14: Aesthetic Foundations of Angkor


Statues in the round

While the Angkor era was the Golden Age of Khmer art, the preceding era laid the groundwork for the flowering. The art and architecture of the Khmer kingdoms of Funan and Chenla were initially inspired by foreign sources, mainly India. Then they broke out on their own - in a big way.

Up to the 6th century, there is no evidence of stone statuary. However there had probably been statues of wood and bronze, as evidenced by the sophistication of the later stone work. According to some sources, this stonework is some of the world’s most magnificent. Although the early stone carving from the area is clearly based upon Indian prototypes, Khmer art quickly mixed native and foreign traditions to create an emergent art form that was uniquely their own.

For instance, many sandstone statues in the round have been found from this period. Freestanding sculptures were definitely a Khmer innovation. This was a clear break from India, where there were only steles, with scenes carved into the stone. Gupta India had no sculptures in the round at that time.

As indicated by later developments, this statuary was probably housed in wood or brick shrines - none of which survive. This is corroborated by Chinese accounts of splendid wood buildings, which were carved and painted. As we shall see, these shrines were definitely inspired by Indian prototypes.


While the style was distinctly Khmer, the subject matter was Indian. The stone cult images of the Funan/Chenla era were mostly Hindu deities. Some freestanding Buddhas have been found - but these were probably created at a later date. The gods included - Vishnu and his incarnation, Krishna, - Shiva lingams and his wife Uma - and Harihara.

Harihara was the best known of the Khmer divinities. He is a combination of Vishnu (Hari) and Shiva (Hara). This god epitomizes the syncretic nature of Southeast Asian culture. This exhibits a ‘both-and' mentality, rather than the 'either-or' mindset that is prevalent in the West.

This divinity is portrayed with Vishnu on the left and Shiva on the right. Vishnu is shown with a crown and his symbols - the solar disk, a shell and a club. Alternately Shiva is portrayed with matted locks, with half of his 3rd eye visible, and holding his symbols, the trident and the lance.

Harihara, also known as Sambu-Vishnu or Sankara-Narayana, emerged in the Indian classical period when sectarian movements favoring one over the other had faded out. This god represented a compromise between the two opposing groups. He illustrates the equivalence of Vishnu and Shiva. The emergence of this god represented the realization that all gods are manifestations of the same divine force.

While the worship of this god was never that widespread in India, he found special favor amongst the Khmer, especially in the 6th to 7th century. This is indicated by inscriptions and images from that period. Again the Khmer have taken Hindu religion from India and made it their own. In many ways, Harihara is the Khmer’s consummate deity. The underlying philosophy that he represents also epitomizes much of the religious expression of the entire territory of Southeast Asia.

For instance in modern Thailand, both gods are worshipped, or at least respected, by the same Buddhist population. In Bangkok, the magnificent Temple of the Dawn is devoted to Shiva, and the Grand Palace is devoted to Rama, Vishnu’s incarnation. This divine merger of Shiva and Vishnu also plays a big part in the early Javanese religions, as we shall see.

Shiva destroys illusion - Vishnu preserves balance

To come to a deeper understanding of Harihara, we need to dispel a few illusions that have been inadvertently propagated and spread by those with little knowledge. Vishnu and Shiva, along with Brahma are the three primary gods, the Trimurti, of Hinduism. Traditional definitions call Brahma the creator god, because he creates the world. Vishnu is referred to as the preserver god, because he preserves and protects the world, while Shiva is the destroyer god, because he presumably, you guessed it, destroys the world. These descriptors give entirely the wrong impression. For proper understanding we need some modifiers.

Shiva is the God of Yoga. As such, he is involved in the quest for enlightenment, which includes destroying the world of illusion. A key aspect of the realm of illusion is the notion of personal self. The privations of traditional yoga, fasting and meditation, are designed to loosen our attachment to this personal self. This false self is associated with anger, pride, greed, fear, and desire. Accordingly, Shiva is associated with the destruction of our attachment to the concepts that lead to these negative emotions. Because we tend to identify with this false self, believing it to be real, Shiva is frequently vilified and feared. Resisting destruction, our self screams bloody murder. Shiva is really only destroying ignorance, which brings about liberation from suffering - actually a very healthy goal.

Alternately, Vishnu is referred to as the benevolent ‘pacific’ preserver god. One of Vishnu’s features is that he regularly incarnates as a mortal to right the wrongs of this world. Hence he attempts to preserve the peace, the balance. In Vishnu’s most popular incarnations, he is a great warrior. In the Ramayana, Vishnu’s incarnation Rama is a warrior king who rescues his wife by destroying Ravana, a demon, who has been terrorizing both gods and men. In the Mahabharata, Vishnu’s incarnation Krishna is a warrior who becomes Arjuna’s chariot driver for the great battle. As Krishna, Vishnu uses his chakra, or disk, to cut people’s heads off - only when the situation demands it, of course. Further, he always kills with a smile on his face - never in anger. He welcomes his victim and congratulates them on escaping this realm of suffering.

The point is that Vishnu is not a peaceful god devoted to non-violence. Instead he is a warrior committed to fighting social injustice with violence. Vishnu belongs to the royal warrior class, somewhat akin to King Arthur in English mythology. Alternately Shiva is associated with the brahmana class, the wandering ascetic, who has magical powers, akin to Merlin. Neither Shiva, nor Vishnu is a pacifist.

Vishnu the king - Shiva the ascetic

Vishnu belongs to the power elite, while Shiva has transcended this world altogether. While participating in life’s theater, Vishnu knows that it is just a pose - a role that he is playing. He is not attached to the transitory realm of existence, but still plays his part to perfection. This, of course, means that if he is a warrior that he needs to kill, but always for the right reasons. Vishnu wears a crown because he is a king and represents the potential of royal power for transforming a kingdom into a positive world force.

On the other hand, Shiva does not belong to the power structure. He is strictly alternative. He dresses in rags and has human skulls on his belt. He is the mystic who lives on the mountaintop, the hermit who retreats to the wilderness to find truth. He is the non-conformist who doesn’t fit into society because he has rejected social norms.

The blending of the symbols of these two very diverse gods in Khmer statuary represents an acceptance of these polar aspects of our personality, hermit and king, on both individual and social levels. As hermit, we must retreat into quietude to achieve balance. As king, we engage in this world, but detach from results.

This merger of Vishnu and Shiva found practical application in the god-kings, the devarajas, of ancient Java and Cambodia, as well as modern day Thailand, especially in Bangkok. These god-kings, like the ascetic, must also practice austerities in order to purify themselves of emotional attachments. This mental purification also cleanses the kingdom’s population of negative emotions. Because the king is devoted to the well being of his subjects, they are equally devoted to him. At least, this is the ideal.

Numerous kings in these traditions seemed to be devoted to enlightening their subjects. These devarajas accomplished their task by maintaining the peace and building temples that were meant to educate. This strategy is a bit different from that employed by certain of the current Western leaders. These popular rulers create a sense of national unity by going to war or dominating indigenous populations in foreign countries.

In summary, Harihara, a popular god of the Khmer, was symbolic of an orientation to the world that was unique to Southeast Asia. One icon merges worldly power, symbolized by the warrior king, with spiritual power, as symbolized by the ascetic hermit. In some ways, Harihara symbolizes the union of the ‘alternative’ with the ‘establishment’. If humans could but embrace these polar sides of our identity, the world would be a much more harmonious place.

The South India Influence: the Pallava and Chola dynasties

The indigenous traditions certainly provided significant artistic foundations for the magnificent architectural flowering of the Angkorian Empire. However, the Indian, especially South Indian, influence upon the Khmer is undeniable. Centuries of cultural and commercial interaction between the kingdoms of these two regions resulted in a mutual enrichment that can be seen in the motifs and architectural styles of the temples.

For instance, the stone friezes on the walls of Angkor Wat feature the scene of the Churning of the Cosmic Ocean by the Gods and demons. Pillars and sculptures in the Angkor temple complex contain representations of the same theme. Although the story is popular throughout India, artistic representations are rare. However, a temple in Southern India features the same scene on the face of a temple column. It is very similar stylistically to the pillars of Angkor Wat.

Sanskrit inscriptions on the Khmer temple walls regularly refer to Indian scholars and priests settling in Cambodia, often on invitation from the king. The powerful Brahmin priest who created the intimate and exquisite Rose Temple of Banteay Srei located in the greater Angkor temple complex could have been one of these South Indian imports. The many intricately carved Hindu sculptures on the temple certainly indicate a South Indian influence. There is a dancing Shiva above the main doorway. Close by, there is a small, frail female figure that has been identified as a well-known Tamil saint.

While the Pallava Dynasty (third to ninth centuries) exerted a tremendous influence upon the Khmer kingdoms of Funan and Chenla, the Chola Dynasty (ninth to 13th centuries) of South India were contemporaries of the Khmer Empire at Angkor. A significant gift suggests that the two kings of the respective empires were friends. Suryavarman II, the Khmer king that built Angkor Wat, sent a stone all the way from Cambodia as a gift to the Chola king for the famous Shiva Temple that he was building. The South Indian ruler accepted the special present and installed it in his temple with an inscription that informed the world of its Cambodian origin.

A Brahmin scholar from Southern India was the chief priest of Suryavarman II. Many scholars believe that the Hindu priest provided the guidelines by which the Khmer king built Angkor Wat. Accordingly, this famous Khmer temple shares many common architectural features with both Pallava and Chola temples. In similar fashion to the Pallava temples, Angkor Wat consists of three levels or tiers. Each of the upper tiers is slightly smaller than the one below it, giving the structure the look of a pyramid. In similar fashion to some significant Chola temples, Angkor Wat was also meant to represent the sacred Mount Meru.

Indian royal temple as artistic foundation

The royal temple of India was the basis for the classic Indian styles of Southeast Asia. The Hindu temples were always centered on a shrine, which was crowned by a roof tower. In similar fashion, the shrine of Angkor Wat was topped by the lotus tower. These shrines symbolized heaven on earth. As such they represented the cosmic Indian mountain Meru - the hub of creation. The indigenous cultures easily accepted this interpretation, since they already believed that the mountaintop was the natural habitat for spirits and gods.

These temple-shrines always started with a lofty terraced plinth (a block serving as a base), which symbolized the mountain. Then there were towered shrines multiplied on top of the terrace. All of the Angkor temples are of this form - multiple towered shrines on top of a terrace. Although the Buddhist temples of Thailand were always constructed atop the mountain plinth, they didn’t have the multiple towered shrines of Angkor, which are so striking.

While there were many shrines, each shrine always had just one principle focus. The sacred image of the shrine was normally made of stone or bronze. Depending upon the orientation of the ruler, this image might be Shiva as a lingam or Vishnu. If the ruler was of the Mahayana branch of Buddhism this image might be Lokesvara - Lord of the World, or a royal Bodhisattva. The local ruler considered this primary image his celestial alter ego. A good example of this was the Bayon, where the four-headed Buddhas were meant to also suggest the king - the devaraja.

In subsidiary shrines, there were a variety of goddesses. Each was the wife of the featured god and simultaneously the queen of the king, who sponsored the work. These statues were smooth, deeply rounded, and sensuous with varied inflection depending on where they were constructed. Again they were derived from Indian art styles, but were unique to Southeast Asia.

The walls of these shrines contain the inhabitants of heaven and are adorned with rhythmic moldings, foliage and scrollwork. The shrines were mostly constructed in stone, (except Pagan in Burma, where they were made of brick and stucco, after the Northeast Indian model). Temples would grow as successive rulers attempted to outdo each other - maybe even destroying the images of previous dynasties.

This trend can be seen at Angkor. At some of the temples in the complex, the statuary in the inner shrines has been removed and replaced with Buddha statues of a distinctly inferior artistic quality. A shrine to Shiva or Vishnu was thus transformed into a shrine to Buddha.

While the Khmer improvised on the form of the Indian temple, their interpretations were firmly rooted in its tradition. Again they began with Indian architecture, but eventually made it their own. One temple innovation was their magnificent sand stone lintels. These lintels, horizontal cross beams at the top of their doors, were adorned with figures surrounded by foliate plaques - with a long sequence of elaborately carved swags of jewels beneath. The Rose Temple, i.e. Banteay Srei, of Angkor provides an example of this kind.

These lintels are unique to Southeast Asia - not Indian at all. This magnificent art probably found antecedents in the prehistoric spirit shrines of the indigenous people. These are the forefathers of the spirit houses that are found in modern day Thailand and Cambodia.

It is evident that arts and crafts have been an essential feature of the populace of mainland Southeast Asia for millennia. In the Common Era, Indian culture, especially from the dynasties of South India, exerted a signficant influence upon the region. Instead of merely copying their artistic forms, the Khmer of Cambodia blended their unique aesthetic with Indian styles to create some magnificent architectural masterpieces.


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