from the Cambodia Daily, June 30-July 1, 2007


By Michelle Vachon



(Top) Buddha attaining Nirvana at Wat Luang in Pursat province. (Left) An early 1960s painting of Buddha's cremation at Wat Kompong Thorn in Kompong Thom town shows political leaders of the time: from left, Chinese President Mao Tse-tung standing behind then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, Indonesian President Sukarno, Burmese Prime Minister U Nu, Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and US President John F Kennedy. (Above right) In this scene from the Reamker, Preah Ream shoots arrows at Krong Reap. Photographed at Wat Angkor Khang Cheng in Siem Reap province. (Below) Painting of the Sun, one of the gods in Heavens, at Wat Samrith Cheyaram in Kompong Cham province's Srei Santhor district.

In 2001, the Reyum Institute in Phnom Penh embarked on a project compiling information on pagoda paintings throughout the country.

"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 Daravuth said.

Now, less 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.

Since Reyum's 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.

The institute has accumulated more than 20,000 photos, along with basic data on pagodas and paintings, from about 600 pagodas in the country, he said.

A photo exhibit giving an over-view of the paintings' major themes and styles is being held at the institute's gallery through August.

Moreover, Reyum has just re-leased a Khmer-language book on the paintings' main themes, illustrated with more than 250 color photos.

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.

The paintings 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.

The main theme in pagoda paintings is the story of Buddha, from his birth to his attainment of the transcendent state of Nirvana.

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.

Another 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 pagodas.

Images from 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.

The tortures 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.

Legends and local tales are also reproduced on pagoda waDs. "These are especially interesting because some stories are unique to Cambodia," Ly Daravuth said.

For example, 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.

Painting 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.

Nowadays, he 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.