Mahayana Buddhist Art in Cambodia Essay

Mahayana Buddhist Art in Cambodia  The Khmer empire of Cambodia, extending from its capital, Angkor to present-day Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, is credited with the creation of extraordinary art and architecture in the sixth to the sixteenth centuries CE.  Some of the world’s most glorious traditions of sculpture and architecture are still represented at Angkor and throughout Cambodia to reflect the strong influence of the culture and the religions of India in the bygone days.  The Khmer artists demonstrated their technical mastery of stone carving and bronze casting in sculpture, to create deeply spiritual images of Hindu and Buddhist divinities (Ricklefs).

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  A lot of these works of sculpture were actually made for temples, and range from monumental cult statues to small offerings in bronze, plus narrative reliefs that depict scenes from popular Indian epics such as Ramayana (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.).Mahayana Buddhism had rooted itself in Cambodia by the fifth century CE.

  The Khmer kings, ruling Cambodia with Angkor as their capital, considered themselves divine rulers.

  With the coming of Mahayana Buddhism, the rulers started to identify themselves with particular buddhas or bodhisattvas.  The most notable among the Khmer kings was Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), under whom the territory and influence of the Khmer empire reached its zenith (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

).  King Jayavarman VII is credited with the building of many Buddhist temples.  Identifying himself with the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara; the king left for us an MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 2  understanding of his times only through inscriptions and what the Buddhist temples can explain about this period in the history of Cambodia (About: Buddhism; Chandler).The Bayon Temple is one of the greatest signatures of King Jayavarman VII to help us understand his reign (See photographs in Appendix).

  This temple, also referred to as “the magic mountain” is indicative of the king’s devotion to Avalokitesvara.  Carved into the north, south, east and west towers of this temple are impressive, smiling faces of this bodhisattva.  Tourists from around the world are known to visit the temple.  One Cambodian travel agency describes the Bayon Temple thus: A temple-mountain, a forest of 200 gigantic faces in the mysterious glances lookingin all the directions, at enigmatic smiles, at beings of another world, in their smilingserenity.

 This 3-storeyed temple, 43m in height, stayed for a long time an enigma.Built in 12th century by Jayavarman VII, first floors are a pantheon dedicated to thegods Khmers of the beginning of its construction, in a time of transition betweenHinduism and Buddhism.  The superior floor is dedicated to Buddha.  Fabulous lowreliefs, 1200m in length and representing more than 11000 sculptured persons, verylong frescoes telling about the fights and the naval battles between the Khmers and theChams, as well as daily life (Angkor Journey and Tours, a).

 King Jayavarman VII also built the Ta Phrom Temple in Angkor (See photographs in Appendix).  This incredibly atmospheric temple is described thus: MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 3  One of the most romantic temples of Angkor’s site, where nature resumed its rightsand disrupted the work of the men.  A magical place which was built in 1186, thisconvent Buddhist was the most gigantic of Angkor’s site.  The Conservation of Angkorsaved the main monuments, but did not clean it.

  The trees and the roots invaded thetemple and resumed the rights of the jungle, roots look like snakes which disrupt andwaste statues and walls, and huge trees beating the heads of stupas.  A forest whichdoesn’t want to let escape its gods and which either destroys them or protects them…

.A place loaded with emotion and poetry for meditation.  A truly magical temple duringsunset.  12000 persons lived in the surrounding wall of the “Convent of King” morethan 8 centuries ago; its construction was ended at the beginning of the XIIIth century(Angkor Journey, b).

;These temples built by Jayavarman VII undoubtedly tell us that Buddhism, and in particular, the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara, were a central part of the ideology of the people that formed the Khmer civilization.  However, history also reveals that the people of the Khmer civilizations followed Hinduism for a long period of time before Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to them.  And, after the reign of Jayavarman VII, the people of the region converted to Theravada Buddhism, which is a simpler form of Buddhism appealing more to the common folks, given that its focus is on simplicity as compared to the grandeur of Mahayana Buddhism.  The art of Theravada Buddhism is;;MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 4;;mainly created with wood.

  There is a simple wooden sculpture of a worshipper, also at the Bayon Temple, from the time of Theravada Buddhism (National Gallery; Chandler).King Jayavarman VII had imposed his own religion, Mahayana Buddhism, on his subjects.  His magnificent temples clearly reveal that the new religion was to become the central part of his rule.  In fact, the temples declared that Mahayana Buddhism had to be accepted as the state religion of the empire of Khmer, regardless of his subjects’ interest in the new faith (Chandler).

Many of the bas-reliefs on the Bayon Temple contain vivid scenes of cruelty.  Some of Jayavarman VII’s inscriptions also praise his vengefulness and his skill at political infighting.  We gather from this that the subjects of King Jayavarman VII were too afraid of him to oppose him on the issue of making Mahayana Buddhism the state religion.  At the same time, the king depicted himself through his portrait statues as an ascetic deep in meditation.

  We learn from his inscriptions also that the man suffered from the sicknesses of his subjects more than from his own.  To put it another way, he felt spiritual pain whenever he saw his subjects’ bodies inflicted by pain (Mus).  He was emulating the Buddha, no doubt, and so his subjects felt mixed emotions with regards to him (Chandler).King Jayavarman VII assured his subjects that suffering to praise the Buddha by working on his temples would most definitely lead to less suffering and greater happiness in another life.

  All the same, the temples that he built were highly personalized works of art that his subjects could not easily relate to.  Jayavarman VII dedicated the Ta Phrom;MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 5;;Temple (or the Ancestor Brahma) to his mother in the guise of Prajnaparamita, the goddess of wisdom, who is conceived metaphorically as the mother of all Buddhas.  In other words, Jayavarman VII was acting as the spiritual leader, or the Buddha of his people (Chandler).Ta Phrom also housed a portrait statue of Jayavarman VII’s Buddhist teacher or guru, surrounded by more than six hundred dependent deities and bodhisattvas.

  What is more, the king did not mind giving cells on the temple grounds to Shaivite and Vaisnavite ascetics alongside the cells for Buddhist monks and learned men.  History shows that Jayavarman VII was a deeply devoted follower of Buddhism.  His own ascetic practices led him to respect all sincere searchers of the right path, or dharma, be they followers of Buddhism or not.  Even so, the common folks who were not as deeply devoted to religion, occupied only simple houses with roofs made of thatch (Chandler).

At the center of Angkor was the Bayon Temple (or Ancestor Yantra, yantra being a magical geometric shape) – with its hundreds of gigantic faces, carved in sets of four, and its captivating bas-reliefs that depicted everyday life, wars in Champa, and the behavior of the Indian gods (Chandler).  We realize by examining the Bayon Temple that wars were an essential part of the political system of the Khmer empire in Cambodia; and the everyday life depicted on the bas-reliefs was only depicted the way King Jayavarman VII wanted to reveal it.  We have already pointed out that the history of Cambodia at the time of Jayavarman VII is only known to us through the inscriptions and the temples of the period.;MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 6;;There is considerable controversy about the symbolism of the Bayon Temple and about what was meant by the causeways that led up to it, with giants and angels engaged in what appears to be a tug of war, grasping the bodies of two gigantic snakes.

  Paul Mus writes that the causeways are rainbows that lead people of their world into the world of the divinities.  Hence, Jayavarman VII becomes the one that would show his people the right path into the world of the deities.The giants also represented the Chams, or the enemies with which the Cambodians often engaged in war.  The angels were the Cambodians, who were led by their king-deity, Jayavarman VII, to win each war.

  This struggle between the Cambodians and the Champs acted out along the causeways and in the bas-reliefs at the Bayon Temple can be seen as bringing to birth a new and converted nation of Cambodia, in which the Buddha has won over the Hindu gods of Champa.  As a matter of fact, this dialectic may very well be the basic message of the Bayon Temple, which has been referred to as the assembly hall of the city of the gods.  The half-smiling faces with their half-closed eyes that dominate the temple, relate the story of the victory of Mahayana Buddhism over Hinduism (Woodward).  How did the Cambodians who had not by then converted to Mahayana Buddhism feel about this victory? – History provides us very little if not no information to sufficiently address this subject.

  We do know, however, the Mahayana Buddhism was not the last religion that the Cambodians converted to.  Theravada Buddhism was to follow.;;MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 7;;David Chandler believes that the half-smiling faces at the Bayon Temple do not represent only one kind of deity, performing one kind of task.  Rather, these faces are those of the guardians of the Buddha and his teachings.

  These guardians oversee the kingdom of Jayavarman VII to boot, and may perhaps be representing civil and military officials of the time.  This tells us that King Jayavarman VII may have looked at everything about him in a spiritual context.  Not only do his civil and military officials act as guardians of the Buddha (King Jayavarman VII himself), but the ascetics belonging to other faiths are also recognized as being holy enough to be given a place at the Bayon Temple alongside the Buddhist monks and teachers.  The common folks, on the other hand, are the sufferers who must be working hard as artists and builders of the temples in order to gain easy access to an afterlife in which they would be joined with the deities.

An art historian has argued that the half-smiling faces of the Bayon Temple are princely manifestations of Brahma.  The tiaras worn by these princely manifestations resemble those worn by the Cham giants along the entrance causeways.  This signifies the conversion of the Chams to Buddhism (Chandler).Another feature of the Bayon Temple that art historians and scholars have paid special attention to is found at Banteai Chhmar.

  The bas-reliefs defining this structure depict historical Cambodian events rather than incidents in the Ramayana or some other literary work that coincide with or resemble historical events.  The battles depicted on the Babyon Temple are fought with recognizable weapons, and other panels here depict ordinary people buying and selling, eating, gambling, raising children, picking fruit,;MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 8;;healing the sick, and traveling on foot or in ox carts.  We learn plenty about the culture, customs, and society of the people through these depictions.  What is more, nearly all of the customs, artifacts, and costumes depicted in the bas-reliefs particularly found at Banteai Chhmar could still be found in the Cambodian countryside at the end of the Cambodian colonial era.

  Nevertheless, the voices of the people are missing from Jayavarman VII’s inscriptions (Chandler).The subjects of King Jayavarman VII move across the bas-reliefs with “unaccustomed freedom.”  They are citizens at least of the country that they inhabit, and adorn the king’s temple as they never had before.  Chandler writes that “Perhaps the bas-reliefs are intended to show that the people have been converted and saved – which is to say, revolutionized – by Jayavarman’s example.

”  Moreover, these bas-reliefs exhibit the lowest of the worlds that any person must traverse on the way to enlightenment.  In this sense, explains Chandler, “they resemble their counterparts carved on the eighth-century Javanese Buddhist monument, the Borobudur.”It is obvious that King Jayavarman VII had the interests of his subjects at heart, regardless of the extent to which he was interested in their welfare.  He did see them as worthy of approaching enlightenment, and hence allowed them to enter the Bayon Temple.

  The message was clear: the king was their savior.Still, King Jayavarman VII’s reign remains pretty much a mystery to us.  We have never heard the voice of his subjects, although we now have a good idea about the society and culture of his time.  Chandler points out that there are many ambiguities about the MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                        Page # 9  king’s personality and his ideas.

  He considered himself one of the buddhas after all, and yet actively engaged in war.  The mystery also springs in part from the wide-ranging social and ideological changes that characterized the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Cambodia.  As mentioned before, soon after his reign, King Jayavarman VII’s subjects converted to Theravada Buddhism.Another source of ambiguity can be traced to the uneasy coexistence in the king’s temples and inscriptions of an overwhelming compassion and an overarching will.

  Furthermore, the king tried to impart the Buddhist teaching of detachment from things of the world to his subjects through the symbol of the horse Balaha at the Neak Po’n.  At the same time, he developed a detailed program aimed at transforming the physical world of Angkor, which had been badly damaged by the Cham invasion (Chandler).  Had Jayavarman VII been solely interested in improving the spiritual condition of his subjects, he would have been expected to perhaps stage nationwide meditation campaigns in order to relieve all from suffering, instead of letting so much energy be consumed by the affairs of this world.Yet another mystery is the silence that followed King Jayavarman VII’s reign, both in terms of buildings and inscriptions.

  This silence appears to have begun in his declining years, and in later inscriptions, the king is hardly ever mentioned.  According to Chandler: “The patterns of continuity, stressed so often in earlier inscriptions, seem to have been broken or damaged severely by his reign.”  MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                      Page # 10  It can be inferred from the overemphasis of a particular form of religion in King Jayavarman VII’s reign that his subjects may not have totally agreed with him about the practice of faith.  Mahayana Buddhism does not rule out magnificence, and the common folks were poor and simple, unable to digest the grandeur associated with the faith.

  Their conversion to Theravada Buddhism soon after the end of King Jayavarman VII’s reign shows that they were not particularly satisfied with Mahayana Buddhism, which was imposed on them by King Jayavarman VII through his grand temples and most likely his edicts.  This leads us to believe that all spiritual leaders – even today – may not be as admirable in the eyes of their followers as the evidence sometimes makes us believe they are.         MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                      Page # 11  Annotated Bibliography  1.         About: Buddhism.

“Buddhist Art: Cambodia,” 2007. Available at http://buddhism.about.com/c/a.

htm. (30 January 2007).  This website gives a background of the Mahayana Buddhist art movement in Cambodia, and provides links to web pages for two Buddhist temples created under Jayavarman VII, the Bayon Temple and the Ta Phrom. 2.

         Angkor Journey and Tours (a). “The Bayon Temple.” Available at http://angkorjourney.asievoyage.

org/index.html. (30 January 2007). This website provides quite a few excellent photographs of the Bayon Temple besides a brief description of the fabulous temple.

 3.         ————————————- (b). “Ta Phrom Temple in Angkor.” Available at http://angkorjourney.

asievoyage.org/index.html. (30 January 2007).

This website provides excellent photographs of the Ta Phrom besides a brief description of its existence today and yesterday. 4.         Chandler, David. A History of Cambodia.

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2000. This book is an excellent source of information about Cambodia under the MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                      Page # 12  Khmer kings and Jayavarman VII in particular.  Other movements of art inCambodia may also be explored through this book, which also allows us to gainan understanding about the culture, politics and the basic fabric of society at thetime of Mahayana Buddhism in Cambodia. 5.

         Mus, Paul. “Angkor at the Time of Jayavarman VII.” Indian Arts and Letters, Vol. 11 (1937).

  This article is a brilliant exposition on the times of King Jayavarman VII. 6.         National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

“Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia,” 1980. Available at http://www.nga.gov/home.

htm. (30 January 2007).  This website provides important information about the sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia, with detailed descriptions of the different periods of the Khmer empire when these works were created. 7.

         Ricklefs, M. C. “Land and Law in the Epigraphy of Tenth Century Cambodia.” JAS, Vol.

26, No. 3 (May 1967).  This paper explores the history of Cambodia prior to King Jayavarman VII’s reign. 8.

         Woodword, Hiram W. “Tantric Buddhism at Angkor Thom.” Ars Orientalis, Vol. 12 (1981).

  This paper reveals many aspects of religious art in Angkor. MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                      Page # 13  Appendix  The Bayon Temple     MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                      Page # 14          Ta Phrom      MAHAYANA BUDDHIST ART IN CAMBODIA                                                                                                                      Page # 15     

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