Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Thieves on the rampage

Sambor Prei Kuk style 7th century lintel from Wat Preah Theat, now with the National Museum for safekeeping
The news this week that following the theft of three 7th century Buddha statues, a pagoda in Kandal province just outside Phnom Penh has been forced to hand over nine artifacts to the National Museum for safekeeping, highlights the fragility of these historical items remaining in situ across the country. The demand for Khmer iconography and artifacts has never been higher, prices at the auction houses are hitting all-time highs and the hunt is well and truly on by art thieves for whatever they can lay their hands on. And across the Cambodian countryside, whether in the grounds and viharas of pagodas or simply out in the fields, there are still many hundreds of sites that will spark the interest of these thieves. This also applies to early-history burial sites where villagers will dig up ancient graves looking for jewellery and other artifacts. The destruction and rape of Cambodia's cultural history has reached epidemic proportions and quite simply, nothing and no-one is sacred any longer.

Back to the pagoda at Wat Preah Theat in the Roluos commune of Kandal. In 2002, twelve 7th century artifacts were discovered at the site, though two statues were stolen last week and another in 2005. The monks have realized they are not equipped to protect the artifacts and have handed them to the National Museum in Phnom Penh to keep them safe. However that will probably mean that the items will now languish in the vaults of the National Museum like thousands of other artifacts and will most likely never be seen again by the public. At least, in their original location at the pagoda, I was able to see the items when I visited it in January, but the problem was clear that day too, as no-one was around as I inspected the lintels and stone lions on show, and a locked door was the only protection for the Buddha statues. A thief with bolt cutters and a truck with a winch would have been able to cart everything away in the blink of an eye.

What did I see on my visit in January to the site also known as Prasat Preah Theat? Under some sheets and tarpaulins were two sandstone lintels, both similar in style, though one was quite literally worn away. The other, pictured above, appears to be in the Sambor Prei Kuk lintel style, so that would date it to early to mid 7th century, definitely pre-Angkorean. There are four arches with three medallions, with the central one carved with the figure of Indra on an elephant, and inward-facing makaras or sea monsters, with figures on each makara. Below are jeweled garlands and pendants with beading and vegetal motifs. If these two lintels are from an original temple, it would suggest that the prasat was primarily constructed of brick though I could only find a few laterite blocks on the mound where the temple was located. The lintels and doorways were always constructed of sandstone. Now, a bell-shaped stupa is at the summit of the mound, around which a new wall is being built. Next to the lintels were a pedestal and four half-standing lions in varying degrees of repair. Again, experts can tell the date of a temple by its style of lion guardians, showing their fangs, their bulbous eyes and their jeweled pendants. I can't. In a locked room nearby, I could make out through the dirty glass, a couple of statues of Buddha seated under a naga but no-one was around to unlock the door, so their age and exact relief remains a mystery. Click here to see my photos from the pagoda.

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