4 - Religion

The religious history of ancient Cambodia is founded on syncretism. From the time of Fou-Nan until the 14th century, Brahmanism and Buddhism - the two great Indian religions - co-existed. Imported to Indochina at the latest towards the beginning of the Christian era, their dual influence is evident time and again in angkorian architecture and epigraphy.

The Khmer kings, while not seeking to impose their personal beliefs, generally seemed to have shown great religious tolerance. Sylvain Levi moreover makes the observation that the two religions, originally foreign to the country, must rather have seduced the middle aristocracy as the manifestation of an elegant and refined culture than to have penetrated to the depth of the masses. Even now there remains a caste of priests - the "Bakou" - who carry the Brahmanic cord. Practising the official religion they play an important role, guard the sacred sword and preside at certain traditional festivals.

This fusion of the two religions did not however preclude occasional acts of fanaticism, manifest in the systematic mutilation of the stone idols that were butchered with the carvers tool or re-cut to suit the form of the opposing faith - the stele of Sdok Kak Thom describes for instance how "king Suryavarman Ist had to raise troops against those who tore down the holy images", while in the 13th century there was a relentless and violent Shiva´te reaction against the works of Jayavarman VII.

The oldest known known archaeological remains in Fou-Nan are Buddhist, suggesting that Buddhism probably preceded Brahmanism. If so, then this would have been in the form of Hinayana or the Small Vehicle (though in Sanskrit) rather than Mahayana or the Large Vehicle. Not appearing in any certain manner until the end of the 7th century, this latter must have gained favour during the angkorian period in parallel with the official Brahmanism, which usually predominated.

At the dawn of the 9th century, the accession to the throne of Jayavarman II - from Java - and the establishment of his capital in the region to the north of the Tonle Sap was to mark the establishment of a new cult that was to continue until the decline of the Khmer empire - that of the Devaraja or the god-king, symbolised in the linga that was considered as an incarnation of Shiva.(1)

Set on a "temple-mountain" or a tiered pyramid raised at the centre of the capital, this image must have been revered in the residence itself of the living king. The inscription of Sdok Kak Thom again gives us the filiation of a whole family of priests who, for more than two centuries, were responsible for maintaining the observation of the newly established ritual.

In Cambodia there was also the privilege of apotheosis, which could benefit not only the king but also certain figures of high delineage - sometimes even during their lifetime - from where came the use of the "posthumous names" indicating the celestial abode of the deceased monarch, each one being assimilated to his chosen god.

Towards the end of the 12th century, the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII, in order to assure perpetuity to the symbolic cult of the Devaraja, instituted the similar cult of the Buddha-king at the Bayon - the central temple of Angkor Thom - manifest in the portrait statue that was found broken at the bottom of the well (and which has now been restored). This form of adaptation, however, was not to last, and from the 13th century, following a return to Shiva´sm, the Buddhism of the Large Vehicle - of the Sanskrit language - was replaced by that of the Small Vehicle - of the Pali language - to which Cambodia has remained faithful.


"While for other human beings" - we are told by Sylvain Levi - "senses are witnesses that provide unquestionable assurance, for the Hindu they are but the masters of error and illusion.... The vain and despicable world of phenomena is ruled by a fatal and implacable law - each act is the moral result of a series of immeasurable earlier acts, and the point of departure for another series of immeasurable acts which will be indefinitely transformed by it... Life, when so considered, appears as the most fearful drudgery - like an eternal perpetuity of false personalities, to come and to go without ever knowing rest. So the sovereign perhaps then became none other than the Deliverance, the sublime act by which all causative forces became eliminated, and which ceased once and for all for a system given the creative power of the illusion."

Such is the framework in which the two main Indian religions were to develop. Introduced to Cambodia it would seem evident that in their transcendent form they could only touch an elite, and were never to penetrate to the masses. The crowds, when admitted to enter the temples, came not in order to worship some or other god of the Hindu pantheon, but rather to prostrate themselves before their duly deified prince or king.


Brahmanism appeared in India several centuries before Christ and was itself derived from Vedism, based on the adoration of the forces and phenomena of nature. Determined by the "Brahmana", its ritual is strongly coloured with symbolism and associated with a particularly crowded polytheism.

At its summit is the "Trimurti", the supreme trinity that synthesises "the three active states of the universal soul and the three eternal forces of nature. Brahma, as activity, is the creator, - Vishnou, as goodness, is the preserver, - and Shiva, as obscurity, is the destroyer" (Madrolle).


In India, as in Cambodia, Brahma has never been a primary divinity despite his apparent supremacy as creator of the world. He is represented with four arms and four opposing faces, two by two, symbolic of his omnipresence. Sometimes he is seated on a lotus whose stem grows from the navel of Vishnou, reclining on the waves. His wife or feminine energy ("sakti") is Sarasvati, and his mount is the sacred goose or "Hamsa" - "whose powerful flight symbolises the ascension of the soul to liberation" (Paul Mus).

Vishnou and Shiva, on the other hand, predominate. After having been associated with Vishnou in the same image during the pre-angkorian period - split by half vertically in the form of Harihara - Shiva initially clearly prevailed. Towards the end of the 11th century until the time of Angkor Wat, however, it would seem that he was ousted by Vishnou.


Vishnou, the protector of the universe and of the gods, generally stands with a single face and four arms, carrying as attributes the disc, the conch, the ball and the club. His wife is Lakshmi, the goddess of beauty. One can often see her between two elephants who, with raised trunks, spray her with lustral water. The mount of the god is the sun bird, Garuda, who has the body of a man and the talons and beak of an eagle and is, as genie of the Air against the genies of the Waters, enemy since birth of nagas or serpents.

In the form of the Brahman dwarf Vamana, Vishnou crosses Heaven, the Earth and the intermediate atmosphere in three steps to assure possession of the world to the gods. Between each cosmic period (Kalpa), while the world sleeps, the god slumbers on the serpent Ananta, carried by the ocean waves. On awakening he is reincarnated, as man or beast, to triumph over the forces of evil, each time starting a new era. These are the "avatars", or the descents of the god to earth, the principal of which number a dozen.


In the form of the tortoise, Vishnou participates in the popular "Churning of the Ocean", taken from the Bhagavata Pourana and common in iconography - the gods and the demons dispute the possession of the amrita, the elixir of immortality, and the tortoise serves as a base for the mountain forming a pivot.

As the man lion, Narasimha, Vishnou claws the king of the Asuras, Hiranya-Kasipu, who dared to challenge his supremacy.

But in particular it was Rama and Krishna, the two human incarnations of whom the Indian poets wrote, that provided the sculptors of the walls and frontons of the temples with an endless supply of subject matter. The two main epics of the Ramayana and of the Mahabharata, we are told by Keyserling, "are to the Hindus what the Book of Kings was to the exiled Jews - the chronicle of a time when they were a force to be reckoned with on earth while also in closer contact with the celestial powers." They were devoted to the legends because "they had no sentiment about historical truth - for them the myth and the reality were but one and the same. Soon the legend is judged as reality and the reality condensed in the legend. The facts by themselves are irrelevant".

Krishna remains quite human. Exchanged as a child he escaped death at birth to lead a bucolic existence in the forest. Of Herculean strength, he drags a heavy mortar stone to which he has been attached by his step mother, felling two trees along the way. As an adolescent of great beauty he charms the shepherds and shepherdesses and protects them and their flocks from a storm by raising mount Govardhana with one arm. Mounted on Garuda he triumphs in his battle against the asura Bana, but generously spares the asura his life at Shiva's will.

It is at the request of the gods, who urge him to rid the world of the demon Ravana, that Vishnou manifests himself as Rama, son of the king of Ayodhya. Winning a contest in which he has to shoot a bird behind a moving wheel with an arrow, he gains the hand of the beautiful Sita, the adopted daughter of the king of Mithila. Then sadly exiled by her father he goes, with his brother Lakshmana, to live as an ascetic in the forest, accompanied by his wife. There they are subject to attack by the rakshasas. Sita, first saved from the hands of one of them, Viradha, is then taken by their king Ravana - particularly menacing with his multiple arms and heads - who carries her to the island of Lanka (Ceylon) while the two brothers are lured by an enchanted gazelle with a golden coat. Alerted by the vulture Jatayus, who tries in vain to prevent the kidnapping, they set off to recover Sita, meeting with the white monkey Hanuman who takes them to his king Sugriva - whom they find grieving in the forest, having been ousted from his throne by his brother Valin. They form an alliance with him. Valin is killed by an arrow from Rama during a struggle, and Sugriva, heading his army, leaves for the attack of Lanka.

Hanuman, who is sent ahead to investigate, finds the despondent Sita in the grove of asoka trees where she is guarded by the rakshasis (female demons) and exchanges a ring with her to prove the success of his mission to Rama. He leaves, but not before torching the palace of Ravana, and the monkeys, having first constructed a dike to cross the channel of water separating them from their enemies, begin the multiple episode struggle - with the furious scrum dominated by the duel between Ravana on his chariot drawn by horses with human heads and Rama, also mounted on a chariot or on the shoulders of Garuda. A son of Ravana, the magician Indrajit, restrains Rama and Lakshmana with arrows which transform into serpents and encoil them - but Garuda, swooping from the sky, saves them. Victory finally goes to Rama, who rescues the unhappy Sita. However, suspected of being corrupted, she is put to the test of fire. Proven innocent by this ordeal she is solemnly returned by the god of fire, Agni, to her husband - who is finally restored to the throne of his fathers.


In the Trimurti it is Shiva who, with Brahma at his right and Vishnou at his left, has to be considered as the supreme god, of whom the others are but the emanation and reflection.

Sometimes he is the great destroyer, the genie of the tempest and of destructive forces - though more so in India than in Cambodia, where he is rarely presented in a bad light - while elsewhere as the protector he is benevolent, the god who conceives and creates. He is also the first of the ascetics, going naked to rub himself in the cinders of a dung fire, living on charity and practising meditation - the source of perfection.

In his human form he usually has a single face with a third eye placed vertically in the middle of the forehead and his hair raised in a chignon, showing a crescent - but he sometimes also has multiple heads. His arms likewise vary in number, his principal attribute is the trident and his torso is crossed with the Brahmanic cord. He determines destiny with his dance - the frenetic rhythm of the "tandava". His sakti or feminine energy can also herself be sweet or ferocious - sweet she is Parvati, the goddess of the Earth, or Uma, the Gracious, whom one can often see sitting on Shiva's knee when he is throned on mount Kailasa or riding his usual mount, Nandin the sacred bull - ferocious, she is Durga the Aggressor who, with her lion, overcomes the demon buffalo.

The cult of Shiva is no less reserved - particularly in its symbolic representation, the creative power expressed by the "linga" - though there is no particular reason to dwell upon the phallic nature of this image which, for the oriental spirit, goes far beyond questions of human sexuality.

The linga is formed in a cylinder of carefully polished stone, with rounded corners at its top, rising from a base that is first octagonal in section and then square. It represents, according to the legend, the sheath of Vishnou (octagonal), and then of Brahma (square), protecting the earth from contact with the sacred pillar which, descending from the sky as a column of flame, would drive itself into the soil. Only the cylindrical section projects from the pedestal. This is covered with a channelled stone (snanadroni) that has a projecting beak forming a gully that is always orientated to the north. The priest anoints it with lustral water which flows over it in a symbolic ritual destined to bring rain and fertility to the lands.

From the union of Shiva and Parvati are born two sons - Skanda, the god of war whose mount is the peacock or the rhinoceros - and Ganesha, the god of initiative, intelligence and wisdom. Popular in Cambodia, he has the head of an elephant and the body of a man - usually plump and coiled with the Brahmanic cord. Normally seated, he dips his trunk into a bowl resting in one hand, while with the other he holds the tip of one of his broken tusks. His mount is the rat. Legend has it that, originally a handsome young man, he was one day standing guard at his mother's door and prevented his father from entering who, enraged, decapitated him. At the insistence of Parvati, Shiva consented to give him the head of the first living being that presented itself - which was an elephant.


An ancient superior god of vedism, Indra remained the principal of the secondary divinities. He is sieged in paradise on the summit of Mount Meru and, armed with a thunderbolt or "vajra", he rouses the storms that generate the life-giving rains. His mount is Airavana, the white elephant born of the churning of the Sea of Milk, who generally has three heads.


The god of love, he is a handsome adolescent with a sugar cane bow and lotus stem arrows. His spouse is Rati and his mount is the parrot.


The Law Lord or supreme judge, who presides over the underworld. He is mounted on a buffalo or rides an oxen drawn chariot.


The god of riches, he is dwarfed and deformed. He is commander of the "Yaksha" or Yeaks, the grimacing giants with bulging eyes and prominent fangs that one finds particularly as dvarapalas or guardians, armed with clubs at the sanctuary doors.

Finally are the countless demigods, found in profusion in the decoration of the temples. Amongst others are the benevolent deva, eternally in battle with the asura, ogres and demons - the apsaras, flying celestial nymphs, born of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, they animate Indra's sky with their dancing - there are also the devata of the bas-reliefs who stand, richly adorned and motionless, holding flowers - and the nagas, the stylisation of a multi-headed cobra, descendants of Nagaraja, the mythical ancestor of the Khmer kings, and genies of the water.


It would be wrong to believe that the first Buddhism eliminated the preceding divinities of the Brahmanic pantheon - quite the contrary - for the most part it assimilated them, though giving them a role that was secondary to that of the Buddha. The conquest however was more apparent than real, and in India soon became a cause of weakness.

"The Large Vehicle" - we are told by Madame de Coral-Remusat - "develops the supernatural aspect of the Buddha - it involves a whole pantheon of bodhisattvas or future Buddhas, then the Dhyani-Bouddhas or Buddhas in Contemplation. To the belief in Nirvana, advocated by the Hinayana, the Mahayanists add an infinite Paradise - the "Pure Earth" where the soul is reborn according to its merit".

The "Lotus of the Good Law", the canonical reference, describes the genesis of the formation of these bodhisattvas who are the saints of the new religion. Arriving at the very threshold of Nirvana through meditation and understanding, they defer their own deliverance in order to dedicate themselves to the salvation of others through teaching.

In Cambodia, Avalokitesvara or Lokesvara is the spiritual son of the transcending Dhyani-Buddha Amitabha - the image of whom he carries on his chignon. He personifies, as Paul Mus has explained "the notion of providence, unknown to primitive Buddhism". He is the "Lord of the World" from whom all gods emanate, himself the god of morality and graciousness - a masculine replica of Kouan-Yin, the other dominant figure in far eastern Buddhism. His attributes are often comparable to those of Shiva. Sitting or standing on a lotus blossom that elevates him above the world, he generally has four arms. His attributes are the flask, the book, the lotus and the rosary - but the number can vary from two to six or twelve and more. The face often has a third eye on the forehead and the heads can be multiple and in tiers. In the living architecture of the towers of the Bayon, by the turning of his four faces to the four cardinal points, he is omnipresent.

Lokesvara is also represented bedecked with jewels, or "irradiant" - where a multitude of small beings emanate from his body - Buddhas, divinities or demigods - in such a way that Louis Finot has compared their likeness to a chain-mail coat made of a pattern of figurines.

In the Buddhist Trinity, the Buddha sits in the centre between Lokesvara and his feminine form, the Prajnaparamita or Tara - both of whom stand. She is the "Perfection of Wisdom" and also has four arms, with an Amitabha on the front of her chignon.


All figurative representations of the Buddhist religion are characterised by an attitude of meditation - the face is graced with a smiling serenity and the eyes remain either half or entirely closed.

The Buddha is not often portrayed standing or reclining, but usually sits with his hands in one of the ritual gestures or "mudra" . Standing, his posture is known as "the absence of fear" - the arms beside the body and bent at the elbow, the hands raised with the palms to the front. Sitting "in the lotus position" with the legs crossed parallel and the feet extending, he is in "meditation" with the hands flat in the lap, or in "charity" with the right hand stretched before the thigh, palm uppermost - or else similarly but with the palm downwards, "calling the earth to witness". Otherwise he is as "teacher" with the hands returning against the chest, a finger of one between the thumb and index finger of the other.

The Buddha is sometimes seated on a base representing a lotus blossom and sometimes on the coils of the body of the naga, Mucilinda, who shelters his meditation under the fan of his multiple heads which spread from the nape of his neck. He is clad in the monastic robe covering the right shoulder - sometimes indicated with a simple line on the stone. The top of the head is marked by a protrusion covered in ringlets of hair and often treated like a chignon. This is the "ushnisha" which, at the time of Siamese influence, finished in a flame while the face became disproportionately elongated to an oval. The ear lobes are lengthened and pierced, but are without jewellery.

One finds, however, some examples of the "adorned Buddha" wearing the diadem and royal insignia - in which manner he is considered as the "sovereign of the world". This conception responds to the legend of Jambupati, a proud king who refused to pay homage to the Buddha - who then appeared before him in all his resplendence.

Normally the Buddhas only appear on earth after long intervals. The historic Buddha, Sakyamuni, the founder of this religion, lived from the 6th to the 5th century before Christ and was of noble blood. The son of the king of Sakya and of the queen Maya-Devi, his name was Siddhartha.

His parents, to whom a prediction had been made of his future, tried to dissuade him from his destiny by sheltering him from all harsh realities and forcing him to lead a life of leisure within the palace.

Already married and the father of a child, he became exposed to conditions of decay, suffering and death while out walking through an encounter with an old man, a sick man, and a corpse. A meeting with an ascetic then convinced him to forsake the ways of the world.

Fleeing the palace one night and abandoning his family and possessions, he determined to lead from thenceforth the life of a wandering hermit, becoming a disciple of the Brahmans. Soon disillusioned with the vanity of their teaching, however, he sought a more severe form of asceticism, but weakened by his ordeals and feeling no closer to his objective he abandoned extreme measures, committing himself instead to the "middle way". Through only meditation he freed himself from all temptation and evil, finally attaining enlightenment and the quality of the Buddha.

Then forsaking immediate entrance to Nirvana but having found the path to enlightenment, he decided to "turn the Wheel of the Law" and to preach his doctrine - which he was to practice for 44 years until his death.

The principal episodes represented in Khmer art are; - "The Great Departure", where, accompanied by his faithful servant Chandaka, the future Buddha leaves his palace on the horse Kanthaka, whose clattering hooves are cushioned by the hands of the four Lokapalas or "guardians of the world", - the "Cutting of the Hair", where with one stroke of his sword he renounces his worldly life, - the "Offering of the animals in the forest", - the "Offering of Sujata", the young girl who gives the sage a bowl of rice, - the "Offering of the Lokapalas", whose four bowl he mixes into one to show there is no difference between their gifts, - the "Submission of the Elephant Nalagiri", drugged and enraged by the enemies of Happiness, - the "Meditation under the Bodhi tree", a species of Banyan or "Ficus Religiosa", - the "Assault of Mara" and of his demons whom the goddess of the Earth, called upon to attest the merits acquired by the holy ascetic, drowned in the water that gushed when she wrung her hair, symbolic of the abundance of the sage's previous libations - and the "carnal Temptation" by the seductive daughters of Mara.

Death and the entrance to Nirvana are portrayed with the representation of the Buddha lying on his right side, with one arm along his body and the other folded under his head.

Finally, the faithful still now pay homage to the Buddhas footprints, on which the crossing lines, engraved with various symbols, surround the central emblem of the wheel or "sakra".