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Keeping tabs on Buddha’s figure

Chan Sim is a small man with a long white beard. He wears square spectacles, which he perches on the end of his nose when he leafs through the handbook on statue design that he helped compile back in 2013.

Sim has just completed a particularly large order: 12 Buddhist statues commissioned by Prime Minister Hun Sen and submitted to the Ministry of Cults and Religion last month.

The statues all show the Buddha in different scenarios: reclining, protected by the seven-headed naga snake, meditating, the rotund “happy Buddha” associated with prosperity.

The most unusual sculpture is the Preah Ang Kvam: Buddha with four hands covering his face and ears.

“We rarely see him in shrine places like pagodas, but they use him in magic and for spiritual purposes to bring good luck,” explained Sim, who said the representation was traditionally most popular among soldiers.

Sim started working as a sculptor when he was only 14. Born in 1938, he has taught as a professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts and at other higher-education facilities both before and after the Khmer Rouge.

Both his children work with him on his statues, which is particularly important now that his sight is failing.

Sim has received awards and commissions from different ministries, and is happy that the government is working to maintain his traditional art.

The Preah Ang Kvam counts as one of the most unusual Buddha statues.
The Preah Ang Kvam counts as one of the most unusual Buddha statues. Scott Rotzoll

He is particularly concerned that the statues’ designs aren’t diluted by inaccurate imitations – a drive towards standardisation that the ministry appears to endorse.

“I have preserved the statues’ measurement documents since I started my job making sculptures,” he explains, adding approvingly that “the Ministry of Cults and Religion has collected all the information to make a book”.

“I think it is good that the ministry wants to have the right examples to show the Khmer people what proportions the statues should be,” he said.

Seng Someny, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Cults and Religion, said the 12 statues would be inaugurated as soon as Hun Sen could find time in his schedule to attend the ceremony.

Five-hundred copies of the book of designs that Sim spearheaded were donated to various institutions last year, and this year, 20,000 copies will be distributed to monks and ajas (laypeople), as well as to students who study Khmer motifs.

“We do hope that sculpture artists will use the right measurement of Buddha statue after we finalised the size in this book,” Someny said.

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