This talk will examine the reclining Buddha and Vishnu figures sculpted into the landscape of Angkor’s Kulen Mountains as embodying a site-specific re-birthing of the world.
Perched over the Angkor Plain, the Kulen are the site of the ritual foundation of the Angkorian empire in the early 9th century, a foundation repeatedly reactivated in permanent and ephemeral forms across a vast expanse of time and space. They comprise the watershed of the plain on which the Angkorian capital was centred from the 9th-14th centuries. In ancient as well as modern imaginations the Kulen are assimilated with the Himalayas, and the waters which flow from them onto the plain with the Ganges. A reclining Buddha appears like the summit of the mountain summit: Preah Ang Thom is a colossal figure sculpted into a massive boulder dominating the chaos as it is called in French – a rocky outcrop with jumbled rocks, and overlooking the forest canopy enveloping a powerful waterfall below. In iconographic terms, the Buddha is entering nirvana. Where flowing water has cut deep into the surface of the mountain, at Kbal Spean, generations of sculptors have left more marks: the stony riverbanks and bed are sculpted with a range of reliefs dominated by depictions of a reclining Vishnu and ‘thousands of lingas,’ as they are described in associated epigraphy. In iconographic terms, the Vishnu reliefs represent the god in cosmic sleep on the ocean of chaos. Vishnu’s consort Lakshmi sits beside him, massaging his legs. As Vishnu absorbs chaos a lotus grows out of his navel. In the blossoming lotus is Brahma who recreates the world.
The reclining figures literally emerging from the land raise questions of temporal progress, regress and egress, and of sexual difference in or at the origin, which can also be an end. With Vishnu’s creative act, time begins – again; in his final act, the Buddha escapes time. The mythological time rendered in stone gives shape to historical experience by which worlds come and go. Both Vishnu and Buddha are shown to be pregnant with potentiality. Our focus will be on post-Angkorian incursions into this space.
The talk is part of a book project entitled The Work of Buddhist Art: Reinventions of Angkor which has benefited from the generous support of the Robert N. Ho Foundation.
Ashley Thompson (BA Harvard, MA Université de Paris 3, PhD Université de Paris 8) is Hiram W Woodward Chair of Southeast Asian Art at SOAS University of London. Her research focuses on the classical and premodern arts and literatures of Southeast Asia, with a particular emphasis on Cambodia. Her most recent monograph is Engendering the Buddhist State: Territory, Sovereignty and Sexual Difference in the Inventions of Angkor (Routledge, Critical Buddhist Studies, 2016). She is editor of Early Theravādin Cambodia: Perspectives from Art and Archaeology (NUS Press, 2022) and co-editor of The Routledge Handbook of Theravāda Buddhism (2022).
Organised by Dr Stephen Whiteman (The Courtauld), Dr Austin Nevin (The Courtauld) and Professor Sussan Babaie (The Courtauld).
Organised in collaboration with the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation.
The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Centre for Buddhist Art and Conservation at The Courtauld was established by a generous endowment in 2012 from the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation.