Angkor exists to glorify women?

… at least, that’s what researcher Kent Davis wants you to believe. The Phnom Penh Post features his work in surveying and quantifying all the images of women (conventionally known as Apsaras, but he calls it Devatas) to determine if there’s something more to the images. His theory is that because of the thousands of Apsara images that adorn the walls of the temples, Angkor was built to glorify women. Does it sounds like a Da-vinci-code-sacred-feminine flavour transposed onto the Southeast Asian context to you? Me too. Of course, we should just ignore the architecture, the royal inscriptions and historical accounts that suggest that buildings of Angkor were temples to Khmer gods.

Apsaras.Bas-reliefs
photo credit: Gusjer

The mysterious women of Angkor
Phnom Penh Post, 12 February 2009

A team of researchers, led by US educational program and marketing executive Kent Davis, is analysing 7,000 digital photos taken in November 2008 for a database that will attempt to unveil a mystery that’s been bugging Davis since he first visited Angkor Wat in November 2005.

He wants to determine why there are so many images of women in the temples, and he’s postulating a theory that Angkor wasn’t built to honour kings or gods, but to glorify women.


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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.

17 thoughts on “Angkor exists to glorify women?”

  1. I think it is important not to judge any of his speculations as ‘sacred feminine’ or dismiss them at all (or anyone else’s for that matter) until his completed report and documentation of his research is presented.

    Remember the importance of the detailing work done by Marija Gimbutas? Even though many feel her ideas were controversial due to her matri-centered theories (though not yet unproven), her maticulous detailing (like Sappho Marchal’s original detailing of the female figures at Angkor Wat) have provided a wealth of visual records that very few have ever attempted to research in such length since.

    Davis should at least be recognized at this point (since nothing has been placed in writing to truly discuss yet) be commended for the effort in his attempt to detail the female figures and bring Marchal’s work to a greater audience.

  2. That’s a little bit like saying that the Playboy Mansion is a tribute to women…¬¬

    I would have to read more about it, but I think this is all wishful thinking, and yes, it sounds more like pseudo-science of the Da Vinci code type. I do appreciate his effort in studying the female image in Angkor, but you cannot base a whole theory of pro-female culture in the number of women represented in a temple. They could be there to glorify women but they could also be there as a tool to attract men promising them a paradise full of women. Or perhaps is para-sympathetic magic to make sure the country has enough fertile women…So many options!

  3. Does the word para-sympathetic magic exist in English? O_o it does in Spanish…Is when you obtain a “wish” through the creation of an object for the gods (whatever gods). Like when you want your leg ache to get better and you make a sculpture of a leg and take it to church to gain god’s favour…I hope I’m making sense!

  4. I don’t agree with Davis’ theory and he’s not using a scientific approach (i.e. hypothesis testing) which will make his final conclusions suspect (as commenters above have noted). Nevertheless, Davis is doing some really interesting work that might inspire people to at least pay more attention to women in the archaeological record in Cambodia. One recent book that might also interest people (which I haven’t yet read- doh!) is Lost Goddesses by Trudy Jacobsen

    http://www.amazon.com/Lost-Goddesses-Denial-Cambodian-History/dp/8776940012

  5. Stephanie -> You are right, I did miss out the point that he would be making a detailed inventory of the apsara figures, and that endeavour alone should be lauded because of its sheer scale and effort. The idea of a sacred feminine as alluded through my reference to the Da Vinci code is my editorialising; I still think the premise of placing importance to the role of women due to the volume of women figures is flawed.

  6. Dear SEAArch Bloggers,

    It’s a pleasure to see your interest in this topic. My first advice is not to judge a person’s research from what you read in one news article. (-:

    I will, however, take full responsibility for everything published at my research site at http://www.devata.org

    If any of you have a more serious interest in these inquiries I would enjoy discussing them personally. My contact info is on the website.

    So many interesting points were raised that I will address them from the top.

    Stephanie: “I think it is important not to judge any of his speculations as ’sacred feminine’ or dismiss them at all (or anyone else’s for that matter) until his completed report and documentation of his research is presented.”

    Kent: I agree that it would be hasty to judge a person’s research my without knowing what it is or before it’s complete (!). As for the ‘sacred feminine’ it is well established (and quite visually clear) that females and feminine energy were and _are_ essential to the core Khmer spiritual beliefs, in both ancient and modern times. My research seeks to understand the roles of both heavenly and earthly women.

    Stephanie: “Remember the importance of the detailing work done by Marija Gimbutas?”

    Kent: I have not read Gimbutas but do see that her non-male-centric theories really stir up some men to criticize her books. (-: But criticism is normal for anyone introducing an unconventional paradigm to interpret history. If not for people like them (and me?) the world would still be flat and Columbus would have really discovered America.

    From the beginning I’ve been warned that my theories would meet resistance so I’ve proceeded cautiously. Over the past three years I’ve devoted thousands of hours of research to my work before agreeing to my first news interview for the article in the Phnom Penh Post. Rest assured I have compelling data.

    My work is based on visual observations, comparative research and logic. In light of the lack of original, first person texts from the Angkorean period that’s the best we can do. And while I appreciate Zhou Daguan’s brief descriptions I don’t think an ethnocentric, middle-ranking Chinese diplomat showing up 150 years after Suryavarman II died tells us a lot about what was really going on when Angkor Wat was built. Something very unique happened at Angkor Wat.

    My question is: Who are the women portrayed at Angkor Wat?

    Observation #1 – The Khmer Empire harnessed a huge amount of financial, social, artistic, scientific, architectural, political and religious power to build Angkor Wat.

    I compare it to the United States’ “Manhattan Project”, “National Highway System”, “Hoover Dam” and “Man on the Moon” all rolled into one. They pulled resources from their entire empire to put that temple together.

    Hypothesis #1 – This was an “important” building to the Khmers. Any arguments so far?

    Observation #2 – When a society (or political or financial or religious entity) creates an “important” building they put “important” things in it.

    Hypothesis #2 – The images Angkor Wat protects are “important”.

    Observation #3 – Angkor Wat is _dominated_ by FEMALE images. Women are prominently featured outside, inside, in the inner chambers, the outer gates and on every level, up to the highest towers. And these are not just generic, “cookie cutter” women like many seen on the temples of Jayavarman VII. Each portrait, each pose, each collection of accoutrements is unique on 1,780 women. I have visited every portrait multiple times. I have mapped digital images of each one. This IS one of mankind’s most extraordinary artistic achievements.

    As a side note have you ever heard of China’s “terracotta army”? Of course you have. It’s 100% men. But why haven’t you heard of the most extraordinary collection of ancient royal portraits on earth at Angkor Wat? Because no one has verbalized these women as such. Now I have. And this concept will only grow.

    This collection represents a group of Southeast Asian women whose images are immortalized in the largest religious monument ever built by man. Their images were captured over a 30 year period. That, in and of itself, is reason enough to study them intensely. But, alas, for 150 years they have been brushed off as “female decorations” or the “wives to serve the king”. Absurd.

    Let us talk about His Majesty King Suryavarman II for a moment. I note two small portraits of him (along with his god Vishnu) on the BOTTOM level, on the OUTSIDE and in the “back,” based on the temple’s logical traffic pattern. There are no significant sacred or royal images of individual prominence above that level… except for the women.

    Hypothesis #3 – The female images are “important.” I apologize for presenting such a radical theory but based on the logical evidence above I must.

    Stephanie: “Davis should at least be recognized at this point (since nothing has been placed in writing to truly discuss yet) be commended for the effort in his attempt to detail the female figures and bring Marchal’s work to a greater audience.”

    Kent: Thank you, Stephanie. Please let me clarify a few things.
    1. These women will speak for themselves if anyone takes time to look and think. All I’m doing is noting that which is right before our eyes.

    2. Sappho Marchal was the ONLY person in the modern history of Khmer studies (i.e. the past 150 years) to observe the women of Angkor Wat systematically and to begin classifying them based on features. She was in her mid-20’s. Some modern scholars dismiss her standing and contribution to Khmer studies entirely. I am sad for them.

    3. I respect Sappho for her vision (and perhaps it was her father Henri’s vision!) but the scope of my work is far beyond anything that would have been practical in her day. I have identified about 70 characteristics to track on each portrait, which amounts to nearly 125,000 bits of information. When this data is entered into an integrated database experts from various fields will be able _begin_ analyzing these women as a group for the first time in modern history.

    Nemi: “That’s a little bit like saying that the Playboy Mansion is a tribute to women…”

    Kent: So your theory is that Angkor Wat was the Playboy Mansion of the Khmer Empire, Nemi?

    What a rich fantasy life you lead. And no doubt you agree with the guides and writers who have said for generations…”The beautiful apsaras with their rounded breasts decorate the bare limestone walls of Angkor Wat to entertain the king in heaven.”

    Not to rain on your parade but:

    1. All the women at Angkor Wat are not “beautiful” or “young” or “royal” by ancient or modern standards.
    2. Every devata at Angkor Wat has BOTH feet firmly on the ground. Not the best dance posture. Whether they are “apsaras” or “devata” or “Khmer women” is a whole separate discussion. But it is indeed a wonderful male fantasy that they are all there to serve the king…gee…just like at the Playboy Mansion!
    3. Worst news of all for your suggestion is that the women of Angkor Wat are incredibly chaste and pure. They are NOT sexualized. They are not engaged in sexual acts. In fact NO man, not even the king, is depicted touching them, or near them. They are in a class by themselves.

    Nemi: “I would have to read more about it, but I think this is all wishful thinking, and yes, it sounds more like pseudo-science of the Da Vinci code type.”

    Kent: Please do read more.

    Nemi: “I do appreciate his effort in studying the female image in Angkor, but you cannot base a whole theory of pro-female culture in the number of women represented in a temple.

    Kent: So the MORE women there are the LESS important they are is your theory? I admire your non-conventional viewpoint. But it doesn’t make sense to me.

    Nemi: “They could be there to glorify women but they could also be there as a tool to attract men promising them a paradise full of women. Or perhaps is para-sympathetic magic to make sure the country has enough fertile women…So many options!”

    Kent: Nemi here I agree with you 100%. Let us keep our eyes…and our minds…and our options…open.

    Nemi: “Does the word para-sympathetic magic exist in English? O_o it does in Spanish…Is when you obtain a “wish” through the creation of an object for the gods (whatever gods). Like when you want your leg ache to get better and you make a sculpture of a leg and take it to church to gain god’s favour…I hope I’m making sense!”

    Kent: This is a great point that resonates with my research technique of “thinking outside the box.” One observer reviewing my theories wonders if Angkor Wat was an overwhelming tribute to the female force in the universe as an attempt to balance the masculine wars the Khmer army was waging throughout the empire. It’s possible.

    I personally think it’s a bit shallow to say these women represent a Valhalla paradise for successful warriors. As stated above these women are not portrayed sexually. Zhou Daguan, lonely French explorers and modern male scholars alike may certainly be titillated (pun intended) by nearly 2,000 topless women, but such was daily life in Khmer times.

    If you want sexual imagery go to Khajaraho. But that’s not at all what’s happening at Angkor Wat.

    Alison: : “I don’t agree with Davis’ theory and he’s not using a scientific approach (i.e. hypothesis testing) which will make his final conclusions suspect (as commenters above have noted).”

    Kent: In fact, Alison, I am the FIRST and ONLY person I know of to begin true scientific analysis on the women of Angkor Wat, to wit:

    1. a feature database tracking objective and subjective characteristics of each women by precise location

    2. facial recognition with the help of Dr. Anil Jain and his computer vision team at Michigan State University

    3. Waist Hip Ratio (WHR) analysis based on the work of Dr. Devendra Singh of University of Texas, Austin

    4. Feature tracking based on distinct genetic characteristics, including Mendelian traits

    5. I am also networking with the world’s foremost experts in botany, ornithology, jewelry design, Indian studies, fabric patterns, dance traditions, stone carving, etc.

    There are so many exciting avenues here I think you should join me to help me refine my scientific approach.

    Alison: “Nevertheless, Davis is doing some really interesting work that might inspire people to at least pay more attention to women in the archaeological record in Cambodia. One recent book that might also interest people (which I haven’t yet read- doh!) is Lost Goddesses by Trudy Jacobsen

    Kent: I have read Trudy’s book twice and it sits on my desk. You’ll see links to her brilliant work at devata.org. She is contributing a chapter to my upcoming research anthology, Daughters of Angkor Wat.

    Women played an essential role in the Khmer Empire from the dawn of history. Trudy is a visionary who has assembled a remarkable body of evidence to prove this.

    noelbynature: “Stephanie -> You are right, I did miss out the point that he would be making a detailed inventory of the apsara figures, and that endeavour alone should be lauded because of its sheer scale and effort.”

    Kent: Frankly the scale of it exceeds my time and funding to rapidly address the task. I have all the data. I have all the mapping. I have all the photos. I have built the database. But time and money are what will get this to the next level. How ’bout some help? (-:

    noelbynature: “The idea of a sacred feminine as alluded through my reference to the Da Vinci code is my editorialising; I still think the premise of placing importance to the role of women due to the volume of women figures is flawed.”

    Kent: Hey, editorializing is OK. Are you “the” Noel who founded this blog? (as shown on the About page) If so, we share similar roles: I am also a “human aggregator” but my task is only gathering devata information.

    But let’s get back to your statement:

    noelbynature said “I still think the premise of placing importance to the role of women due to the volume of women figures is flawed.”

    Kent: I wonder what logic you stand on? Are the women of Angkor Wat just “wallpaper” to decorate bare limestone walls? Or perhaps they are merely Playboy centerfolds for the Khmer King’s Boys Club? Please share your logic.

    How is it that a temple absolutely FILLED with detailed, sacred portraits of women on EVERY level, to the _exclusion_ of men, does not say that the women were important?

    I welcome communication and participation from anyone. I invite you to question my theories, expand upon them or to actually participate in the promising work at hand.

    Kent Davis

  7. I’m glad Kent replied on this thread because I really enjoy when there are (polite and respectful!) discussion’s on Noel’s blog. Maybe it is not the best place for a long discussion but it is nice to hear back from people and get a chance to chew things over IMO.

    I just wanted to respond to a few points here.

    – Kent, I really respect your dedication and passion for this topic and I’m looking forward to following your research. I’m not convinced of everything you’re saying yet, but disagreement is part of healthy research. And (as someone in the thick of doing a lot of research) having people question aspects of your project is how one addresses weaknesses, which leads to new questions, new research, and new insights. On that note, I want to bring up a few things (in no particular order) that I have questions about that I think you could address further.

    While you are using scientific analytical techniques to look at the devatas from what I can tell, you’re not using the scientific method (hypothesis testing) in regards to your final conclusion. Perhaps I am not understanding correctly, but it seems that you’ve already made your conclusion/proved your “hypothesis” (Angkor Wat exists to glorify women) and now you are working backwards in order to find the data to prove it. When it comes to archaeology, I’m not a fan of this method because people then begin to overlook evidence that might be in disagreement with their hypothesis (they too might argue that they are using “logic” but we all know that definitions of logic vary widely), and extreme cases you end up with wrong and even dangerous “conclusions.”

    I am not sure if maybe you were pushed to say that for the purpose of the article, because your website actually lists really valid questions that you are still investigating. (Who were these women and what did they mean to the Khmer kings/priests/people etc).

    I like that you’re questioning the status quo that the devatas were just eye candy. I think their role, and the role of all women in Khmer society, definitely needs to be discussed. (The role of women in the royal court vs. their place among the commoners? How women’s roles changed over time?) Lots we don’t know and I’m glad it’s beginning to be studied.

    However I think you’re a bit flippant in your dismissal of claims that they could be just “wallpaper” for lack of a better term. Angkor Wat was a temple built by men and this is their idealized version of women. In my life I am surrounded by pictures of women and this does not translate to our importance in society. The state capital building in my town has large statues of women directly outside and on top of the capital (highly visual places) but women do not have a prominent place in the government. So it is quite easy for me to go to a place like Angkor Wat, see the devatas, and think that they very well may have had only a minor role. Does your claim that these devatas were important mean that they are powerful? Because I see very little evidence of this correlation.

    So as a quick and dirty example: I might make my null hypothesis that “The women at Angkor Wat were not powerful and important.” The next step would be to collect data and see if this disproves this hypothesis, thereby implying that women at Angkor Wat were important. One way to go about this would be to study how important and powerful women are portrayed in other cultures and use this as a comparison. There’s lots of pretty ladies all over the buildings of the ancient world. But powerful women in the ancient world are portrayed (or discussed) as DOING, being active, and being in charge. The devatas are passive, they do nothing. Men have been admiring and portraying the female form for thousands of years. Truly powerful women in the ancient world create their own temples (e.g. Hatshepsut). If women at Angkor Wat are so important why aren’t they DOING anything of importance? What is it that makes them so important? They’re just standing around, which is not too different from how I would imagine a temple with “pretty lady wallpaper” might look. I think this is a question you need to address. Their presence is not enough to convince me that they were the sole purpose for the temple. But I’m open to hearing more interpretations! 🙂

    There’s also been quite a lot of research on Angkor Wat’s importance as a symbol of King Suryavarman II’s power and his relationship to Vishnu (Eleanor Mannikka’s Angkor Wat: Time, Space, Kingship) that you seem to ignore. It is indeed hard to ignore that Angkor Wat was built by and for King Suryavarman II and yet we know almost nothing about his wives (arguably some of the most important women in the kingdom)- including their names. How does this fit into your theory?

    But I do think your underlying question to understand these women better and what their role is, IS important and you have so much amazing data I think you’ll be able to make lots of great contributions towards understanding this aspect of Khmer society. Even if Angkor Wat’s sole purpose was not to glorify women [and I think it is hard to say that the building had a sole purpose- a project as big and expensive as that should be multifunctional :)] studying the devatas and trying to understand their role is still a very worthy pursuit.

  8. Alison, et al.

    A terrific reply! I’m genuinely grateful for the intelligent discussion on this topic and I’m absolutely open to critical comments and opinions. Best of all, you’ve already begun making constructive improvements in this work and for that I thank you.

    Also my apologies if it seemed that I jumped on Nemi’s “Playboy mansion” comment to my theory that “Angkor Wat is the world’s largest monument to women” (which is equally sensationalistic!). But Truth is distilled from comparing and debating such diametrically opposed viewpoints so Nemi, please keep ’em coming. (-:

    I am not a formally trained archaeologist nor am I an academic. I realize that many of my theories are not yet refined enough to pass muster in those fields. This is one reason why I hold such high regard for Trudy Jacobsen’s work in “Lost Goddesses.” She IS meeting these standards and I hope to learn from her example of rigorously supporting theories with multiple references and sources.

    So you are absolutely right saying that I don’t always using scientific method in my arguments.

    Trudy does it right. I realize that I’m doing it “wrong”, but I am doing it to the best of my ability and will improve. My passion (and frustration) arises, however, from what I see as 150 years of serious academic and scientific neglect for these women. The male-centric blindness that got us to this near vacuum of knowledge about women in the Khmer Empire amazes me as a layperson.

    So my first priority is to stir up general curiosity and debate about these women. I will make some off the wall statements that contain mistakes, I will try to correct them, but I won’t retreat or slow down while trying to make every statement meet every reader’s personal standards of what is “scientific” or “academic”.

    Personally, I’ve seen plenty of “academic” debates denigrate into pointless discourses that produce no results and block great creativity. Some academics will debate punctuation, semantics, interpretations and just about anything else *ad nauseum* just to hear themselves talk (much like lawyers). Many live for the debate and their egos could never “suffer an opposing viewpoint to live”. Add blind devotion to one’s particular academic school, dedication to a professor or prior works and it gets even more confused.

    I’m an independent researcher. I owe allegiance to no one and I fund my own work. This gives me the freedom to be really right…or really wrong! But I assure you I am seeking the facts, can accept what I find, and love outside input.

    Like Trudy (and many others), I have an agenda in the modern world as well as the ancient one. My goal is to encourage people to open their minds to the fact that women have played vital roles in ancient societies and do today. This knowledge can and will help empower women to assume their rightful equal roles in the world.

    But setting my more radical (and less proven) statements aside I am creating absolutely scientific instruments whereby these female portraits can be studied: facial recognition software, applying Waist Hip Ratio science to the images, a searchable feature database, etc.

    I don’t want to go into another super long post (too late), but let me touch upon some great points you raised starting with the “eye candy” debate. This links back to Nemi’s Playboy mansion comparison, which is really how MOST people…including all the guides at Angkor Wat…DO characterize the women.

    You’ve brought great new perspectives into this issue for me. I especially like your connections to modern experience where a government building may feature women yet won’t grant them equal power inside. And also your link to Hatshepsut, a truly powerful woman who…if my memory serves me…wore a fake beard when she assumed the role of Pharaoh to imitate her male predecessors? Oh well. (-:

    In Trudy’s book she presents (and substantiates) an idea that speaks to all our ideas:

    “Perhaps, instead of looking for ‘significance’ of women in political office, we should be looking to the unseen world that has far more resonance for everyday life in Cambodia than the abstract decisions of an elite governing body.” p. 287

    So a few debates raised here are:

    a. do the women of Angkor Wat represent sexual toys to be given to gods, kings, soldiers or leaders as sensual rewards and/or incentives for certain behaviors?

    b. are the women there just as pretty decorations?

    c. did the women portrayed have definable “power” in the empire and if so what was it and what is the evidence?

    I’m working on a paper examining the women of Angkor Wat in terms of “Decoration vs. Adoration vs Veneration”. Would you like to collaborate expanding these concepts?

    To wrap up (who’s going to read all this?) here are a few “quick and dirty” counter comments for you:

    “The devatas are passive, they do nothing.”
    – And the flag featured in the Star Spangled Banner is just a piece of cloth fluttering in the breeze.
    – Umbrellas over a person’s head in a royal portrait are just painted papier mache and bamboo.
    – Books on a shelf are just colored bits of cardboard that don’t do anything.
    etc.

    Symbols have power. Systems of communication have power. My work will prove that the devatas are doing a heck of a lot.

    “There’s also been quite a lot of research on Angkor Wat’s importance as a symbol of King Suryavarman II’s power and his relationship to Vishnu (Eleanor Mannikka’s Angkor Wat: Time, Space, Kingship) that you seem to ignore.”

    First, I have great respect for her work which, frankly, I am not mathematically adept enough to fully understand. But I absolutely agree with her that a major purpose of this temple was to represent an incredibly sophisticated level of architectural, astrological, mathematical and spiritual technology.

    “Even if Angkor Wat’s sole purpose was not to glorify women”

    Just as a side note, I do NOT believe that the temple’s “sole” purpose was to “glorify women” and I’m not promoting the importance of women in relation to the temple to the *exclusion* of its other meanings. I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy. (-:

    HOWEVER (ah, here it comes), speaking of “ignoring” things, I am nearly speechless (nearly mind you!) that such an extraordinary inquiry into the mathematical symbolism of the construction of this temple was performed without even _considering_ the women who fill the temple.

    Their placement, positions and adornments certainly hold great meaning. When my database is complete and devata features can be viewed as strictly mathematical equations and patterns I will vigorously pursue input from great mathematical minds, including Dr. Mannikka, Subhash Kak, and others. My prediction is that the women contain data to further substantiate and expand upon the mathematical theories presented thus far.

    “It is indeed hard to ignore that Angkor Wat was built by and for King Suryavarman II and yet we know almost nothing about his wives.”

    Interesting statement. And just how much do we *know* about King Suryavarman II and the political system that made this temple possible? It seems to me that the answer is “Not much.” A lot of complex powers united on this project. Sometimes the greatest powers are behind the scenes…like Divakarapandita. Or the women in the court.

    Let’s continue the investigation!

    Kent

  9. Interesting discussion…

    Kudos to Kent for re-sparking interest in the question of Angkor Wat’s purpose. One reason could have been economic. Temple construction projects would have served to keep people stably employed for long periods. I’m sure the Obama administration wishes it could issue orders for building an American Wat or two. 🙂

    The fact that the statuettes are placed on the margins of structures may be of some significance. In Hindu temples, an important God generally grants “darshan” (roughly, an “audience”) only at certain times during the day. The doors of the inner sanctum are opened with great fanfare. The officiating priests are the *only* ones ever allowed into the sanctum. This implies that the deities who give darshan– the important Gods– are never placed on exposed boundaries. At least, that’s my understanding. Hinduism, like evolution, takes a manic pleasure in exceptions.

    The darshan, by the way, is a two-way gift. It’s not the relation of an observer to an object. Kent seems to have gained a measure of darshan from Angkor Wat. Irrespective of the original purpose, I would guess that a Hindu temple’s true purpose had been served.

    Anil

  10. Interesting discussion…

    Kudos to Kent for re-sparking interest in the question of Angkor Wat’s purpose. One reason could have been economic. Temple construction projects would have served to keep people stably employed for long periods. I’m sure the Obama administration wishes it could issue orders for building an American Wat or two. 🙂

    The fact that the statuettes are placed on the margins of structures may be of some significance. In Hindu temples, an important God generally grants “darshan” (roughly, an “audience”) only at certain times during the day. The doors of the inner sanctum are opened with great fanfare. The officiating priests are the *only* ones ever allowed into the sanctum. This implies that the deities who give darshan– the important Gods– are never placed on exposed boundaries. At least, that’s my understanding. Hinduism, like evolution, takes a manic pleasure in exceptions.

    The darshan, by the way, is a two-way gift. It’s not the relation of an observer to an object. Kent seems to have gained a measure of darshan from Angkor Wat. Irrespective of the original purpose, perhaps a Hindu temple’s true purpose was achieved, inadvertent as it may have been.

    Anil

  11. Belated comment on this, just stumbled across it: while this researcher is to be applauded for comprehensively and systematically compiling an important dataset, his assertion that this inventory might provide some useful information about the social and cultural context of Angkor Wat — in particular, its “purpose” — must be regarded as highly suspect.

    For starters, although I gather Mr. Davis deliberately cultivates an image of himself as being anti-academic and anti-establishment (yawn…), this may not prove all its cracked up to be. Most scholars learn in Anthropology 101 that culture is not monolithic and changeless, and that there can be a substantial degree of dissonance between formal artistic expressions and the socio-cultural context from which they emerge.

    Let’s look at the “purpose” of building Angkor Wat: Whose “purpose” exactly, and what does that mean anyway? The purpose of Suryavarman II may have been to create something which accurately reflected the status of women in Khmer society, or it may have been a completely disingenuous representation of an ideal which had nothing to do with the social or cultural realities of the time. It may have been something that he was trying to promote for some particular reason, and he and/or his subjects, or any particular subset of them, may have believed it to some degree or not at all, consciously, subconsciously, or whatever. It may have been one very minor reason in a suite of motivations for building the temple. It’s conceivable that the lay workmen who made the carvings had a substantial degree of autonomy, and that it was a reflection of everyday ‘non-royal’ attitudes towards women, or again, a completely bogus ideal.

    Considering that Angkor Wat took decades to build, and has been venerated as an important building for centuries since, any and all of these aspects — from social realities to abstract ideals — were subject to constant change and reinterpretation, and at any stage the symbolism of Angkor Wat may, or may not, tell us anything useful about the people who built it or worshipped there. The temple is still important and venerated; centuries from now, are scholars supposed to interpret from this that women had serious political power and were not regarded with deep ambivalence in Hun Sen’s Cambodia?

    Art historians and in particular anthropologists often manage to navigate their way around these issues with participant observation and a full understanding of the historical context of objects. However, we have access to neither of these for Angkor Wat; given the lack of historical documentation and the limited usefulness of the inscriptions in this respect, we probably never will. Meaningful assessments of “purpose” or intent are therefore impossible. We’ll never know. High time to move on to more interesting questions.

    Fortunately, there are a number of very interesting research questions that could be asked of this dataset. The question of *why* Angkor Wat was built isn’t one of them.

  12. Dear Kent,
    To join this debate please allow me to share my personal view.
    I fear that I could be labelled as a “deranged” nut bag with my unscientific approach.
    But I think that animism flows into the vein of all Cambodians and perhaps it is what matters the most.
    For the first ever sacred rituals performed recently in Banteay Srey since the depth of time, moved and vibrated the soul of the Khmers, but left others, aliens if not amused.
    http://www.devata.org/2009/06/nginn-karet-foundation-teaches-sacred-cambodian-dance-arts-at-banteay-srey-temple/
    The legend speaks about myriads of Apsaras born from the foam and the water of the churning of the Ocean of Milk where the Devas were in search of Amrita the elixir of immortality.
    As in any society I am sure that they had an order of seniority and importance.
    Deep in my soul I just feel, through my researches on the ancient sacred rituals of the Khmer dance, that the Apsaras depicted in the fresques of Angkor must have been the most seniors, the purest as Tilottama created at the request of Brahma, by Vishvakarma and empowered by Him with the task of overlooking His divine work on earth.
    The Apsaras depicted in Khajuharo temples in India to celebrate the virile and powerful ruler seems to be of lesser status, but this is only my personal evaluation.
    It is almost as Angkor was built to reproduce Indra Temple in Heaven to honour Vishnu. A heavenly temple on earth designed to receive Vishnu “passages” on Earth when he is “presiding”, from the Mt Meru, over the holiest and sacred meditations and transmission of His divine knowledge.
    I think that if Angkor was built to celebrate Vishnu it would have been opened to most of the common mortal, which from my understanding Angkor’s access was solely to the holiest Brahmans and erudite.
    Suryavarman II is a descendant of prince Kambu and the daughter of the Naga King, Mera, (resulting of the birth from Kambu and Mera to the Khmer race) of Godly and divine ascents.
    It makes sense to me that only such a divine architect as Vishvakarma could locate the terrestrial placement of Angkor to mirror the heavens in order to assist in the harmonisation of the earth and the stars.
    My understanding is that when an ascetic gain too much power the Apsaras are send by Indra to distract and seduce them with their 64 ways to arouse senses so that they would succumb to the mortal sin which would annihilate all their powers in order to protect the almighty power of Indra Lord of Heaven (living in Swargaloka, in the clouds around Mt Meru) intact.
    In the history of the Bharata Natyam the Apsaras dances sacred rituals to inspire sculptors and builders to excel themselves to the highest degree of perfection, and transcending to them I suppose a superhuman strength.
    They are dancing on the lotus which symbolized the divine energy and divine grace, so to transcend the divine energy and divine grace to the craftsmen, architects, sculptors, builders and their Grand Maitre de Chantier: Divakarapandita.
    Not to forget the symbolism of Vishnu as Padmanabha the lotus-naveled One from whose navel sprang the lotus which contained Brahma who created the universe.
    In Gaudiya Vaishnavism describes 3 aspects of Vishnu:
    Maha Vishnu who creates the total material energy.
    Garbhodaksavi Vishnu who enters all the universes to create diversities in each of them.
    Kshirodakasayi Vishnu is diffused as the all-preserving Supreme Soul, Absolute Atman in all the universes and is known as Paramatma.
    Anyone observing these three Vishnu can be liberated from material entanglement.
    In my humble analysis the some 1860 Apsaras depicted in Angkor by the craftsmen, sculptors, architects were portrayed not only to honour their celestial and divine guidance through the hand of Vishvakarma but to immortalise them as divine guardians to link Heaven and Earth, the celestial intermediaries and conduct of the sacred rituals, offerings, celebrations and prayers. But if Tilottama Apsara was empowered by Vishvakarma she could only be surrounded by the highest and purest of her heavenly sisters, this is making Angkor an even more holy temple with the power of invoking curses such as misery, climate upheaval, dreadful wars if sacred rituals are not performed dutifully in respect to the holy calendar.
    Who else than Vishvakarma could have transcended the epics of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana?
    I was told that anyone listening to the full Mahabharata of the full 90,000 verses could have their sins expiated.
    The Apsaras of Angkor must have been from the highest order to be bestowed with the major role empowered to them by Vishvakarman the deity of all craftsmen and architects.
    So that through them He could channel His divine knowledge into Suriyavarman II most trusted and knowledgeable Brahman Divakarapandita.
    And for Divakarapandita, to be able to reproduce on earth the divine and celestial temple of Indra dedicated to Vishnu the Supreme God of Heaven and Creation.
    The construction of Angkor (Nagara=City of Temple=Wat) is so incredibly precise and complex with such a sophisticated level of architectural, astrological, mathematical and spiritual know how, and full of symbolisms and cosmological significance that it is so difficult to understand how a simple human being even highly intelligent could begin to understand its configuration and meanings without the guidance of the “hand of the divine”.
    (In a smaller scale the Machu Pichu is also believed to have divine intervention. Flying beings are depicted there too).
    Angkor with the Central tower representing MT Meru, (home of the Gods) is surrounded by the 4 towers (mountains) and the malt (ocean) is also symbolising the lotus flower with the four petals (4 towers) opened around the closed bud (Mt Meru) above the water.
    (The lotus flower is the only flower growing from the mud and rising above the water in a remarkable beauty and purity. At night, the flower closes and retracts underwater to rise at dawn and open again).
    The three dancing Apsaras dancing above the lotus flowers to my mind encapsulated so many important meanings but essentially transcending super human strength.
    This construction was also made possible, I think, as King Suryavarman II attained an elevated status of sacred knowledge from his Guru high priest, the Brahman Divakarapandita who oversaw and performed the rites of the ceremonies of Suriyavarman inauguration in 1113 A.D as well as His coronation in 1119 A.D and utlimetaly was entrusted to the grand scheme of Angkor construction.
    (Inscriptions records, the King studying religious rituals and performing religious festivals. The Brahman visited the temples of the Empire and enshrined in Preah Vihear a golden statue of Civa.)
    It would be interesting to study the Apsaras at Banteay Samre, Thommanon, Chhau Sey Tevoda and Bang Mealea temples dating from his reign.
    To my mind the vast number of Apsaras in Angkor, emphasized the awareness of the most incredible majestic and tremendous successful construction on earth, only made possible to my mind through their divine channelling. They have bridged heaven and earth.
    And this is why I strongly feel the urge and the call for re instating the ancient holy sacred rituals to honour, celebrate and praying the Gods, Divinities and Spirits for their almighty protection and blessing through the celestial and divine Apsaras the messengers of love, of peace, of well being, of prosperity.
    Warmest wishes, ravynn.

  13. I have to say I’m inclined to agree with the skeptical posters above, especially Alison. It’s a bit like trying to infer things about women in medieval France from the numerous depictions of Mary and female saints in the windows of Chartres. In some areas of Early Modern Europe, women were idealised in Church art even as they were being systematically murdered for witchcraft on the streets outside. The churches, like Angkor Wat, glorify particular aspects of womanhood, and that I guess tells us something, but as for the reality, well…

    A broader spectrum of evidence — especially from good old-fashioned dirt archaeology — is what’s really needed here.

    The idea of the poster above that Angkor Wat is a kind of ancient “Playboy Mansion” does come across like a silly fantasy, but unfortunately at the end of the day I think there’s about as much chance of proving it one way or the other as many of the other theories above.

    And finally I have a stupid question: Don’t images of men/male deities vastly outnumber images of women/female deities at Angkor Wat? I’m not sure about Angkor Wat itself, but I know this would definitely have to be the case with (what remains of) Khmer art generally.

  14. Interesting topic! I don´t have so much new to add, except that in ancient India,
    images of women (statues, sculptures and paintings) were seen as auspicious and holy (women being the purveyors/wielders of Shakti). For more information about female images in ancient India; check out any book by Vidya Dehejia (sorry about not being able to come up with a wholesale reference, but…)!

  15. Great to see the conversation continuing here (since 2009) but there are newer articles with additional information. A couple quick points:

    Regarding male vs female images in Khmer temples there are thousands of female images with comparatively few male images. A general inventory in progress is here http://www.devata.org/khmer-devata-temples/

    Khargosh is right to look to Indian traditions for more answers on this topic, but this must be done cautiously. Many Indian and Western scholars tend to discount the innovation and modification of Khmer institutions. Ancient Cambodia blended Hinduism, Buddhism and animism with unusual results that must be considered within the context of that civilization.

    Vidya is one of the best and her recent book, The Body Adorned, speaks to this research. All her books are on Amazon at this link http://www.amazon.com/Vidya-Dehejia/e/B001HCZ1UO

  16. Hi Kent, thanks for your reply on the male vs. female issue — I know this is something that troubles a lot of people about your work. I’m no expert on the temples but what I’m referring to are, for example, the galleries of bas-reliefs at Angkor Wat that have thousands of depictions of men but not so many women. I would have thought that, in terms of importance, surely these narrative reliefs rate up there with the devatas considering that only 2 other Angkorian temples out of several thousand have them?

    Also I’ve always understood that the most important images in a temple are those on the lintels (especially those above the doorways on the main axis), and in particular the statues that were once all over the place on pedestals in the centres of the towers. I guess the latter are mostly missing now but judging from the collections I’ve seen in museums etc, and the references to them in inscriptions, aren’t these mostly male divinities? These aren’t loaded questions or implied criticisms of your work, which I think is terrific (even if I’m with Alison here on being more cautious about reading too much into it on the status of women), I’m just genuinely curious as to why you think the accepted wisdom on this is so wrong and that the placement of female figures has such great relative importance. Or am I not reading you right on this?

    Also, do you have any plans to make the devata database available online as a searchable inventory that displays the photos? It would be a pretty amazing resource especially if it allowed people to search by specific characteristics etc. and display the results as spatial distributions on a map (or even better a 3D model) of the temple. Considering the intense interest and debate your work has obviously stirred amongst the hundreds of people working on Khmer studies I think it would see a lot of use by both specialists and by the interested public. Maybe it would even win over some of the old-school critics once they really see first-hand what can be done with this kind of information. (Or maybe not!) 🙂

  17. Thank you for continuing this discussion Damien. I appreciate the interaction and welcome all constructive criticism. The biggest problem in discussing “my work” is that brief blog posts based on necessarily shallow (and frequently inaccurate) news accounts puts us in an awkward place to have intelligent discussion.

    If I had to sum up my views in four words they are simply “The women are important.” How? Why? More important or less important than what else? …all that and much more is not yet defined.

    Also, please don’t think of my work as a “male vs. female” issue. Nothing could be further from the truth. My view is that Khmer ideology, and its success on Earth, was based on a “male AND female” universe. Khmer vision balanced the universe, and did so by acknowledging male and female forces, heaven and earth, sun and moon, garudas and nagas, deva and asuras, etc.

    Look at Eleanor Mannikka’s analysis of Angkor Wat temple itself. Apart from her work the general consensus was that it was merely an architectural masterpiece that contained considerable artwork depicting Hindu religious concepts and legends.

    Her work put all that interpretation on an entirely new level by revealing that science — exceptional mathematical and astronomical science — was encoded throughout the structure. With her vision we no longer have a bunch of artistic ancients “decorating” a structure. We have a sophisticated group of geniuses encoding a structure with supreme universal knowledge.

    In that vein, I believe that the representation of the women in the temple was *also* done using a highly codified system. I also believe that their diversity will contain far more information than the temple itself.

    I agree with you that the lintels and pediments are symbolically very important. My work has not proceeded to include them yet because I’m focusing on the female images. But once the female images are defined I believe that contextual analysis of the women and entrance art will take the investigation to yet another level.

    I appreciate your reminder that there are thousands of males depicted, albeit in miniature, throughout the temple. My personal impression is that we should distinguish *narrative* art (i.e. the miniatures that represent legends and perhaps formula) from *operative* art (i.e. the large devata, exact purpose as yet unknown) that seem (to me) to suggest a more pervasive essential element that exists throughout the temple.

    Friends are exploring the concepts of shakti and bhakti relating to the women’s purpose and I agree that these concepts fit in.

    But above all, I don’t discount the importance of any other parts of the temple (and other temples). I am focusing on the female images and their potential data.

    Regarding the devata database I would love to make it available online. I’m now backing up 250+ gigs of images and research. I have created criteria for differentiating the women and have built a database that can sort the information. Only two things are missing – time and money. And both these can be summed up in one word… “help”.

    I work independently because no institution has thus far assisted me. It’s tricky being outside the academic world but I continue to reach out to people all over the world. The MSU study with facial pattern recognition of the devata was my first collaborative effort. I hope there will be more. The best news article is here, with a link to the original study http://www.devata.org/2010/08/the-women-of-angkor-wat/

    Indeed, I believe that until all the data is added to the feature database we are just scratching the surface in trying to interpret the significance of these women.

    Finally, regarding the 3D interface for the database, that is also an objective. For the past 14 months I’ve been working with 3DreamTeam in refining their Angkor Wat model. Future versions of their programs will be able to link to external databases and display detailed sections of the temple (e.g. the bas reliefs, the devata, the pediments, etc.). If you’re on a Windows platform with a fast graphics card you can download the 3D model for free.

    http://www.devata.org/2010/09/angkor-wat-3d-vizerra-showcases-virtual-unesco-heritage-sites-at-demo-conference/

    Lots to do and I will keep doing it with the time and money I have. (-: Thanks again for your ideas.

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