Mural Painting in Buddhist Monasteries

Gamnur nao tam vatt (in Khmer)

Book Reviews

San Phalla

Phnom Penh: Reyum Institute, 2007

Reviewed by Heng Piphal (Department of Anthropology, University of Hawaii, Manoa)

Anthropological and historical research in Cambodia generally focuses on the glorified past of the Angkor period, which spans the 9th to 15th centuries CE. The post-Angkor period, which begins after the collapse of Angkor, constitutes a vast gap in Cambodian scholarship. The shift from Brahmanical and Mahayana Buddhist traditions of the Angkor period toward Hinayana tradition from the 14th centuries CE onward is usually considered as a major cultural break in religious continuity between the Angkor and post-Angkor periods (see Bhattacharya 1961; Briggs 1958; Coedès 1967 for further discussion). During the early scholarship of Cambodian research, scholars were interested in the culture of post-Angkor society. For instance, the works of Adhémard Leclère and Étienne Aymonier mostly focused on the contemporary culture of late 19th and early 20th centuries CE (e.g., Leclère 1895, 1906; Aymonier 1900). Major contributions of scholars such as Madelain Giteau, Saveros Pou, Michael Vickery, Ang Choulean, Ashley Thomson, have portrayed the post-Angkor period as a continuous entity from the Angkor period, despite differences in several aspects of culture between these two periods, such as religion and temple construction (e.g., Ang 1988; Groslier 1958; Thomson 1997; Vickery 2004).

Recent research conducted by San Phalla and colleagues from the Reyum Institute on mural paintings in the Cambodian Buddhist tradition collected from 600 monasteries (out of 3000) in Cambodia has shed light on religious and social practices of the Cambodian people in the last century. The book entitled Mural Painting in Buddhist Monasteries provides an overview of the primary themes favored by Cambodian Buddhists as drawn on the walls and ceilings of the major buildings in each monastery, including the Vihear (principal shrine), Sala Chan (dining hall), Dhammasabha or Dhammasala (conference hall), Kuti (monk’s residents), and Hotrai (library). The mural paintings are depicted in two styles: ancient and modern. Ancient paintings refer to traditional drawings that resemble bas-reliefs carved on Angkorian temples. The modern style of painting refers to Western-influenced works, which employ perspective and naturalistic approaches. The author argues that the modern painting style has developed under the influence of the Royal University of Fine Arts, which was created in 1918 by George Groslier.

Common themes depicted in the mural paintings include life stories of the historic Buddha and his previous lives, known as Jataka, which are divided into 547 past lives (or 550 in some traditions). The historic Buddha’s life (from birth until death) and the last ten previous lives known as dasajataka are the most popular themes of all. Rarely do the stories of previous Buddhas become the subject of paintings. Besides these jataka there are other themes extracted from texts compiled in Southeast Asia during the 16th century CE, called paññasjataka or 50 previous lives. Other themes of paintings consist of the Ramayana of the Brahmanical tradition, which was a popular theme for sculpture and bas-reliefs for pre-Angkor and Angkor traditions, as well. Heaven and hell are frequently depicted in paintings illustrating the after-life of each being, whether they were reborn in heaven or hell, depending on their accumulation of merit during their life-time. Various less important themes are also subjects of paintings, such as stories from the tripitaka (e.g., dhammapatthakatha and sandharanibvan) and local folklore related to legends, histories, and morals.

San Phalla has paid a lot of attention to the interpretation of each scene on paintings by individual artists. These include artists’ interpretations of social life, including aspects of the court, clothing, environment, individuals and daily life activities, which are used to correlate events of the sacred texts. The author argues that there were shifts from traditional dress toward adopting Western style clothing, particularly after Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1863. This can be seen in the replacement of traditional court guards with French soldiers or sometimes with the British style soldiers (or Indian soldiers during the British colonial period). Various local traditions, such as weddings, plowing ceremonies, music, dance, wrestling, and circuses, have been incorporated with the interpretation of jataka stories. Famous monuments in Cambodia have been included in particular scenes, for instance Angkor Wat is used as the palace of Indra, and the Royal Palace and garden were used to depict a scene when the prince Siddharattha visits the garden outside the palace in kapilabhastu. The author argues that this tradition continues from the post-Angkor period when Angkor Wat was considered to be Indra’s palace and also to represent the connection of Cambodia with Buddha’s life. Another important scene in paintings incorporates the King Father, Norodom Sihanouk, and the Queen Mother, Monineath. This scene integrates a 1953 trip by Norodom Sihanouk to obtain a Buddha relic from Sri Lanka with the cremation and sharing of Buddha relics to various kingdoms. Also, in some monasteries, prince Siddharattha and his wife, princess bimba, were depicted as Norodom Sihanouk and his Queen Monineath. San Phalla argues that this tradition is inherited from the 13th century Angkorian period, when Buddha and Lokesvara statues were represented with King Jayavarman VII’s visage.

Overall this book offers a detailed introduction into Cambodian mural painting as well as the history of Cambodian society as depicted through paintings from various periods. This work has paved the way for further anthropological research on different issues, such as comparative studies between Cambodian mural paintings and other Southeast Asian paintings, the interpretation of concepts of Buddhism by various artists, depictions of social life, and the difference between bas-reliefs of Angkorian temples and mural paintings in modern monasteries.

References cited:

Ang, Choulean

1988 The Place of Animism within Popular Buddhism in Cambodia the Example of the Monastery. Asian Folklore Studies 47 (1): 35-41.

Aymonier, Étienne

1900 Le Cambodge: Le Royaume Actuel. Vol. 1. Paris.

Bhattacharya, Kamaleswar

1961 Les Religions brahmaniques dans l’ancien Cambodge: d’après l’épigraphie et l’iconographie. Paris: EFEO.

Briggs, L. Palmer

1951 The Ancient Khmer Empire. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia.

Coedès, George

1968 The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. Edited by Walter F. Vella, Translated by Sue Brown Cowing, University of Hawaii press, Honolulu.

Groslier, B. P.

1958 Angkor et le cambodge au XVIe siecle. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Leclère, Adhémard

1895 Cambodge: Contes et Légends. Paris: Librairie Émile Brouillon.

1906 Les Livres Sacrée du Cambodge. Annals du Musée Guimet, Bibliothèque d’Études 20. Paris: Ernest Leroux.

Lewitz [Pou], Saveros

1974 Recherches sur le vocabulaire cambodgien (VIII) du vieux khmer au khmer moderne. Journal Asiatique 262: 143-170.

Thomson, Ashley

1997 Changing Perspectives: Cambodia after Angkor. In Sculpture of Angkor and Ancient Cambodia: Millennium of Glory. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1997: pp. 22-32.

Vickery, Michael

1978 Cambodia after Angkor, the Chronicular Evidence for the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries. 2 vols. Ph.D. Dissertation. Yale University.

2004 Cambodia and Its Neighbors in the 15th Century. Asian Research Institute Working Papers 27: 1-71.