The head and body of a seventh-century Khmer statue were at last reunited on Thursday in Phnom Penh after an international agreement was brokered that allowed the head to be brought home to Cambodia from Paris, where it had spent the last 126 years.
After over a decade of negotiations that involved France’s Ministry of Culture and Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, the head was formally set on the body during a ceremony at the National Museum, where the complete statue will now reside.
“Making this happen will have taken years,” museum director Kong Vireak said at the event.
The pre-Angkorian statue depicts Harihara, a combined representation of two Hindu deities, Vishnu and Shiva. Its disembodied head was found in the early 1880s by French official Etienne Aymonier at Phnom Da mountain in Takeo province, according to Pierre Baptiste, curator of the Southeast Asian collection at the Musee Guimet in Paris.
“This head was among the artifacts that were sent to France—with King Norodom’s authorization—to show the importance of Khmer art, and from 1889 on, it was exhibited at the Musee Guimet,” he said.
During the 20th century, excavations at Phnom Da unearthed numerous statues plus a headless torso broken into several pieces, Mr. Baptiste said. They were brought to the National Museum, where they pieced it together, never knowing for certain if the head in France was the match.
“It’s only recently that we were able to make a cast of the upper part of the statue in Phnom Penh and bring it to France to check whether our head actually matched that body,” he said.
Once the match was confirmed, the diplomatic process began—the Musee Guimet agreed to permanently loan the Harihara’s head to the National Museum, while Cambodia offered a permanent loan of the pedestal of a 10th-century Cambodian statue that is in the French museum’s collection.
And so Harihara’s head and body were at last joined together.
“It was a perfect fit,” said Chea Socheat, the museum’s deputy director of conservation, who sealed the pieces together.