National Museum in Phnom Penh


Material: Bronze
Dimensions: H: 122 cm W: 222 cm D: 72.5 cm
Date: Second half of the XIth century
Provenance: West Mebon, Angkor (Siem Reap)
Collection: National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
E:1230 E/1: 30.18 Ga.5387

Born in France to Cambodian parents, I have visited my ancestral homeland four times. My first visit was in 2009, when unemployment gave me some time to discover my roots. On each occasion, I paid a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh. My July 2014 trip was no exception, with the difference that and I brought my dad there, for whom it was the first trip back to Cambodia in 35 years!

The museum has an exceptional collection, although the building itself is noticeably run down. It was certainly nothing compared to the modern and explanation-rich Patan museum in Nepal, which is also devoted to Hinduism and Buddhism. But the National Museum of Cambodia makes up for it with its beautiful courtyard with a delightful jasmine scent (note that you are expected to give a donation when accepting jasmine flowers), and more importantly a solid collection of Khmer artworks. It’s a must-see complement to a visit to Siem Reap, as some artifacts at the Angkor temples are copies. Photographs of the temples of Angkor temples by Mc Dermott provide a picturesque backdrop to the collection.

The National Museum covers both the Angkorian (800-1400AD) and pre-Angkorian periods. Both Buddhist and Hindu divinities were represented during the pre-Angkor period, in particular Vishnu and Shiva. Khmer artists later broke away from Indian stylistic influences. Supporting arches were introduced, allowing heavier figures, and sculptures developed distinctive Khmer features – round faces, broad brows, and fuller lips. The Angkor period culminated in the Angkor Wat style, featuring figures adorned with ornate belts and jeweled necklaces and bracelets.

Hinduism was a key source of Khmer art. I struggle to keep track of all the the Hindu gods and deities, so I focus on “BVS”: Brahma, who created the world; Vishnu, who preserves it; and Shiva, who destroys it. Later, at the superb Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, I was reminded that Shiva destroyed demons, so his acts of destruction can be positive. In fact Shiva creates, destroys and preserves, and transforms sexual energy into spiritual energy. He is often represented by a linga, a phallic shape symbolising his power of creation. When not represented as a linga, he is depicted with his key attributes: trident, seed rosary, crescent moon, drum and water pot. Vishnu is typically depicted in Khmer and Asian art with his four symbolic attributes: mace, discus, conch shell and lotus. Brahma is rarely seen in Khmer art. I should stop here as it starts to get complicated: for instance Harihara is a hybrid deity combining Shiva and Vishnu, popular in the seventh century in Cambodia. I leave you with one more, my favorite: Ganesh. He is easily recognized elephant-headed god who removes obstacles and is therefore prayed to for success.

Buddhism was the other important source of Khmer art. In the Pre-Angkorian period, Buddha was typically represented with a cranial protuberance, short curly hair, and empty elongated earlobes, a sign of his rejection of heavy jewelry and earrings. Under the Bayon style (Angkor period, late 12th to early 13th centuries), Buddhism became especially influential, reflecting the religious preferences of King Jayavarman VII. In addition to Buddha, Lokeshvara, lord of compassion, was often represented. Cambodian King Jayavarman VII was often represented with closed eyes and meditating. You can also see his head at Musée Guimet. He reminds me of my father, maybe due to his calm features. We owe him the construction of Bayon and Ta Prohm, the temple invaded by tree roots.

The National Museum of Cambodia is located on Street 13 in central Phnom Penh, next to the Royal Palace and is open from 8.00am until 5.00pm daily.

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