The Multifarious Temple Art of Jayavarman VII and the French Orientalist Interest in Cambodia

Conference: The Asian Conference on Asian Studies (ACAS2022)
Title: The Multifarious Temple Art of Jayavarman VII and the French Orientalist Interest in Cambodia
Stream: Indian and South Asian Studies
Presentation Type: Live-Stream Presentation
Punam Madhok, East Carolina University, United States


Dating between ninth and thirteenth centuries CE, the temples of Angkor are remains of the acclaimed Khmer Empire. Some of the most impressive among them were constructed during the reign of Jayavarman VII (reigned c. 1181-1218 CE), a devout Buddhist. He was emulating Ashoka (reigned 272-231 BCE), who had mounds called ‘stupas’ erected all over India. Jayavarman’s Bayon is the magnum opus of Khmer sacred architecture. Carved into its towers are large faces, that have defied easy interpretation. Are they Shiva, Brahma, Lokeshvara, Vajrasattva or Hevajra? Jayavarman dedicated temples to deified family-members - Preah Khan to his father, Ta Prohm to his mother, and Banteay Chhmar to his chosen protégé. The mythical eagle, Garuda, and multi-headed serpent, naga, feature prominently on these temples. A project with remedial power that has survived is Neak Pean, built in reverence of Buddha Bhaisajyaguru. Dancing maidens, Apsaras or Yoginis, are carved on many temple walls. Jayavarman had halls attached to temples where living damsels would perform ritual dances. They have inspired the creation of classical Cambodian ballet of today. After Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863, Louis Delaporte (1842-1925), a young French naval officer, made fanciful watercolors of Angkor temples and usurped statues that are now housed in Paris’ Guimet museum. Drawing upon my field trip of December 2019, I wish to explore further the amalgamation of Buddhist and Hindu imagery on these temples as well as the French orientalist interest in this region.

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