Happy Khmer New Year!
It’s the Angkor Sankranta festival in Siem Reap this weekend, and it’s delightfully bonkers!
We’re expecting over 1 million visitors, mostly Cambodians, and it’s hard to leave our home without getting sprayed by water as we weave our way along the busy streets.
The town and nearby temple park are decorated with large colourful stars, bunting and bright lights, and there are concert stages and festival markets everywhere.
Yesterday, Annie and I were at Angkor Wat Temple with our good friend Doriane for the Buong Suong blessing ceremony. Doriane was asking me about the “lady holding her hair” seen in many Angkorean reliefs, so I thought I'd share the story here today.
The lady in question is Preah Thorani (or Dharani), the Goddess of the Earth.
Legend tells us that Thorani had responded to the Buddha's call to witness his ‘Attainment of Enlightenment'. At this time, the Buddha was under assault by the army of Mara (or ‘Death'), the perennial enemy of the dharma, the ruler of passion and the enemy of freedom.
Figure 1. Preah Thorani I, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
This beautiful lintel on the eastern gopura IV of Ta Prohm Temple shows Preah Thorani twisting her hair and drowning two horsemen. Above her, the Buddha (defaced) is triumphant in his enlightenment.
Mara was frightened by the presence of Siddhartha Gautama, the bodhisattva or Buddha-to-be. He thought that Gautama wanted to steal his realm by showing the world the way to final beatitude. Realising that Gautama had not yet attained enlightenment, and seeking to prevent it at all costs, Mara decided to throw himself and his army against him 'like the rush of a swollen river breaching against the embankment'. But nothing could be done against the bodhisattva, and Mara’s army was defeated.
In defeat, Mara tried to claim retribution from the gods by exploiting his past merits, calling his army to witness. In response, Gautama invoked the testimony of the Earth and touched her with his right hand. Known as the bhumisparsa mudra, this gesture became the most common in Buddhist iconography. The Earth roared, shook and appeared personified to pay respect to him and bear witness.
By twisting her hair, Thorani produced a flood of water that drowned the army of evil creatures sent by Mara to destroy the Buddha.
Figure 2. The Assault of Mara, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
One of the best examples of the assault of Mara at Angkor is this large panel of the eastern gopura IV of Ta Prohm Temple, adjacent to the lintel seen in Figure 1, where two events are superimposed. In the lower part of the panel, the Buddha (defaced) is literally surrounded by Mara’s army; above him Preah Thorani is wringing her hair, and above her is the Buddha (again defaced) triumphant in his enlightenment. The dancing figure in the centre is probably Mara.
Figure 3. Preah Thorani II, Ta Prohm Temple, Angkor, Cambodia
A detail from the panel in Figure 2, showing Preah Thorani wringing her hair.
Mara, despite now being twice defeated, decided to try temptation by sending his three beautiful daughters to seduce the Shakyamuni and seek revenge, but that's a story for another time.
The appearance of Preah Thorani in Angkorean reliefs appears to be a Khmer invention, in India she is only known in literary sources. She appears to have caught the imagination of the artists at Angkor who regularly gave her form in their carvings from, at the very latest, the middle of the 12th century CE.
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