Angkor Wat Western Corner Pavilions of the Third Enclosure
By Vittorio Roveda (@ copyright text and pictures)
In this paper I want to call the attention of scholars and non-scholars to the extreme refinement and beauty of the reliefs carved in the West Corner pavilions of Angkor Wat, usually visited quickly after been mesmerized by one of the long reliefs of the gallery bringing to the pavilion. This is the first approach by a western art historian to read in images [of the reliefs] elements that refers to personal views ant not only to historical and rhetorical interpretations.
I start by presenting here, the drawings on the Southwest corner pavilions showing the distribution of carved reliefs. Then I have selected my preferred relief and explained it in great detail. I highlighted its most elegant and delicate carving - in my opinion - unique and unsurpassed in all Angkor Wat, made during the rule of Jayamarman II (1113-1150).
Needless to say that I published all details, comments and conclusions in my book SACRED ANGKOR of 2002, published by River Books, Bangkok,
I believe that if the god Indra and the divine architect of Angkor Vishvaakarman would challenge me to choose the best carved relief of Angkor Wat’s corner pavilions I would without any hesitation indicate the scene of the Water Festival because it shows two majestic boats floating slowly on the river of dreams, exciting the concept of happiness, distance from daily life problems, peace and equality. The dreams float on the river of an archaic time, giving me a subconscious pleasure and awareness of my life’s flowing. Going beyond my oneiric phantasies, I need to come back here and talk of ‘my’ reliefs.
Very little has been written since the 1960s on the reliefs on Angkor Wat’s corner pavilions. C. Bhandari (1995) view them with the background of Indian scholarship, and E.Mannikka included the reliefs of the corner pavilion in her study on the architectural-cosmological study of Angkor Wat. Both Coedès (1911) and A. Le Bonheur (1989) were concerned about a thematic logic and concluded that each individual pavilion has its own panel’s arrangement which is independent from that of the Large Panels of the galleries. These illustrious authors were concerned of the apparent lack of ‘logic’ in the arrangement of the various panels, a concerned shared by myself (2002), and discussed here below.
I was the first to describe the western corner pavilions in detail in my 2002 book SACRED ANGKOR (available from River Books, Bangkok).
Technical features of the reliefs
Each pavilion – having a cruciform plan – has 8 large carved panels on the 4 walls, and 4 on pseudo-lintel over the doors) Same of the large panels occupying the full wall (circa 4.5 m high and 3.5 m wide), others only part of it (circa 3 m high and 3.5 m wide) and the pillar at the side of the window (circa. 2 m high and 2-2.30 m wide; see figs. 2, 3, and 4).
The lintel, which in a door in all Khmer temples has the function of spreading the weight of the overlying structure on the doorjambs, does not exist in the corner pavilions, but is carved well over the normal position of a linter, carved on the wall of the pavilion. Having the elongate shape of a lintel I have named them pseudo-lintel, each standing high over the four doors of the corner pavilions of the average size (c. 2 - 2.5 m high and 3 m wide), composed of a flat tympanum framed by an arch made by an undulating naga, as in all Khmer lintels and pediments.
Khmer sculptors made use of the most common pictorial device, the ground line, or base line, on which the figures appear to stand. This was probably in order to supplement a weak concept of picture space and the lack of a systematic perspective system. The use of ground lines allows to a stack horizontal arrangement of the elements of the relief.
Sequential and logical order?
I have mentioned above there is a problem in searching a “logical” arrangement of the reliefs in each corner pavilion and with other reliefs of Angkor Wat. No such thing I can see, but perhaps there was an order of cosmological type or a scheme that followed the pattern of a mandala that elude us at present.
Khmer Brahmins may have follow an old Vedic tradition by which the content of the narrative chanted (narrative from a text) was superseded by the sheer ritual act of chanting or whispering or mentally reciting the texts. Relevance was on the ritual of reciting these stories, not on the arrangement of such stories on walls. Therefore, the arrangement’s order of mythological themes in each corner pavilion may have been induced by the most important Hindu/Vaishnava ceremonies, or ancestors ingratiating ceremonies, or agricultural propitionary rites, to be held/chanted each year in specific order and in a specific corner pavilion.
Even the arrangement of the famous long carved panels of the galleries of the third enclosure are subject to controversy and some scholars suggested to start the visiting Angkor Wat from galleries from the eastern side and specifically from the relief of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk, charged of symbolic meanings, erroneously taken as the Creation myth (Maxwell, 2002: 16).
The Dvaravati Water festival (Roveda 2002: 122)
I presenting here only some features of my preferred reliefs of the southern Gallery. The relief of the so-called Dvaravati Water Festival because It depicts a Krishn’s event when he attending a water pilgrimage - as written in the Harivamsa - from the city of Dvaravati to Pindaranca. The relief is carved very shallow and is highly polished, difficult to see in most light conditions. The best photographs attached here were taken in 1995 by Jaro Poncar at night with light close to the wall. The pictures in colour were taken by me in daytime (1996-2001) when scaffolding was made available to me by Mr Long Nari, head of the GAPCO restoration team.
The relief displays two pleasure boats flowing quietly on a large river, frozen in time. The boats are the typical royal barges with the bow ornate of a very high dragon head (usually made of bronze) and the back of the elevation simulating the tail of the dragon. The front boat is that of the male companions with, at the centre, two dominant figures, Krishna and Balarama or two princes or important courtiers (?) playing Khmer chequers inside a delicately carved wood pavilion of Khmer style. They are surrounded by girls having apsara hairstyle, holding fans. They may be of women of the harem or female bodyguards of the king.
At the front of the boat (bow) seated girls are watching some crew-members hunting monkeys with their blowpipes. The boat is overcrowded; a row of rowers, works hard in unison. The water is full of fish and crocodiles. Nobody is restless or worried. However, at the back of the boat (aft) the man at the helm (drunk?) seems to have his head unusually supported by a crew-number. Local farmers or crew-members are shown climbing coconut trees.
This scene of the males boat overlays that of a boat with female figures in a pavilion with curtains, mothers (queens?) breast-feeding their children, others attend the more grown up; some young girls are embracing. Around their regal wooden pavilion are only men, in contrast to that of the princes surrounded by girl in the boat carved above. Noticeable is the male figure with crossed legs sitting in front of the queen, raising a child full of affection
Crew-members hold large parasols. The crew seems to be in disarray with men pointing to the end of the boat (aft) where a fierce cock-fight is watched by sailors and gamblers. This scene in probably the centre of attraction of all the rowers, unconcerned of where they are going. The man at the helm is also looking upwards while a sailor is behind him is fishing.
I like the first boat with personages playing chess totally unconcerned of what is going on. It is for me, symbolic of being able to detach from the noise on society the ruler playing his game and his life in perilous waters. However, my preference is for the second boast, the one with women, symbolic of opulence, matriarchal rule, femininity and life. Also this boat is overloaded, with the waterline almost at the limit, in danger of sinking and capsize, tragically ending the pleasure trip, becoming a memory and a myth, like many life events. I see a symbolism for the fleeting moments in life, the meaningless of attachments and desires.
Altogether I like the contrast, yin and yen, male-female, power and charm between the two boats.
Both flow silently on the waters of the myth in an undefinable time.
From the technical point of view, one can appreciate the refinement of the carving and the life infused in them. The genteelness of the carving and the mastery of the visual narrative, are outstanding and unique in all Angkor Wat. I believe that the two western comer pavilions were carved by a workshop not involved in the large panels of the same third enclosure
correlaTion of stories carved on wall with the text NARRATING them.
SOUTH-WESTERN CORNER PAVILION
SW.1 – The churning of the Ocean of Milk Bhagavata Purana. 8 (7)
SW.2 – Krishna lifting Mt. Govardhana Bhagavata Purana 10 (24)
SW.3 – Rama killing Marica Ramayana VIII
SW.4 – Shiva in the Pine Forest Linga Purana 2 (9)
SW.5 – Ravana shaking Mt. Kailasa Ramayana. VII
SW.6 – Krishna as a young boy dragging a heavy mortar Bhaghavata Purana 10 (9)
SW.7 – Shiva reducing Kama to ashes Shiva Purana 16
S.W8 – The death of Valin Ramayana IV
SW.9 – The Murder of ?Pralamba & The dousing of a fire Bhagavata Purana
S.W10 – Dvaravati water festival Harivamsa 12
S.W11 – The betrothal of Shiva and Parvati Vamana Purana 25 (26)
S.W12 – Krishna receiving the offerings destined for Indra Bhagavata Purana 10 (24)
Note. Italics refer to pseudo-lintels
In hope to be able to continue the reading of some other relies specifically chosen for my personal interpretation.
I hope to repeat soon a similar appreciation for a relief carved in the North-western Corner Pavilion.
Bhandari C.M., Saving Angkor, White Orchid Books, Bangkok, 1995.
Bonheur Le A., Cambodge. Angkor. Temples en peril, Paris, Herscher, 1989
Coedès G., Les bas-reliefs d’Angkor-Vat, Bulletin de la Commission Archéologique de l’Indochine, Paris, 1911, p. 170-220
Glaize M., Le guide d’Angkor, Flammarion, Paris, reprint 1993
Laur, J., Angkor Temples et Monuments (in French), 2002, Flammarion, Paris 2002
Mannikka E., Angkor Wat, Time, Space and Kingship, University of Hawai’ Press, Honolulu, 1996
Philipenko M., Focusing on the Angkor Temples, The Guidebook, Amarin Printing, 2011
Poncar & Maxwell On Gods, Kings, and Men, German Panorama editions, 2006
Roveda, Photos by Poncar, Sacred Angkor, River Books, Bangkok 2002
Rooney Dawn., Angkor Cambodia’s wondrous Khmer temples, Odyssey Books, Hong Kong, reprint 2006
Fig.1 – The boat with the two princes plying the game of chess (my ‘male boat’)
Fig.2 – The boa with women and children (my ‘female boat)
Fig.3 – Detail of the women and children. Notice the figure of a man fondling a small infant. Inside a small pavilion two girls’ (sisters?) embrace.
Fig.4 - Detail of cock-fighting on board the women’s boat
Fig.5 – Detail of the two princes playing chess inside the wooden pavilion decorated with curtains and flowers’ garlands.
Fig.6 – Detail of the picture of the prince highly burnt by Photoshop to reveal drawing with black pencil of the eye and eyelashes, as well of the scarf and folding of the shirt. This figure is therefore unfinished.
Fig.7 – Detail of the girls, probably courtesans, on the male boat
Fig.8 – Detail of a man climbing a sugar palm tree behind the male boat
Fig.9 – Detail of a man fishing at the end of the female boat.