from the Cambodia Daily, May 18-31, 2007

Fading away on wat walls



This massive painting from Wat Slaket in Kandal province depicts a story from The Panhnas Jataka, or the 50 Stories of Previous Life of Buddha, in which Preah Indra, left, transforms himself into a giant and eats the wife of Preah Sohrup, seated at right.


Wat Kampong Papil in Prey Veng province. After the Khmer King led a conversion from Hinduism to Buddhism in the 14th Century, many vestiges and allegories remained, such as this one from the Reamker, the Khmer rendition of the Ramayana, in which Hanuman, a monkey commander, rescues Treymeak, or "Sky Fish."


Wat Dount Soriya in Kampong Thorn province. This painting dates to the 1960s. According to researchers, most paintings found in wats depict Buddhist themes and tales of morality. Here, an incarnation of the Buddha preaches against earthly temptations. The king doesn't believe in religion, so Buddhisatva, an incarnation of the Buddha, comes down to warn the king not to follow the wrong path — eating and drinking to excess and cavorting with women.


According to Buddhist legend, after the Buddha ascended into Nirvana, a cremation was held and attended by "kings" — in this interpretation from the 1960s, the cremation is of King Norodom Suramarit, father of retired King Sihanouk, who appears at left next to dignitaries including John Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nikita Khrushchev and Sukarno with at far left a young Prince Sihanouk.

Once the target of widespread destruction by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's oldest remaining wat paintings are now being threatened by renovation, repainting and neglect.

A six-year study of some 600 far-flung rural pagodas, recently completed by archeologist San Phalla, has found that the massive murals are vanishing at an alarming rate. Now, researchers, Buddhist scholars and government officials are rushing to stop the beautiful and quintessentially Cambodian artwork, from fading into history.

"Monks in some of the older wats don't like the old paintings and want to change them for new ones," said Phalla. "Sometimes I go back to pagodas where I've been a few months before and the paintings are already gone, painted over or the whole building's been torn down."

Phalla, 30, who has now taken more than 20,000 photographs of wat paintings since 2001, said the "historical" paintings he studied averaged about 80 years of age. Although none were older than 100 years old, the works are made vulnerable by their composition: mostly non-chemical paint brushed on stucco, concrete and wood. Many have been subjected to the elements for decades.
"What made me more interested in the subject is that it must be studied fast or the history and stories will be lost," he told the Posf. "Monks don't know how to maintain them, and many are already gone. The pagoda buildings need to be repaired and technical experts need to be called in with the ability to preserve them. Right now there is no money to protect them."

Chuch Phoeunrn, secretary of state of Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MFAC), said laws should passed to protect the oldest paintings.

"These paintings are part of Cambodian heritage, but we don't have a law yet to protect them as national treasures. Soon, the ministry will research the pagodas and classify the age of the paintings. If it is older than 100 years we will classify them as national heritage that needs to be preserved," Phoeunrn said. "But right now, we don't have the law, and the young monks, who'd love to have a modern temple, are destroying the old ones."

According to Phoeunrn, the MFAC plans to monitor the preservation of older wats and will require permission for renovations.

"If we don't help preserve these paint-ings they will be destroyed. Some of these paintings are invaluable because of their age," said Miech Ponn, adviser to the Council of Khmer Culture at the Buddhist Institute, on May 14. "I think that each painting has potential to educate the young generation about the past."

The tradition of wat painting goes back to the 14th Century, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism as its national religion. At the time, the bas-reliefs characteristic of Hindusim were abandoned for murals, many of which were multi-colored and many meters square. Phalla, now pursuing a postgraduate degree in Asian culture in Thailand, estimates the tradition of frequently repainting the images may have started at the same time.

"Even in wats that are 200 to 300 years old the paintings are much newer, most of the older ones are from the last 30 years since the time of Pol Pot," he said.

Historians agree that under the leader-ship of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge enacted a methodical destruction of the Buddhist religion and its vestiges. According to one account, of the 80,000 Cambodian monks, 50,000 were murdered between 1975 and 1979.

"The unique character of Cambodian Buddhism is that it has been rebuilding itself from the ground up after being completely razed during the Khmer Rouge period," wrote Stephen Asma, professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, and former visiting professor at the Buddhist Institute in 2003, in an e-mail. "It is also unique for the historical blending of Buddhist dharma with indigenous folk culture. Khmer Buddhism is infused with ancient ideas of animism, like the Neak Ta spirits and this blend can be seen in the paintings of many wats."

Like other religious artwork, the murals are boldly colored, didactic and diverse. They range widely from the saccharine to the psychedelic: a syncretic tableau of allegories and folklore where world leaders can rub shoulders with community leaders and religious icons.

According to Phalla, most paintings feature an image of the Buddha, often of his life prior to entering Nirvana, or his previous ten births, known as Jataka. Others are scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the Ramayana.

"Wat Painting in Cambodia," a book detailing the findings of Phalla's field re-search will be launched at an exhibition on May 18 at the Reyum Institute in Phnorn Penh.

In some wat paintings, the patrons of murals would have their portraits inserted in the paintings, such as these in a depiction of Preah Sittach with his powerful sword and bow.


Preah Bat Nemereach looks down on the tortured souls of hell.

Wat Kampong Thorn in Kampong Thorn province, a story from the The Panhnas Jataka, or the 50 Stories of Previous Life of Buddha.


Inside Phnom Penh's Wat Slaket.