Religious iconography is not new to Cambodia.
However, though temple walls have been daubed with
murals for over a millennium, it is the religious
art of the 20th century that is most at risk. A new
book from the Reyum Institute of Arts and Culture is
the first record of these fascinating images.
Daravuth Ly, 30, is the
head researcher of the project. He and two others
spent over six years scouring rural Cambodia to
document murals from over 600 temples. The team took
over 20,000 photographs.
"This is the first time
Khmer Wat paintings have been studied," said Ly.
"People are more interested in ancient temples and
The project was vital,
as much temple art faces immanent obliteration.
"Monks and villagers like new temples and new
paintings," explained Ly. "If they get money from
outsiders, they will destroy old paintings to make
new ones. The improving economy is dangerous for old
Time was of the essence.
Researchers preferred no-frills documentation to in
depth study. A feeling of urgency drove the team on.
"We felt we must
document as many as we could," said Ly. "Several
temples had already been destroyed the second time I
Wat painting is not
unique to Cambodia. A shared belief in Thevarda
Buddhism means Thailand, Laos, and Burma all have
similar religious art. Though most stories are the
same, some distinctive local legends make Khmer
versions distinctive. The well known tale of Preah
/Co Preah Keo, where a holy cow and magic gem are
stolen by the Thais, is a good example.
"Preah Ko Preah Keo is
very special because it relates to a [comparatively
recent] historical event," said Ly. "The story
relates to the war with Thailand in the 16th
century. Only two temples showed the complete story.
Other temples just showed a single scene."
Stories like this are
passed down through the generations. Even those
commemorating a historical event, like Preah Ko
Preah Keo, normally have a moral aspect and are
linked to Buddhist beliefs. The eponymous hero of
Jinavong becomes one of the previous Buddhas and
thus part of the Jataka (tales of the 550 lives of
the previous Buddhas).
Wat art of the 20th
century is extremely important as it shows
transition from age-old techniques to new and modern
"Wat paintings are
divided into two styles - traditional and modern,"
said Ly. "Traditional style refers to the paintings
done before 1940."
After 1940 French
influence bought modern materials and techniques,
changing Cambodian art forever. "Now modern painting
is more popular," said Ly. "Chemical colours give
much brighter colours in the beginning but they
quickly fade. Traditional painting uses natural
things, like trees and fruits, to make the colours.
Though they are not as bright, they last much