from the Cambodia Daily, June 30-July 1, 2007
In 2001, the Reyum Institute in Phnom Penh embarked on a
project compiling information on pagoda paintings throughout
"The goal was
to systematically photograph all paintings, regardless of
their themes or state of preservation, since there had been
no exhaustive research on the topic," Reyum Director Ly
than six years after starting their contemporary re-search,
the institute is finding itself with an unexpected outcome:
data that has already turned into historical records.
research started, older pagodas and their artwork have been
razed, the trend being to demolish existing structures to
replace them with buildings made of concrete. And paintings
have been painted over as patrons paid for new works that,
at times, incorporate their portraits into religious scenes.
'We cannot do
[painting] preservation as such, but because we had decided
to document pagoda artworks, there are records of paintings
now gone," Ly Daravuth said.
has accumulated more than 20,000 photos, along with basic
data on pagodas and paintings, from about 600 pagodas in the
country, he said.
exhibit giving an over-view of the paintings' major themes
and styles is being held at the institute's gallery through
Reyum has just re-leased a Khmer-language book on the
paintings' main themes, illustrated with more than 250 color
Over the last
six years, Reyum's researchers San PnaDa, Tho Fisey and Thon
Sopheak have toured the country, taking thousands of
pictures and interviewing monks to collect as much raw
information as possible to create a database on the subject
The project was funded by The Toyota Foundation in Japan as
well as The Rockefeller Foundation and The Albert Kunstadter
Family Foundation in the US.
are usually in a pagoda's vihear—the hall where the statue
of Buddha is located— done directly on the walls and the
frieze near the ceiling, Ly Daravuth said Vfliears' columns
also used to be lacquered and decorated with golden motife
as at Wat Saravan Decho in Phnom Penh, but this practice is
disappearing, he said. At some pagodas, there also are
paintings in the sala chan, the meeting hall where laypeople
gather and monks eat.
theme in pagoda paintings is the story of Buddha, from his
birth to his attainment of the transcendent state of
Interpretations range from the traditional to the decidedly
modern. In an early-1960s scene of Buddha's cremation at Wat
Kompong Thom in Kompong Thom town, men-Prince Norodom
Sihanouk appears with heads of state of the time including
US President John F Kennedy, Soviet President Nikita
Khrushchev, Chinese President Mao Tse-tung and Indian Prime
Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
recurring theme in paintings is the Buddha's previous lives,
or "Jatakas." Among those are the "Pannas Jatakas," or 50
lives, which are little known outside
Southeast Asia One scene from the "Pannas Jatakas" in which
a wife stands by her husband as he dies of a snakebite was
recorded at Wat Leap on the outskirts of Battambang town.
Episodes from the Reamker—the Cambodian version of the
Indian epic tale Ramayana— also appear frequently in
heavens are also favored one work at Wat Trapeang Sk in
Kompong Cham province's Cheung Prey district features Kubera,
the deity guarding the northern direction at the first level
of the heavens.
of hells, which await people with faults to expiate before
they can move on to their next fives, are depicted in
frightening detail A scene at Wat Prasat in Kompong Thorn's
Kompong Svay district shows people being hammered on the
head, their blood flowing.
local tales are also reproduced on pagoda waDs. "These are
especially interesting because some stories are unique to
Cambodia," Ly Daravuth said.
the Cambodian version of the legend of "Preah Ko Preah Keo"
emphasizes Preah Ko, the buffalo with divine powers, unlike
the Thai version, which focuses on Preah Keo, the emerald
Buddha, he said One painting at Wat Svay Chrum in Kandal
province's Khsach Kandal district shows the king inviting
Preah Ko to the royal palace.
styles and techniques vary greatly, ranging from simple
images by amateur artists to traditional Cambodian scenes
and even modern paintings by master painters.
There was a
time when painting a scene on the wall of a pagoda was
believed to bring merits both to the artist and the patron
paying him. "Artists were doing this out of faith, and when
you are inspired by faith, you do good work," Ly Daravuth
said pagoda paintings tend to be viewed as a commodity, paid
by the square meter and done with building paint, in which
speed and size count more than quality.