The murals of Wat Bo of Siem Reap (Cambodia)
(Copyright text and pictures)
Due to the size and complexity of Wat Bo murals I had to separate my presentation in two parts
Part 1 – Introduction and murals of the West and North walls.
Part 2 – Murals of East and South walls, conclusion and bibliography
Introduction. The History of Wat Bo
Located in the central-eastern part of modern-day Siem Reap, Wat Bo, also known as Wat Reach Bo, is the largest and most important of the town, housing more than 100 monks. The monastery has always enjoyed great popularity, especially for its annexed schools teaching arts and crafts, local music, dance and drama, in addition to Pali and, more recently, English language teaching. Quite interestingly, at the side of the residence of the abbot, the Venerable Pin Sen, there is a unique botanical garden of local plants and shrubs, which is of great interest to tropical botanists.
The vihara, or main chapel hall, of Wat Bo was built at the end of the nineteenth century on the site of the previous ancient bricks and wood structure. The vihara is decorated with remarkable murals presumed painted sometime between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century when Siem Reap province was under control under Siamese influence.
The inner walls of the vihara are decorated with scenes from a local rendition of the Rama story, a narrative with its roots in the Indic epic, Ramayana. These murals are some of the most important paintings in all of Cambodia and mainland Southeast Asia.
They are also among the best for their precision of design, balance of volume and sense of movement and the originality of the ‘patchwork’ arrangement of the panels.
Most particular is the western wall for having a continuous sequence of panels in superimposed registers. This wall depicts a series of conflated myths starting with the myth of Hiran/Vishnu, the foundation of Ayuthaya and Lanka, the fight of Atchaban/Asura Prohm, the fight of Shiva/Triburam, the legend of Nonthok (Nandakan), the youth of Ravana, the story of Achana and Khodom, the birth of Valin and Sugriva, Sawaha and the birth of Hanuman, the myth of Manimekkala/Ramasoon, the tilting of the palace of Shiva and its straightening by Sukrip pulling a naga. The last panel of the western wall shows the beautiful daughter of the king of the nagas being given as gift to Latsatian. In this paper, this compact group of events is conventionally referred to as the ‘preamble’, which finds its most complete explanation in the narrative of the Thai Ramakien and Cambodian Trai Beht. I follow the former because there is a 1968 publication of the Ramakien and I have access to its first version of King Rama I (1782-1809) through the translation of my colleague Fritz Goss. I do not have the full text of the TraiBhet in which events are narrated in a different order than the Ramakien. The analogies and differences Ramakien - Trai Bhet will be discussed in Part II conclusions.
The artists were not a trained painters, but designers and cutter of leather figures for the shadow theatre, the scenes/panels are presented as a sequence as they would appear during the representation of the shadow theatre. However, the murals are not individually framed on a white background, as in the shadow theatre, but are multi-coloured, displayed in a ‘patchwork’, the only such display that has been found in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.
In the Wat Bo vihara, in addition to the murals depicting the story of Rama, there is a large very degraded panel illustrating an episode of the Nimi Jataka at the base of the western wall behind the altar. On the opposite eastern wall is a mural depicting Jujuka in a market villa, a scene from the Vessantara Jataka.
Dating the murals
The murals of Wat Bo are undated and no records exist to indicate the period during which the painting were created.
According to Madeleine Giteau, they were painted between 1920 and 1924 by an artist named Ta peul and his nephew Kong Dith, at the request of the venerable Chau Athikar of Wat Bo (2004: 19). These findings were confirmed to Giteau, during her research in the 1960s together with one of the pupil of the master painter Ta Peul and the villagers that knew the painter.
Both artists were also designers of leather skins figures for the shadow theatre, the Sbek Thom. Accordingly, they introduced elements of the shadow theatre as demonstrated by the similitude with the figures and performance of the Sbek Thom leather skins, even in the conception of costumes and movement.
Népote & Gamonet disagreed (2002:19). They believed that the murals date from 1887-1890, painted by the artists Nep Poeung and his father, both makers of shadow puppets figures that were commonly produced at the Wat Bo monastery around that period.
Together with Sothon Yem, I had an interview with the abbot of Wat Bo in March 2012, We learned that the painter had been Ta Touch, a mixed Khmer-Chinese artist from the village of Roluos, remembered for always smoking a pipe, with the murals being painted soon after the construction of the vihara (date unknown). The wooden doors and window shutters were carved by the monk Minh, while the pediments over the doors and the windows, reproducing monkeys and Rama’s compatriots fighting yak (now covered with silver paint) were modeled by cheang Yu, Cheang means artist in Khmer in a style similar to that crafted by cheang Nhich at Wat Damrei Sor (Battambong).
The influence of the models designed for the shadow theater (Sbek Thom) is undeniable and acknowledged by all scholars. The dating of the paintings appear to have coincided with the popularity of the shadow theater school in Siem Reap, and the popularization of theatrical performances including elements of the Ramakien, which had been embraced by Siem Reap artists. In contrst, it is possible that the figures and events pained by the artists influenced the creation of the leather-cut figures for the shadow theater.
The assumption that Wat Bo was painted at the end of the 19th century (1887-90), is questionable. We contend that the themes illustrated are from the same source that inspired Mi Chak, who had memorized in 1920 a manuscript written down in the 1960s. Both include a preamble clearly narrated in the Ramkien(and Trai Beth) but not represented on the murals of the Silver Pagoda of Phnom Penh, which was completed in1903.
Considering that Siem Reap was under Siamese control until 1907 the strong cultural exchange between Cambodia and Thailand, at the turn of the 19th century, and the carving of the Siamese coat of arms over Wat Bo eastern main door, it seems evident that the vihara was planned during the period of the Siamese occupation. It is possible that the murals were painted later, probably in the 1920s as claimed by M. Giteau to celebrate the leading success of the monastery of Wat Bo.
Restoration of the murals
According to the report of Hans & Esther Leisen, the murals seem to have been restored when the vihara was renovated in 1940, including raising the roof and the plastering of the areas below and above the decaying paintings (2003:80). The authors did a study on the condition of the murals and listed recommendations for their conservation. During the course of our reading of the murals, we have noticed coarse re-painting around the figures and progressive water damage causing the thinning of the paint (see fig.21North). In this regard, it would appear that further repairs to the roof, tiles and gutters are urgently needed.
Textual source for the paintings
It is noteworthy that the murals of Wat Bo illustrate many scenes of the Rama epic that do not appear in the best known Cambodian version of the Rama epic, Reamker 1 of the 16-17th century studied by Saveros Pou (1977) and later translated of Judith Jacob (1986). Giteau suggested the depictions in Wat Bo murals may have been derived from the text of the Okña Veang Thiounn (OVT), which she considered a sort of short version of the Thai Ramakien (1999:183).
The first 30 panels at Wat Bo western wall, illustrate what we have labeled the ‘preamble’, which appears in its most complete in the narrative of the Thai Ramakien, and, as I discovered later, with the Cambodian Trai Beht as narrated by the bard MiChak (Bizot 1989),
The Trai Bhet is a text composed in prose, at the latest at the end of the second half of the 17th century (de Bernon, 2003:80); although the assumption amongst Cambodians of the great antiquity of the Tray Bhet was based on Brahmanical references, and thus a pre-Buddhist piece of literature. The attribution of the Trai Bhet to the legend of Rama was forgotten together with its teaching (Olivier de Bernon 1994:79.)The text narrative is similar to that of the Ramayana, The names of the protagonists are systematically different. The text starts with a genesis of deities and personified elements, before becoming a vague tale of the Rama epic (Leclère 1899).
the initial battles amongst gods and demi-gods, the story of Nonkot and of the ascetic Kodom, followed by the origin of Bali, Sugrib and Hanuman, the misadventure Ravana trying to obtain one of Shiva’a wives, and the creation of an underground city competing in beauty of Lanka, ruled by Ravana. Contemporaneously, the city of Ayutthaya, created for Anomatan was governed by Atchaban ancestor of king Dasaratha. The legend of Kayakasei repairing the axle of the chariot on while her husband was fighting Ravana, is clearly narrated.
Dasaratha request to have children required ritual having the ascetic Kalaikot preparing 3 balls of rice for each of his queens resulting with the birth of Rama, Lakshmana from a queen and Subrib and Biruth from another. From here the text narrates the adventures of Rama. The narrative continues like that of the Ramakien but only until the death of Ravana.
In Cambodia there are today few manuscripts of the Traibhet, one translated by Khing Hok Dy in 1990, (Manuscript No.110 EFEO) and another summarised by Olivier de Bernon in 2003 found in the southern monastery of Angkor Wat. I believe that although they are from different manuscripts, they are both copies of a unique ancient tale////////////////////////////////////
In the 1960s, the bard Mi Chak narrated what he had memorized in 1920 a palm leaf manuscript of the monastery of Angkor Wat South (Bizot 1973) where he had been a bonze for nine years. Because his excellent memory, diction, and clear voice he soon became a celebrated storyteller. His story was
The narrative of the Trai Bhet of MiChak begins with a cosmological introduction: There were the 8 ascetics (rishis) of directions that created water, earth and rice. They were concerned on who could run the world. Some proposed Brah Bay (The wind-god), others preferred Jambu Pubvakas Nag (a snake-god). It was decided to have the two confronting each-other in single combat. Jambu rolled herself around Mount Sumer 7 times, opening her hood creating darkness on earth. Brah Bay, riding a white horse with red mouth, raised with his crystal wand a terrible storm that dried the intestines of the naga. Brandishing his sword he cut the head of the defeated naga who expressed the wish to have his heads divided in three parts: one for paradise, the other for the middle place, and the last for the hell. The head’s middle part, gave birth to Tav Tara who asked the 8 rishis to be granted to have children. Seven rishis abstained but one gave her 12 morsels of rice with which the ascetic Kalaiyakot conceived 12 children (the 12 brothers of Ravana).It become the n a story similar to that of the Ramayana. In fact Khing believes that the Traiphet sources are to be found in the Uttatrakanda of the Ramayana and in the Bhagavata Purana, with the exception of the cosmogony part that could have been derived from an unknown Pali text (Khing 1990: 57)
In part 2 Conclusions I will return on the topic of the Texts that inspired the murals.
The reading and decoding of Wat Bo murals is strenuous because of the extravagant sequential order invented by the artists. The upper registers high on the walls are far from the viewer, dark and in a poor state of preservation. Furthermore, at the corners, most of the panels have been damaged by water infiltration from the roof.
The way the artists made the unrolling of the narrative is totally unusual and the reader must be assisted.
It starts from the top left corner of the highest register of each wall, progressing from left to right, then moves in the opposite direction in the middle register (right to left), followed again by a reading from left to right in the lowest register.
The narrative on the lower register of the West continues on the upper register of the upper North register. However, the upper register of the East wall continues on the upper register of the South wall, perhaps to better unfold the narrative of the early life of Rama.
In this paper I do not use the marvelous slides donated to me by Dr.Olivier de Bernon, taken in 1994 by EFEO team using scaffolding and strong artificial lighting. Those photographs were used for the chapter on Wat Bo in my beautiful book “In the shadow of Rama” printed by River Books, Bangkok in 2015.
In here, I use instead the photographs taken by myself with the camera Nikon D200 and various objectives including a fix tele.200: 2.8,; and by my colleague Yem Sothon with his Nikon D100 and zoom lens up to 200: 2.8. We took dozens of unusable pictures for lack of light before having the decent sett presented here. The research and photographing started in 2001 and ended in 2009. For this page, I often enhanced pictures with Photoshop.
Description of murals
The western wall is unique and not found in any of the Cambodian Reamker versions. It starts with the origin of Earth, saved by Vishnu from a jhak (monster) Hiran who had cut it to pieces and rolled up as a carpet. Metamorphosing himself as a ferocious white boar, Vishnu killed the jack and saved our planet.
Soon after while Vishnu was resting on Ananta in meditation, from his body a boy was born, Anomatan. When presented to Shiva, the god gave order to build a marvelous town for the boy: It was Ayutthaya, ruled by king Atchaban.
The story then switches to the fight of Shiva against jaks who wanted to destroy him and his power.
They all were defeated (Asura Prom, Triburan).
The murals of the western wall make a several references to the underground world of demonic people the hjaks and nagas ruled by a powerful naga king Chaturapak.
Brahma (Preah Prohm) build for them an underground town that was later moved to the island of Lanka and ruled by a horrifying jak Laksatian and by his son Ravana. To notice here that Brahma took slightly the side of the bad people (yaks) in all the Ramakien narrative.
The western wall terminates with the legend on Nonthok, who, at death reincarnated in Ravana.
Many adventures of Ravana follow, together with those of king Orachyum, who became a hermit with the name of Kodum, marrying later in life and fathering a girl and his disloyal wife had two boys named Sugrib and Valin who will be important in the development of the Ramakien narrative.
All the above narrative in unknown ion the Reamker or its variants.
I suggest that, the Wat Bo’s murals of the western wall may have been based on some version of the Cambodian Trai Bhet, composed, at the latest, at the end of the second half of the 17th century(de Bernon, 2003:80). It is an old Khmer pre-Buddhist text of which the attribution to the legend of Rama had been forgotten (Olivier de Bernon 1994). It contains a cosmological preamble to the legend of Rama, revealing the genealogy of the main characters and a tale of their origin. The discussion of Traibeht, Reamker-Ramakien will be discussed in detail at the end of part 2.
Description of photograph will be explained in the next chapter.