from the Cambodia Daily, May 18-31, 2007
Fading away on wat walls
McDERMio AND VONG SOKHENG
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.
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
target of widespread destruction by the Khmer Rouge,
Cambodia's oldest remaining wat paintings are now being
threatened by renovation, repainting and neglect.
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.
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."
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
Phoeunrn, secretary of state of Ministry of Culture and Fine
Arts (MFAC), said laws should passed to protect the oldest
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."
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Bat Nemereach looks down on the tortured souls of
Kampong Thorn in Kampong Thorn province, a story
from the The Panhnas Jataka, or the 50 Stories of
Previous Life of Buddha.
Phnom Penh's Wat Slaket.