Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Interpreting Angkor

Art and Empire in the Hindu-Buddhist World
The monuments left by the Khmer empire offer one of the most striking examples of how art reflects politics and how politics shapes art.

It does so in two ways, first by legitimising of the political authority of the sovereign, and second by reflecting the drive for imperial power through war and peace-making.

The Bayan in Angkor Thom is the place to look for a snapshot of the intimate linkage between art and politics in classical Southeast Asia.

The Faces of Bayon

                            The face of Avalokitesvara  in falling rain is a magnificent sight  
The Bayon was at the heart of the Khmer royal capital of Angkor Thom and offers  a thoroughly secular and political statement of life in the Angkor period. It has gone through different phases of religious patronage by the rulers. One signpost is the alternation between Hinduism and Buddhism, as legitimisation strategies of the rulers after periods of rise and decline of the Khmer empire. For example, Jayavarman VII built the monument to reflect his Mahayan Buddhist beliefs as the ruling ideology of Angkor. His embrace of Buddhism in what had been a staunch Hindu ruling class might have been partly due to disillusionment with Hinduism, including Shaivism, in failing to protect the empire from defeat in the hands of the rival Champa. But his successors, who struggled with the burden of empire that Jayavarman built, the greatest in Angkor history, turned to Hinduism as their fortunes declined. Hence Budhist images on the walls of Angkor were defaced and replaced with Hindu deities. These defacements can be seen quite clearly today.

Bayon defaced Buddha with Hindu Deity superimposed

The bas reliefs of Bayon are full of secular depictions of daily life in Angkor, capturing its multicultural makeup, the social life of the inhabitants and the political role of the ruling elite, including the powerful Brahmin clergy.

Social Scenes

War and Violence

"Using the city of Angkor as capital...the Khmer empire expanded its territorial base, mostly to the north (entering the Khorat plateau) and the west, to the Chao Phraya basin and beyond. To the east outcomes were different: several times the Khmer fought wars against two neighboring peoples with powerful kingdoms, the Cham (in today’s central Vietnam) and the Vietnamese (in today’s northern Vietnam). Despite some victories, as in 1145 CE, when Cham’s capital Vijaya was taken, the empire was never able to annex those lands. Conversely, Chams and Vietnamese enjoyed some victories of their own, the most spectacular of which was Cham’s humiliating revenge, looting Angkor (1177 CE) and pushing the empire to the edge of destruction." (http://www.ancient.eu/Khmer_Empire/)

The most vivid illustrations of warfare in Bayon depict battles between Chams and Khmers.  The reliefs in Bayon show the Cham defeating the Khmer, as well as the Khmer counter-attack and eventual victory that firmly re-established Angkor’s supremacy over its neighbour.

a Khmer soldier killing a Cham soldier

One interesting facet of the story told in bas reliefs is a scene where a retreating Khmer army if being pursued by Cham soldiers. It would be odd for a ruler to show defeat of his own forces in the hands of foreign invading forces. But this anomaly could be explained by the fact that Jayavarman VII was himself being helped by the Chams to recapture powers by defeating the ruler who had usurped the throne of Angkor.

                                              Khmer Army Retreating from Cham Attack

Scenes of Battle

A Khmer royalty wounded in battle

Cham war elephant 

A solider being eaten by a crocodile in a river battle

Elephant Terrace in Angkor Thom

Punishment Chambers


                                               ANGKOR WAT

Angkor Wat is the largest temple complex in the world. Although of less political import than the Bayon complex, it nonethless was a legitimating device for the rulers of Angkor. The bass reliefs of Angkor Wat depict scenes from Ramayana. The design and structure of the Angkor Temple is unlike anything in India. There are significant variations in the appearance of Rishi,Apsaras,Rama and Hanumana. Angkor Wat vividly illustrates the localization of Indian art and design.

King Suryavarmana

Rama and Hanumana at War




Battle Scenes from Ramayana (Angkor Wat)

                                                                         BANTAY SREI