Decoding Hindu-Buddhist rivalry at Angkor

25 November 2007 (The Nation) – Anyone who’s visited Angkor will know that the architecture of the famous jungle buildings are remains of ancient Hindu and Buddhist temples. Angkor Wat, for example, was a temple to the god Vishnu, who presides over the sun and the western quadrant of the compass, while the Bayon of Angkor Thom is adorned with the face of Avalokeshwara, the compassionate aspect of Buddha. The latter temple was built by Jayavarman VII, whose reign is considered one of the greatest of Angkor. But was there something more to the transition of the state religion from Hinduism to Buddhism? Angkor scholar Vittorio Roveda thinks so.

Beng Melea, CC photo by Hartford Schmidt
Beng Melea, creative commons photo by Hartford Schmidt.

Defying dynasties
An expert in Buddhist art questions the Hindu influence in four of Angkor’s temples

There’s always something to be discovered in Khmer art. Just ask renowned Angkor scholar Vittorio Roveda. In a recent Siam Society lecture, Roveda questioned the accepted Hindu attribution of the Angkor temples of Banteay Samre, Chau Say Tevoda, Thomannon and Beng Mealea and presented evidence of underlying Buddhist iconography.

Roveda is particularly interested in Khmer history covering the 12th and 13th centuries, a period characterised by dynastic rivalries. The era also marks the Khmer Empire’s transition from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism in the 1300s, and then back to Hinduism before the eventual rise of Theravada Buddhism in the 1400s. A systematic defacing of Buddha images occurred in this period, especially after the reign of Jayavarman VII, who was in power from 1181 to sometime after 1206, he says, pointing to the various Buddhist elements in Angkor temples that were subsequently replaced by Hindu-inspired sculpture.

According to Roveda, defacing religious images was motivated more by politics than religion, and as the throne changed hands from one dynasty to the next, iconoclasm became a major political tool, one that was used until the reign of Jayavarman VIII (1243-1295).

Interestingly enough, this story has some parallels to the story of the pharaoh Akhenaten, of Egypt’s New Kingdom who reigned about 2,000 years before. During his short reign, he managed to change the polytheistic state religion into a monotheistic one, directing worship towards Aten, the sun god. The people didn’t seem to take too kindly to the drastic change of gods: after his reign, it seems there was a violent upheaval against his religious reforms and Egypt returned to the polytheistic religion it was used to. Poor Akhenaten’s sculptures were defaced and his named was erased from the official king-lists.

Unlike Akhenaten however, Buddhism eventually regained its position as the dominant religion in Angkor (albeit the Theravada strain rather than the Mahayana version), and Jayavarman VII is still considered one of the greatest kings from Angkor.

You can read more about Jayavarman VII’s efforts to establish Buddhism as the state religion in Angkor in Defying Dynasties – as well as a quick tip on distinguishing the Buddhist temples from the Hindu ones!

Read more about the civilisation and religion of Angkor in:

Bayon Reconsidered by V. Roveda, O. Cunin and C. Jacques
Images of the Gods: Khmer Mythology in Cambodia, Laos & Thailand by V. Roveda
Khmer Mythology: Secrets Of Angkor Wat by V. Roveda
The Treasures of Angkor: Cultural Travel Guide (Rizzoli Art Guide) by M. Albanese
The Civilization of Angkor by C. Higham
Find more books about Angkor in the SEAArch Bookstore.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

2 thoughts on “Decoding Hindu-Buddhist rivalry at Angkor”

  1. Hi there,

    Do you happen to know any links to Vittorio Roveda’s personal website / blog?

    Thank you
    alwin

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