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Creating a god – Angkor carvings

Some musings on how the fabulous Angkor-period carvings and reliefs to be found in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia may have been created

The stunning sandstone lintel below – from Sikhoraphum, Surin, Thailand – is an astonishingly well-preserved example of Angkor carving with sharp detail, deep relief and complex and intricate subject matter; – a masterpiece and certainly representing an incredible amount of work!

Lintel from main tower at Sikhoraphum Temple
Lintel from the main tower at Sikhoraphum Temple

Furthermore, its creation was undoubtedly even more complicated than you would imagine. It wasn’t just a case of a skilled sculptor, a decent set of chisels and good quality block of sandstone but part of a creative process that would have involved astrologists, priests, prayers, ceremonies.

Shiva; lintel detail
Shiva; lintel detail

As Angkor period lintels go the above is a particularly complicated one with the main subject, a 10-armed Shiva, supported by hamsas, (sacred geese), above an obligatory Rahu or Kala head, accompanied by, to the right Brahma and Ganesha and to the left Vishnu plus an unidentified goddess, (possibly Durga), set in an intricate matrix of leaves and vegetation.

Kala, Wat Phu
Kala, Wat Phu

We say obligatory Kala figure since it was an essential element and you’d be hard pushed to find a lintel from this period without one lower centre in the design. No, it couldn’t be at the top and can’t be offset left or right nor could it be replaced by say a naga; these things are set in stone as it were and in fact, very little of the design would have been left up to the individual sculptor’s initiative. The artist may have had some leeway in terms of small flourishes; leaf patterns, apsara hairstyles and so-on but overall layout, subject matter and major elements would have been predetermined by priests or priest/architects. There’s such a remarkable uniformity in layout; Kala depiction, surrounding naga or leaf patterning etc that archaeologists use lintels to date temples where no inscriptions are available.*

Suryavarman I period lintel, Phnom Chisor
Suryavarman I period lintel, Phnom Chisor

The subject matter was often determined simply by lintel siting – i.e. an east-facing one frequently featured Indra since he was the god of the east and Indra’s mount was Airavarta, (or Erawan), so he’s generally depicted astride his 3-headed elephant. It wouldn’t have been done to have Indra facing north nor depict him astride a garuda!

Angkor carvings. Indra on Airavarta, Prasart Stung, Battambang
Indra on Airavarta, Prasart Stung, Battambang

(Note in the above lintel from a remote temple in southern Battambang Province and the first photo from Sikhoraphum, the very close similarity in Kala depiction.) There were accepted ways to depict a god or mythological being and as with Buddha images, Shiva or Vishnu only appear in certain set positions. Vishnu is carved sitting or standing holding set ‘attributes’ (e.g. a conch shell), or reclining on the snake Ananta; – you can’t just make things up and carve Vishnu lying in a hammock having a cup of tea! The idea being that if you create a satisfactory enough image of a god that god will then deign to come and inhabit that sculpture/doorway/shrine – if they judge it worthy enough. So, for example, you carve a good enough linga and Shiva will hopefully grant that shrine with his presence.

Angkor carvings. Reclining Vishnu, Wat Phu
Reclining Vishnu, Wat Phu

So, before taking up hammer and chisel the sculptor would have had to pass a period of spiritual and mental preparation; purification of his physical self and perhaps meditation and supplications to the gods until he had every detail of the intended carving clear in his mind and he was in optimum condition to begin work. Only then would astrologists ascertain an auspicious moment to begin work. On completion the priests would again have to intervene to ‘open the carved god’s eyes’; – a process involving prayer, mantras, liberal quantities of holy water etc according to whatever moment the astrologists had chosen.**

Complicated business – and that’s just for one carving! Next up an intriguing theory as to why Kala/Rahu frequently is depicted with only 1 jaw but for now – cheers!

Notes                                                                                                                                                    *

*This method, developed by the historian Philippe Stern in 1927, still widely used today, does have a few problems. It can’t take into account regional variations where for instance fashions in say the Mun Valley settlements may have differed to those south of the Dandrek Range or a remoter site established by a local chief may well have been rather ‘backwards’ in carving technique compared to contemporary styles in the capital at Angkor. Furthermore, if a particular king or ruler had an inclination for ‘retro’ lintel designs, (and this did happen), the theory is compromised.

** Some license is required here since archaeologists, (e.g. Roveda – ‘Images of Gods’), point out that as this is how work on early Hindu temple carvings in India proceeded it’s a reasonable assumption that similar practices were employed in Khmer temples.