Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Wat Bo: Conclusion

Wat Bo: My Concluding Personal View on the Murals

In my book of 2015 (In the Shadow of Rama) I took into consideration the Thai Ramakien as the most explanatory text of the murals of Wat Bo. Now I start to give more wait to the story of a Cambodian text, the Trai Beht, especially in the narrative of Mi Chak (in French by Bizot 1989).
 The Trai Beht and the version of MiChak explains most of the events painted on the western wall of Wat Bo, but in a different sequential order of painted murals,
This first chapters is cosmogonic insofar it includes the creation of the first beings, of deities, the origin of the Sun, moon and planets, origin of the zodiac.
In the 1960s, the bard Mi Chak narrated what he had memorized from a palm leaf manuscript of the monastery of Angkor Wat South in 1920 (Bizot 1973) when he was a bonze for nine years. Because his excellent memory, diction, and clear voice he soon became a celebrated storyteller. He was engaged by François Bizot to record his story on tape in 1969 to be  published it in1989 (Roveda &Yem, 2009:  238) This is the text to which I prefer to use, being neatly narrated and illustrated with the murals of the Silver Pagoda of Phnom Penh.
Over the years I have formulated the theory that in Cambodia the Khmer elite used, since the 8th century, the Sanskrit language that had its best development in the 12th century with appreciation of Sanskrit Valmiki’s Ramayana. It seems that Sanskrit gradually disappeared by the 15thcentury with social, economic and religious dramatic changes. Sankrit had been the language of the aristocracy and purohitas (master gurus), the Cambodian language used by lay people becoming populist already from the time of Jayavarman VII. Pali language was exclusive of the samga.
All Southeastern Asia countries were touched by the Indian Ramayana, each localizing it to their own needs and costumes, sometimes Buddhisized (seeds in the Reamker) or left in its original vernacular form (the TraiBeth of common people).In some countries, the story of Rama became almost unrecognizable (Paula Rich man 1991).
In Southeast Asia it developed by itself amongst the lay population by storytellers, shadow theatre and ballet, in Cambodian Middle Age the only form of education and entertainment
There is also the possibility that the Traibehet may have been taken as a booty by the Siamese during repeated invasions of Cambodia. Or it may have been developed by Khmer artists that worked in Siam, as prisoners or as free students of Siamese culture. It may be that the Siamese had independently developed their own rendition of Rama’s epic rendered in writing by the scribes composing the Ramakien by order of King Rama I (1782-1809).
It may be, finally, that the sponsor of Wat Bo was a Thai monk or erudite person.
In conclusion, at Wat Bo, the west wall’s murals could have been connected to three traditions:

1 – with the Traibeht starting with the creation of the Cosmos with Anukaro and Anukara and continue till the adventures of Ravana
2 – with the Ramaker of MiChak starting with the creation of the world.
2 – With the Ramakien starting with Vishnu, in his white boar incarnation, killing the demon Hiran who wanted to steal and destroy Earth.
3 –Not from the Cambodian ReamkerI that does not have any kind of introduction, The narrative starts well later, with the story of Ram killing the crow Kakanasur and of the episode of Janaka adopting Sita during the royal plowing ceremony (Jacob 1986: 1,2).

Now the main question arises

Why the Cambodian ideators and painters did not choose the Treibeht?

I believe that the monks and painters knew about the Cambodian Trai Beht hidden in the palm laves monasteries or Institutions but preferred to use a popular printed version of the Siamese Ramakien easily available from Bangkok. The Trai beht is known amongst the clergy, being painted on the external wall of Wat Bo Kraom (Siem Reap) and of Wat Sampov (Battamnbong).
My assertion that Wat Bo’s murals depict events of the Thai Ramakien rather than the Cambodian Reamker may contradict the expectation of nationalist readers. Furthermore the Ramakien may disturb those interpreting the story of Rama as the story of a Bodhisatta by giving priority to Buddhist meaning to the Reamker, believing that the populistic Ramakien has marginalized ‘cleaner’ versions of the story of Rama. I share the opinion of Paula Richman (1991:4), in believing that the appropriation of the story by a multiplicity of groups means a multiplicity of ideological concerns of each Ramayana text (and its derivatives) reflects the social location and ideology of those who appropriate it.
The date of the Trai Beht manuscripts is attributed to the “Middle Period” (1500-1900) of the history of Cambodia and the Ramakien to early 1800. To know if the Trai Beth was earlier than the Reamker or vice versa will be a serious cause of controversy until further evidence will be discovered.

             In my interpretation of Wat Bo narrative (Ramakien) I willingly stood away from any religious, social and ideological context normally elaborated by the preferences of the reader.
I believe in here we are dealing with a masterpiece, not only for the remarkable ability of the painters, but for the intellect of the person/s who ideate and assemble the images respecting, with verve, the thread of the original text.

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 The End

Bangkok January 2017

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