Monday, 5 March 2018


Archaeology of image N.20                                                         

Iconoclasm in Cambodia

By Vittorio Roveda

Text and [pictures copyright)


By iconoclasm I intend the deliberate destruction of images (icons) by a group of religious members of a sect that enjoyed to disrupt the devotion to a God or a king by a group of people previously in command. Usually it occurs for religious reasons or either for political reasons, the hate of a bad leader.

Iconoclasts mean the individual or group of people who challenges cherished beliefs or venerated institutions, on the grounds that they are erroneous or dangerous.

In Cambodia, after the death of Jayavarman VII, who reigned 1182-1220, there was a revolutionary change of regime, with uprising of the local population, combined with change in religion from Mahayana to Theravada Buddhism, accompanied by the public destruction of statues and monuments identified with the previous regime.

In Cambodia this phenomenon is known as the “Shivaite reaction”, the destruction of temples and statues of Buddhas and Avalokiteshvara erected by Jayavarman VII.


There is no general consensus on who operated this iconoclasm, but Dagens suggested (2003: 180) that the “Shivaite reaction” may have been incited by an excessive sect of Shiva’s followers, a sect locally developed or imported from India by a personage like Sarvajnamuni who became the highest ‘guru’ of Jayavarman VIII. For Dagens (2003:179) the Shivaite reaction that generated iconoclasm aimed at images of Buddha, especially Buddha on naga) and, to a lesser degree the portraits of the king and his family. The motivation of iconoclasm is also unknown; Dagens (2003: 180) assumes being in the radical Shivaism practiced with fervor by a sect probably under the patronage of Jayavarman VIII, and in total contrast to the increasing populism of Buddhism that he had started. These two elements could justify a movement that was more politic than religious, trying to destroy all traces of a regime based on Mahayana and a new ideology. It seems also possible that this sect was indoctrinated and radicalized by a rishis or”Holy man”, local or coming from India because such an extreme sect was unknown in Cambodia. The teacher and guru of Jayavarman VIII was Sarvajnamuni obsessed and apparently come left India “to gain the favours of Shiva by coming to Cambodia” (Dagens 2003:180). From the Bayon’s reliefs of daily life we can imagine that the powerful sect heated the convivial eating amongst people and using their fingers; the sect wanted to continue practicing worshiping and rituals of Indian Shivaism.  When the iconoclasm started and how long it lasted are unknown, but it seems to have started 30 years after the death of Jayavarman VII (1220?), sustained by an ruler not yet defined.


Evidence of iconoclasm is strong at Bayon .The most outrageous destructive force was that used for breaking the most venerated image of Buddha on naga placed in the central shrine, the site of maximum spirituality. It was hammered to pieces and thrown into the temple’s water well. It was recovered and rebuilt by members of the EFEO and until now (2008) visible in a special shrine built for it.  Almost unbelievable was the unfinished defacing of some of the gigantic faces of Bayon’s central sanctuary; furthermore all lintels or pediment with Buddha’s image were defaced.

By defacing it is meant the damage to the appearance of something, to disfigure, the deliberate destruction or damage to the face (dis-face) of a disliked ruler and his making.

All Jayavarman VII temples were affected by iconoclasm in the Angkor Park and closer edges.

All the enclosure walls of Jayavarman VII temples were capped by endless series of finials carved with a small image of Buddha or Lokeshvara. By the iconoclasm they have been all systematically destroyed, chiseled out. I have found a few miraculously intact on the eastern enclosure wall of Ta Prohm. Temple remote from Angkor Region were not all defaced; Beng Mealea, and Prah Khan of Kampong Sway only partially), but nothing at Banteay Chhmar,

Jayavarman is a source of myth and debate now. Was-he actually a Khmer or a Cham[1]? His reign was certainly revolutionary, and appears at first glance to have come out of nowhere. His cult was Mahayana Buddhism flourishing Champa. In many different ways he presented himself as a Boddhisatva, a Buddha-to-be – as an Avalokiteshvara as the Dalai Lama is.

In Cambodia the “Shivaite reaction” was accompanied by a strong reaction against him and his Mahayana state religion, against the very person of Jayavarman VII’s and his family. He was considered responsible for the total impoverishment of Cambodia’s resources, created gigantic Mahayana monuments and religious centers all over vast areas. To build these monuments, being many and colossal, hundreds of stone-masons were needed, arranged in workshops or corporations, without qualifications. Artistic ability was not required, even when some clever modifications/alteration was requested.

The period of Jayavarman VII was a high point in art production: within 50 years or less he erected his temples with Buddhist imagery, taken as the benchmark for all next temples. He had many statues in his semblances to be distributed to the outposts of his Empire. Jayavarman VII was able to unite Hindu Khmer clans with Khmer princedoms and forced them to convert to Buddhism (Mahayana). The assumption that so many temples were erected and completed by Jayavarman VII disagrees with that of C. Jacques who believes that it was Jayavarmnan VIII (1243-1295) who built and completed the construction of most of the unfinished temples of Jayavarman VII.

Iconoclasm was not mentioned or noticed in the records of the Chinese visitor Zhou Daguan, who,  in 1297 mentioned only  the existence in Cambodia of 3 religious groups: the pundit  (or baku Brahmins);the bonzes (Buddhist monks) and the Taoist, yogin certainly shivaite because they venerated a simple  stone (in the shape of a linga), did not share food with others, nor eat in public. The latter of these the three religions by Z .Daquan signifies that (Dagens 3003:181) they may previously enjoyed success (implying they may be the last end of the sect that caused iconoclasm). Noticed that the presence of brahmins survived till recent times amongst Cambodian and Thai royal household and that are part of the cultural inheritance that shaped SE Asia.

The assumption that the destruction of Buddhist images took place during the rule of Jayavarman VIII (grandson of Jayavarman VII) 1243-1295, during the tense transition from Hinduism to Theravada Buddhism, is denied by the fact that not only images of the Buddha and Lokeshvara were defaced, but that many were transformed into the Shivaite symbol linga, an action unthinkable to the dominant Theravada monks of the late 14th century.

In conclusion, iconoclasm must have taken place during the rule of a King that allowed a Shivaite sect to gain much power and perpetrate an intense rapid destruction.


I would like to mention a phenomenon observed by myself: The personal irrational destruction, with good final intention of Buddhist cultural heritage.

 Common examples in nowadays Cambodia are monks who destroy an old vihara or refectory decorated with nice and important murals, to build an entirely new vihara in order for the head monk or abbot to gain merits, gain money from sponsors and be proud for his innovation. He should inform local authorities, Universities or scholars assiduity working on Cambodian heritage.

               Less damaging were the vandals[2] who amused themselves by painting elements of Khmer temples (Battambong) or the face of some apsara particular venerate at Ta Prohm. Most vicious of all are the vandals or criminals who carved out, removed or stole Cambodian antiquities to sell to collectors, mainly westerners. This now has been stopped and we see a satisfactory return to Cambodia of pieces stolen in slightly older time.

Finally we cannot escape nature: earthquakes, monsoons, typhoons cause great damages to temples, often causing the collapse of badly constructed monuments of with inadequate foundations. Sometimes the sandstone blocks were  broken or damaged as in the case of the Churning of the Ocean of Milk of the Inner Gallery of Angkor Wat. now restored.

In short, there are many questions surrounding the iconoclasm and few answers. What is sure is that nothing is permanent.


Dagens Bruno, Les Khmers, Les belles letters, Paris.2003





Fig.1, 2 and 3. Bayon – Three different point of view of the beginning of iconoclastic defacing of a face of the central tower (2006)

Fig4 – Bayon. .Another view of a defaced tower.     

Fig.5 – Bayon – Normal face-towers
Fig.6 – Bayon, Inner Gallery -  Inner door frame with three Buddha’s reliefs defaced from the

wall’s corniche.
Fig.7 – Bayon -  Inner Gallery’s niches with shrines in which the Buddha’ were defaced
Fig.8 – Bayon - Outer Gallery with a scene of a convivial eating with hands, reflecting the populism

Initiated during Jayavarman VII reign.

Fig.9 Bayon – Low relief niche with defaced Budda’s images

 Fig.10 – Bayon- The celebrated colossal statue of Buddha on Naga now venerated at Prasat Prampill.

Fig.11-12 – Bayon. Ex-pediemnts over the sbhrine facing the Central Nassif, asubjet to various degree of destruction in Fig.11 it is possible to sse the beginning of carfving out the legs. In the nexzt photograph (Fig.12) the torso ha been defacede into a linga, but the legs remined (Photo Jaro Poncar 2005).









Fig.13,14 – On the firts picture it is possible to see the entire defaced Buddha,whilel on the nexct picture (Fig.14) the traces of the linga are clearly visible (Photo Jaro Poncar 205).

Fig.15 –Bayon - Exposed Inner Galler, carved with the scene of the  Churning of the Ocean of Milk.
To the left and right the bloks were chipped away when fell on grounf ages ago or by iconoiclasts. The EFEO archtects did recontruct it in an adnmirable way. To th left of the man with sperad legs is the jar containing the Amrita and to its left is Vishnu hanging of a column symbolic of Mount Meru.

Fig.16,and 17 -  Wat Baset (Battambong)  - Various pictures of the fantasy of vandal who amused themselves in the temple’s ruines (Iphoto 2002a)

Fig.18 Wat Baset – a nicely decorated Khmer lintel by a modern vandal.

Fig.19 – Wat Pol Chen ( Kampong Thom) The important mural paintings are shown hanging from a thin structure that eventually collapsed shattering this and other reliefs (see Roveda & Yem,2009: 167,169). Apparently the monks wanted only to change the roof, ignoring the flimsy structure supporting it and the rotten foundations (Phothograph by a RUFA student, September 2017).


Fig.20 and Fig.21 -  Wat Pol Chen (Kampong Thom ). Shards and cement of the historical mural of Prince Sihanuk carrying relics From Buddha’s crematikon together with his future wife Monineath and commander Kaem Kan (see Roveda& Yem, 2009: 167). 

Fig.22 – Preah Vihear, view of the scattered slab behind the entrance cella of the main sanctuary (originally in the shape of a Khmer tower). This tower was pulled down by human forces probably Laotian mercenaries using elephants and ropes, according to legend. How the stone slabs were made to fall on each other is also visible in the 2 photos picture {from the Helicopter in 2006)

Fig23. In the last rectangular enclosure is possible to see the stone blocks that were the components of the tower


[1] Doubt expressed to me by Michael VIckery on January 2002.
[2] The Vandals were a savage tribe if eastern Europe that in the Middle Age invaded Wet Europe destroying or pillaging anything on their road. Thus vandalism is synonymous of destruction without meaning..

No comments:

Post a Comment