Iconographic trends in Khmer Buddhist art of the12-13th century
By Vittorio Roveda @ (Copyright text and pictures)
It is intimidating for me writing anything religious because any ideology is inextricably related to the question of meaning.
I had to think at religious matters when I was looking at Buddhist carvings in a Hindu temple. How did they concord with the main religious ideology, to the god of the temple. Which was the religious affiliation of a temple? Usually the iconographic program is superseded by the presiding image (statue) of the main deity placed in the main cella or by a dedicatory inscription.
When I was observing the iconography of Banteay Samré and study the ratio Buddhist/Hindu images, I questioned its meaning. Why there were Buddhist images in the four temples I studied: Banteay Samré, Chao Sai Tevoda, Beng Mealea, and a small temple Prasat Chrei, (2 Km to the east of Beng Mealea) built between the second half of the 12th century and the early 13th century when the rulers were presumably Vihnuite of Shivaite (excluding Jayavarman VII) ? They had been defined Brahmanical or Hinduist by all scholars.
In the historical context, it appears that in this period (between Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII) at Angkor there were three important ruling figures: Yashovarman II (uncle of Jayavarman VII; c.1150-1165), Dharanindravarman II, father of Jayavarman VII (1150-?1165) and Tribhuvanadityavarman (1167-1177). Recently Jacques (2003:15) has added a fourth personage: Harshavarman, (c.1150-1165) maternal grand-father of Jayavarman VII, ruler of the ‘kingdom’ of Preah Khan of Kampong Svay.
Concerning the iconography of this period, I re-examined four temples mentioned above to
clarify amongst Hindu image there were many Buddhist reliefs in key position. It is necessary to briefly examine the religious beliefs of that time (12-13th century).
1 - Mahayana. Mahayana’s (Large vehicle) ideology is based on the twin value of compassion and insight. The Bodhisattva devotes himself to the service of others as opposed to the Thervada (Small vehicle) monk living a monastic life in pursuit self-liberation.
Mahayana monuments have images of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (named Lokeshvara in Cambodia), of infinite compassion and mercy. There are also images ew is th earthly manifestation of the eternbal Amithaba Buddha, whose gffighure ppeatrs in his hairdressof Shakyamuni (Buddha in meditation with empty hands), the Maravijaya (Buddha’s victory over Mara) and some of the oldest Jatakas such as the Vessantara, the Vidhura and probably the Temiya (if my interpretation of two strong men holding a sharp saw over the head of a smaller figure seated in meditation is correct (see Roveda 2005, Fig. 6.85 and Fig. 9.03-9.11).
It is known that some Jatakas were used also by Mahayana, as at the Indian Sanchi stupa (1. BCE), Barhut (3/2. BCE), Amaravati (1.BCE) and Ajanta (3.CE) and Borobudur (8/9. CE).
Probably the Mahayanist adopted the Jatakas from ancient Sanskrit tradition (obviously not from the Pali). In Cambodia the most common was the Vessantara and probably the Temiya, and the Mahanarada Jataka (Roveda 2005: Fig.6.87 and 6.88).
The Mahayana Buddhism of this period moved towards Tantrism. The iconography of pure Mahayana is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps it already included images of The Bhaisajyaguru, or Buddha of medicine, showing the Buddha seated in meditation in the lotus position holding a myrabolan fruit (from a medicinal plant) on his palms (Fig.1 and 2).
At Preah Khan near the central tower there is a carving of a simple Maravijaya where the evil forces of Mara shoot arrows towards Bhaishajyaguru and not to Buddha Shakyamuni. The cult of Bhaishajyaguru became popular as that of that of the Buddha Shakyamuni. The Khmers did not perceived the need of making a visual distinction between the two Buddha. Although this may be due to iconographic negligence, I rather believe that is was due to the doctrinal belief by which the Bahishajayaguru was merely a manifestation of the wisdom of compassion of all the Buddha. The Buddhas are identical in their essential three bodies (trikaya), which are none other than the Doctrine, the ultimate truth discovered and expounded by them
2 - Tantrism or Vajrayana. Known in ancient Cambodia, although not so important as in Nepal, Tibet, and Mongolia. Tantric Buddhism was a belief that arose within Mahayana, aiming at a rapid attainment of enlightenment, often dealing with magic practices rather than spiritual steps. Its iconography is different from Theravada through mantras and tantras.
In Khmer iconography, one of the oldest Tantric icon (10th century CE.) is the Buddha sitting in meditation protected by the expanded hood of the naga’s king Mucalinda (the Naga-enthroned Buddha).
Later in Cambodia the other essential figure was that of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara locally known as Lokeshvara, the celestial bodhisattva crated by a ray emanating from the right eye of Amitabba in a state of contemplation. Together with Prajnaparamita and the Buddha, the Lokeshvara compose the Triadic icon of Cambodian Tantrism.
In Cambodia, Tantrism was initially known from inscriptions, the most relevant being inscription of Wat Si Chum (953 CE) of Wat Sitor (980 CE). At Phimai (now in modern Thailand) there are many Tantric classic images which were not found in the Angkor region.
Exceptionally there is an early visual example of Tantrism at Angkor Wat where a small group of shadus accompany an old guru (vajrin?) while playing typical vajra bells as used in tantric rituals, illustrated on the long panel of the Historic procession (Roveda,2005: 377).(Fig.3).
Tantrism was officially adopted by Jayavarman VII (1182-1219) in a strange combination with Brahmanism that he made his state religion and the end of the 12th century.
Probably to Tantrism can be attributed the carved pediment of Banteay Samré, where the defaced Bodhisattva overlay the Moon and the sun (respectively Chandravairocana and Suryavairocana, composing the Triad of the Buddha of medicine) (Fig. 4), worshipped by rishis (ascetics).
The cult of Bhaisajyaguru continued to be popular in the mixed Mahayana-Vajrajana of Jayavarman VII, and the specific protector of his 102 hospital chapels as mentioned in inscription K.368.
I believe that to Tantrism can be attributed the large pediment of the first eastern enclosure of Banteay Samré with a set female deities holding unusual attributes, riding monstrous animals, a representation seen nowhere else in Cambodia.(Fig.5.). In conclusions at Banteay Samré we have Brahmanical iconography mixed with Mahayana/Theravada carved reliefs (all defaced) as well as 2 Tantric reliefs.
It would be very nice to know which king patronized this temple.
Tantrism included the eight wonderful images of Lokeshvaras (only 2 visible in situ) carved on the western gallery, south section, of the Banteay Chmar temple (Fig.6). They were identified by the early scholars when the wall was still standing. The tantric cult of Avalokiteshvara, supreme Lord of compassion, developed in Mahayana Buddhism of Tibet, Japan, and Champa, became very popular in Cambodia during the reign of Jayavarman VII in the territories of the Khmer Empire (including part of modern Thailand). The best reliefs of the multi-armed Avalokiteshvara was carved at Banteay Chmar; a synthesis has been reconstructed by Olivier Cunin in his important on line paper:
In 2005, only two Avalokiteshvara were clearly visible in place; another two were displayed in the National Museum of Phnom Penh, and the others still missing.
3 - Theravada is the doctrine of the elders (small vehicle) that follows what was remembered of the words and teaching of the Buddha Shakyamuni later elaborated into the Pali Canon. Its iconography is characterized by typical images of Buddha Shakyamuni touching the ground with his right arm, calling Earth to testify having reached Enlightenment. Also characteristic of Theravada are images of the Buddha sitting in meditation with empty hands and in scenes of his life: the great departure, the cutting of the hair, the Buddha subduing the Nalagiri elephant, the Paranirvana.
Some icons such as the Maravijaya were shared with the Mahayana, together with some Jatakas.
The origin of the Jataka is quite complex. According to the Sinhalese tradition, the original Jataka books consisted of 550 birth stories each illustrating Buddhas’s previous lives, each identified by verses and commentaries.
About 430 CE. the poet Buddhagosha translated these stories from Sinhalese into Pali as the Jataka attakatha. Pali was the language resulting from the homogenization of the dialects in which the teachings of the Buddha had been orally recorded. The stories were numbered from 1 to 550 (or 547). The lower number Jataka are simple fables with a moral issue. A special importance became the much more complex Last Ten Jataka, grouped under the name of Mahanipata, some of which were put together at a later date. In Cambodia and Thailand the last ten Jatakas were named Mahachat. The representation of Jatakas is especially The Last Ten (Mahachat) is a distinguishing feature of Theravada
In ancient Cambodia, the Vessantara Jataka is identified mainly by one scene, the gift of the children as they appear on lintels of Prah Khan (Fig.7, 7 B and 7c), Ta Prohm, Beng Mealea and Bayon (see Roveda 2005: 257). The Vidhura Jataka has not been recognized in this period of time, while only one carving of the Sama Jataka occurs at Bayon in the inner gallery of the second floor (Fig8). The presumed Temiya Jataka seems to be frequent in temples of Jayavarman VII (see below). There were also non-canonical Jataka such as the Sibi and Pidgeon Jataka. (Roveda 2005: Fig.6.70- 6.84) that in Cambodia I would include in the Theravada package.
For many years I hesitated in identifying the reliefs carved with a central figure seated (in meditation?) on a plinth, with 2 strong men menacing his head with instrument similar to swards or maces (Fig.9, 10 10 and 10a, b, c). I believe now that it represent Temiya submitted to the torture of the swards narrated in the Temiya Jataka. Unfortunately the Shivaite ‘iconoclastic reaction’ after Jayavarman VII, cause the image of the young Bodhisatta Temiya to be defaced for his similarity to the image of the Buddha Shakyamuni.
It is ascertained that Jataka’s visual representations started with the very beginning of temple building in Shri Lanka and India, and popularised with the flourishing of monasteries in mainland Southeast Asia associated with the spreading of Theravada. It has not possible to identify any Khmer temple as uniquely Theravada, because the two beliefs (Mahayana and Theravada) were aggregated, and because purely Theravadin kings are unknown in Khmer history.
The only temples that is tentatively attributed to Theravada are Preah Palilai (Fig.11, 12) and Preah Pithu X (Fig.13,14). They have many images of Buddha sitting in meditation on a lotus flower with his right arm touching the ground; they were built in the 14th century, after the death of Jayavarman II and VIII.
In Angkorean temples Theravada iconography is quite limited, Buddhism belief being overwhelmed by traditional Brahmanical images of the cult of Vishnu and Shiva. Theravada reappeared exuberantly in the 16th century CE., but no monuments are left, having been destroyed by time and human neglect or by wars. I can’t prove which is the oldest monastery of Cambodia; most monasteries were built in the 19th century and a great part restored after the Khmer Rouge genocide It is assumed that in the 16th century Buddhist Theravada monks took over Angkor Wat, removed the colossal statue of Vishnu from the top shrine and made space for 4 stone altars devoted to a Buddha (Fig.15). They also completed unfinished works by using material from other parts of the temple. A large part of a gallery was created as a repository of Buddha’s statues donated by worshippers (Preah Pean).
In Khmer temples of the 12-13th century, the difficulty in assessing the religious affiliation of a temple with many Buddhist reliefs is hard and complex because the Khmer had accepted syncretism from many centuries. Furthermore, images were of no importance compared to religious rituals.
Khmer inscriptions speak of syncretism between Shaivism and Vaishnavism and of Shaivism with Buddhism, revealing that the kings did stay away from religious conflicts if they did not erode their absolute power. The only conflict historically known was that of the Shivaite ‘iconoclastic reaction’, of the 13th century which eliminated all images of Budhas, immediately after the death of Jayavarman VII.
Banteay Samré, Chao S.T. and Beng Maelae’s Prasat Chrei were precursors of the temples d’étape, meaning temples arranged along an ideal line leading to the main temple, and where people could have a rest, a refuge for the night.
In this instance they were temple leading from Angkor to Preah Khan of Kampong Sway, a large temple complex erected by a wealthy king. He dominated an area rich in iron ore smartly used by the Kuoy people to produce utensils and swards, daggers, spears, arrow and bows and tools (see Dupaigne 2016). In my interpretation this king wanted to indicate his hierarchical position, his power and material wealth to the kings of Angkor. I dare to suggest that he may have been Harshavarman (c.1150-1165), maternal grand-father of Jayavarman VII; yer was the ruler of the Kuoy-land, and he probablywAs th sp;onsor of Banteay Samré.
Based on the temples considered here, I conclude that Buddhist images, even though abundant and in privileged locations of the temple, and that seems to me to be out of context in the temples with prevailing Hindu images, such as Banteay Samré, Chao Sai Tevoda, Beng Mealea, and a Prasat Chrei, cannot be used to attribute that temple to a specific single cult. Clearly, at Angkor there are many more Buddhist image to be recognized. All my notes are based on my observations in Cambodia that ended in 2006, when for heath reason I had to return home. I am sure that a lot of progress has been done since, and hope that my notes may stimulate ideas for new scholars.
Further information can be found in my book Images of the Gods (River Books, 2005) hand in Buddhist iconography in Brahmanical temples of Angkor, in Materializing Southeast Asia’s past, papers from the 12th International Conference EASAA, Vol.2: 56-81, Leiden 2008 where one can also find the complete bibliography.
Bangkok, April 2016
Fig.1 – Banteay Chmar. The Bhaishajyaguru or Buddha of medicine on a pillar of the southern gallery
Fig.2 – Preah Khan of Kampong Svay. Lintel with the Buddha of medicine. The first to and the left and the last on the right (5th) show an object on their hand’s palm.
Fig.3 – Angkor Wat. Gallery of the Royal Procession. Detail of priests holding the vajra bells.
Fig.4 – Banteay Same. Pediment showing the large circles of the Sun and the Moon below a destroyed image of a Lokewshvara.
Fig.5 – Banteay Samré. Pediment with a row of unidentified female deities holding unusual attributes, riding monstrous animals.
Fig.6 - Banteay Chmar. A multi-armed Avalokiteshvara on the eastern wall southern
Fig.7 – Preah Khan of Angkor. Detail of a scene of the Vessantara Jataka. Lintel on the ground at the eastern door.
Fig.7b - Banteay Samré - Central tower. Vessantara Jataka.
Fig.7c - Chau Say Tevoda – Southern gopura. Vessantara Jataka.
Fig.8 - Bayon – Inner pediment of the second level. Sama Jataka.
Fig.9 – Banteay Kdei. Defaced relief of the Temiya Jataka. Inner pediment of the central enclosure.
Fig.10 – Preah Khan of Angkor. Complete relief of the Temiya Jataka. Southern Gallery.
Fig.10a – Banteay Thom. Defaced relief of the Temiya Jataka. Pediment of the second enclosure.
Fig.10b – Wat Nokor. Defaced relief of the Temiya Jataka. Pediment of the second enclosure
Fig.10c – Wat Nokor. Defaced relief of the Temiya Jataka. Inner pediment of the main tower.
Fig.11 – Prah Palilai. Buddha in meditation
Fig.12 – Prah Palilai. Buddha in meditation
Fug.13 – Preah Pithu X. Buddha in meditation
Fug.14 – Preah Pithu X. Buddha in meditation
Fig.15 – Angkor Wat, top sanctuary, with a Buddha statue of the altar standing below a corniche of Hindu reliefs (Vishnu sleeping on Ananta)