground.

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. <>

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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