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
On a field trip to
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
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).
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
I’m sure that local villagers who live among the
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
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
5. Did you feel like a modern-day
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