Saturday, April 17, 2010

Sharrock's legs

Whilst I'm on the subject of King Jayavarman 7th, Peter Sharrock and the cult of Hevajra, I hope you caught sight of reports in the media last September that highlighted Peter Sharrock's amazing find in a forested area just outside the walls of Angkor Thom, of the massive legs belonging to a 3-metre statue that depicted Hevajra, a warlike tantric Buddhist deity that was crucial to the religious beliefs at the time of Jayavarman 7th. If you didn't, then here is a Q&A that Peter Sharrock sent me, just to put you in the picture.

1. Tell us why this find is so significant? How important is this to the world of archaeology?

Scholars are currently radically revising our understanding of the Buddhism of the ancient Khmers. The single most important icon informing this radical change of view is a large, broken sandstone image of the fierce, supreme tantric Buddhist deity Hevajra, whose bust stands in the New York Metropolitan Museum. After almost a century of being side-lined, this icon is now being repositioned as the crown jewels of Khmer tantric Buddhism. We can now hope to experience the full power of this statue because a large missing piece has just been found.

On a field trip to Angkor this summer I decided to try to find the spot where parts of the icon were first excavated in 1925. To my amazement I succeeded in locating the massive legs deep in the forest outside the ancient capital of Angkor Thom.

The French, who pioneered the restoration of the vast medieval temple complex around Angkor Wat, thought the Khmers had venerated only the compassionate Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, like many other peoples across the northern Buddhist world of Mahayana. They acknowledged that bronzes of Hevajra had been found but thought they must be minor. Eminent art historian Jean Boisselier for example wrote in 1951: ‘The [tantric] bronzes from the 12th and 13th centuries constitute a fairly considerable group but with no stone statue being reported for the same period, the importance of the role these divinities could have played in Khmer Mahayanist beliefs is strongly diminished.’

But a consensus is now forming for seeing the royal cult of Angkor in 1200 CE as centred on Hevajra, known mostly from Tibet and the Tibetan-influenced Mongol dynasty of China. Realigning Angkor with Tibet and Yuan China is something of a tectonic shift in archaeology.

Cambodia's greatest king was Jayavarman VII who brought the Khmer empire to its apogee from 1182-c.1218. He broke with a 400-year tradition of venerating Shiva as the deity of state and turned the Khmers to Buddhism forever. By the 14th century Cambodia moved to the southern, Theravadin vehicle, which still dominates the country today. It comes as something of a shock to modern Khmers to learn that the king known for bringing them Buddhism venerated the tantric Hevajra.

My earlier research had pinpointed two pieces of evidence that are crucial to the shift in evaluation: (1) the world's museums contain a large group of bronze Khmer consecration conches or conch stands which bear an image of the eight-headed, 16-armed god who dances on the corpses of Hindu deities. This indicates that the Hevajra-Tantra (translated by Professor David Snellgrove of SOAS) cycle of four consecrations, one possibly involving yogic sex, must have been key rituals in the Bayon state temple, famous for its mysterious giant face-towers, and in the other great temples Jayavarman built. (2) A second clue comes from a contemporary Chinese account (dated 1225) that says 300 women or 'blisses' skilled in such rituals were performing in the king's temples.

Recovering the legs of the statue and launching an archaeological excavation to possibly recover the other missing parts will hopefully enable us to reconstitute this Hevajra in his original three metre high form. I had earlier attempted a virtual reconstruction of the icon using the French archive photographs. The public re-emergence of this icon should attract resources to boost the radical revision of Khmer Buddhism that is underway. The scientific excavation in the forest may now also uncover clues as to the circumstances, reasons and timing of the way in which it was apparently broken and 'dumped' some 250 metres outside the fortified walls of the capital, Angkor Thom.

(My own hypothesis about the dumping is that these icons were probably caught up in a brief Brahmanical reaction against Jayavarman’s temples a century after he died when many Buddhist icons were destroyed and the Bayon converted to Hindu ritual. The Hevajra so important to Jayavarman’s cult was presumably removed from its sanctuary in the Bayon and paraded out of the city to have its power broken by being ritually smashed beyond the city walls).

Ancient Angkor rivalled any city in the world in size and organisation during the reign of king Jayavarman VII. The construction of roads, hospitals, canals and temples was on an unprecedented scale. The population of the city probably exceeded 500,000. Since the French cleared the forest from Angkor's vast complex of elaborately decorated stone temples, it has become one of the largest and most beautiful tourist attractions in Asia.

2. Why do you think nobody discovered the legs before?

The broken statue was first discovered by French archeologists in 1925. They took away the beautifully carved bust along with several other Buddhist sculptures apparently dumped together in an earthen mound, but they could not identify the 'giant' they found broken in two. The giant bust with multiple heads was taken to the conservation depot but the legs were apparently left at the site where I found them 84 years later.

Ten years after being excavated the 52-inch bust was sold as an Avalokitesvara by the French School for the Far East (EFEO) to New York's Metropolitan Museum. Curator Alan Priest ascertained that it originally had eight heads and 16 arms and therefore correctly labelled it Hevajra. Apart from a brief catalogue mention, nothing was written about the giant Hevajra in New York until Professor Hiram Woodward asked some ground-breaking questions about it in an article on ‘Tantric Buddhism in Angkor Thom’ in 1981. The next shift in the debate came in my own PhD at SOAS, which built on Woodward’s work and made the case for seeing Jayavarman’s Buddhism as in essence tantric and focused on Hevajra.

I’m sure that local villagers who live among the Angkor ruins have come across the legs of Hevajra in the forest, but the broken part would only have meaning to someone who had seen the French archive photographs. Certainly no-one ever reported it to the Apsara authority which is responsible for conserving the heritage of Angkor.

3. What did the authorities say to you? What was the reaction like at the conference?

I announced my find a few days later at a large conference at Sisophon, near the modern Thai border, concerned with the current restoration of Jayavarman’s vast Banteay Chmar temple, the last great Khmer provincial temple to be excavated, restored and protected. In attendance were the province governor, top officials of Apsara and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Phnom Penh museum director Hab Touch, temple restorer John Sanday of the Global Heritage Fund, Dr Helen Jessup and Joyce Clark from the Friends of Khmer Culture International (FOKCI), whose support and organisation made the conference possible, and a large gathering of Khmer and international art historians and archaeologists – including Hiram Woodward. I spoke about the importance of the New York bust and then showed photographs of Hevajra’s legs still lying in the forest. This was greeted with delight and astonishment. After my paper the Ministry of Culture asked for a copy of my presentation and I was invited to be driven back to Angkor at the end of the conference to show Dr Hang Peou of Apsara the find spot. The following morning Dr Peou personally supervised the removal of the legs to the Sihanouk museum in Siem Reap.

4. So what next? Will the legs be reunited with the rest of the statue? Will you be helping to arrange this? Any other details you would like to add?

I am in touch with all parties involved, who are already in communication, to try to find a way of reuniting the pieces so that Jayavarman’s icon can be viewed in its original state. Meanwhile Apsara plans an excavation of the site in search of the missing eighth head, 16 arms and feet. It may prove to be a difficult negotiation, because New York and Phnom Penh museums would no doubt both like to exhibit the whole. Can some shared solution be found? I am in contact with curator John Guy (ex-Victoria and Albert Museum) in New York and Hab Touch in Phnom Penh. Professor Claude Jacques, the eminent Paris-based Angkorian scholar, has offered to join the group of experts to be consulted.

5. Did you feel like a modern-day Indiana Jones?

I don't know how he could wear that hat in a tropical climate. But there is a distinct feeling of the unreal or fictional about going into the jungle and actually finding something of such importance to my research and to Cambodia’s history. It took a few days for the feeling to wear off that I had dreamed it all. Indiana and I do I suppose share the experience of feeling close to ancient civilisations that are very obscure to most people.

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