Neolithic and Bronze Age
Cambodia has one of Southeast Asia’s richest and most influential art histories. From the earliest settlements along the Mekong, to the awe-inspiring temple architecture of the kingdom of Angkor, to today’s contemporary artists working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia is alive with cultural and artistic spirit which has outlasted flooding, foreign invasion, colonialism, and civil war.
Art in Cambodia has been produced since pre-Khmer settlements were established in the fertile river valleys. Much of the Neolithic art discovered in Cambodia has been found in funerary sites. It is assumed that the earliest forms of art in Cambodia were created for ritual purposes, including birth, marriage, and death. Early artworks in Cambodia include stone carvings, jewelry made of natural materials such as copper and shell, and pottery incised with graphic motifs. Cambodia prehistoric pottery is unique in that its decoration includes spirals, an image not found in similar ceramic items in China and Vietnam. Other artworks may have been carved of indigenous woods; however, these have not survived intact in archeological sites. The material for these artworks was hewn directly from the earth, and did not undergo manufacture besides shaping and, in the case of primitive ceramics, firing. However, Cambodia’s rich natural resources would lead to quickly to new ages of artistic and technological innovation.
Bronze working was introduced to Cambodia around the first millennium CE, and does not appear to have developed as significantly in Cambodia as in other parts of Asia, despite access to the natural materials needed to make bronze. Part of this could be due to an early but energetic trade in the raw materials themselves, especially between Cambodia’s north-eastern neighbors (Vietnam and China) and India in the West. Funerary site findings have discovered multiple rich burials, wherein individuals were buried with a multitude of bronze tools and ornaments, including bangles, large earrings, necklaces, belt-buckles, and ornaments for the feet. The wealth of objects found within these graves supports the idea that early Cambodians took full advantage of their natural resources and established trade with other civilizations.
Early Cambodian architecture shows signs of water management, rice cultivation, animal husbandry, and religious activity. Canals and water reservoirs linked to ancient settlements sites have been discovered, and some of these sites are still in use in the Cambodian countryside today. It would appear from the archeological record that rice was cultivated in Cambodia as early as 100 CE, and that the people had learned to take advantage of the monsoon climate in order to sustain agriculture. Water reservoirs were critical for survival during the dry months of the year. Great care appears to have been taken in the planning and execution of water management, showing the rapid development of civilization in the river valleys.
Despite a lacking of sophistication in bronzes, ironworking seems to have been particularly popular in Cambodia. Iron Age tools and ornaments in Cambodia are much more complex than those found in Bronze Age sites. Pottery continued to evolve in the Iron Age, with some funerary sites containing beautiful, dark black ceramic pieces with geometric and botanic motifs. Iron tools such as spades, hoes, and spears have also been found in certain sites, showing an agriculturally advanced society with a hierarchy as well as the ability to defend itself from outside threats. Lapidary, or the creation of arts made with precious stones, also appears to have been a popular form in ancient Cambodia. Ornaments made out of carnelian and agate have been discovered, as well as moulded ornaments made of gold, copper, and polished bronze. Along with natively created jewelry; some extremely affluent funerary sites have included carnelian carvings from India and jade pieces from China. Trade between Cambodia, China, India, and other cultures within Southeast Asia would continue throughout Cambodia’s cultural history.
The first Khmer kingdom was chronicled by Chinese travelers in the 6th century CE. The records of Kang Tai and Zhu Ying, emissaries to the south from the Wu emperor in China, discuss a kingdom which they called Funan, in the southern Mekong delta. The name “Funan” may be derived from the Khmer word “Phnom,” which means “mountain.” The Chinese observers discuss how the arts were supported by the royalty, who were in turn supported through the collection of taxes, most often paid through rare goods such as gold and gems. They also mention some of the arts of Funan, including statues with many heads and arms, temples and palaces built near canals in walled cities, and houses and storehouses built upon stilts in the river delta. Many of the details chronicled in the Chinese accounts have been supported by archeological evidence. The trading port city of Oc Eo is one of the sites that have been linked to the Chinese writings about Funan. Oc Eo was a city with both agricultural advantages and a great amount of foreign trade. Canals and walls have been excavated, showing the existence of a large and prosperous town. Indian elements are especially present at Oc Eo. An ancient temple to the Hindu god Shiva has been discovered, along with Sanskrit tablets discussing the religious and historical accounts of Funan’s kings. The presence of Hinduism as the major religion explains the mention of statuary with multiple heads and arms in the Chinese accounts. Khmer Mukhalingas, or phallic Hindu statuary with a carved representation of a god’s face, are also found, and are unique to pre-Angkorian art. It would appear that the monarchy of Funan adopted Hinduism in the early years of the kingdom’s establishment. It is apparent that Oc Eo was also home to many different artisans, including potters, ironworkers, bronze workers, jewelers, and carving masters. There is some evidence of textile manufacture as well and possibly silk-weaving. Roman coins have also been discovered in Oc Eo, oftentimes made into pieces of jewelry. The coins show just how far-reaching Cambodian trade was even in the earliest eras of history.
A very good site about Indian influences in the early Khmer kingdoms:
An excellent virtual tour site of a recent exhibition of Khmer sculpture at the National Gallery of art: http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/cambodia/camrm1-enter.htm
Along with Hinduism, Indian trade in Cambodia also introduced Buddhism to the Mekong delta kingdoms. These religions were practiced cooperatively instead of competitively, however, with Hindu and Buddhist aspects incorporated into daily life as well as the governing structure of the kingdom. Buddhism was also included in artistic production, and from the 7th century, several Buddhist statues with Pali and Sanskrit inscriptions were created and are still extant. This shows us that along with Hinduism, two different types of Buddhism were practiced in Cambodia during the pre-Angkor civilization: Theravada (also called Hinayana, or Lesser Vehicle) and Mahayana (Greater Vehicle) sects both thrived and left behind art and writing. These sculpted representations of the Buddha feature Indian styling, such as smoothness of garments and wide, idealized faces with a slight smile, but Cambodian features, including Khmer styles of dress. The intermixing of different kinds of Buddhist teaching along with Hindu beliefs would become essential to the ruling structure and religious life in Cambodia from the 7th century onwards.
The kingdom of Funan apparently collapsed in the 6th century CE, most likely due to advances in maritime technology which shifted trade from the Mekong delta entrepot into the open sea. Groups in the interior lands began to gain power, especially as the interior was far more suited to rice production than the lower delta areas. A new series of kings emerged from the central interior settlements in Cambodia. The period between 550 CE and 800 CE is most commonly known as the Chenla kingdoms.
Like the civilization of Funan, Chenla was a monarchal society which adhered to Hindu ideas of kingship and practiced a mixture of Hindu, Buddhist, and indigenous religious rites. Because of the close connection between society and religion, one of the most prominent architectural developments in the kingdoms of Chenla is in temple architecture. Temples were most commonly built out of brick, and were formed in square, rectangular, and occasionally octagonal shapes. The most common deity worshipped was Shiva, and temples were decorated with statuary representing both Hindu and local gods. Statues and lintels (the horizontal piece which covers the top of a doorframe) were most often carved of local sandstone. In the early year of Chenla, the lintels were carved with images of spirits. This trend diminished with time, however, and in later periods, floral motifs were most often carved into lintels. Temples were patronized by families, who believed that their ancestor’s spirits were enshrined within the temple. Temples were also the home to important spirits such as those that controlled the rains, wind, and earth – all vital to the agricultural foundation of Chenla. Temples were provided for by donations of surplus architecture, and often served as a center of economic and creative activity in the towns. Currently, there is no archeological evidence beyond the Sanskrit records left behind from the Chenla period to tell us how the temple was used by the people. It is assumed, however, that the temple’s center structure would be surrounded by supporting facilities made of wood, such as houses, workshops, and storehouses for grain and cloth. Future archeological excavations around existing Chenla temple sites may prove more definitively the role of the temple within the town, however, most Chenla temples are situated in deep interior forests, and thorough exploration is made difficult by terrain and the threat of landmines left behind by the Khmer Rouge guerrilla forces in the 1970s. Efforts are being made, however, to preserve Chenla sites, and to safely clear the surrounding areas so as to make the sites accessible to scholars.
An excellent virtual tour site of a recent exhibition of Khmer sculpture at the National Gallery of art:
The most famous of Cambodia’s artistic and archeological sites survives from the golden age of Khmer cultural development. At the beginning of the 9th century, a young king named Jayavarman II was sworn as ruler of all of Cambodia in a ceremony atop Mount (Phnom) Kulen. Just south of the mountain, Jayavarman’s descendents would build a massive city filled with temples, palaces and monuments. Today, Angkor Wat stands as the largest religious monument on Earth. The evolution of Angkor took place over a 700 year dynasty, during which the Khmers became one of the most influential and powerful groups in Southeast Asia.
Angkor is actually a series of different structured settlements, built over time in a similar, recognizable style that we now call the Khmer style. The word Angkor means “city.” Angkor was a massive metropolis, complete with palaces, temples, residences, libraries, and marketplaces. Unfortunately, many of the residential and palatial buildings are missing, due to the fact that they were built of wood. The interiors of the libraries are also empty, and evidence of many different fires has been found in the ruins at Angkor. The structures now standing are those made of brick, stone, and laterite. Even these constructions are incomplete, however: many of the temples would have originally been coated in plaster, and then brightly painted or covered in shimmering gold and bronze. Because of the loss of the wooden buildings and paper records, we can only surmise what the original architecture of Angkor was like through the remaining structures. Most of the ruins at Angkor are temples, or wats. Khmer temple architecture emphasizes verticality in an effort to present a visual representation of the mythical mountains in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology. They are, at their essential foundations, step pyramids. The largest of these temples is Angkor Wat. Its name literally means “city temple.” Wats are constructed around a central prang (tower), or a group of prangs together in a formation. Five prangs is the most common formation, and symbolizes Mount Meru. This style of sacred architecture was greatly influenced not only by Indian art but also by cultural trade with the kingdom of Java, in present-day Indonesia. Java was also a Hindu civilization, and the royal families of Java and Cambodia had intermarried during the later portion of the Chenla kingdoms period. Other aspects are extremely important in the construction of a wat, including the axis on which the wat’s foundation lay, and which direction the deific images are facing. Angkor Wat, for example, is built on an exact East-West axis, allowing the sun to rise directly above the temple during the important seasonal equinoxes. Angkor Wat also faces West, towards the setting sun and, in Khmer religious tradition, the direction of paradise. Along with the prangs, wats included libraries, monasteries, teaching halls, performance spaces, and long promenades for pilgrims to journey and festival parades. Every aspect in Khmer temple architecture is exquisitely and deliberately detailed. The window frames, columns, and lintels are often ornately carved with images of the deity to which the temple is dedicated.
Temple dedication was extremely important to the Khmer ruling class, due to the concept of god-kingship that the Khmers believed. Unlike other cultures, kings in Khmer society were not thought of as being gods themselves, but rather as being protected by a specific deity. In many cases in the early Angkorian period, this deity was Shiva (the protector) or Vishnu (the provider). Towards the close of the dynasty, kings shifted from Hindu deities to forms of the Buddha, the most popular being Avalokiteshvara (the Buddha of eternal compassion). In order to cultivate a relationship with the deity, each king had to build his deity its own dwelling on earth. This practice led to the construction of several hundred temples at Angkor, as well as smaller shrines along royal roads and in provincial capitals. Since the worship of each deity was the choice of each particular king, certain kings with shorter reigns were unable to complete a full temple. Some temples that were ordered for unpopular kings were also taken apart after the monarch’s death, and used as source material for alternate building projects. The ruins of unfinished and demolished temples can be seen in Angkor today.
Water was also a significant factor in the architecture at Angkor. Along with providing for the population and for agriculture, many of the man-made ponds (called barays) also served a symbolic function. There are two main barays at Angkor; one each east and west of the central temple (Angkor Wat) and palace complex (Angkor Thom). Within each baray there is a lingam, the phallic symbol of Shiva’s divine power. The water in the barays would fill during the rainy season, surrounding the lingam in a visual demonstration of the power of Shiva and the ability of the earth to be renewed by the nourishing power of the monsoon rains. The rains brought back the fertile season, allowing the rice to grow. The lingas in the Angkor barays are therefore a connection between religious ceremony and life-sustaining agriculture.
Along with images of the gods, other figures and scenes are carved into the walls of Angkor. The most prominent animal found in the art of Angkor is the elephant. In the surviving stone foundations of the royal palace are several elephants, depicted walking along the wall, being ridden by royalty, and charging into battle. Elephant trunks make up columns and the railings of staircases that would have originally led to the palace itself (the palace, which was made of wood, has long since disintegrated). Along with real animals such as elephants, hawks, lions, dogs, and water buffalo, mythical creatures can be found on the walls of Angkor. One of the most popular depicted is the garuda, a man-bird-lion mix who is the sacred animal and vehicle of the Hindu deity, Vishnu. Garuda stands guard at temple entrances, perches protectively on roofs and gables, and even holds up foundations. Along with garuda are images of the naga, a five-headed snake deity that brings rain to Cambodia and protects both Hindu gods and the Buddha. The naga are often depicted hovering over a deity’s head, or at the entrances to temples and stairwells. Though fearsome, the naga are an important spirit for the Cambodian people, and are believed to help farmers by controlling the monsoons.
Another particular image is very common in the carvings at Angkor. Beautiful dancing women, called apsaras, adorn many of the walls in Angkor’s multitudinous temples. Apsaras are heavenly nymphs, and are believed to be the spirits of clouds. They are usually pictured in Khmer dress, with elaborate headdresses, flowing skirts, and delicate jewelry. They wear peaceful smiles and have healthy, rounded breasts and curved waists, an ideal which proves their divinity and perfection. Because of their embodiment as a female ideal, apsaras are also seen as a symbol of fertility. They are often shown dancing in pairs, surrounded by beautiful flowers, especially the lotus blossom (a sacred flower in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions). Apsaras are also the inspiration for feminine Khmer courtly dancing, and are even today a symbol of felicity in the Khmer culture in Cambodia.
The last great king of the Angkorian culture transformed Angkor from a primarily Hindu-Shivaite society into one observing Mahayana Buddhism. Jayavarman VII is remembered as Angkor’s greatest builder. Before he was crowned king in 1181, Jayavarman VII raised an army to help defeat his father’s enemies, the Chams of Vietnam. The Chams were also a Hindu culture, which may be why Jayavarman VII decided not to follow Hinduism any longer. During his reign, Jayavarman VII ordered more projects than any other Angkorian king. His works at the capital included the palace of Angkor Thom (which includes the garuda and elephant-embellished foundation described above), the Bayon, which is a huge temple complex devoted to Buddhism, and the smaller temples of Pheag Khan, Banteay Kdei, and Ta Prohm. Along with works built in the capital, Jayavarman VII ordered several provincial building projects, including royal roads, rest houses for Buddhist pilgrims coming to Angkor, and 102 hospitals scattered throughout the empire.
Jayavarman VII’s temples are some of the most recognizable at Angkor. The Bayon, a huge complex with no exterior walls and thirty-seven remaining towers, has huge faces carved into the sides of its prangs. Originally, it is believed that there may have been as many as fifty-four towers, resulting in 216 carved relief faces. Though some of the faces are inscribed with the names of deities and Buddhist saints (bodhisattvas), most of them are anonymous. Are these portraits of the king himself? Are they meant to be the Buddha? Though the Bayon has been largely and carefully restored, we still do not hold the answers to these questions.
Many of the older Hindu temples were transformed into Buddhist worship sites during Jayavarman VII’s reign. By mixing well-known symbols, such as the naga, with new religious images, such as the Buddha sitting in meditation, Jayavarman VII was able to incorporate familiar facets of culture with the new state religion. The addition of Buddhist statuary, reliefs depicting the life of the Buddha, and imagery specific to Buddhism (the wheel of law, for example) helped to convert people to Buddhism more fully. Much of this later Buddhist statuary has been discovered at Angkor’s older Hindu temples.
By the 1300s, Cambodia had changed from a Mahayana Buddhist society into a Theravadan one, following the most popular form of Buddhism in Southeast Asia. Angkor’s power was diminished by the 14th century, though the direct causes for the downfall of the great Khmer city are unknown. There are very few inscriptions which describe royal life, and the last of the temples at Angkor was built in 1295. From contemporary Chinese reports, it would appear that Angkor was experienced frequent attacks by the Thais, as well as internal unrest in the capital. By the beginning of the 14th century, the Khmers had lost control of their easternmost provinces, which were incorporated into the kingdom of Lan Na in Thailand. The provincial capital of Lop Buri was also captured by the Thais. By the mid 14th century, Angkor was at war with the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, and the central city was successfully sacked by the Thais. In 1431, the Khmer monarchy abandoned Angkor for the new settlement of Phnom Penh, leaving the once-great metropolis to be reclaimed by the jungle. It was not until the French colonization of Cambodia in the 19th century that Angkor would once again be a famous and important city.
A very good site about the symbolic statuary at Angkor Wat:
A very good site with layouts, slides, and architectural information about Angkorian art and architecture:
A groundbreaking report of new mapping and discovery of the extent of urban civilization at Angkor:
Due to constant regional aggression in Southeast Asia during the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, there was very little artistic and cultural development in Khmer culture. The capital of Khmer society was moved to the city of Phnom Penh, which was more strategically viable due to its location on three major rivers: the Mekong, the Bassac, and the Tonle Sap. Many of the great Khmer artisans and scholars were taken prisoner by the Thais during the siege at Angkor, leaving little cultural expertise in the new capital of Phnom Penh. By 1594, the northern portions of Cambodia, including the cities of Angkor, Battambang, Lovek, and the Great Tonle Sap Lake were under total Thai control. For the Khmers, the middle centuries were very much about keeping the people, if not the culture, alive.
Despite hostilities, Phnom Penh became a successful trading center, especially for international mercantile activities. Traders from China, Japan, Malaysia, and Europe could all be found in Phnom Penh by 1600. As it had been at Angkor, religion was central to life in Phnom Penh, and Buddhism was the main religion of the state. Other faiths were also tolerated, including Christianity, spread to Cambodia by European missionaries. Islam was also introduced to Cambodia in this period by Indonesia, Malaysian, and Arabic merchants and traders. The trade which moved through Phnom Penh created a lively and affluent culture, much more diverse than Angkor had been.
In the arts, Buddhism continued to dominate sculpture and architecture. Though there are very few temples surviving from the earliest days of Phnom Penh, some temple grounds have been in use since the city’s establishment. Cambodia artists and builders continue to use native sandstone as a primary building tool, and wood was an especially popular material, despite the threat of destruction by fire. More permanent materials, such as hard stones and bronze, do not seem to have been employed in the arts in Phnom Penh’s early history. This could be because of the difficulty in acquiring these materials, as well as the laborious task of forging and carving them. Bronze and other metals may have been selected for military use only, therefore making them unavailable to artisans. Some excellent bronze statues have been discovered outside of the capital, but these findings, though exquisite, are rare. Stone inscribing was abandoned, and instead, records were inscribed on palm leaves. Some of these palm-leaf encyclopedias have survived, though it is difficult to say how much of the information imparted by the palm-leaf annals is truthful, since imperial censoring and editing was a common practice. Along with writing, painting and sketching on palm-leaves and wood also appears in the 17th century. Sketching may have been inspired by Western arts, which were introduced to artists through traders. Brush-painting may have also been introduced by Chinese and Japanese merchants and missionaries, though it does not appear to have been a popular medium for Khmer artists.
Art styling in Cambodia was also very much influenced by Thai culture. In the 17th and 18th century, we see a shift from the flatter, more rounded costume and headdresses for figures to the elongated, pointed and ornate costume of the Thais. The Buddhas of the post-Angkor period look quite similar to those shaped in Thailand, with long fingers, thinner faces, less dimension in the facial features, and high, pointed crowns. Architecture too experienced the Thai influence, with many Buddhist buildings sporting the high, pointed eaves and bell-shaped shrine buildings common to Thailand. Though there are no examples extant, one assumes that wooden buildings would have been constructed and decorated in a style similar to what is found in Thailand. It is not until the 1980s, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, that Cambodian artists rediscovered and embraced a style apart from that of the Thais.
In 1887, Cambodia became a French protectorate, along with Vietnam. Laos was later added to the colony the French called “Indochine.” The French imparted some infrastructure in Cambodia, including roads, railroads, and the construction of government administration buildings in the French Rococo style. Along with the imposition of their own style and architecture, the French were also very much interested in a new field of study: that of archeology, which began as a formal discipline in the late 1800s. When the French discovered the city of Angkor, deep within the jungle, they decided that the site required extensive study and conservation. Though Angkor’s temples had been still in use by small monasteries, many of the old temples had fallen into complete disrepair. From the 1870s through till the 1930s, French colonial initiatives sought to document, repair, and conserve the old temples. The French explorer and antiquarian Louis Delaporte (1842-1925) was one of the most influential voices calling for the study and conservation of Angkor and its treasures. These early expeditions formed the museum collections for several prominent institutions, including the National Museum of Cambodia, and the Musée Guimet in Paris.
As in Vietnam, the French began art colleges and schools for Cambodian children, teaching them the French language, Western history and philosophy, and Western art practices. Oil paiting, watercolor, charcoal sketching, architectural drafting on grids, and hard-stone carving were introduced to Cambodia by French teachers in the early 20th century.
Though the French stripped the Khmer monarchy of most of its real power, the colonial government encouraged the Khmers to continue monarchal traditions, including the patronage of Buddhist temples, the conservation of wooden palace buildings, the creation of art, and the establishment of a Royal School for Khmer traditional dance and music. French art historians, anthropologists, and archeologists kept extensive logs about Khmer artistic and religious traditions, including books full of photographs. These early books form the basis of what is now known about Khmer art history. Though the removal of artifacts from Cambodia for museum collections and university study is considered by some to be a ransacking of Cambodia’s cultural heritage, the removal of these items also saved them from destruction during the tumultuous conflicts of the 20th century.
The artistic traditions of Cambodia ceased to exist in the 1970s during the era of Khmer Rouge control. The communist Khmer Rouge was fervently opposed to anything that might have been influenced by the colonial government or the “old regimes” and thus many artists were persecuted and killed. Some artists were able to flee the country with their lives, and others were able to survive the Khmer Rouge period in hiding. The Khmer Rouge also destroyed objects that they felt were symbols of the “old regime” and of religion, and thus many temples and museums were ransacked and destroyed. Some of the temples in Angkor and in the northern part of Cambodia were used by Khmer Rouge soldiers as target practice. Many temples were looted by soldiers and vandals, and the pieces sold to collectors in Asia and the West through smuggling in China, Vietnam, and Thailand. Some temples and large artworks were damaged or destroyed in the wake of nearby explosions. This especially is the case with northern temples in the jungles, where several ancient temples have been damaged from nearby landmines and shrapnel.
Though the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror has been over for nearly two decades, looting, vandalism, and landmine damage is still a large problem in Cambodia. Some temples have lost 90% of their original statuary to looters, who then sell the broken statues to private collectors. This practice is illegal and condemned by the Cambodian government, the United Nations, and the government of the United States. The Cambodian people, fiercely proud of their artistic traditions, have begun to fight back against the looting of Khmer cultural treasures. Today, Cambodia is the only country in the world to have a relic as the national symbol on their flag, just one example of the importance of Angkor in Cambodian life.
Today, Cambodia is a nation reclaiming its culture and history. New artists are exploring what it means to be Khmer in a quickly internationalizing world. Khmer traditions, such as temple architecture, Buddhist statuary, stone inscribing, wood carving, and apsara-inspired courtly dance are all making a comeback. Contemporary artists are also producing cultural treasures through new artistic mediums, including oil and acrylic painting, photography, technologically-inspired media artworks, and the working of new materials such as steel, plastic, and fiberglass. Cambodian art is now experience an important renaissance and a lively tradition: from historical preservation to a new popular culture. Despite long years of struggle, conflict and controversy, Cambodia is well on its way to the formation of a new and successful cultural era.
An excellent article about the colonial influence and museum collecting in the 20th century:
An excellent searchable site about contemporary Cambodian artists: