Once the target of widespread destruction by the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia's oldest
remaining wat paintings are now being threatened by renovation, repainting and
A six-year study of some 600 far-flung rural pagodas, recently
completed by archeologist San Phalla, has found that the massive murals are
vanishing at an alarming rate. Now, researchers, Buddhist scholars and
government officials are rushing to stop the beautiful and quintessentially
Cambodian artwork, from fading into history.
"Monks in some of the older
wats don't like the old paintings and want to change them for new ones," said
Phalla. "Sometimes I go back to pagodas where I've been a few months before and
the paintings are already gone, painted over or the whole building's been torn
Phalla, 30, who has now taken more than 20,000 photographs of wat
paintings since 2001, said the "historical" paintings he studied averaged about
80 years of age. Although none were older than 100 years old, the works are made
vulnerable by their composition: mostly non-chemical paint brushed on stucco,
concrete and wood. Many have been subjected to the elements for
"What made me more interested in the subject is that it must be
studied fast or the history and stories will be lost," he told the Post. "Monks
don't know how to maintain them, and many are already gone. The pagoda buildings
need to be repaired and technical experts need to be called in with the ability
to preserve them. Right now there is no money to protect them."
Phoeunrn, secretary of state of Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts (MFAC), said
laws should passed to protect the oldest paintings.
"These paintings are
part of Cambodian heritage, but we don't have a law yet to protect them as
national treasures. Soon, the ministry will research the pagodas and classify
the age of the paintings. If it is older than 100 years we will classify them as
national heritage that needs to be preserved," Phoeunrn said. "But right now, we
don't have the law, and the young monks, who'd love to have a modern temple, are
destroying the old ones."
According to Phoeunrn, the MFAC plans to
monitor the preservation of older wats and will require permission for
"If we don't help preserve these paintings they will be
destroyed. Some of these paintings are invaluable because of their age," said
Miech Ponn, adviser to the Council of Khmer Culture at the Buddhist Institute,
on May 14. "I think that each painting has potential to educate the young
generation about the past."
The tradition of wat painting goes back to
the 14th Century, when Cambodia adopted Buddhism as its national religion. At
the time, the bas-reliefs characteristic of Hindusim were abandoned for murals,
many of which were multi-colored and many meters square. Phalla, now pursuing a
postgraduate degree in Asian culture in Thailand, estimates the tradition of
frequently repainting the images may have started at the same time.
"Even in wats that are 200 to 300 years old the paintings are much
newer, most of the older ones are from the last 30 years since the time of Pol
Pot," he said.
Historians agree that under the leadership of Pol Pot,
the Khmer Rouge enacted a methodical destruction of the Buddhist religion and
its vestiges. According to one account, of the 80,000 Cambodian monks, 50,000
were murdered between 1975 and 1979.
"The unique character of Cambodian
Buddhism is that it has been rebuilding itself from the ground up after being
completely razed during the Khmer Rouge period," wrote Stephen Asma, professor
of philosophy at the University of Chicago, and former visiting professor at the
Buddhist Institute in 2003, in an e-mail. "It is also unique for the historical
blending of Buddhist dharma with indigenous folk culture. Khmer Buddhism is
infused with ancient ideas of animism, like the Neak Ta spirits and this blend
can be seen in the paintings of many wats."
Like other religious artwork,
the murals are boldly colored, didactic and diverse. They range widely from the
saccharine to the psychedelic: a syncretic tableau of allegories and folklore
where world leaders can rub shoulders with community leaders and religious
According to Phalla, most paintings feature an image of the
Buddha, often of his life prior to entering Nirvana, or his previous ten births,
known as Jataka. Others are scenes from the Reamker, the Khmer version of the
"Wat Painting in Cambodia," a book detailing the findings of
Phalla's field research will be launched at an exhibition on May 18 at the Reyum
Institute in Phnom Penh.