8 - Ornamentation

The ornamentation is the triumph of Khmer art, where the architecture, as we have seen, is but the realisation of a ritual. Far from distracting the attention from the collective composition or from the geometry of the lines and volumes, the ornamentation emphasises and enhances each form, though without domination. Through the ornamentation, the rigid framework of the profiles and masses becomes animated with the shimmering of light and shade - all are in living communion. Unified in their setting, the scenes with figures and the decoration achieve perfect harmony.

Not one of the Khmer monuments has any technical sterility, and it is to the ornamental sculpture, the plastic expression of the creator's vitality, that this is due. Even used in profusion, as in some temples, so that no surface of wall is left bare, the ornamentation is neither distracting nor without style, never performing the function of mere in-fill.

Like the priests themselves, the architects and sculptors were but servants responsible for the same cultural tradition - creating with equal self denial, their achievement remaining anonymous and impersonal. Working to an abstract concept, the artist's accomplishment was subject to constant repetition - with the art being conditional on this process engendering not monotony but rhythm.

In practical terms, such self denial was the only possible solution - since it would have taken more than a royal decree to have sculpted the square kilometres of wall by the thousands of sculptors - and the artist an exceptional being whose work was selflessly grafted on to that of the master craftsman. He was free within certain limits, but from the first mark engraved on the stone to the last cut of the chisel it was necessary for him to answer to a team of craftsmen, of specialist labourers working to a pattern who could not give course to their creative fancy except in the minutest detail.

Each with his defined task, and, if one can call it such, his "vision", could attain a sufficient level of manual skill without supervision - indeed the Khmer were too idealistic to stop at some imperfection, taken for secondary, as long as the value of the intention remained intact. Sometimes real artists revealed themselves, so producing the extraordinary achievement of a Banteay Srei - yet everywhere one can perceive a unity, enhanced by flashes of brilliance created by the most skilful of hands. So it was, in fact, that the very restricted number of the fundamental elements of the architecture and the eternal repetition of the motifs favoured the task of unification - the evolution of the decor related only to the character of each period, depending upon whether one finds oneself in a time of incubation, blossoming, crystallisation or decline.


If the Khmer artist managed occasionally to free himself from the constraints that controlled him to give expression to his personality, then it would evidently be in the narrative form of the bas-reliefs. Escaping from the strictly ornamental intricacy of the arabesque he could - on subjects drawn from history or mythology, from epic legends or ethnography - if not let go his emotion, then at least tend towards movement, nature and life. It is also probable, although nothing remains of them today, that besides these stone pages - recalling in some ways the tapestries of our own middle ages such as those of Reine Mathilde at Bayeux - there were frescos painted in the same spirit serving to animate the cold, bare interior of the sanctuary walls.

Except at Bakong, where we can see, on the upper tier of the pyramid, some rare remains of bas-reliefs displayed to the open air, it seems that until the 11th century the Khmer were content with the representation of but a few scenes on the limited areas of the lintels or frontons - the most remarkable of which are to be found on the tympanums of Banteay Srei. Thereafter the practice is reserved for the frontons, sometimes in a single composition, sometimes in superposed registers. Ignorant of the laws of perspective, the Khmer used this last means of expression to indicate successive planes, with the lower register representing the foreground.

At the Baphuon the bas-reliefs appear in registers on narrow areas of wall, forming a succession of small scenes which, although of legendary inspiration, tend towards naturalism and are simplistic in expression.

At Angkor Wat on the other hand there are, on the twelve or thirteen hundred square metres of the large external gallery wall, vast compositions harmonising with the fine order of the monument - the walls are entirely covered, without a space, without a break, forming a whole or divided into registers according to the nature of the subject matter - either of pages overflowing with life, or of harsh, highly stylised images - all cut into the surface of the stone.

At the Bayon, finally - at least in the external gallery - we leave the legendary subjects for accounts drawn from the history of the ruler and scenes from everyday life. These reliefs, treated in more volume and less formal in style, provide extensive information about the customs of the ancient Khmer - often differing little from those of present day Cambodia. They are situated, as at Angkor Wat, in that part of the temple accessible to the public, for whom they are intended. It is here that the artist, inspired by a higher force, endeavours to identify with the people, to inform them, to raise them to his level. It was the "propaganda" of the time.

One cannot leave the series of bas-reliefs without mentioning the impressive treatment of the Terrace of the Elephants of Angkor Thom. In a single development of nearly 400 metres these animals, almost full size, are represented in profile, participating in hunting scenes and treated more realistically than was normal. Some panels are sculpted with fine garudas, standing "as atlantes". Immediately to the north is the redented double wall of the terrace known as the "Terrace of the Leper King" showing the many registered rows of straight-faced women who formed the courts of the kings of the fabulous beings who haunt the flanks of Mount Meru. These various bas-reliefs are in the style of the Bayon.


These are the low reliefs of isolated figures or groups, sculpted sometimes on a plain wall or on a background of decoration, but usually sheltered within niches.

As celestial nymphs - whose hieratic nature is accommodated so well in their frontal presentation - the devatas generally decorate the redents of the sanctuary and, in the 12th century, the walls of the halls and galleries. Angkor Wat is lavished with hundreds, engaging the visitor with the charm of their ever-serene smile. The fresh vitality of their youthful figures with their bare torsos - the grace of their supple gestures and of their slender fingers, holding a lotus or playing with a string of flowers - distracts one from the weight of their legs, that invariably suffer - and their awkward feet presented always in profile due to an inability to express their foreshortening.

Portrayed in at least half scale and adorned with jewellery, the devatas differ, depending upon the period, by the hang of their long dress or "sarong", and the prodigious variety of their hair styles and tiaras or diadems ("mukuta").

The liturgical dance, which held such an important place in the ritual - the Ta Prohm stele tells of 615 dancers living within the temple enclosure - should have provided the sculptor with an opportunity to depart from the representation of the usual rigid postures and to express some movement. But although Cambodian dance is capable of expressing the whole range of human sentiments, the apsaras always appear on the stone in the same pose derived from that of a flying figure, though hard to believe, with only some variation in the gesture of the arms. The stylisation is taken to the extreme and the use of a pattern doubtless.

Generally at a reduced scale and assembled in lines as at Prah Khan, or in the remarkably composed motifs of twos and threes as on the pillars of the Bayon, the thousands of apsaras, clad only in a light cloth that hugs the thighs with its ends flying behind, are bedecked in jewels and glittering head dresses. Standing isolated from the world on a lotus blossom or flying in the open air, they are the divine symbols of joy.

The dvarapalas are the standing figures, armed with a lance or a club, represented on the pilasters that flank the entrance to the sanctuaries of certain temples such as Prah Khan - a god on one side with a benevolent smile and an asura on the other, his menacing character represented in puerile fashion by a sinister grin and stern features. Their purpose is to ward off harm. At other times, sheltered in the niches on the corner piers of the prasats, they are powerful warriors and more human in aspect - perhaps assertive as at Prah Ko, or elegant as the ephebes of Banteay Srei.


Of all activity in Khmer art, the mural ornamentation, more than any other, gives proof of the adaptability of the sculptor and of his extraordinary prolixity. He resents leaving any surface untouched, literally devouring the wall - yet from the very excess of this profusion is born an impression of greyness that enhances the centres of interest - where the complication only appears in the study of the detail - though which detracts nothing from the clarity of the line or form.

When a panel of wall is completely covered it can be either with a regular coating of geometric motifs or with pure ornamentation as at Banteay Srei. Otherwise there is the combination of some areas of decoration with an organic background treated almost naturalistically, as in certain parts of Prah Khan. Typically there are only a few constituent motifs, used to form the basis of a repetition - though never merely a copy. The evolution is continuous and the incidentals multiply over the course of the centuries.

Organic inspiration draws on the lotus, with the buds, petals or blossoming flowers giving birth to a whole variety of rosettes. Occasionally - particularly in the early period - there is also the delicate umbel of the blue lotus, recalling the lotus of Egypt. A whole range of coiling vegetation is then derived from the acanthus leaf, stretching in flames and rolling in volutes, forming vertical bands or a succession of foliated scrolls - so close to our Renaissance - scattered with figurines or animals.

Finally, stifling all fantasy with the use of a few simple geometric forms, the artist exhausts all possibilities offered by the circle, the lozenge and the square, combined in bands or in panels.

On the walls or internal pillars and the reveals of openings, mainly during the 12th century, a fine sculpting in the surface of the stone came to animate the severity of the galleries - with figures in prayer set in niches, delicate leaves and an assortment of braids and pendant friezes - in a veritable work of tapestry.


Destined to carry the lintel, the colonnettes are generally round in section in the primitive art (7th-8th centuries), rectangular in the style of the Kulen (first half of the 9th century), and then octagonal from the beginning of the period of classic art.

From the base - sculpted with a small figure set in a niche - to their capital, the shaft is circled with a variable number of moulded rings, separated by clear bands and fringed with decorative leaves. The number and size of the rings increases from the end of the 9th century - when the finest examples are found - until the 13th century, when the clear bands shrink and the leaves multiply and shrivel until they disappear altogether.


These were, with the colonnettes, the only sculpted sandstone elements in the early brick prasats. The decoration, straight from India and deriving from architecture in wood, was composed essentially of a sort of shallow arch enhanced with medallions, disgorged at the extremities by "makaras" - sea monsters with trunks - that turn to the centre to let fall a series of pendants. With time the makaras gave way to a motif of vegetal scrolls, the foliage increasing to turn the arch into a veritable branch and providing, in the Kulen style with the occasional reappearance of the makaras, some pieces of the highest order. It was during this period that the Javanese motif of the head of Kala appeared, placed high in the centre on the lintel. The ferocious two-armed monster, thought to represent an aspect of Shiva as Time who destroys all things, thereafter became ubiquitous.(4)

In the classic art the branch of foliage is developed to the extreme, becoming horizontal or sinuous and sometimes divided into four by an ornamental motif, perhaps with a central figure generally mounted on the head of Kala. It stands out on a background of flaming leaves and scrolling vegetation, often disgorged by lions and ending in multiple-headed nagas. Lintels of the Prah Ko style (late 9th century), where the decoration is enhanced with a multitude of small figures, are some of the most interesting. They are particularly high and crowned in addition with a small frieze.

In the 12th century one finds some lintels where the branch has multiple breaks. It then disappeared completely, the vertical axis becoming an axis of symmetry for the ornamentation formed of long flaming leaves unfurling from broad coils, while the head of Kala moves progressively lower.


Initially executed on a brick background in a lime based plaster, of which a few rare elements still remain, the decoration of the pilasters did not fully develop until the more general use of sandstone.

Flanking each door in order to support the fronton, the pilasters formed long vertical bands, designed in all evidence for the vertical repetition of identical motifs. From their base to their cornice, both of which were moulded, they could be covered in foliated scrolls unfolding from a series of vegetal coils, often ringed and extending for the width of the panel until the middle of the classic period. Then they became bordered laterally with small leaves, the artist's fantasy only expressed in the addition of small figures and animals participating in the rolling of the scrolls.

Simultaneously, and whatever the period, was found the "chevron", where each element was composed of a central motif surmounted by a fleuron forming a point and from which fell two symmetrical leaves. The central motif was frequently accompanied by a small tri-lobed niche sheltering a small figure or rather, towards the end of the 11th century, by a shaft of foliage. In the twelfth century, the period that established the taste for bas-reliefs, small scenes with figures decorate the lower part of the pilaster above the base moulding.

In some periods, and particularly that of the Baphuon (11th century), the shaft of foliage became the principal motif, dominating the surface of the panel to give an entirely upward thrusting movement in a "herringbone" pattern. Occasionally there also appeared the ascension of motifs in the form of a lyre (Bakheng and Angkor Wat styles) or lozenges (end of the 9th century).


The three false doors of a prasat were the replica in stone of the wooden door of the eastern entrance - formed in two leaves separated by a square-blocked closing bar - with each panel treated in the same spirit as the pilasters but framed with a rich moulding that became increasingly invasive. In the 9th century, kinds of mascarons (the heads of lions or similar) mark the middle of each door leaf, corresponding perhaps to real door handles.


To the mediterrranean spirit, the idea of the pediment implies the geometric form of the triangle that closes and affirms, - it is the rigid and steadfast crown of the Greek temple.

The classic Khmer pediment (or fronton), however, formed in single or superimposed frames, abuts the arching line of the gallery vaults and participates in the upward movement of the prasat. Far from being inert, it takes in that which is found below and carries it skywards, serving as a base for other diminishing frontons that are set at the projection of the upper tiers. With no sterility of line, it is enveloped by the supple, undulating poly-lobed arch of the stylised naga, whose body is indented with flaming leaves and whose heads then curve to stand erect at either extremity. The composition of the tympanum scenes further enhances the impression of uplift.

Initially the brick frontons - covered in stucco and poorly ornate with a few isolated motifs (reductions of buildings and figures) - were somewhat sacrificed to the sandstone lintels, and so were quite different in form. Derived from the horse-shoe arch of the Indian monuments they consisted of a large, usually shallow, rectangular panel. From the end of the 9th century they were often realised in sandstone, the tympanum becoming covered in a vegetal decoration with large volutes forming a single composition, while the frame, treated as a flat section, terminated with the heads of diverging makaras.

At the end of the 10th century the makara gave way to the multi-headed naga, disgorged by the head of Kala, which itself disappeared with the period of the Baphuon in the middle of the 11th century. The arch then became more rounded, showing a certain tendency to realism. Finally, in the 12th century, the naga is once again disgorged by the head of a monster, reminiscent this time of a dragon's head. With the appearance of the vaulted gallery the general outline becomes raised, taking the form of a slender poly-lobed arch.

Simultaneously one can see the appearance, from the 10th century, of tympanums with scenes beside those with a vegetal decoration, which only last until the beginning of the 12th century. Like the bas-reliefs on the walls, the episodes are sometimes represented in a single panel and sometimes set in superposed registers - a formula that prevails in the style of the Bayon.

One must not forget to mention, from the 10th - 11th centuries, (Koh Ker, Banteay Srei, Prah Vihear) some remarkable triangular frontons. These recall wooden architecture, conditioned by the double slope of the tiled roofs that preceded the appearance of the vault. The two diverging lines scroll at the extremities into large volutes.