SIEM REAP, Cambodia — The recent unearthing of hundreds of Buddha statues at a temple in Cambodia’s famed Angkor region has forced scholars to reassess theories regarding the final years of the Angkor civilization.
Late last year, a team led by Japanese researchers from the Sophia University Angkor International Mission uncovered some 167 Buddhist statues and other artifacts from the grounds of Banteay Kdei temple, one of 99 UNESCO-protected monuments in the Angkor complex.
Among these was a four-sided sandstone pillar engraved with 1,008 seated Buddhas, a monument similar to that in Nara’s Toshodaiji Temple and other Buddhist sites in China and India, but the first of its kind to be exhumed in Cambodia.
Just a few months previously, the team had found another cache of 105 statues at the same site.
According to Yoshiaki Ishizawa, leader of SUAIM and a professor of Southeast Asian history at Sophia University in Tokyo, the find could “rewrite the history of the latter years of the Angkor Dynasty.”
For many years, scholars have hypothesized that the dynasty’s demise in the mid-13th century was prompted by the expansive building projects of King Jayavarman VII, who ruled from 1181-1221.
Jayavarman VII is credited with instigating the construction of several of Angkor’s better-known sites, including the 10-sq.-km walled city of Angkor Thom, in which the extravagant Bayon temple is located, and Preah Khan and Ta Prohm temples. He also commissioned Banteay Kdei, a massive temple located 6 km northeast of the more illustrious Angkor Wat.
Experts believe those projects, which also included the construction of a vast irrigation system, exhausted not only the royal coffers but also the local people entrusted with their construction.
Yet, this theory is not backed by inscriptions found among the Angkor ruins that have long formed the foundation for theories regarding the Angkor dynasty.
What’s more, historical accounts by travelers at the time, such as Tcheou Ta-kouan of China, who visited in 1296, describe not a dynasty in decline, but one that was wealthy and thriving.
Such discrepancies have left some Angkor scholars searching for other explanations.
Ishizawa presents the hypothesis that after the death of Jayavarman VII, a religious conflict “with political overtones” developed.
While the Vishnu and Shiva sects of Hinduism had formed the religious ideology and philosophical base for the Angkor dynasty for some 400 years, a religious reformation occurred during Jayavarman VII’s reign. Buddhist temples were built in place of what had been predominantly Hindu ones, Ishizawa explains.
And although elements of Hinduism were incorporated into those temples, Buddhism was treated as the state religion, a tradition that was continued by Jayavarman VII’s successor, Indravarman II.
Yet, the next king to ascend the throne, Jayavarman VIII (1243-1295) was a devout follower of Shiva, which may account for the destruction of many Buddhist artifacts during his reign, Ishizawa says.
Most of the statues uncovered by the SUIAM had been decapitated and then buried, while others were missing arms and legs.
“It is possible that some Hindu fanatics destroyed the statues in an attempt to remove all traces of the work of the previous [two] kings,” Ishizawa says. This anti-Buddhist movement may have been triggered by a power struggle surrounding the right to ascendancy, he adds.
Banteay Kdei temple had previously served as a major center for Buddhism, which would explain the destruction and burial of the artifacts that once adorned it, Ishizawa says.
Among those embracing this hypothesis is celebrated Angkor scholar Vittorio Roveda, author of a number of books on the Angkor dynasty, most notably its mythology.
Roveda says evidence to support the theory can be found at Bayon temple, whose 54 towers are decorated with 200 huge visages of Avalokiteshvara — the Buddha of Compassion whom Jayavarman VII had looked to for sponsorship of his reign. Some of the images have had their noses chiseled off, he says.
“This was clearly an act of deliberate defacement,” Roveda says. “It is to such small details that we must now turn our attention in order to re-examine Angkor history,” he adds.
Yet, there is still some confusion as to the identity of those who buried the artifacts.
Studies undertaken by Masako Marui, a member of the SUIAM team in Cambodia, have determined a significant time gap between the destruction and subsequent burial of the recently exhumed statues.
By examining the composition of the earth in the trenches where the artifacts were buried, it became apparent that a newer layer of extremely pure sand had been used when burying the statues, Marui says.
Additionally, many had been placed into the pit in a deliberate and orderly manner: In some cases beheaded statues had been inserted with heads placed atop of their corresponding torsos, she explains.
With Buddhism returning to Angkor as the predominant religion in the 15th century, when Angkor Wat itself became a center for Buddhist pilgrims, Marui believes the burial may have been performed as a kind of ritual. The broken statues were likely “transformed into sacred deposits” by the Buddhists who took over the running of Banteay Kdei, Marui says.
Both Marui and Ishizawa believe further burial sites exist within the grounds of Banteay Kdei and some other Angkor sites. Indeed, SUIAM reconvened excavations at Banteay Kdei on Aug. 19.
However, their exhumation is not a priority for the Sophia University team, Ishizawa insists.
SUIAM began its operations in 1980 to train young Cambodians to undertake conservation and excavation work in the Angkor area. In 1991, it started training in the grounds of Banteay Kdei.
The recent unearthing was pure coincidence and an “added bonus,” says Ishizawa, whose association with Angkor dates back to 1961.
“Some young conservationists called me over to look at a stone they had uncovered,” he recalled, adding that it was the first such find he had experienced in his 40-year research in Angkor. “I was astonished and very excited. This doesn’t happen every day.”
Members of the university’s team are now in the process of performing hi-tech operations to piece together the broken artifacts. Officials hope to exhibit them in a specially created museum in Siem Reap, the closest town to the Angkor ruins.
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