Friday, February 13, 2009

Give them back!

A momentary flash of frustration crept in again today, as it does most days living in this country, when I heard the story of how unlikely it is that the government of Thailand will hand back 43 ancient Khmer sculptures, weighing more than eight tonnes, that were discovered and seized at a Thai port ten years ago. Since then talks at the highest level have failed to get any of the items returned, even though the Thais have recognised 18 of them as belonging to Cambodia - isn't that big of them. However, they are dragging their feet in returning any items and it looks like just 7, all decapitated heads of statues, will eventually come home. My frustration is borne out of Thailand's and other countries, especially France, that have obviously acquired Khmer antiques but refuse point blank to co-operate with the Cambodian authorities and return the artefacts to their rightful home. I also read in an interview with Michel Tranet in Wednesday's Phnom Penh Post about countries who've rented antiquities for exhibitions but have not bothered to send them back, whilst France had some items for restoration before the civil war and have kept hold of them. How crazy is that. In fact, Tranet, a former Secretary of State at the Culture Ministry in the 1990's, allegedly resigned because the government was more involved in abetting smugglers than stopping them. He is quite damning in the interview about his former paymasters, accusing them of corruption and complicity in trafficking antiques, even using an example of foreign diplomats using their immunity to sneak items out of the country to show how widespread the problem is. He's currently setting up a museum in his own house, to show off some 400+ items he's managed to preserve and retain in the country, finding many of them at places like the Russian Market.

However my frustration turned into a smile when I read the following headline on the same page as the Michel Tranet interview - Good Shag Kills Boyfriend - which related the story of a 39 year old man, with a history of high blood pressure, who passed away after twice having sex with his girlfriend. At least he died with a smile on his face.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Andy, I feel your frustration as well. It seems like there is a lack of support from influential people and some even goes as far as taking advantage of this chaotic time, it seems, to continue to horde ancient khmer artifacts out of the country, just to show that they, too, can do it and get away with it. I think it will take everyone, I mean everyone, Khmers, gov't, ngo, the diplomatic community, the scholars, etc, etc, to help stop this illegal transit of Khmer cultural artifects because, if there is no cooperation from these group of people, even those of us, you and I included, who cared and wanted the best to preserve all Khmer cultural artifacts will be useless and powerless to do anything about it.

However, on the bright side of this, today, I read in the Phnom Penh Post an article about an American scientist and Khmer scholar, i believe his name was Kent Davis, who theorized that all the Angkor monument was conceived due in part to the "devatas" or apsara attribution in the Khmer's belief system which is unprecedented in the 150 year of scholarship since the rediscovery of the Angkor monuments. I thought that was interest for someone like him to theorize this and took interest in this as his research. However, it was sad, too, that his home which contained hundreds and perhaps thousands of books on khmer history and southeast asia and south asia history was burned. I wonder was that a coincidence? Anyway, I also wanted to point out, since he mentioned the khmer word "devatas", that "devatas" was and still is a common Khmer term meaning "diety" or in plain American English it means "the guardian angel" which in Khmer people's belief always represented as mostly female and occasionally in male form as well and always look exotic and beautiful like those we see on the walls of all the Angkor monuments, particularly those at Angkor Wat. So, "devatas" is not a new term as Khmer people like myself have been using this term as long as I can remember. Even classical Khmer movies, songs, dramas, etc from before the civil war in cambodia and perhaps going back as far as the beginning of the Khmer nation had used this term, "devatas" interchangeably with apsara but mostly devatas to represent the "guardian angel". Yes, it was in the Khmer belief system for ages along with many others types of dieties.

February 13, 2009 at 1:52 AM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Hi Anon,
I agree that it will take a sea-change by everyone concerned to stop this tragic loss of Khmer culture & history. Unfortunately I don't see that happening. Greed is all too powerful these days.

Kent is a great guy and so enthusiastic about Khmer history and culture. I included the article on my blog too.


February 13, 2009 at 1:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Khmer people also used "devatas" to represent as a guardian angel every year to mark the Khmer new year in order to bring luck, peace, prosperity, happiness, protection, etc. for all people in Cambodia and the world as well.

February 14, 2009 at 1:41 AM  
Anonymous Kent Davis said...

Andy I'm so glad to see your continuing coverage of antiquities theft issues. As Cambodia continues to progress I know this topic will grow in importance.

I also believe that recovering stolen Khmer heritage is a legally winnable fight that has barely begun.

For an amazing account of French theft in the Colonial era read "Cambodge" by Penny Edwards. The seeds of a case for recovery under international law (!) are in her well researched work.

While much has been stolen, the vast majority can still be saved. Years of war and remote locations have actually protected many of Cambodia's archaeological sites for thousands of years (i.e. in addition to popular Angkorean temples there are many significant pre-historic sites).

But as Cambodia's economy and tourism industry expand looting and site destruction have also escalated.

As you have reported, one of the most proactive groups working to prevent this is Heritage Watch ( whose staff and volunteers passionately work to save archaeological knowledge by:

1. Educating the public about the priceless, irreplaceable nature of cultural heritage;

2. Implementing guidelines for responsible tourism;

3. Proactively disseminating descriptions of stolen antiquities to prevent resale and facilitate recovery, and;

4. Seeking local and international government support for these policies.

Cambodia's heritage is a non-renewable resource. If plundered it can never be replaced. But if cared for it will support the Khmer people for unlimited generations to come, a wonderful gift from their Khmer forefathers and mothers.

February 14, 2009 at 3:47 AM  
Anonymous Kent Davis said...

Apsara-Devata-Khmer women

Apologies for getting a bit off topic but the first comment raised this point so here goes...

The PP Post article made it sound like I thought "devata" was a new term, which of course it isn't. As the poster points out, Apsara and Devata are both Hindu terms that appear in the Khmer language.

I prefer Devata because it is more general (Apsara refers so a very specific type of goddess in the Hindu pantheon). Wikipedia has good definitions of both terms.

But the truth I see is that the sacred women of Angkor Wat are vitally important for earthly reasons as well as heavenly ones.

Whatever spiritual power these women hold on higher planes of existence they were also real Khmer women who wielded true social, religious and political power here on Earth.

Through their contributions the Khmer state grew and thrived, and continues to do so. Khmers who honor their women are Khmers who can achieve anything.

February 14, 2009 at 4:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, very interesting to talk about the khmer women depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat and so on. From my understanding of Khmer, there was no doubt that those beautiful "devatas" or "apsara" are of higher status in the Khmer society of that time. Remember, too, that Khmer people tend to worship their Royal members, and rank has a lot to do with this. Those beautiful carvings of Devatas or Apsara were of Queens, Princesses, and other dignitaries and important God or sacred figures in the Khmer society and beliefs.

February 15, 2009 at 1:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These "mysterious women" were no doubt the mothers, sisters, and daughters of the God-Kings, the God-Queen, religious beliefs, etc. in Khmer society. Please keep in mind, too, that Khmer society has always honored their parents, and other elderly as well. I bet Mr. Kent Davis is right to theorize that Khmer women contributed a lot to the identity and existence of the Khmer nation since the beginning of time. It would be very interesting to study his research into this very "mysterious women" theory. I, too, wish him the best of luck and successful endeavor. God Bless Cambodia those who care about all things Khmer.

February 15, 2009 at 1:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Misc. note: I think we should start a club called "Khmer scholars" so we can get together in Cambodia for talks and discussions that hopefully help the world to understand the Khmer civilization better than what it is now. What do you think, anyone? We welcome all the Khmer scholars and anyone who has any interest in knowing about the Khmer Angkor Civilization from all over the world to Cambodia to educate one another about all things Khmer. Thank you.

February 15, 2009 at 2:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Similar to the "magic of Cambodia" that Andy and others used to have in England. Any opinion? Thank you.

February 15, 2009 at 2:05 AM  
Anonymous Kent Davis said...

OK, so this can be a "Khmer women" thread too. (-: I am delighted to see interest in this topic. I promise more to share in the future but I'd like to add a couple more comments here.

I have visited every single devata at Angkor Wat (1,780 by my count, not including the high towers) on at least three occasions. I have seen many of them dozens of times traveling to different parts of the temple.

Tonight I want to address the use of two terms in comments from other readers: "status" and "beautiful."

The women portrayed at Angkor Wat absolutely had "status." And the status they had was beyond anything we can comprehend today. In our modern age images no longer have much meaning - digital cameras, digital photos, printed photos, newspapers, books, TV, video...the ways to create infinite replication of images are indeed infinite in themselves.

I can post an image on a website and it's instantly viewable by anyone with a computer anywhere on Earth! For hundreds of years printing presses have spewed out countless images.

But in 12th century Cambodia to have one's image immortalized in stone? In the holiest and most costly temple ever created by the Khmer Empire? We cannot comprehend the gravity of this honor today.

So indeed, the women of Angkor Wat were sanctified and immortalized by the act of having their portraits included in this structure. But what is interesting is that I don't believe that high birth, i.e. birth to a royal family, was a prerequisite. I think this was an honor that could be attained based on intelligence, hard work, talent, marriage, or other qualities.

Think of the election just held in the United States. The opportunity to rise to the highest level of our government is based on ability. I believe that becoming a "devata" was also something more complex, and much more open, than merely being born to a noble family. The Khmer Empire was a land of opportunity, for women, as well as for men. For commoners as well as for nobles.

In my view, Khmer society was quite extraordinary, and quite advanced in that regard. It's interesting to read Zhou Daguan because it's quite obvious that some things just didn't make sense to his Chinese mentality.

On to "beautiful." While some devata are obviously absolute beauties the majority appear to be normal women. Or girls. I'd estimate their ages generally between 15-30 years old. Some appear even older. But many are quite plain in appearance and quite a few aren't very feminine at all (which is not to imply that they were men, for very obvious reasons!).

My take on this is, like the point above, that the sacred women at Angkor Wat had much more to offer to their society and culture than mere physical beauty.

Their contributions may have been in the fields of dance, art, architecture, science, medicine, design, politics, writing...well the possibilities are endless.

But all of my arguments come down to two very simple facts:

1. Angkor Wat was an important building.

2. It seems to me that a society that built an important building would honor the images of important people IN that building.

One only needs eyes to see that women DOMINATE this important structure...inside and out, up and down, at every level and in the holiest places.

King Suryavarman II, an important man to be sure(!), never makes it above the lowest level, on the outside, with two minor bas-relief images.

Scholars can huff and puff all day long but these are the facts. Actually rather than all that huffing and puffing it has been much easier for "scholars" to simply dismiss the women for 150 years as "decorations" who "are there to entertain the king in heaven."


Well it's game time and my research indicates that the women of Angkor Wat have some very important things to say. And one thing is certain...we'll be reading about those things here on Andy's blog! (-:

February 15, 2009 at 10:57 AM  

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