The discovery of hundreds of Buddhist statues at Banteay Kdei temple in Angkor Archaeological Park may prompt historians to change their theories on 12th and 13th-century Cambodia.
According to Yoshiaki Ishizawa, chief of the Angkor International Mission of Tokyo’s Sophia University, the beheaded statues found buried at the temple show that the government was straying from Buddhism toward more Hindu influences following the reign of King Jayavarman VII.
The statues were beheaded prior to burial—a sign of the then-government’s increasingly Hindu leanings—and few of them can be assembled, he said.
King Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181 to 1219, embarked on an construction program that included the walled city of Angkor Thom with the Bayon temple at its center, the Angkor temples of Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdei, in addition to hospitals and other public buildings.
Some historians have suggested that the King’s projects left the Khmer people exhausted, the kingdom bankrupted and caused its eventual decline.
But these theories have not been confirmed by inscriptions or the recorded accounts of travelers, who described a wealthy nation with a government conducting normal business, Ishizawa said.
When Jayavarman VIII took the throne in 1243, he went about converting Angkor’s Buddhist temples into Hindu ones. Indications are that he had Buddhist statues and inscriptions removed and buried, Ishizawa said.
The statues found at Banteay Kdei show that the government was in a position, both financially and physically, to carry out the King’s orders in an efficient and routine manner, he said. This challenges the theory of economic and human crisis suggested by some historians, Ishizawa said.
The Sophia University’s Angkor International Mission has been carrying out restoration, preservation and training activities at Angkor since 1980. After 10 years of using Banteay Kdei’s grounds for archaeological excavation training, the mission did not expect such a find, Ishizawa said.
Ishizawa, who gave a lecture at the Japanese Embassy last month on the mission’s work, explained that in March 2001 Cambodians in the training program stumbled upon 106 Buddhist statues.
“The state of preservation of the statues is remarkably good due to the fact that they were buried for approximately 800 years and have been preserved at constant temperature and humidity,” he said.
Five months later, they found 167 additional statues. They also uncovered a sandstone pillar 1.2 meters long whose four faces were covered with 1,008 sitting Buddha carvings—the first such pillar to be discovered in Cambodia, Ishizawa said.
The mission staff plans to suggest the creation of a museum in Siem Reap to house them, he said.