siem reap town – More than 700 years later, it remains a mystery: who buried the Buddhas at Banteay Kdei?
Japanese archeologists working at the temple northeast of Angkor Wat are analyzing a collection of statues uncovered by chance during excavations at Banteay Kdei, the late 12th-century temple thought to be built by Jayavarman VII.
Masako Marui, a research fellow at Japan’s Sophia University Institute of Asian Cultures, said the first statue was found in August 2000 near the temple’s eastern gate. A subsequent dig turned up 106 pieces; the most recent work at the site has brought the total to 274 pieces.
The word “pieces” is used advisedly. Virtually all of the Buddhas had been decapitated before burial, although apparently not damaged in any other way. Their heads were buried with them.
Marui said they appear to have been carefully placed in a pit dug specifically to hold them. The site was later covered with laterite blocks arranged in a platform, and edged by a laterite walkway.
“We can feel the intention of the person who had buried these statues in this pit and filled it up with soil,” she writes in a research paper. “The intention is a kind of worship, rather than an enmity.”
The theory is that a wave of anti-Buddhist extremism washed over Angkor after the Buddhist Jayavarman’s death in 1219, and that several of his successors preferred the Hindu god Shiva.
Many temples show evidence of deliberate destruction of Buddha images, from heads chipped out of bas-reliefs to whole statues broken up and discarded.
Banteay Kdei, dedicated to Jayavarman’s father, was apparently no exception. “It seems it was a deliberate destruction by a rival religious group,” Marui told a group of visiting antiquarians in Siem Reap recently.
She said the large number of Buddhas found in the pit probably all came from Banteay Kdei, as most are similar depictions of the Buddha being sheltered by a naga or multi-headed snake, an image uniquely popular in Cambodia.
She said inscriptions at the better-known temple of Ta Prohm indicate there were once “thousands” of statues there, so the large number of Buddhas at Banteay Kdei would not be unusual.
Still unclear is how long all of this took, she said. There is some evidence that the statues lay unprotected for years after their heads were knocked off.
At some point, someone gathered them all together and buried them carefully, and perhaps created a small shrine over them.
Marui said it may well have been a resurgence of Buddhism that led a devout person or group to rescue the damaged images. She said other evidence indicates “the statues had been buried here accompanied by a religious ceremony.”
Archeologists say one reason they are opposed to uncontrolled development in the Siem Reap area is that you never know what lies buried beneath the ground.