Early Theravadin Cambodia: Perspectives from Art and Archaeology

Sofia Sundstrom

The book Early Theravādin Cambodia: Perspectives from Art and Archaeology examines Theravāda Buddhism in the region which is now divided into Cambodia and Thailand. It responds to a growing need to work across national boundaries and to widen the focus that has limited much of art historical and archaeological research. The book brings together articles by notable scholars of Buddhism in Cambodia and Thailand. It explores the iconography of the Buddha, Jātaka tales, along with past and future Buddhas. Despite the overarching theme, the articles within the book should be considered as separate pieces. The only two that show a direct link between each other are chapters 6 and 7, as they refer to the same site and inscription.

The first contribution to the book is by the editor of the volume, Ashley Thompson. In Early Theravādin Cambodia: Terms of engagement, she explains the goal with this book while reflecting on its need in the current research environment. This is followed by Angkor and Theravāda Buddhism: Some considerations by Hiram W. Woodward. He examines the fruits of the early roots of Theravāda and includes an overview of the development of the iconography and style of the Buddha across the centuries. He also highlights recent and groundbreaking research in the field. However, it is his mention of specific iconographic forms for the Buddha, the double vitarka-mudrā or the Crowned Buddha with the right hand in front of his chest, that explores the uniqueness of Southeast Asian Buddhist art. Another interesting note is the examination of how a hairstyle was depicted or used as a key motif to signal youth.

In the next article, Chapter 3, Tuy Danel explores the stories associated with the Buddha’s past lives (jātakas). The two main stories Danel focuses on are the Vessantara-jātaka (the Great Birth Sermon) and the Sibi-jātaka. The first tells the story of when the Buddha was a prince and he, out of generosity, gave away all of his possessions, including his children. The second jātaka tells the story of Buddha when he was king Sibi and he offered his flesh in order to save a pigeon/sparrow’s life. Despite the popularity of these jātakas, Danel notes that jātakas were of secondary importance at Angkor. Nevertheless, based on the presence of the images depicting these tales, Theravāda prospered in the area. The article also stresses that the variety in the depictions of the jātakas shows that both Sanskrit and Pāli sources co-existed in the area.

In The Buddha sculptures of Tham Phra, Samerchai Poolsuwan, looks westward to Thailand. The Buddha Cave (Tham Phra) is located in the Ratchaburi province of western Thailand, near the Myanmar border. Inside this cave is a wooden shrine which houses several Buddha statues, on which Poolsuwan focuses. These statues share the same style of lotus base and a flat unfinished back for the images’ heads. They are divided into four groups based on iconography and stylistic similarities with images from different regions such as Northeast India and Angkor. Among Group 1 are sculptures showing stylistic similarities with Buddhist images from Northeast India. The features include the pointed crown, and Poolsuwan also references the ribbons behind the head, a common feature in North-East India in Buddhist art and it is also part of the Amoghapāśa Lokeśvara statue from Candi Jago in East Java. Yet, the Author makes no direct link with how the ribbons are depicted, an element that Susan Huntington used to date the images in Northeast India (1984). Otherwise, the Author is diligent in examining each and every stylistic feature and connecting them with art from other regions. As Poolsuwan notes, these Buddha images illustrate the supremacy of the Buddha and the continuous presence of Theravāda, even after the end of Jayavarmann VII’s reign.

Moving from individual images to larger structures, Chapter 5 by Ea Darith delivers an overview of important Theravāda Buddhist structures and their development during the Middle Period in central Angkor. The article starts with platforms that would later be added on to. The terraces are divided into five different sizes, the smallest being 8 x 15 metres and the largest being 40 x 60 metres. If the platform was completely flat, the monks would be slightly elevated by sitting on a mat and this would be in the south part of the platform. A Buddha statue would be placed in the western part, possibly protected by a wooden pavilion, but the platform could not support heavy structures. Additionally, laterite staircases allowed people to climb the platform. Darith speculates that the simplicity of platforms could be evidence of limited funding or the Theravāda ideology. One of the platforms referenced is the Western Prasat Top, which is also discussed in the following two chapters that would be advantageous to read in sequence.

Chapter 6, New evidence at Western Prasat Top, Angkor Thom, by Yuni Sato looks at the restoration of Western Prasat Top and the interesting finds this has yielded. These suggest that the Western Prasat Top was constructed over time, and Chinese ceramics found in the fifth layer indicate that the structure’s construction started around the 12th century. There appears to have been four phases in the life of Western Prasat Top, starting with a laterite base. The next phase included a central sanctuary and the third saw the addition of two more sanctuaries. In the fourth stage, a Buddhist terrace in connection with the eastern face of the central sanctuary from phase two was constructed. Furthermore, an inscription on a sandstone block was discovered in 2012. It is uncertain whether the block functioned as a pedestal or an offering, but the inscription in Pāli on the block references the Buddha Kassapa.

This inscription is also mentioned in Nicolas Revire’s article, Back to the future: The emergence of past and future Buddhas in Khmer Buddhism. In it, he looks at the presence of the past Buddhas, such as Kassapa, in Cambodia. Revire creates an overview of the presence of the four past Buddhas and the future Buddha Maitreya in the art of the region. While identifying the group of the past and future Buddhas at various sites in Thailand and Cambodia, he also notes that distinguishing them from the five Jina Buddhas, can at times be difficult.

The final chapter by Martin Polkinhorne brings us closer to our own time and references images from the seventeenth and the eighteenth century that appear to have been brought to Angkor, possibly for safekeeping. Due to unscrupulous collectors, many of these images are now missing and Polkinghorne encourages further study of these Buddhas and particularly their placement within the structure, which was initially considered haphazard.

While the recurring thread through the book is Theravāda Buddhism, its reach is broader than just students of Buddhism. Woodward’s, Poolsuwan’s, and Revire’s articles are of particular interest to art historians and Polkinghorne’s article makes references to the dangers of collecting in the nineteenth and twentieth century. Each article references Khmer art and culture, and all highlight the importance of Angkor within their personal fields. However, the initial promise of the research crossing borders, was not quite fulfilled as the majority of the articles focused on the area around Angkor. The main exceptions being Woodward’s and Poolsuwan’s articles, as well as Revire’s who showed examples from multiple temples across the region.