Thursday, May 27, 2021

Anonymous Masters: Angkor Artisans


                                      ,by Jim Goodman


       Wandering through the ruins of Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and subsidiary sites in the vicinity, one is constantly consumed by a sense of wonder.  After all, much of its original splendor still stands.  Thai armies from Ayutthaya attacked and ravaged it so badly nearly six centuries ago the government abandoned it for a new capital further east.  Not all the residents left, but their numbers and resources were insufficient to repair or maintain the monuments.

       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.

       Eventually peace and security returned to the area.  Angkor won recognition as a World Heritage Site and destruction and theft have ceased.  Despite the damage and vandalism over the centuries much of Angkor’s heritage remains.  Thai soldiers removed many outstanding religious sculptures when they ransacked Angkor, which were in turn looted by Burmese soldiers attacking Ayutthaya at the end of the 16th century.  But the Ayutthaya forces did not level the city to its foundations.  The temples remained intact, though stripped of their gold embellishments, and so did much of the decorative art, which is so impressive today.

       Thanks to modern research we know a lot about the organization of Angkor, its social divisions, how the people lived, both upper and lower classes, what clothes they wore and what food they ate.  We know how they procured the materials to build the city and how artisans produced their work.  The one big mystery is just who these master craftsmen were.  We can determine when a particular item was created, but not the name of the artisan.  None ever ‘signed’ their work.  Perhaps it was all for the greater glory of the gods, or the state that employed them, but apparently not for the greater glory of their personal reputations.

       While we have the names of the kings who sponsored the construction, extension or renovation of the buildings, the name of only one architect for any part of the work has survived.  An 11th century inscription congratulates and promotes Gunipativarman upon completion of the Baphuon and the East Baray.  Similar evidence involving other architects or any sculptors does not exist.  The Angkor government kept written records, but on perishable materials like palm-leaf.  Very few of them have survived.  Perhaps some manuscripts mentioned specific artists or their achievements or awards.  We’ll never know.  

       We are not even sure of what social class the artisans came from; Brahmins, commoners, slaves/servants attached to the temples?  Or were they part of a designated, state-sponsored, separate class?  Whatever the case, they were most likely organized in guilds, with an established training program for the novices.  Experienced sculptors would be responsible for major works like the big Standing Vishnu in Angkor Thom, the dancing apsaras, the ‘Leper King’ or the faces of Jayavarman VII over the gates of Angkor Thom.   The decorative reliefs, of floral and vegetative designs, and perhaps the background of the narrative reliefs, would be left for the younger artisans.

       Religion permeated Angkor society and thus its architecture.   Aside from the walls, gates and barays (reservoirs), extant buildings are all religious.  Angkor was viewed as a sacred mandala, laid out as a replica of Mt. Meru, home of the gods.  Indian culture had already made a strong impact on the Khmer during the pre-Angkor states of Funan, 3rd to 6th centuries, and Chenla, 6th to 8th centuries.  While they did not adopt the Indian caste system, the Khmers took up the religion and Hindu gods became their own, replacing whatever indigenous ones they had before.

       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.

       Indra, chief of the gods and also the war deity, always rides a three-headed elephant, often wielding a club.  Shiva’s mount is a bull and he is often accompanied by his wife Parvati.  Vishnu rides the man-bird Garuda, but around Angkor he is usually standing alone or with his two wives at his side (smaller than him) or else as Sleeping Vishnu, on his back within the coils of a protective python.  In general, the gods’ images had to be bigger than those of any people in the carving.  In Angkor that would also apply to its kings, whose bodies had to be much bigger than anyone else.

       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.

       Other renditions of the Buddha followed the Gupta Era stipulations.  Usually the Angkor Buddha is seated in meditation, sometimes surrounded by, and ignoring, beautiful maidens sent by the evil Mara to tempt and distract him.  Occasionally he is standing with his begging bowl or lying lengthwise as the Reclining Buddha.  The curled hair, large ears and monk’s robes are always part of the depiction.

       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.

       Sculptures in sandstone are more impressive.  The work was slow and meticulous, probably using only a bronze chisel and wooden mallet.  The sculptor began by making a rough form of the projected work and gradually shaped the volumes and cut the lines according to the traditional canon.  When the details were all in place the final steps were smoothing and polishing, especially the faces and bodies.  Being a religious image of some kind, its installation was doubtless accompanied by a ritual ceremony.

       Most of the carvings were low and high relief panels on the temple walls, towers, gates and columns.  Some were larger than life, free-standing, three-dimensional statues, usually fixed on platforms or pedestals.  The most outstanding is the eight-armed standing Vishnu in Angkor Wat, with its smooth, perfectly proportioned limbs and torso.  Another is the seated “Leper King” in Angkor Thom, which got its name from its mottled surface upon its discovery, leading to speculation this was the legendary Leper King of Angkor’s past.  But it turned out lichen growth had caused the mottling and after the statue was cleaned up, an inscription was discovered identifying the image as Yama, the Lord of Death. 

       Besides deities, 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.

       In creating the sculptures of mythical animals the artist had to follow prescribed traditional norms, just as with the gods.  That was true of representing the divinities as well, for the apsaras wore tall head-dresses and clothing that was probably the style of ladies in the Angkor Court, while the devatas were often backed by a flaming aureole.  But since these had human forms, one suspects the sculptors used real people around them as the models.  The faces don’t closely resemble their Gupta Era prototypes.  They look more like indigenous Khmer.

      Besides stories about the gods, Indian mythology included two great epics, the Ramayana, a tale of one of Vishnu’s avatars, and the Mahabharata, a semi-historical narrative of a great battle for control of ancient India.  Both epics contain a wealth of battle scenes to inspire Khmer sculptors making narrative reliefs.  Besides the wars in the epics, Khmer artisans also created narrative reliefs of their own battles with 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.    

       Wall reliefs 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.

       To supplement our knowledge about life in old Angkor we can read the only surviving contemporary account, of a visit made in 1296-97, when Angkor was still thriving, was by far the largest urban center in Southeast Asia and bigger than almost every Chinese city.  Called A Record of Cambodia:  the Land and its People, the author was a Chinese envoy named Zhou Daguan, who was sent there on a mission for the Yuan Dynasty government.

          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.

       He describes the royal palace, which was built with wood and has not survived, and the Phimeanakas next to it, the royal ancestral temple, still standing, with a steep front staircase similar to Mayan sacrificial altars in Mexico.  Supposedly the king went there every night to sleep with a serpent goddess inside a gold chamber at the top.  Gold plating on towers, bridges, windows and other parts of the royal palace was quite profusely used and on clear days Angkor was literally a shining city.  The big halls, high ceilings, gold furnishings and decorations of the palace were designed to maximize the sense of majesty.

       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.

       Unfortunately, Zhou did not write much about the art of Angkor or anything at all about its creators.  We know how they lived, what they ate, etc, but not about their work or their own attitude to it.  Maybe during the ceremony with the installation of the work they received at least some public acknowledgment of their creations or even some kind of reward.  Certainly they must have felt some professional pride in their accomplishments, something that would be recognized within their peer group.  Would they have taken friends to see their latest sculpture to elicit comments, praise or a favorable evaluation?  Would they have introduced a colleague as the one who carved those wonderful apsaras over that gate?  Who can say?

       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.

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