Wednesday Rojak #18

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In this edition of Rojak…

  • Johny Setiawan takes a walk through the Indonesian National Museum and reflects on the shared heritage of Malaysia and Indonesia.
  • At Anthropology.net, we hear more about the recent discovery of the genetic mutation that might explain homo floresiensis.
  • Monkeysmooth visits the heritage-endangered site of Ayutthaya.
  • The Thai Art and Archaeology blog writes about recent excavations at Thung Kula Ronghai.
  • Filip visits the Bayon temple at Angkor
  • While this French site has some pictures of the bas-reliefs in Angkor Wat.

In this series of weekly rojaks (published on Wednesdays) I’ll feature other sites in the blogosphere that are related to Southeast Asia and archaeology in general. Got a recommendation for the next Wednesday rojak? Email me!

Central Vietnam yields more relics

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13 September 2007 (Thanh Nien News) – Besides mentioning the three cannons posted yesterday, other finds mentioned here include a bas-relief of a naga, a snake-deity in Hindu mythology, and a bronze Dong Son drum.

More relics found in central Vietnam

Several historical artifacts – including guns, bas-reliefs and a bronze drum – have been unearthed in three provinces on Vietnam’s central coast.

Local residents in Thua Thien-Hue province have recently discovered three guns at the site of the ancient Hoa Chau citadel in Quang Thanh commune, Quang Dien district.

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Buddhist caves found in Java

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27 August 2007 (Jakarta Post) – A story about a remote cave in Java containing a rich set of bas-reliefs depicting Buddha’s journey. This unique cave, believed to be the only one in the world, is dated approximately 800 years old. In this period, much of Java (still part of the Srivijayan empire) was Buddhist. Sadly, there have also been some reports of statues in the caves gone missing.

Jakarta Post, 27 Aug 2007

East Java cave depicts Buddha’s journey

The road running along the hill in Jireg village, Bondowoso, East Java, is deserted. Once in a while, a motorbike breaks the silence.

In this arid and rocky area far from the noise of the island’s cities, is a cave containing what could be some of the most important carvings in Indonesia.

Indonesia’s Theravada Buddhists believe the cave, known locally as Gowa Buto, “giant” in Madurese, contains the reliefs in the cave, which depict Buddha’s journey, are the most complete set in the world.

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Adventures in Angkor – Angkor Thom, the Royal City

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Sorry for the belated post, folks! There was just so much to write about that filtering the pictures to publish took some extra time. In previous Adventures in Angkor we’ve visited the jungle temple Ta Prohm and ,of course, the famed temple Angkor Wat. The latter has become somewhat synonymous with the entire Angkor, and in fact if you’re read closely at the whole slew of Angkor articles that came out this week you’ll notice that the less informed pieces call “Angkor Wat” being bigger than previously thought. In reality, Angkor Wat is just one section of a now much larger network of temple complexes – perhaps the most iconic, but not nearly the largest:

Angkor Thom is many times larger than Angkor Wat, which by itself is the size of six football fields. And the even huger rectangular plot that we call the Western Baray was a man-made reservoir. Although no longer in use and now only half filled, one can immediately appreciate the immensity of Angkor’s water management system that has made the news this week.

Before we start, here are the places we’ll be visiting in this section of Adventures in Angkor:
1. The Southern Gopura
2. The Bayon
3. Baphuon
4. Phimeanakas
5. The Elephant Terrace
6. The Suor Prat Towers

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Public Lecture: Image & Reality

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If you’re in Canberra, Australia next week:

Public Lecture: Image & Reality

The talk will discuss the presentation of daily life in bas-reliefs on the outer walls of two 12th/13th century temples in Cambodia: the Bayon at Angkor and its rural twin, Banteay Chhmar, in north-west Cambodia.

Dr. Aedeen Cremin will try to relate the scenes to the archaeological material discovered over the past century, and also consider the purpose and scope of the images. How realistic were they? Who were they for? Did they serve a religious purpose, or a political one, or both?

This talk will also draw attention to the 5000 photographs of temples of Cambodia, Java and S. Vietnam, now in the National Library of Australia’s Coffin Collection.

This lecture is part of the 2007 Public Lecture Series presented by the Canberra Archaeological Society. It is proudly sponsored by the School of Archaeology & Anthropology, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Speaker/Host: Dr. Aedeen Cremin
Venue: Manning Clark Centre: Theatre 6
Date: Wednesday, 15 August 2007
Time: 7:30 PM – 9:00 PM
Website: http://www.cas.asn.au/
Enquiries: Katarina Boljkovac on 0432 344 933, Stephanie Hill

Adventures in Angkor – Angkor Wat

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No visit to Siem Reap would be complete without visiting the largest religious monument in the world, Angkor Wat, or the City Temple. The distinctive pagoda spires represent the celestial Mount Meru, the home of the gods, and the temple’s profile is also on the Cambodian flag.

Again, like most Angkoran temples, the rectangular complex is lined on an east-west axis, surrounded by a man-made moat. Angkor Wat represents most clearly the hindu cosmological worldview, with the moat (1) representing the sea that surrounds the mountains at the edge of the world, represented by the enclosure wall (2). At the centre of the world is, of course, Mount Meru, represented by the temple. The scale of the complex is immense: Angkor Wat measures 1.7 km from east to west and 1.3 km from north to south. Unlike most temples, however, Angkor Wat is exceptional because it is oriented towards the west rather than the east. This strange feature is attributed to the temple being dedicated to Vishnu, who besides being the sun-god, oversees the western quadrant of the compass. As such, the main entrance to the temple is from the west, from the causeway that will bring us to three concentric galleries before reaching the peak. We’ll be seeing more of Vishnu in the bas-reliefs later at (4), but first we’ll visit some other spectacular bas-reliefs at (3).

The first gallery featured in this post is located on the Southwest quadrant (4) is a historical depiction of the Khmer king sending his troops for war against the Siamese. King Suryavarman II (whose name means Sun-protector) points the way for his troops to move against the Cham army, who both in the relief and geographically are from the east.

Several clues lead us to the identity of this person we now know as King Suryavarman II. For one, his size which is comparably much larger than his subjects. He is also sheltered by a number of parasols, which seem to be an indicator of rank. In fact, he’s got the most number of parasols covering him. He is also attended by servants holding fans and fly-whisks, positions we find in Angkoran inscriptions to be hereditary and jealously guarded.

Notice two types of troops in the Khmer Army, the Khmers on the left carrying shields, disciplined and keeping in rank. The ‘Syem’, either referring to their dark skin or possibly Siamese, were mercenaries stand in front of the main Khmer army. Probably as cannon fodder to wear down the opposition. Notice their generally ill-disciplined manner and long, unkempt hair. These troops, the Khmer army, march towards a battle against the Cham, who came from what is now Vietnam.

We’ll see the Cham later in the reliefs of the Bayon. The procession of Suryavarman II is the only historical relief on the galleries – the rest depict scenes and stories from vatious Hindu mythologies and epics like the Ramayana and the Mahabarata. One of the most famous of these scenes, located on the Southeast gallery facing east (3) is the Churning of the Milk Sea.

In this myth, the gods (the devas) and demons (asuras) cooperate in producing the amrita, the elixir of immortality. In order to do this, they must churn the sea of milk for a thousand years and to assist them, the giant snake Vasuki coils himself around the mountain Mandara to act as a pivot. The asuras (on the southern side, left of the relief) and the devas (northern side, to the right) alternate in pulling Vasuki so as to cause a churning action. In the middle, Vishnu oversees the production of amrita.

This relief, depicts the actual churning of the sea, and contains elements from other myths, such as Ravana and Hanuman, who are not part of the original myth and are in fact from the pages of the Ramayana. On the left, Ravana holds the head of Vasuki, the giant serpents and commands his army of asuras. Ravana, a giant compared to his other demonic brethren is identified by by his many different faces while notice the similar headresses worn by the asuras.

On the right, Hanuman, the king of the monkeys leads the devas in pulling Vasuki’s tail, causing the churning action which results in the creation of amrita. Again, note how the headresses identify the devas from the asuras.

In the middle, Vishnu, to whom this temple is dedicated, adjudicates the competion while sitting atop Mount Mandara. Below the mountain (not seen in the picture), a giant turtle rests – it is Kurma, an avatar of Vishnu, who is sent to the bottom of the mountain to help stabilise it. Flying overhead is Indra, who lends a hand by stabilising the mountain from the top.

At the end of the story, amrita is created from the churning and the precious truce between the devas and the asuras is broken as either side rushes to claim the elixir of immortality. The devas prove to be victorious. Beside being a really impressive bas-relief, Eleanor Mannikka posits an interesting theory that the Churning of the Milk Sea relief is in fact a gigantic calendar!

Up the second gallery, one passes through the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas. Yes, while Angkor Wat was a temple to Vishnu, it has in time become used by Buddhists, and in fact is still tended by a group of monks who live in a nearby monastery (5). Many of the statues here are defaced and beheaded, results from looting by collectors and antique dealers.

This broken corner of the Southwest corner of the upper gallery is a little cutaway view to the material used in the construction of Angkor. Khmer architecture basically uses two kinds of stone: sandstone and laterite. The latter is a porous rock, easily recognised because of its red colour and pockmarked surface. They usually form the base structure and the main building material. Sandstone, which is quarried from Phnom Kulen (or Kulen Hill some 40 km away), is hard, smooth and excellent material to carve reliefs and sculptures on.

The third and upper gallery really gives one a sense of being in the mountain home of the gods. Here, the ascent to the tower is very steep – about 50 degrees.

The central tower, once housing a statue of Vishnu, was converted to a Buddhist shrine around the 14th and 15th century, when the state converted to Theravada Buddhism. Besides the serenity of the upper shrine, there’s also the view to take in. Little wonder, this might be considered home of the gods.

Going down proves to be more tricky than going up – fortunately, there is one staircase with a railing attached. Queues are long in going down, because it still is an awfully steep descent. Accidents can and still happen though – a couple of years ago, a Korean tourist fell to his death while descending from the steps. You have been warned!

That’s as much of Angkor as I could cover in half a day – a truly, one needs three days to fully appreciates Angkor Wat alone!

As you can see the crowds are indeed present – and it wasn’t even peak season. To give you an idea of the level of crowds at Angkor in the off-peak season: when I first arrived in Angkor Wat, I counted all of six tourist coaches at the Angkor Archaeological Park entrance. And then another five more when I arrived at Angkor Wat!

In the next installment, we take a little segue to check out some of the wildlife in Angkor Wat… it’s not exactly archaeological,but I can assure you it’s not something you’ll see in your tourist guidebooks either!

New discoveries at Duong Long towers

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10 November 2006 (Vietnam Net Bridge) – Bas-reliefs are uncovered at the base of the Duong Long towers, along with other finds including pottery.

Vietnam Net Bridge, 10 Nov 2006

New discoveries at Duong Long towers

Archeologists digging around the base of the three mighty Duong Long towers in Binh Dinh Province have greatly expanded their knowledge of the ancient Champa people. In the second excavation by the provincial museum, the archeologists found more than 1,000 bas-reliefs, pieces of pottery and other objects. They are yet to be classified.

The experts guess that the three towers together had entombed someone important since, to the modern-day Cham people, a tower was often the crematorium for a deceased Champa monarch. Several half-finished structures and bas-reliefs were found at the base of the two minor towers. Dr. Dinh Ba Hoa from the Binh Dinh Museum suggests the work was interrupted because the Champa king met with some problems.

Apsara dancers of Angkor

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23 September 2006 (The Star)

The Star, 23 Sep 2006
Apsara dancers of Angkor

I was surrounded by apsara everywhere I turned. They were on walls and pillars, lintels and window frames. An apsara has been variously described as a female divinity, a heavenly dancer and a celestial nymph. An apsara is skilled in dance and music, and said to be irresistible to men. Although they were all carved in stone, I observed that each apsara showed slightly different characteristics, either in facial expression, pose or costume and adornments. I was fascinated by the headdresses and trinkets worn by the dancers and noticed that they had ears stretched by heavy earrings. Elongated ear lobes remind one of Lord Buddha. All the apsaras were presented bare-breasted and they were generously endowed. I think some visitors have not been able to resist rubbing and touching the sculptures because certain parts of the anatomy of a few of these sculptures have been rubbed almost black. Fortunately such vandalism and disrespectful behaviour is not widespread.


Related Books:
Images of the Gods: Khmer Mythology in Cambodia, Laos & Thailand by V. Roveda
Narrative Sculpture and Literary Traditions in South and Southeast Asia (Studies in Asian Art and Archaeology) by J. Fontein and M. J. Klokke (Eds)
Apsarases at Angkor Wat, in Indian context by K. M. Srivastava