Angkor Wat story

By: Sunthar Visuvalingam

Our week-long stay in Siem Reap (July 5-12) has obliged us to question the Nepal-based Hindu-Buddhist acculturation model that was proposed in Evam 2004 (a series published by Makarand Paranjape in Delhi and funded from the U.S. by the Infinity Foundation): A Paradigm of Hindu-Buddhist relations: Pachali Bhairava of Katmandu – Sunthar and Elizabeth Visuvalingam. A Paradigm of Hindu-Buddhist relations: Pachali Bhairava of Katmandu – Sunthar and Elizabeth

Despite his supreme position in a number of Tantric schools including the very brahminized and prestigious currents of Kashmir Shaivism, Bhairava, the kshetra-pala (protector of the local territory), seems, at first sight, to have a modest place beside the other gods of Bhakti.

Given the historical and ethnographic materials from that region, sandwiched between Tibetan Mahayana and Brahmanical India, the role of Theravada Buddhism seemed relatively obsolete (passé) in the inexorable development of a ‘hinduised’ Vajrayana tantricism. However, its ethos and outlook found refuge very early in Sri Lanka from where it made a powerful comeback across Indo-China from the 11th C. and esp. during the 13th C. in Cambodia.

Below are links to a few documentaries on Angkor Wat and the Khmer empire that are worth watching and reflecting on by anyone interested in extra-Indian Hinduism and Buddhism.

Those interested in following future revision and completion of our acculturation paradigm will gain the necessary background: (Secrets in the Dust) (History Channel) (exhibition at Musée Guimet – Oct. 2013 to Jan 2014) (French – 2014) (Angkor redécouvert – French)

Unfortunately, the last two, which are excellent and have insights missing in the others, are in French.

By posing the very legitimate question as to why Suryavarman II, in building Angkor Wat, suddenly switched state allegiance from Shaivism to Vaishnavism in the first half of the twelfth century, the dance drama has the potential, beyond its intrinsic aesthetic and crosscultural merits, to draw the attention of Indians, South-East Asians and the world at large to the significance of the Khmer heritage as a whole.

The leitmotif of the Tamil Vaishnava artisan-danseuse finding refuge in the Khmer court and converting the warring emperor into embracing Vishnu as the supreme object of devotion plays off well against this enigmatic backdrop.

Though there seem to have been some Shaiva-Vaishnava tensions in the Tamil country around that time and Suryavarman II maintained close exchanges with the Chola Empire, there however seems to be little evidence of conflict between the two ‘sects’ at the heart of the Khmer Empire (cf.Banteay Srei). The real opposition seems to have been rather between Shaivaite Brahmanism and Theravada Buddhism, which would have been gaining ground among the Khmer subjects already from the 11th century until it became the primary religious ideology by the 14th century.

The conservative temple-based state ideology seems to have accommodated this massive shift by gradually minimizing and displacing the Shaiva elements: usurper Suryavarman I (1006-1050) was already a Mahayana Buddhist tolerant of the growing Theravada presence and Jayavarman VII (reigned 1181 to 1218), who identified himself with bodhisattva Lokeshvara, replaced (representations of) Shiva within the (earlier Hindu) trinity with the meditating Buddha seated between Vishnu and Brahma. So when the sudden, desperate and abruptly halted Shaiva reaction came immediately following the death of this last great emperor [and probably in defiance of royal authority], it was these statues of the enlightened Siddhartha (rather than Lokeshwara and other Mahayana representations) that were hastily destroyed or defaced and replaced with crude shiva-lingas.

Could we see Angkor Wat, Cambodia’s greatest monument to its inherited temple-based culture, as a shortlived attempt, sandwiched between two similarly motivated Mahayana dispensations, to rally the empire’s increasingly diverse religious constituencies under a Vaishnava banner closer to the Buddhist ethicist outlook?

Thanks to Shankar’s account of his own visit with the KL Temple of Fine Arts group and at his urging, we made it a point to visit the historical and ideological origins: the “1000 lingas” embedded in the river bed at Phnom Kulen before its life-giving waters descended into the Angkor basin, where the temple-centered irrigation system laid the material basis for the expanding Khmer empire.

If my above perception is valid, the real question would instead be: what happened to the Khmer population between the 8th and 13th centuries to render the Shaiva institutions and outlook now so distasteful?

Perhaps, Apsaras star-dancer Mohanadas could take up this question as a worthy challenge for the PhD research he has just undertaken? In any case, we too are now obliged to revise and complete our own Nepal-based Hindu-Buddhist acculturation model:

We hope that Apsaras Arts will find the means to resume your one-time Singapore production of “Angkor Wat – the Untold Story” and present its latest adaptation before global audiences.


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