Nei Xue Tang: A Museum of Buddhist Art – Part 2

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In this second part of the feature on Nei Xue Tang (click here for Part 1), I’m taking my vacation in Cambodia as an opportune time for me to write about the Khmer collections of this museum of Buddhist Art.

Nei Xue Tang - Khmer art

A lot of the major sculptures – the ones we’re interested in anyway – are all located on the ground floor of this four-storey building. The reason? It’s just too big to move upstairs! Here are four examples of Khmer art found at the museum: a 12th century statue of a Garuda (a mythical bird), a pre-Angkoran statue of the goddess Durga from the 7th century, an Angkor Borei style seated Buddha, and a dancing Hevajra from Bayon in the 13th century. I’m not all that familiar with the iconographyof Hindu and Buddhist art, so unfortunately I can’t write anything more about them.

Nei Xue Tang - Bull's Head inscriptionSee the bull’s head at the base of the seated Buddha from Angkor Borei? If you look closely enough, you can see that the base of the entire statue is lined with Khmer inscriptions! I’ve tried to enhance an image on the inscriptions, but they aren’t all that clear. Mr Woon, the owner of Nei Xue Tang tells me that he is arranging to get the inscriptions translated.

Nei Xue Tang - Khmer SteleThat’s not the most impressive example of ancient inscriptions in the collection, however. Again on the first floor, is another huge slab of stone with a carved seat Buddha at the base. At first glance, it seems like an ordinary slab of stone with an attached decoration. But on a closer look, one realises that the entire face of the slab is carved with inscriptions! This slab is dated to the Baphuon period of the 11th century. Strangely enough, most visitors to the museum usually skip this stele, according to museum owner Mr W. S. Woon. Granted, it’s not the most visually appealing of all the exhibits, but in my view it’s potentially one of the most richest sources of information among the entire collection of some, 10,000 pieces. The inscription has not been translated as well – this piece was in fact a bequest to the museum by a group of donors.

Here’s a closer look at the a portion of the inscription, enhanced for better visibility:

Nei Xue Tang - Khmer Stele inscription

The bulk of the artefacts featured in this series is focused on the material culture from Southeast Asia – however, I must add that it is only a portion of the exhibits on display which also include various examples of Chinese, Tibetan, Indian and Nepalese art, as well as a vast array of Buddhist relics from ancient to more recent times. If you’re ever in Singapore and you’re interested in examples of Buddhist art, you should pay Nei Xue Tang a visit.

SEAArch would like to thank Mr Woon and Nei Xue Tang for the permission to take photographs for this post.

Other books about Buddhism and Buddhist Art:
The Art of Champa by J. Hubert
Origins Of Thai Art by B. Gosling
Ancient Pagan by D. Stadtner
Asian Religions: An Illustrated Introduction by B. K. Hawkins
Hindu-Buddhist Art Of Vietnam: Treasures From Champa by E. Guillon
The Sacred Sculpture of Thailand: The Alexander B. Griswold Collection, the Walters Art Gallery by H. W. Woodward
The Buddhist World of Southeast Asia (Suny Series in Religion) by D. K. Swearer
Art of Sukhothai by C. Stratton and M. Scott

Khmer art exhibition in Berlin

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07 June 2007 (The Economist) – The Economist reviews the Angkor: Sacred Heritage of Cambodia exhibition in Berlin and also touches on looted Cambodian antiquities. The looting of Cambodia’s cultural heritage has been touched on many times in this site; you might want to look up our podcast featuring Heritage Watch, as well as the more recent news of Angkor Wat artefacts put up for sale on eBay.

Gods on display

There are two stories that unfold in the cool lofty rooms of Berlin’s 19th-century Martin-Gropius-Bau museum—a far cry from the sweaty heat of the National Museum of Phnom Penh, which has lent many of the exhibits. First, are the splendid sculptures dominated by a procession of the Hindu deities, Vishnu and Shiva, plus Harihara, who represents a mixture of both. One of the most striking is the serene face and upper body of Vishnu in a sleeping pose, an 11th-century fragment of what is believed to have been the largest bronze statue ever cast in Cambodia.

The second story is less obvious and probably unintended by the show’s organisers. It is to do with the wholesale looting of the temples that began when the French swept into Angkor 150 years ago. In the style of European colonisers of the period, acquisitive French explorers strapped prize statues onto the backs of locals for the trip out of the jungle, then loaded them onto rafts for the journey down the Mekong river for dispatch to Paris. Many ended up as the core of the collection of Asian art at Paris’s Musée Guimet.

Read about the Angkor: Sacred Heritage of Cambodia exhibtion at the Martin-Gropius-Bau museum.

Books about the art and statuary of Cambodia and the Khmers:
Adoration and Glory: The Golden Age of Khmer Art by E. C. Bunker and D. Latchford
Apsarases at Angkor Wat, in Indian context by K. M. Srivastava
Khmer sculpture and the Angkor civilization by M. Giteau
Art & Architecture of Cambodia (World of Art) by H. I. Jessup