For casual visitors touring one Cambodian temple after another, the elaborate carvings that adorn walls and lintels often become a blur, leaving an impression of unconnected images seemingly repeated from one monument to the next.
Beautiful, yes, but at times confusing as to their religious meaning and use other than decoration.
But in fact, these carvings give access to Khmer culture up to the end of the Angkorian empire in the 15th century-if one knows how to decipher them.
Vittorio Roveda’s book “Images of the Gods” provides the key. As one reads, the carvings become a tale that unfolds through time, spanning eight centuries, their themes reflecting religious beliefs and, occasionally, the kings’ politics.
Out of the thousands of images on walls, pediments and pilasters emerge an orderly system of themes that vary according to the periods, making it possible either to better date a monument or to shed light on a certain time in history.
“Some themes, which were used as metaphors for the exercise of the royal power, remained popular and unchanged over the centuries,” he writes. The “Churning of the Ocean of Milk,” in which the Hindu deity Vishnu helps restore order on Earth, appears on hundreds of Khmer temples. During the reign of King Jayavarman VII, who was crowned in 1181, “the Churning myth was a well known literary theme, exploited by court poets who compared military battles to an ocean churned by the king to win victory and fortune,” Roveda says.
“Using a religious myth to glorify the royal power, the king became equated with the greatest god,” through the carvings, also called bas-reliefs or low-reliefs, of the temples each king would build, he writes. “It is not at all surprising that the Khmer kings were such patrons of the arts, creating a rich corpus of revealing reliefs.”
Still, he adds, “Western scholars argue endlessly about the scope and raison d’etre of the reliefs.” Were they meant to embody religious and social concepts of an era, or strictly to enhance the sacred value of a temple’s architecture? Were they attributed the magical function of transforming a temple into a heavenly palace, or did they reflect astronomy or numerology concepts? Stone inscriptions give no explanation as to their purpose, writes Roveda. “We don’t even know if the temples were open to the public, or if they were accessible only during festivities or special occasions.”
Khmer myths and legends depicted were based on Indian religions-Hinduism, Shaivism, Buddhism. “With the total rejection of the violent and extreme aspects of some deities and rituals, the Khmers introduced local divinized entities,” such as the deities of the soil. In fact, they created their own variations of Indian religions, Roveda writes.
Carvings reflected those variations. For instance, in his Vamana incarnation, Vishnu is shown making a long stride, his foot raised over a lotus or small platform in Khmer bas-reliefs, while he is portrayed with his left foot raised higher than his right knee in India, explains Roveda.
Unlike in Indian scenes, he says, “Anything sensual or sexual was banned in Khmer reliefs. The only erotic scenes known so far are those carved at Baphuon [a temple at Angkor], not officially, but presumably to amuse the stonecutters during moments of relaxation.”
Historical events and scenes from daily life appear in some bas-reliefs, such as the king’s cortege at Angkor Wat, men hunting at the Baphuon, and jugglers and acrobats at the Bayon temple at Angkor.
The practice of carving whole scenes rather than individual figures or objects goes back to some of the early temples, writes Roveda. The oldest scene found is on a pediment at Neak Ta Po Noreay temple believed erected in the Sixth or Seventh Century.
The bas-reliefs at Wat Phu, the oldest Khmer religious complex started in the fifth century, were added during improvement and renovation work carried out by several kings from the 10th to the 13th centuries, says Roveda. Now located in southern Laos, he says, “It was highly regarded by all the Khmer kings who considered it to be the place from where the Khmer dynasties originated.”
In his book, Roveda includes Khmer temples in regions of the former Khmer empire that are now part of Thailand and Laos.
Roveda is an art historian specialized in iconography-the study of the meaning of visual images-who has written several books on Khmer art.
Compiling the material for “Images of the Gods” took him 11 years, he said in an e-mail. “I have a methodology derived from 25 years as a stratigrapher in geology and paleontology [the study of prehistory], my previous PhD,” he said.
It took him an additional three years to write the book and one year to work on its structure and design. River Books in Bangkok published it late last year.
Printed on glossy paper, the 536-page book contains more than 1,500 color photos, and comes with a DVD containing more than 800 additional photos.
Written to be accessible to all readers, the information is organized in paragraphs with headings and an index that make it easy to find specific details, and divided into short chapters that invite browsing-with titles such as Buddhist Legends, The Shiva Myths and Undecoded Reliefs.
Each mention of a style, theme or scene in the text is illustrated with photos, which made the book much more difficult to produce, Roveda said. “The relationship text/images is very complex and time consuming,” he said.