Article by Kent Davis – Devata.org
PARIS, FRANCE – The majestic temple of Angkor Wat is an icon of the medieval Khmer civilization that once flourished in Southeast Asia. But situated 110 kilometers northwest of the well-known Angkor group, experts believe another fabulous monument also holds vital clues to the mysteries of the Khmer Empire. At the behest of the Global Heritage Fund, experts recently gathered at the Guimet Museum to insure the future of Banteay Chhmar temple.
Banteay Chhmar, also called the Citadel of the Cats, lies hidden in a remote corner of Cambodia, shielded by the Dangrek Mountains to the north. Its isolated location is exactly why archaeologists and conservators are so enthusiastic about the site. In the 800 years since it was built, Banteay Chhmar has slowly collapsed, falling victim to ancient trees, invasive jungle foliage and modern looters.
But archaeologists know that the structural collapse has preserved many artistic elements, much like a time capsule. Banteay Chhmar temple remains the least-damaged repository of art commissioned by the Khmer Empire’s last great king, Jayavarman VII, who converted Cambodia to Buddhism, which remains the national religion today.
Conserving Cambodian History at Banteay Chhmar Temple
In 2007, the Global Heritage Fund (GHF) recognized the critical need for conservation, planning and protection at Banteay Chhmar. Working with Cambodian officials, GHF initiated a conservation project at the temple. British architect John Sanday, GHF’s Director for Asia and Pacific Programs, moved to the site to personally direct the work, and to oversee training for professional team of Khmer conservators to restore their nation’s priceless heritage.
The Cambodian government and conservation groups actively support GHF’s conservation efforts. Governor Oung Oeung of Banteay Meanchey Province and Director General Ok Sophon, Department of Heritage, Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MoCFA) recently hosted the second international Banteay Chhmar conference at the site, attracting nearly 200 participants.
In addition to GHF’s work stabilizing and preserving the temple structure, two other groups are working with local residents to promote social programs; Cambodia Community Based Eco-Tourism Network promotes eco-tourism, while Heritage Watch International implements heritage education programs for visitors, guides and local residents.
GHF Conference at Musée Guimet Rallies Support for Heritage Conservation
On November 30th, 2010 the Global Heritage Fund organized a special meeting at the Guimet Museum, which preserves one of the most extraordinary collections of Khmer art in the world.
Following a traditional dance blessing by member of the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, a group of distinguished speakers discussed the importance of saving global heritage for future generations. Presenters included Cambodian Ambassador to France, H.E. Mr. Uch Kiman; the U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO David Killion, and Jacques Gies, President of the Musée Guimet, who just had returned from Cambodia.
John Sanday presented his ongoing work restoring Banteay Chhmar with professional team of Khmer conservators. Banteay Chhnar is the first temple conservation project in Cambodia to be led by a Khmer team of professionals training their fellow Khmers. Mr. Sanday also described how local communities are essential to the site’s protection and development to ensure long-term success for the project.
Dr. Peter Sharrock from University of London SOAS presented intriguing research on the unique Khmer art and iconography of Banteay Chhmar that the GHF project is now revealing to the world. (more info below)
UNESCO Recognition – The Next Key Step for Banteay Chhmar Temple
In 1992, UNESCO has recognized the 400 sq. km. Angkor area as one of the world’s most important archaeological sites.
The vast site of Banteay Chhmar is now among Cambodia’s top-listed sites for nomination to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This little-know and rarely visited area contains one of the great architectural masterpieces of Southeast Asia, and its main temple is one of the culminating monuments of the Khmer Kingdom’s epic Angkorian Period.
Suffering from 800 years of neglect, the towers, chambers and intricate bas relief carvings of the temple have slowly collapsed to the encroaching jungle, as well as suffering from aggressive looters. Banteay Chhmar is in critical need of a master plan, pro-active conservation and increased protection, which is the exact mission government and non-profit agencies now pursue.
Exploring the History and Mystery of Banteay Chhmar
Always remote, Banteay Chhmar has attracted explorers for more than a century. Etienne Aymonier first visited the site around 1883 followed by Lunet de Lajonquière around 1903. According to French archaeologist George Groslier,
“both noted that of all the Khmer monuments that they had explored Banteay Chhmar was the most ruined, the largest, the most chaotic…and the most indecipherable.”
On January 9, 1914, Groslier returned to the site to make a detailed survey, where he wrote:
“It took me ten days of uninterrupted work, from dawn to dusk, to survey Banteay Chhmar. No other temple in Cambodia is so vast or lies in such ruin…nowhere else have I felt such deep emotion studying the stones on site and re-erecting them one by one on paper.”
Groslier continued documenting the site, with the first major article for the public appearing in French in 1937 (click for George Groslier’s Banteay Chhmar article in English).
Professor Sharrock of SOAS now notes that the consecration of Banteay Chhmar dates to 1216 CE. Sharrock, a specialist in the religious transformation under the reign of the last great Khmer King Jayavarman VII, sees this unrestored temple as perhaps the greatest and least-damaged repository of Buddhist iconography from that era. His hope is that it will tell scholars even more about the Khmer than the state temple of the Bayon, which is in the Angkor group.
According Sharrock, images at Banteay Chhmar contain strong evidence for a cult of the supreme tantric Buddhist deity Hevajra, with significant participation by female practitioners, women known as Yoginis. According to Sharrock’s research, Hevajra cults were widespread at the time, reaching their peak in what is now China in 1260 CE with the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan’s consecration to Hevajra. Jayavarman VII’s devotion to Hevajra was therefore not unusual, but it does reveal the extent that this new religion influenced Southeast Asian beliefs.
Meanwhile, the iconography in the central sanctuary of Banteay Chhmar suggests that Vajrasattva and Herukas may have been at the core of this royal tantric cult. A frieze on one of the temple’s characteristic face towers may portraying the whole body of the crowned 4-faced deity sitting in the face-towers themselves.
Restoring an Architectural Wonder
GHF has also employed the talents of French architect Dr. Olivier Cunin in creating 3-D archaeological reconstructions of the Banteay Chhmar complex. Cunin collaborated with Japanese photographer Baku Saito in 2005 to issue “The Face Towers of Banteay Chmar”, documenting this extraordinary temple.
The Banteay Chhmar site is now open to visitors. Interested travelers can also support the non-profit Global Heritage Fund, Cambodia Community Based Eco-Tourism Network, and Heritage Watch International with tax deductible contributions.