,by Jim Goodman
They were also powerless to prevent
private looting of valuable sculptures, which became especially acute under
French colonial rule, when authorities permitted their removal. Some
of Angkor’s masterpieces were openly marketed to various museums, especially
the Guimet Museum in Paris. Others were
surreptitiously sold to rich private collectors. Cambodia’s long civil war in the 70s and 80s
and its immediate aftermath resulted in further damage and theft.
To house these deities they built temples on the Indian model of the Gupta Dynasty of northern India , 4th to 6th centuries. The shikara style of a tower with a tapering top, alone or flanked by a horizontal, columned temple was a popular type. For the carved imagery, their iconography came from the same source, with precise requirements for how the gods looked, what animal they rode, what they held in their hands and so on. The rules allowed for some flexibility in the depiction of subsidiary figures, but not of the main image.
Buddhism became part of Angkor culture from the 8th century, around the time it was all but wiped out in northern India. Sinhalese missionary monks introduced the Theravada variant, which is still the main religion of Cambodia today. Certain kings, most notably Jayavarman VII in the 13th century, promoted Mahayana Buddhism. He also renovated Angkor Thom and built the entry gates in each direction with a huge portrait of a calm and meditating face in the center of the tower. It might be his own face, but it could be a depiction of a bodhisattva, with which he identified anyway.
Sandstone was the main building material for Angkor and its source was the Kulen Hills, about 30 km north. At quarries here laborers, probably all slaves, cut huge blocks of sandstone, mounted them on wooden rollers and conveyed them back to the city. Laterite was an alternative stone in some cases, but that could be found in the immediate area. Wood was also a common material, especially in the satellite towns and rural areas, but mainly in the late Classic and post-Classic periods.
temple imagery included a variety of mythological creatures. Some of these were guardian lions, others monsters
placed at the temple compound entrance; the lion-headed jawless kala
with bulging eyes, the hybrid makara and the naga, a big cobra
snake with seven or nine heads. Others
were divinities, like the dvarapalas, young men standing guard at the
entrance, the apsaras, heavenly dancing girls, and devatas,
female denizens of Indra’s paradise.
Chăm armies from states in what is now south central Vietnam. One can distinguish between the two armies by the head-covering worn by the Chăm soldiers, whereas the Khmer don’t wear any. The king commanding the Angkor side sits on an elephant and both he and the animal are disproportionately larger than other figures in the scene.
were not limited to scenes from Heaven and narratives of wars. Ordinary daily life was a subject, too. In fact, much of what we know about everyday
experience comes from relevant wall reliefs.
We see people using ox carts, preparing an animal for cooking, using a
mortar and pestle, drinking from cups, boiling water, tending animals and other
vignettes. Both the humans and the
animals—elephants, goats, birds, reptiles—are depicted realistically.
No original Yuan Dynasty editions of the book
exist. What we have today is obviously
incomplete, some aspects of Angkor society are ignored, some misinterpreted or
subject to the author’s Chinese prejudices, yet it contains many valuable
first-hand observations. He found it a
dazzling, well-organized and administered city and reported that its residents
felt the same way. He records their
agricultural practices, food products, sauces and spices, liquor, flora and
fauna, religion, festivals and political system.
In this class
society people lived according to their rank.
Royal relatives and high officials had big houses, though not anywhere
as grand or lavishly furnished as the king’s. They could only have tiled roofs
over the bedroom and family ancestral altar, the other roofs thatched. The lower classes were not permitted tiled
roofs at all. Except for the palace,
interiors had little furniture. People
ate on the floor and slept there at night inside mosquito nets. And except for the jewelry, all classes dressed in the same wraparound or tubular skirts.
At the very
minimum, the art works of Angkor had one salutary effect upon the artists who
made them. They made the city an
aesthetically positive place to live in.
Art and beauty was everywhere. A
city designed to please the gods pleased the designers as well. And its artisans were surely conscious of the
role they played in making it beautiful.
* * *