9 - Sculpture in the Round


The Naga

The naga - a stylised cobra - is endowed with multiple heads, always uneven in number from three to nine, arranged in a fan. Deriving from India, it figures in the original legend of the Khmer people and is the symbol of water.

Common in the art he is, in the entirely original motif of the naga-balustrade, of fundamental importance. Initially - notably at Bakong (end of the 9th century) - the body lies directly on the ground and the massive heads are particularly imposing. Thereafter the body is raised on stone blocks and the heads, where at first simply crowned with a diadem, become more broadly crested - either with flaming tresses as at Angkor Wat or Prah Palilay, or with a purely ornamental continuous halo as at Beng Mealea. In this period (first half of the 12th century) the neck is bare and perfectly curved.

A little afterwards - for example at Banteay Srei - the naga is disgorged, as on the borders of the frontons, by a kind of dragon. A head of Kala appears on the nape and a small garuda on the axial crest. In the style of the Bayon, this last element became "devouring", and the naga little more than an accessory, straddled by an enormous garuda. Although of superb execution like those on the terrace of Srah Srang, the motif looses all simplicity of line to become heavy and confused.

At the entrances to Angkor Thom and Prah Khan, the naga carried by the devas and the asuras offers no particular novelty, but on some ancient Khmer bridges - probably of a later period - the heads of naga protect an image of the Buddha.

The two nagas with entwined tails of Neak Pean, devoid of any ornamentation, appear in their nudity the same as the naga Mucilinda, sheltering the meditation of the Buddha with their fanned heads.

The lion

The lions are guardians of the temples, adorning the entrance on either side of the steps. They can be, it must be said, quite mediocre. Unknown in the fauna of Indochina, they imposed an obligation on the sculptor to look for inspiration only in themes from India, from Java or from China, with no reference to natural reality.

Philippe Stern has shown that their evolution, from the 9th to the 13th century, was restricted to the progressive raising of the hindquarters and to the increasing stylisation of the mane.

In the style of Prah Ko (late 9th century) the lion, sitting resolutely and particularly squat, is not without some character. At Phnom Bakheng, shortly afterwards, while the head remains caricatural with its enormous muzzle and bulging eyes, the proportion improves due to the elongation of the body. Simply crouching towards the end of the 10th century, they stand increasingly firmly on their four paws with an excessively arched back, while their form becomes more lank. In the Bayon style, the countenance becomes grimacing and the head sometimes three quarters turned. The tail, generally remaining part of the mass, follows the length of the spine - or else, where it was perhaps formed in metal, it has disappeared altogether.

The "gajasimha" or "elephant-lion" is an uncommon variety of lion with an extended turned-up snout.

The elephant

One rarely finds the elephant sculpted in the round except standing at the corners of the tiered platforms of pyramids dating from the first half of the classic period - Bakong, eastern Mebon, Phimeanakas - its stature decreasing at each level with the architectural elements. Facing outwards, it marks therefore the four intermediate cardinal points. Sculpted realistically from a single block of stone, it wears a harness complete with bells.

One should also mention, as sculptures in the round, the three-grouped heads that embellish the inward corners of the monumental gates of Angkor Thom - their trunks descending vertically to tug at bunches of lotuses in a delightful decorative motif.

The bull

As the mount of Shiva, Nandin the sacred bull lies facing the entrance to some of the temples dedicated to this god. When the prasat is open to the four cardinal points, as at Phnom Bakheng and Bakong - where there must originally have existed a previous sanctuary in light-weight materials - a Nandin is placed on each of the four sides, symbolic of the universal power of its master. At Prah Ko there is one facing the single entrance to the three primary sanctuaries. One can also find him, though in various stages of deterioration, at Banteay Srei, Ta Keo and Chau Say Tevoda.

Nandin has a hump like a zebu - quite realistically portrayed in the 9th century in a natural pose in which the rear legs fold under the body. From then he increasingly raises himself on one of his limbs, while his proportions become lank and his lines less pleasing. He generally wears a collar with small bells or metal jewellery.


Many visitors are surprised to see so few statues around the monuments - but it is unfortunately not possible to leave them for fear of theft and deterioration. Many of the finer pieces found during the excavations are therefore either in the National Museum in Phnom Penh or in the Angkor Conservation Office store rooms.

Khmer statuary has often been denigrated, since, amongst the thousands of respectable pieces, it has furnished only a few that are truly outstanding, capable of entirely satisfying our western taste and endowed, like the ancient Greek masterpieces, with a sense of perfection.

It is not just a talent to sculpt that we assume as a requirement in the artist, but also an inspiration, an aesthetic intellect, a superior technique and the assertion of a personality. Characteristics that for the Khmer gave force to the ornamental sculpting and assured its mastery would, in our view, necessarily detract from the quality of the work.

Khmer art is a concept in search for a form. The artist does not inspire himself from nature, does not compel himself to represent movement and life in order to create a "work of art". Without abstraction he seeks real expression, but through the eyes of a visionary in accordance with the principle of static form so endeared by his race. His work is an act of faith - more collective than individual - where each can find his own emotion, and the masterpiece born from the intensity of the internal flame that inspires him, from his spiritual communion with the divinity. This can result in the weakness - quite irrelevant to him - of certain details, and the adaptation of forms that to us may seem startling - fantastic figures and composite beings, gods with multiple arms and tiered heads. But from here also derives a powerful facial expression and a calm beauty, radiant with a spirit aspiring to Buddhist serenity.

It is understandable that many of the pieces judged by us to be the most remarkable date from the early period of Khmer art up to the 9th century, where the sculptor attempted to render an exact anatomical likeness. Amongst these, for example, are the admirable statue of Shiva with eight arms set in a supporting arch from Phnom Da (Takeo Province) that is in the National Museum of Phnom Penh, standing between two acolytes, - and also the Harihara of the Asram Maha Rosei (Musée Guimet), - the Harihara of Prasat Andet, of an elegant purity of line (National Museum, Phnom Penh) - and the numerous Vishnous of Phnom Kulen. Characteristic of this period is the hair style set in a cylindrical mitre, and the fact that nowhere does one encounter, in this essentially restrained art, anything frenetic, wild or erotic as in some Indian sculpture.

From the end of the 9th century when one finds - notably at Bakong and Phnom Bakheng - some superb female figures with an imposing solemnity of expression, the sculptor tends towards stylisation and a form of increasingly rigid and conventional hieratism, though which is not without some strength. Then, from the end of the 10th century (Banteay Srei) to the time of Angkor Wat (first half of the 12th century), preference sways to the statuette, where the figure is more supple and the countenance softer.

Finally in the 12th century the concept of the spiritual triumphs, and while the body - simply modelled and fashioned on massive legs - can often be clumsy, all the effort is concentrated in the portrayal of an intense vitality deriving from the meditation of the being.

Along with the delightful and richly ornate feminine divinities is the endless repetition of the image of the Buddha, sitting on the coiled body of naga who shelters him with the fan of its multiple heads. One finds, notably at the Bayon, several examples imbued with a profound mysticism which are truly inspiring. Certain representations of bodhisattvas, apparently portrait statues of deified dignitaries, present themselves for universal admiration, while works like the Prajnaparamita of Prah Khan (Musée Guimet) or the irradiant Lokesvara of the central sanctuary of the same temple, truly touch high art.

Bronze is rarely used except for the statuettes, formed with the "lost wax" process and offering the same characteristics as the statuary. It is quite probable that there existed many more important pieces which have since been re-melted due to the scarcity of the material. A large fragment (the head and part of the shoulders) of a colossal reclining Vishnou, more than twice natural size and evidently from the 11th century, was found down the well at the western Mebon. A work of real quality, it shows that the Khmer, with the mediocre means at their disposal, were not averse to the ambitious use of metal.

It only remains to say a few words about the pedestals of the statues. Moulded and decorated like the base platforms of the terraces or sanctuaries and with an axis of horizontal symmetry, they supported, like the plinth of the linga, an ablution platform or "snanadroni", allowing the lustral water to flow along a beak invariably turned to the north. Under the statue in the pedestal a cubic block of stone with generally 16 or 32 alveoles aligned around its perimeter held the sacred deposit, consisting of some gems or precious materials. It is not impossible that they also sometimes contained the ashes of the deified dignitaries.

On top of the towers, within the crowning lotus, was placed another sort of deposit stone - a stone slab placed flat and sculpted with a variable number of holes laid out in ritual alignment - though not one managed to escape the attention of the looters.