10 - Chronology of the Monuments
A. BY EPIGRAPHY
It is now known that the oldest remains of Khmer architecture so far discovered date from the 6th century AD, and that the constituent monuments of the Angkor group followed one another without interruption from the end of the 9th century to the beginning of the 13th. Epigraphic evidence has enabled Cdes to accurately order this short period of less than four centuries as follows:
These dates, which are those of the foundation or inauguration, do not, however, imply that each of these temples was built in a single procedure. Monuments such as Ta Prohm, Prah Khan or the Bayon, for example, show unmistakable signs of alterations or additions which deny them any quality of absolute unity.
It remains nonetheless that we have a solid chronological foundation which, by analogy, provides the framework for a general classification based on the natural evolution of architectural motifs and decoration.
Until 1923 the Bayon was considered as a Shivaïte temple and amongst the oldest, following an erroneous interpretation of the inscription of Sdok Kak Thom - which names the monument raised by king Yasovarman, at the end of the 9th century in the middle of his capital Yasodharapura, as the "Central Mountain". This was mistakenly thought to be the Bayon centred within Angkor Thom.
The theory, for a long time held as fact, was to be contested by Louis Finot, supported by the discovery that the monument was in fact Buddhist. Some controversy followed, successively leading Mr Philippe Stern - associate conservator of the Musée Guimet - to place the Bayon, based mainly on a study of the different styles, in the first half of the 11th century - and then Georges Cdes, through epigraphic research, to attribute the foundation to king Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century. This revelation in 1928 rejuvenated the Bayon by three centuries, revolutionised the understanding of its chronology - attributing its faults no longer to the explorative beginnings of Khmer art but rather to the flagging discipline of the decadent period - and also shattered a number of architectural, decorative and religious anomalies. Today the new theory can be considered as generally accepted and apparently definitive.
It was Mr Victor Goloubew who brought the discussion to a decisive conclusion with his meticulous research into the succession of the capitals. By keen intuition he ceased looking for the "Central Mountain" of the inscription inside Angkor Thom and instead focused his attention on the Shivaïte "temple-mountain" of Phnom Bakheng, constructed just to the south on a natural hill. Excavations from 1931 to 1934 revealed the remains of enclosure walls, of gopuras, of grand axial roads and of symmetrically arranged pools - all framed within a double levee of earth forming a quadrilateral that is still quite visible in the landscape. The location of the first Angkor was therefore determined to be quite independent of Angkor Thom and the Bayon of Jayavarman VII.
Other excavations, undertaken in 1936, have enabled Mr Goloubew to suggest the existence of another intermediate capital, dating perhaps from the 11th century and centred on Phimeanakas or the Baphuon - or else on the first site of the Bayon. It would have had moats at its limits, lined with laterite steps, between two levees of earth formed at a hundred metres within the line of the future ramparts of Angkor Thom. Other canals have been found on either side of the principal axial roads as well as the remains of gates and drainage channels, confirming again the particular importance that hydraulic works had for the ancient Khmer, for whom water constituted such a vital element.
B. CHRONOLOGY BY STYLE
The work of Philippe Stern and Mme de Coral-Remusat gives us a method of classification for the monuments based on their grouping by styles, resulting from the analytical study of their decorative themes.
Though normally one should be cautious, since changes in the natural evolution of any art can be induced by external influences, reversion to archaism or perhaps the sculptor tempted by innovation - it would seem that in this instance, however, such methodology carries the maximum guarantee of accuracy, since the Khmer artist was not able to, as it were, give free rein to his imagination or fantasy.
Conducting their research in close relationship with the dates determined by epigraphy, our art historians applied their methods to monuments that are in fact already fixed with some precision in time - these markers serving as a control, within a kind of framework, for the careful study of the various elements of the ornamentation; - colonnettes and lintels, pilasters and frontons, the bas-reliefs and sculpture in the round. "When the decoration of one or more of the monuments" - we are told by Mme. de Coral-Remusat - "shows characteristics identical to those in the decoration of a structure that is placed in time, one has the right to conclude that the monument or monuments in question are approximately contemporaneous with this structure - they are clearly earlier if their decoration is less evolved, and later if it is more so".
The filiation of the monuments so established by Mr Philippe Stern and Mme. de Coral-Remusat is described in the following table: