Readers may be interested in this talk happening at SOAS tomorrow (3 March 2021) by Dominic Goodall.
All of us start with misconceptions about what Khmer inscriptions and art can tell us, and most find ourselves asking: Why is it so hard to marry iconographic and epigraphic data? There are many partial answers. Often, we have lost crucial parts of epigraphs or misinterpret what survives. The inscriptions were of course in any case not written to inform subsequent generations of strangers about religious ideas and practices, nor to describe and explain the installations they record. So historians are trying to establish answers to their questions by eavesdropping on a discourse that is really about something else. Furthermore, most of the statuary has also been lost — melted down for precious metals, or damaged beyond legibility. And in any case, unlike with churches, Hindu iconography doesn’t necessarily say much about the sect-orientation of its temples. Of course we can turn to prescriptive Sanskrit texts surviving elsewhere that lay down how images should look and how they are to be worshipped. But what has been published of such literature is mostly South Indian and post-12th century, describing notions, practices and iconography specific to the Tamil-speaking South of the Chola and post-Chola periods. And some deities, such as the Goddess and Skanda, although ubiquitous in sculpture, painting and literature, do not seem to have surviving corpora of first-millennium prescriptive literature governing their worship anyway. Each of these issues could be explored in a separate lecture, and “goddesses in Cambodia” is already a huge topic in itself. This lecture will focus on a small handful of objects that elucidate a tiny part of that topic and its difficulties.