Withstanding wars, looting and occupations for centuries, mighty stone lions with curly fur and open jaws protected the temples of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Over centuries, the three countries’ former emperors and kings chose an animal alien to them to guard their most sacred temples.
Lions, never native to Southeast Asia, were introduced by Indians and their likeness was copied one after the other, slowly turning the beast into an imagined symbol of power and protection in the region rather than a depiction of reality.
Once the lion had arrived in Southeast Asia, it quickly found a long-term home in the three kingdoms. Over time and through many wars, craftsmen incorporated and adapted the skills and symbols of the kingdoms they had conquered as well as the ones who defeated and sacked them in turn.
Tying the threads of the kingdoms of Funan, Champa, Chenla and Angkor, showing trade routes and influences from outsiders as well as from within, the UNESCO exhibition “Our Common Heritage: Exploring World Heritage Sites of Cambodia, Laos and Viet Nam” at the National Museum in Phnom Penh explains how the people and craftsmen of the region learned from each other and created the basis for shared culture, art and worship, despite the differences that the three adjacent nations today see when examining each other from across their common borders.
This interwoven past gives proof of the region’s common history, and the same lions, mythical nagas and floral motifs are still widely used in new constructions in the three countries.
“Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia are very similar. If you look at Wat Phu [Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage Site near Pakse] it’s so similar to our temples. It was built by a Cambodian king, and there was an ancient road that connected Angkor Wat and Wat Phu,” said Be Kalyan, a conservationist for antiquities with the National Museum.
Now with different borders that have remained steady for several decades, each nationality, Lao, Vietnamese and Khmer, now tries to distinguish itself from the other, forgetting how much they have shared and learned from one another in the past, she said.
“This clay lion is on exhibition at the Ho [Dynasty] Citadel [museum in Vietnam]. The clay is Chinese influence, because in Cambodia and Laos, lions are made of bronze or stone, not clay,” Ms. Kalyan said.
As the UNESCO exhibition on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh states: “Trade, diplomatic missions, pilgrimages, military expeditions, dynastic marriages and other socio-cultural services created an opportunity for elites to assimilate important elements of other civilization.”
Split in different sections, such as “Nature and Myth,” and “Religion and Syncretism,” information panels at the museum explains why coins depicting Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius were found in the former port city Oc Eo of the Funan Kingdom, how the coins made their way over the Silk Road, and how foreign traders influenced what later became the Khmer empire, which once stretched through the Mekong Delta and today’s southern Vietnam.
Besides influencing cultures and diversifying them, trade also allowed the kingdoms to become rich, prompting them to reach for more by bounding ties with other kingdoms or going to wars to sack their rivals and take their lands and riches.
“Our Common Heritage” exhibition shows these regional similarities and common pasts, and each of the eight museums participating in the UNESCO initiative – including Preah Norodom Sihanouk Angkor Museum and Angkor National Museum in Siem Reap, as well as Preah Vihear Eco Global Museum – was responsible for creating a separate display in correspondence with the uniqueness of their artifacts.
“At the National Museum, we chose ornaments, because they are on almost every masterpiece in our museum,” Ms. Kalyan said, standing in front of pictures taken of Khmer textiles, reliefs and urns, which — with a little effort — can be found around the museum.
One of the most common motifs, the mythical naga serpent, is even used to hold the ladle of a spoon with its mouth.
The naga, Ms. Kalyan said, was significant for Cambodia’s heritage as it is seen as the father of the Khmer race, according to an old myth.
“Cambodia used to be a land of water, and it was ruled by the King Naga, who had a beautiful, human daughter,” she said.
An Indian Brahman asked for the princess’ hand. “They married, and King Naga swallowed much of the water as a wedding gift,” creating much of the land that is now called Cambodia, Ms. Kalyan said.
Today, depictions of the eight-headed naga guardian spirit can be found, for example, at the Angkor Wat Archeological Park, Da Nang Cham Sculpture Museum in Vietnam, and Wat Phu in Laos.
“Our Common Heritage” was also created to add explanations to the national museums’ masterpieces that would otherwise go unnoticed by many, Ms. Kalyan said.
“If you don’t have a tour guide to show you [around] you only see the masterpieces but you won’t know anything [about them],” she said.
Ornamentations with a deeper meaning, she said, were used on almost every artifact at the National Museum, especially floral motifs.
“This one for example,” Ms. Kalyan said, pointing at a kbach phni phleung, a fictional leaf shape, which is similar to a flame and used most commonly on urns.
“People believe that with the flame leaf on an urn, it helps with the cremation,” she said.
The kbach phni phleung were also used on the funeral urns of former King Sisowath, which is on exhibit at the National Museum, and King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
“The flower motives were most common during the Angkorian time, but they survived and are still used today,” Ms. Kalyan said.