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Singapore American · May 2018

View of the west entrance of Angkor Wat Louis Delaporte. Cambodia, c. 1870−73. Pencil, watercolor, gouache, and gum arabic on paper

Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City

Special Exhibition at the Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM), April 8 – July 22 By Dr. Vidya Schalk


n April 8, ACM opened a Special Exhibition titled Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City. For many of us who have visited Angkor (or plan to), this exhibition provides an understanding of what Angkor is all about. To start with, one of the misconceptions people have is the difference between Angkor and Angkor Wat. Angkor Wat is just one temple complex (which is magnificent and very well preserved) that is part of a huge metropolis the size of current day Los Angeles, called Angkor. Angkor was the capital city of the Khmer Empire from where the kings ruled for centuries. Angkor got its start in 802 CE when King Jayavarman II was anointed as devaraja (King of Gods) in a sacred ceremony. From then on, the Khmer Empire grew and for the next 500 years dominated the landscape of South-Asia with far reaching influences in art, architecture and agriculture among other things. At its height, it covered not only current day Cambodia, but also parts of modern-day Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. It was brought to the world’s attention when a French naturalist named Henri Mouhot visited Angkor in 1860 CE. After his death, tales of a lost civilization hidden in the tropical jungles of Cambodia fired up the imagination of the French public. Even though he never claimed to have ‘rediscovered or discovered’ Angkor, the myth still persists to this day. Without royal patronage, the temples had fallen into disuse and disrepair, but the people still knew about it, especially Angkor Wat to which Khmer Kings, Buddhist monks and even foreign visitors from far off places visited and performed prayers.

The exhibition opens with objects, artworks, artifacts, paintings, plaster casts, etc., that the French brought back with them. Looking at them through 21st century eyes certainly is an interesting insight into how these objects played a role in the French controlled areas of Indo-China, especially Cambodia. There are memorabilia and posters from the French Expositions that were held in Paris and Marseille in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They went to great lengths to recreate entire pagoda-like structures and temples with much fanfare. In 1874, the Commission des voyages et missions scientifiques et littéraires was founded to organize and promote the political importance of the French colonial ‘mission civilisatrice’ or civilizing mission (the idea that it was their mission to bring civilization to non-western countries, which played a role in justifying their colonial possessions). One of the fascinating objects on display is a poster from the Paris International Colonial Exposition in 1931. The Ford Motor Company advertisement (pictured) for a Lincoln luxury car placed in front of Angkor temples showcases how multinational companies took the opportunity to promote their products around Angkor. Creative product placement and branding to create an emotional response in consumers was well in use even a hundred years ago! Several military expeditions were launched by the French with a mission to survey and map the course of the Mekong River. One of the explorers was Louis Delaporte, a young naval officer who was chosen to accompany these missions because of his excellent drafting skills. His very famous book published in 1880, Voyage au Cambodge, records his impressions along with detailed drawings. The exhibition showcases several of Delaporte’s artworks, writings, drawings, lithographs and some very lovely watercolors. In addition to drawings and paintings, Delaporte also brought with him several plaster casts, some of which are on display at the exhibition. The sharpness and details even after a century is quite remarkable. These casts in many cases are the only records left of the original sculptures, which have either been destroyed or have disintegrated with time.

Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient (EFEO) was founded in Saigon, and in 1907 it was charged with inventorying and preservation of the Angkor site. Under the auspices of EFEO, several distinguished archaeologists and architects, such as Parmentier, Marchal, Laur and Groslier, made tremendous contributions; some dedicated their lives to study, expand scholarship and help with monumental restoration projects. In addition to the beautiful female deities called the Devatas or Apsaras who embody the feminine forces of the universe, the omnipresent multi-headed Naga seen in Angkor is a serpent snake that has been associated with the creation myth of the Khmer people and perhaps with Tantric Buddhism. To this day, the Cambodians regard themselves as ‘born from the Naga’ based on an ancient legend where the union of a Naga princess and a human king gave rise to the Cambodian people. Syncretic belief systems prevail in Angkor and depending on the king in power either Hinduism or Buddhism found favor. While the great temple of Angkor Wat was dedicated to Lord Vishnu by Suryavarman II (1113-1150 CE), another king by the name of Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Khmer Empire a few decades later, was a Buddhist king. The massive Angkor Thom (Great City), many times larger than Angkor Wat, was his new capital city. The famous Bayon temple with multi-faced towers, Preah Khan and Ta Prohm all reflect the Buddhist philosophy, beliefs and sculptures. The gorgeous Buddha heads, and Buddhist sculptures in the exhibition including several Bodhisattvas from the Mahayana stream of Buddhism, showcase the artistic skill and mastery over stone and bronze. Several beautiful sculptures in the exhibition dating from the pre-Angkor (Funan and Chenla period) and Angkorian period (9th to 14th century) are representations of the Hindu gods Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and various other deities. The exhibition explores the magnificence of Angkor that lives on through its spectacular architecture and sculpture. Many factors contributed to the decline of Angkor, including deforestation, overconsumption of resources and the complex hydraulic water management system that became too overwhelming to manage. It was compounded by the Thai sack and looting of Angkor in 1431 CE that eventually led to its demise. The exhibition also showcases the rebuilding, conservation and preservation efforts, along with capacity building by various training programs to empower and train Cambodians to protect and preserve their legacy, following the devastating effects of the Khmer Rouge’s terror regime and subsequent civil war. The final section also explores the current archaeology in Angkor and the mapping of the region, expanding the area far beyond the temple complexes to what is called the Greater Angkor area using state of the art technology, such as LiDAR. Even after 1,000 years Angkor remains one of the most important archeological sites in South East Asia and astounding discoveries are still being made to this day! Do make some time to visit this superb exhibition before it returns to France on July 22. Prior to coming to Singapore Dr. Vidya Schalk worked as a Cancer Biologist Research Scientist at Oregon State University. Since coming to Singapore, she has taken the opportunity to indulge in her passion for history and travel. She is currently an active volunteer docent at the National Gallery, Asian Civilisations Museum, National Museum and STPI. Photos courtesy of Musée national des arts asiatiques – Guimet and ACM


Singapore American ¡ May 2018

Gateway of Angkor Thom Louis Delaporte. Paris, c. 1870−73. Pencil, ink, watercolor, gouache, and scratching on paper

Louis Delaporte France, 1911. Collotype print

Ford Lincoln advertisement from The International Colonial Exposition L'Illustration. Robert Falcucci. Paris, 1931

Finial: three-headed Naga Siem Reap, late 12th or early 13th century Bronze, height 33cm

Brahma Siem Reap, mid-10th century Sandstone, height 147cm

ANGKOR- Exploring Cambodia's Sacred City at Asian Civilizations Museum ACM _Vidya Schalk  

Special Exhibition at Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) The civilisation of Angkor left an artistic legacy that lives on most spectacularly...

ANGKOR- Exploring Cambodia's Sacred City at Asian Civilizations Museum ACM _Vidya Schalk  

Special Exhibition at Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM) The civilisation of Angkor left an artistic legacy that lives on most spectacularly...