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Phimai National Museum

Photos of just a few of the spectacular, ancient, sandstone lintels housed in the Phimai National Museum

The Phimai National Museum in Nakhon Ratchasima Province, (commonly known to locals as Khorat), was actually, officially closed for renovation during our recent visit although, fortunately, sympathetic staff allowed us to wander the museum grounds nonetheless. Many of the larger artefacts are on permanent display in outside areas anyway and a lot of exhibits had been temporarily moved out of the main buildings as work progressed so we were able to take in a large proportion of the truly remarkable collection.

Notable among these were the massive, carved, sandstone lintels from nearby Prasat Hin Phimai, as well as nearby sites such as Phanom Rung and Muang Tam in neighbouring Buriram Province. The region was an important part of the Khmer empire during Angkorian times and the majority of artefacts on display are from Hindu sanctuaries dating to the late 11th and 12th centuries.

Shiva with apsaras
Dancing Shiva with apsaras

The museum houses the best part of a hundred such pieces although all three above sites still feature many more lintels and pediments in situ. Numerous, additional artefacts were still in crates and these presumably include more fragile and/or valuable objects normally housed inside the Phimai National Museum.

Phimai National Museum
Krishan defeating the naga Kaliya

Smaller artefacts including stone and bronze statues are not presently viewable so, in this post, we’ve concentrated on photos of the lintels with added explanations of the depictions in question where possible.

The central figure is Vishnu although we’re uncertain as to the specific scene depicted here

All artefacts originate from Prasat Hin Phimai unless otherwise indicated so…in no particular order…

3 lions supporting a series of seated Buddha figures
3 lions supporting a series of seated Buddha figures

The central, earlier section of Prasat Hin Phimai was commissioned by King Jayavarman VI (c. 1080 to 1107) whose personal beliefs inclined towards Buddhism so older reliefs show a mix of Buddhist and Hindu iconography.

Unusual decorative style lintel
Unusual decorative style lintel

This unusual lintel, devoid of figures and consisting of scrolls and vegetal patterns harks back to the 8th-century Kampong Preah style. Khmer lintels are divided into three broad styles; narrative – where an event, (usually from Hindu or Buddhist mythology or a scene from the Ramayana or Jatakas), is depicted; heraldic which depicts a deity but lacks a narrative scene and decorative, such as the above, lacking any figures.

Heraldic lintel with deity. Phimai National Museum
Heraldic lintel with deity.

An example of a heraldic lintel depicting a central deity rather than any particular scene or event. Lacking any context the deity is often hard, if not impossible, to identify in such cases. A researcher would then have recourse to three sources of clues: 1 the objects or ‘attributes’ held by the figure; 2 whatever beast or mount the deity is riding and; 3 his or her position in relation to the cardinal points.

Vishnu on Garuda
Vishnu on Garuda

As above, Vishnu is often seen seated on Garuda. He’s not always mounted but if a figure is on Garuda then it is definitely Vishnu. Shiva, frequently accompanied by Uma, rides a bull, Indra is mounted on his three-headed elephant Airavata, Skanda on a peacock and so on. As Hindu deities also correspond to sectors of the compass the precise placement of the relief can be a helpful indicator. Indra is the god of the east, Vishnu or Varuna the west, Agni the southeast etcetera.

Indra pedestal from Muang Tam now in the Phimai National Museum
Indra pediment from Muang Tam

An east-facing pediment from Prasat Muang Tam depicts Indra on Airavata. Objects held by the deities is a much vaguer criterion since, firstly it’s not always clear what the object in question is and secondly, several deities are liable to clutch similar items. Vishnu often holds a conch shell and disc in his many hands but this varies. Yama holds a club while Vishvakarma proffers a staff. (Not easy to differentiate – see heraldic lintel image above.) A lotus stalk is a generic feature and could indicate one of many characters.

The churning of the sea of milk
The churning of the sea of milk

A popular scene is the readily identifiable churning of the sea of milk creation myth seen above, featuring Kurma (Vishnu’s turtle avatar), Vishnu himself with multiple arms and Brahma with multiple heads surrounded by apsaras or heavenly dancers. Minor gods and demons tug on the naga’s body below.

Deity with lotus flower and devotees
Deity seated on Kala with lotus flower and devotees

Fortunately, we didn’t photograph all 100 lintels so we’ll leave it at that for now. An excellent guide to Khmer reliefs and mythology is Roveda’s Images of the Gods, River Books, although at well over 500 pages it’s hardly a field guide.

Both Prasat Phanom Rung and Muang Tam feature on our Thailand World Heritage and Emerald Triangle tours and while a visit to Phimai and the Phimai National Museum is not included due to time restraints it is easily arranged as perhaps a side visit from Bangkok.