Ruth Paget, Yahoo! Contributor Network
Feb 3, 2011
The National Gallery of Art's online tour of Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory uses interactive web software to create an exhibit that shares the history, culture, and religious iconography of the Khmer civilization through text, video, and audio files. The majority of the artwork in the exhibit comes from the National Museum of Cambodia (Phnom Penh) and the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet (Paris).
Each major era of Khmer art has a hyperlink to a page with two or three short paragraphs describing the era, a QuickTime video link that allows you to move around the exhibit and click on artwork for its description, and RealPlayer audio links for selected artwork that gives supplementary information about the work and its place in Khmer civilization. The text, audio, and video elements of the exhibit bring different information together to create an appealing new kind of museum experience for the online visitor.
The exhibit introduction page describes the conditions that set the stage for the rise of Khmer power and its monumental art complexes and sculpture between the sixth and sixteenth centuries C.E. Most importantly, the Mekong River system provided the transportation network allowing for commerce to generate building funds. Secondly, trade routes between China and the Middle East brought traders and travelers, who introduced Khmer society to Hinduism and Buddhism.
In the early Khmer period and up to the twelfth century, the Khmer rulers adopted Hinduism as their religion while allowing Buddhism and its art to coexist with Hinduism. The Pre-Angkor Period section of the exhibit provides a succinct description of the central tenets of Hinduism and names the principal Hindu deities that figure in much of Angkor's art:
Brahma (the creator)
Shiva (the destroyer)
Vishnu (the preserver)
Khmer rulers identified themselves with either Shiva or Vishnu until Buddhism became the state religion.
If you click on the photo of Vishnu from the Pre-Angkor Period page, you can see the swaying hips, broad shoulders, and fleshy, naturalistic modeling of the body that distinguishes the art of this early period. Buddhist art from the Pre-Angkor period also manifests the naturalistic forms seen in Hindu sculpture until the eighth century C.E. when Khmer art becomes more formal and distant, commanding respect on the part of the viewer.
The Pre-Angkor Sculpture page provides easy-to-understand explanations regarding:
• The central tenets of Buddhism
• Why and how Prince Siddharta became Buddha
• What Bhodisattvas are and what they do
Buddhism's day as the state religion of the Khmer civilization would come in the late 12th century.
The monarchy that would make Angkor famous began in 8092 C.E. when Jayavarman II unified Cambodia. (Varman, as one of the audio segments points out, means "protector" and figures in the name of all the Angkor monarchs.) However, it was Indravarman (r.877-886) who began the building program that would make Angkor and its environs famous. Indravarman commissioned the first "temple-mountain" built, which was called Bakong. Bakong and later temple-mountains symbolized Mount Meru, the Hindu home of the Gods. Indravarman also commissioned the building of a reservoir that provided water to the temple moats as well as for agricultural needs during the dry season; the Angkor complex served spiritual as well temporal needs.
A statue of Vishnu from Jayavarman II's reign that you can select from the photo reflects the values of the new ruler: Vishnu stands in a rigid pose signaling the new distance between rulers and ruled. The symbols justifying this distance are portrayed with Vishnu: the staff, globe, disk, and conch shell. The audio description which accompanies the sculpture details what each symbol means, but the important element to retain is that the rulers were the earthly embodiments of the deities, commanding obeisance.
Indravarman's son Yasovarman (r.899-early 10th century C.E.) commissioned the first reservoir and temple-mountain complex called Bakheng at the actual site of Angkor and continued the monumental, regal, and austere style of his father. The exhibit continues to provide historical information on the Tenth Century and the Art of Koh Ker and Banteay Srei as well as the Eleventh Century Art of the Kheleang and Baphuon.
In the early twelfth century C.E., Vishnu became all important as a deity during the reign of Suryavarman II (r.1113-at least 1145) when the monarch chose this deity to represent him. The bronze torso and head fragment of Vishnu from what was once a monumental sculpture must be one of the treasures displayed in this online tour. This sculpture originally showed a sleeping Vishnu (the preserver) on the back of the serpent of eternity with water flowing out of Vishnu's navel. When Vishnu wakes from his sleep a golden lotus bearing Brahma (the creator) will emerge from his navel.
This identification of the Khmer rulers with deities made the rulers omnipotent. Even the Buddhist sculpture of the 12th century C.E. shows Buddha asking with a crown, earrings and distended earlobes, and jeweled belt. While the exhibit describes this kingly aspect of Buddha as the "later Khmer conception of Buddha as King," there is a historical basis for this representation. Prince Siddharta (who later became Buddha) was born into the Ksatriya caste in the Hindu religion. The Ksatriyas form the princely and warrior caste of Hinduism. As part of this caste, it would be expected for Siddharta to wear jewels and a crown. Once he renounced his princely birth, he set upon the path to becoming enlightened as Buddha.
Buddhism would find its place as state religion in the Khmer Empire when Angkor reached its zenith under Jayavarman VII (r.1181-1218). Jayavarman VII extended the Khmer Empire by conquering the Chams of central Vietnam and extracting tribute money from most of Thailand and Laos.
The audio recording that describes the photo of the sculpture of the head of Jayavarman VII records the devout Buddhist as saying, "The suffering of the people is the pain of Kings." The sculpture of Jayavarman VII's head depicts as sharing Buddha's characteristics - the long distended earlobes caused by wearing heavy earrings as a price in his youth and eyes closed to the "Illusion of earthly things" as the audio informs online visitors. The Buddhist Bayon Temple built in the center of Angkor Thom is his contribution to Angkor.
The Cambodian capitol moved to Phnom Penh in 1431 when the Thai Kingdom captured Angkor. After this period, wood sculptures predominated alluded to for several reasons in the exhibit text. If you click on the photo of the wooden Worshipper sculpture from the Post-Angkor Section of the online tour, you will discover its description as a Theravada Buddhist work, focusing on spiritual humility rather than metaphysical speculation. Theravada remains the predominant form of Buddhism in Cambodia to this day.
If you have never participated in an online tour of an exhibit, Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory will impress you with its content and composition. The direct link to the exhibit follows: