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Today I visited a number of the marvellous temples built under Jayavarman VII (reign 1181 - 1220 CE), and was struck, as I often am, by the systematic destruction or modification of the Buddha images that were made there.
Most of the Buddha images were simply chiselled off, defaced in a hasty, careless and ugly manner. Viewed with modern sensibilities it is quite heartbreaking.
The iconoclasts responsible were Shaivite zealots. After centuries of religious tolerance the representations of Buddha were destroyed at some time in the 13th century CE.
Up until this time, inscriptions provide evidence that while Hinduism was the official religion of Khmer kings for centuries, Buddhism was not only allowed to exist alongside Hinduism, but sometimes even enjoyed royal protection or patronage. Given this religious tolerance, the destruction of the Buddha statues and images constitutes a remarkable event, which to this day remains somewhat of a mystery.
What caused this destruction? When exactly did it happen? The inscriptions, which become rare after the reign of Jayavarman VII, remain silent on these questions.
The fact is that thousands of Buddhas which decorated the pediments, lintels, walls and enclosures of the temples built under Jayavarman VII, and before him under Dharanindravarman II (reign 1150 – 1156 CE) (both fervent Buddhists), were brutally destroyed, while others (especially images of Lokeshvara) were converted into images of Shiva. As for the dates and reasons, all that is clear that the reaction took place after Jayavarman VII's death and that it was performed by followers of the Hindu god.
The destruction was certainly on a large scale, but several Buddhas survived the iconoclasts’ fury.
A few of these surviving images were probably concealed from view when the destruction took place. For example at Banteay Kdei Temple where galleries were added at a later stage to connect two isolated sanctuaries. The ceiling of these new galleries masked Buddhist pediments which had been in the open until the remodelling took place.
Some other Buddhas were carved in such a low relief mode that darkness may have provided sufficient protection; they could hardly be seen when the destruction took place.
But several of the Buddhas which were left intact were in conspicuous locations, on the temples’ exterior walls. Their presence, right next to other defaced images, as can be seen at Krol Ko Temple, strongly suggests that the destruction was hurried, and that for some reason the job was interrupted before it could be completed. The same juxtaposition of defaced and intact images may also be seen at Banteay Kdei Temple or Preah Khan Temple, and at Banteay Chhmar Temple all of the Buddhas were left intact.
It is easy to dismiss such vandalism as the work of uneducated thugs, and the culprits were certainly uneducated in matters of Buddhism.
The iconoclasts focused their attention almost exclusively on one type of image, the one representing Buddha facing, meditating in a seated position. The scenes showing Buddha in other attitudes or showing the future Buddha, prince Siddhartha, were left untouched.
It has been suggested that Jayavarman VIII (reign 1243/1270 – 1295 CE), a fervent devotee of Shiva, was responsible for ordering the destruction. But the few inscriptions at the disposal of historians contain indications that, as well as being a supporter of the Hindu god, he also made donations to Buddhist shrines.
When the Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan visited Angkor, only one year after Jayavarman VIII's abdication in 1295, he saw Buddhist monks everywhere. It seems that Jayavarman VIII had accepted the expansion of Theravada Buddhism during the 13th century.
Also, if the destruction was ordered by the high authorities of the time (a high priest or a king), one would expect such a high dignitary to have been more knowledgeable about Buddhism, and the destruction to have been more complete.
Also, Jayavarman VIII's rule lasted plenty long enough to check that all Buddha images had been destroyed in his kingdom, which was not the case.
Jayavarman VII placed Buddha and Lokeshvara at the top of the pantheon of gods he worshipped, but sanctuaries devoted to Shiva and Vishnu could also be found in his major temples. As such, Buddha's preeminence seems to have been accepted by devotees of Shiva.
The king may have gone one step too far, though. Most of his temples featured one or several depictions of a rather unorthodox Trimurti in which Buddha occupied a central position, flanked by Brahma and Vishnu. These representations, in which Shiva, replaced by Buddha, was simply denied existence, may well have been considered sacrilege by Shaivites and could have triggered their violent reaction.
The real reasons behind this crime, which left an ugly scar on temples which, for centuries, had born witness to a peaceful coexistence between the religions, will probably never be known.
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