Angkor in Singapore

Singapore’s Asian Civilizations Museum is hosting an exhibit called “Angkor: Exploring Cambodia’s Sacred City,” which looks at the Khmer temples in and around Angkor Wat and the ways that French explorers brought those complexes to light in the nineteenth century. When you walk in, you are greeted by this guardian lion (who looks like he is high-fiving you):


The exhibit starts in the early 1870s, soon after a young French naturalist and explorer, Henri Mouhout, published the first-ever European observations on Angkor Wat. The man who truly made Angkor famous was Louis Delaporte, a naval officer and artist who made three trips to Cambodia. His thousands of prints and drawings brought the temples alive for Europeans who had never seen anything like them.


Delaporte spruced things up for his viewing public. Here is his rendering of the central tower of Angkor Wat …


… and here is a view of the same tower — here, crumbling and sprouting prodigious plant life — in a photograph made at the same time by Emile Gsell:


While Delaporte created many accurate architectural renderings, he also filled in gaps and added extra details from his imagination. Here, he painted a fictional moat around and a central tower standing tall over the now-famous Terrace of the Elephants:


For comparison, this is how the elephant wall looked when my sister and I visited last January:


Delaporte liked adding moats to his pictures of the temples. He also threw in other imaginary touches like elephants, people boating with parasols, and — in this case — a helpful “native”:


Delaporte appears to have been fascinated by the mysterious “face towers” of the Bayon complex:


But Delaporte again took liberties with reality: he added a false wall at the front of the temple, more complete faces, and extra trees for framing purposes. In reality, the Bayon temple looks like this:


Europeans of the nineteenth century also learned about the Angkor temples from plaster casts, a lighter, cheaper, and less invasive way of bringing elements of the temples home to France than lifting them wholesale. Here is a plaster cast of a bas relief depicting the death of Valin, the monkey king:


And this is a plaster cast of Ravana the demon king, who is about to be trapped beneath a mountain (his punishment for having tried to move the mountain, the home of Lord Shiva, in the first place):


By the late 1800s, the French had developed a romantic obsession with Angkor Wat. They opened a Khmer Museum, advertised with this depiction in Le Monde:


They also recreated parts of the Angor temples wholesale at three different Parisian expositions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. And while Angkor enthusiasts did a brisk business in plaster cast creation, they also brought whole Khmer sculptures over to France. This is Delaporte’s painting of a naga (serpent deity) balustrade and demon king, an enormous statue that was discovered in pieces in Cambodia and then shipped to France. Delaporte drew it like as a montage so he could remember how the pieces fit together:


The Khmer were master sculptors, and this exhibit offers a chance to see a wide range of pieces. Over the ages, Angkor Wat served as both a Hindu and a Buddhist temple, so the religious imagery is expansive. Buddha is represented many times over, from this 7th-century Avalokiteshvara …


… to this 12th-century Buddha sitting on a naga


… to this 12th-century Lokeshvara, the “Lord of the World”:


Lokeshvara’s body is covered in tiny Buddhas, a concept that scholars think is derived from a text that says that every pore of Lokeshvara’s skin contains a complete world.


There are goddesses, too, such as this Buddhist deity …


… and this apsara, a female dancer and guardian of Hindu origin:


Shiva and Vishnu are also well-represented in Cambodian statuary. Here is Vishnu writ large in his horse avatar …


… and here he is represented 255 times on each side of a votive stele:

IMG_0701IMG_0698.jpgFor reasons entirely unclear to me, the exhibit ends with a screen where you can take a silhouette picture:


You can also build your own Angkor face tower!


I happened to visit the museum on “Angkor Encore” day, part of a weekend of special performances and demonstrations. These leather carvers were hard at work in the lobby …


… making creations ranging from small animals to religious icons …


… to shadow puppets:


I’ve never seen Cambodian dance or music before, so this was fascinating …

… especially when the monkeys took the stage:

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