Arts Illustrated

September 15, 2020

Beyond Borders Angkor Wat

We go across borders of time and history to trace the journey of India’s heritage in Angkor Wat and the inherent, albeit silent, stories they reveal of harmony

Suzanne McNeill

A few years ago I signed up for a short course on Buddhist Art at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. The intention was to re-immerse myself in India’s heritage of art and history. And on day one, that’s what happened. We trotted at a pace through an introduction to the life of the Buddha and the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy. We looked at early Buddhist monuments in India: the stupas marking the places of miracle at Lumbini, Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kusinara, and the pillars of Ashoka, whose iconography pervades India to this day. And we examined the first images associated with Buddhism: the aniconic symbols of pipal tree, snake and water, carved into wood and stone, the bas-relief sculpture depicting narratives from the Jataka stories, and the carved figures of the Yaksha nature-spirits that morphed into the calm perfection of the Buddha himself.

And then on day two we were off along the Silk Road, following 1st and 2nd century merchants and monks into China, then Korea, Japan and Tibet, finally coming to rest amongst the monumental temples of South-East Asia. Here, at Angkor Wat in modern-day Cambodia is the crowning achievement of Indian-inspired religious architecture. Built for Vishnu and then converted to Buddhism, this embodiment of India’s heritage lies firmly rooted in another soil.

Those monks urged by the Buddha to pass on the Noble Truths he had given them were not the first travellers from India to reach South-East Asia. A maritime trade network linked China, South-East Asia, India and Sri Lanka to Africa and Rome. Gemstones and spices passed from Asia to Europe through the ancient ports on India’s eastern coast, whilst archaeologists have discovered Roman ceramics and coins in modern-day Thailand.

As a consequence of the trading and cultural relations that developed across the Bay of Bengal, Indian civilisation started to influence the kingdoms of South-East Asia. A popular legend tells of a South Indian prince who travelled to Cambodia, married a beautiful princess and became the ruler of that land. In an alternative version, an Indian Brahmin called Kaundinya is said to have sailed to the Cambodian kingdom of Funan and, using divine powers, defeated and married the ruling princess, Soma. Other versions see the visitor welcomed by the people and, elected their king, introducing many Indian customs and laws.

More certainly, local chieftains were open to religious, artistic and scientific ideas imported from India. The Pasupatas, Hindusim’s oldest Shaivite sect, were ascetic proselytisers whose charismatic rituals made a deep impression on the courts of the South-East Asian kings. Part of the southern Indian Brahmin elite, the Pasupatas were literate, knew medicine and charms, and, importantly, were indifferent to the prohibitions that forbade orthodox Hindus to travel abroad. This southern Indian influence on South-East Asian culture continued to flourish during the rule of the Pallavas (3rd–9th centuries) and the Cholas (9th–13th centuries).

Historians call this process ‘Indianisation’. Local rulers who imported Indian advisors to guide them on the practices of Indian kingship and ritual founded Hindu, then Buddhist kingdoms across the region. Amalgamating the various religions, cultures and schools of thought, they adopted the Pali and Sanskrit languages, Indian script, and its sacred texts and literature, including the Mahabharata and the Ramayana epics. They combined Hindu and Buddhist beliefs, codes and court practices to legitimise their own rule, and constructed cities and temples to affirm royal power. For the Khmer dynasty (9th–15th century), this was to reach its zenith in the design and aesthetic achievement of the Angkor monuments.

The temple complex of Angkor Wat is the largest religious monument in the world. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the 12th century as his state temple and eventual mausoleum. He broke with the Shaivite tradition of his forebears in dedicating the temple to Lord Vishnu: during the 13th century, the complex was converted to Buddhism. The centuries of cultural and commercial interaction between India and the kingdoms of Cambodia had led to an architectural style that in Angkor Wat was to combine the tiered structures of early Dravidian temples with the temple-mountain architecture of the Khmers, laid out in a balanced and harmonious form around the square mandala symbol that represented the cosmos in Buddhism.

The Dravidian temples of South India are open and symmetrical, and display perfect geometric shapes such as circles and squares. This is the model on which Angkor Wat’s temples are based, and indeed the architects may have been from Pala India, the powerful Buddhist-supporting dynasty that ruled Bihar and Bengal from the 8th to 12th century. The style, however, was indigenised by local artists. Whilst the region’s early Hindu temples were built on the same scale as their Indian models, with stepped, square terraces and narrative reliefs along the terraces, later buildings such as Java’s Borobudur temple represented a dramatic change of architectural character. Increasingly vast in scale and monumental in design, temples became works of power as kings sought to accumulate religious merit and prestige by constructing ever more magnificent buildings.

The Indian heritage is prominent throughout Angkor Wat, particularly in the representations of Vishnu and his avatars, Krishna and Rama. Dazzling bas-relief carvings depict Vishnu battling against the Asuras, the enemies of the gods, or riding on his mount, Garuda, half-vulture, half-man. An enduring contribution of the Pallavas to Angkor Wat is the cult of the eight-armed Ashtabhuja Vishnu, which forms one of the temple’s major iconographic influences. Narratives from the Mahabharata and the Ramayana provide extensive decoration. Episodes include the Ramayana’s long, fierce Battle of Lanka where lithesome monkey warriors are the central figures, watched by Rama and his attendants. The Battle of Kurukshetra from the Mahabharata is illustrated, with the armies of the Kauravas and the Pandavas marching from opposite ends of the panel towards the centre where they meet in combat. Other friezes that portray warfare of the Angkor period mark the shift towards a native identity. There are many depictions of Apsaras and Devatas, semi-divine nymphs and spirits, which show remarkable diversity of hair, headdresses, garments, stance, jewellery and decorative flowers, and are believed to be based on the actual practices of the Khmers.

The giant faces of the Bayon Temple, part of the complex, reveal more of the cultural exchange between India and Angkor Wat. Local guides tell visitors that these represent portraits of the kings of the Khmer dynasty, but scholars dispute the identity of the faces. They were thought to be Lord Brahma, the Creator of the Universe, who is traditionally depicted with four heads. A compelling argument is that the giant faces are Vajrasattva, from whom emanates the eight-headed, fiercely protective deity Hevajra, making of the temple a massive icon to the multiple-headed god. His worship is the subject of the Hevajra Tantra, which is believed to have originated in Bengal between the 8th and 10th centuries and thrived in Khmer Cambodia.

By the 5th century AD, the Silk Road was less a route of transmission from India to South-East Asia and more a filter. Khmer sculpture began to drift away from Indian influence, particularly the idealised Hindu images of the deities, and by the 10th century had developed its own stylistic refinement. This went beyond religious representation, portraying court figures with great realism in the guise of gods and goddesses, and glorifying the aristocracy through these images. The transition from the worship of Shiva and Vishnu to Mahayana Buddhism was a major break with tradition that asserted the king’s creed as supreme over the long-entrenched Brahminical aristocracy. This also developed into the South-East Asian cult of deified royalty called Devaraja, depicting the king as Buddha, bejewelled, crowned and supported by a pantheon of Bodhisattvas. Thus, the sovereign’s divinity was displayed through his monuments, and the elite immortalised in the splendour of intricate adornments and sophisticated jewellery. However, after the 13th century the more austere form of Buddhism called Theravada gained sway, a movement that revered the historic Buddha but did not pay homage to the numerous other Buddha and Bodhisattvas worshipped by earlier followers. This continues till today.

Hidden by jungle and all but forgotten for centuries, Cambodia’s national monument now buzzes with tour groups and picnickers from sunrise to sunset. It is the lesser known temples of the complex that provide a sense of sacred space. Crumbling, many with trees and vegetation growing through the soft sandstone, some reduced to their foundations, it is still possible to trace the decorative carvings of elephants, naga snakes, lotus buds and figures of Garuda. Local people worship the Buddha daily at these temples, burning incense in small shrines that are far removed from the ostentatious grandeur and extravagance of Suryavarman’s stunning testimony to India’s art and heritage.


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