FLORIDA-based researcher, publisher and robot manufacturer Kent Davis is rapidly gaining an international reputation as the sleuth of Siem Reap, a new age detective delving into what he sees as one of the greatest mysteries of ancient Angkor Wat – the 1780 images of anonymous and mostly bare-breasted women depicted in carvings throughout the iconic structure.
Commonly known as apsaras (or, as Davis prefers, devatas), these female images were mostly accorded little significance.
But Davis, a former resident of Siem Reap and a regular visitor to Temple Town, is sure he’s onto something. He’s sure that these women represent something decidedly significant, but he’s not quite sure what.
Who are they, he asks, and why are there so many of them depicted throughout the great Khmer temple, not to mention other temples in the Angkorian complex?
Davis is now bristling with excitement because he has science on his side, and he’s certain that soon some answers will be revealed.
Davis himself is somewhat of a mystery man and his various recent biographies reveal little about his earlier life.
But on his LinkedIn profile he simply lists his education as “Maharishi University of Management 1974-1978”.
The profile also says that in May 2009 he became an executive board member of Heritage Watch International and that in 1979 he founded RoboMedia Inc, which “has used high visibility robot celebrities to market products and services. The ‘Electronic Personalities’ robots have fascinated Europeans and North Americans with tens of thousands of live performances”.
But the bio that Davis gave 7Days dealt only with his Cambodian period. In 2005, he began travelling to the Kingdom with his Thai wife Sophaphan Laothai, who he describes as “the Thai Martha Stewart”.
In 2007 the duo funded the construction of Srei Devata Middle School in Baray, Kompong Thom, through American Assistance for Cambodia.
Shortly after, Davis established DatAsia Press to publish significant literary, academic and educational works relating to Southeast Asian
and Khmer history.
The company also publishes a specialised “life skills” curricula for elementary school children called The Million Dollar Machine.
The vigorous little publishing house has released three interesting Angkor-related books: Dr Paul Cravath’s Earth in Flower: Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama; Helen Churchill Candee’s Angkor the Magnificent: Wonder City of Ancient Cambodia;
and a newly completed expanded edition of George Groslier’s 1913 book, Cambodian Dancers Ancient and Modern, featuring the first printed biography of the author.
Davis also set up Devata.org to study the “goddess” images at Angkor Wat to determine the historical role of Khmer women, and later this year will publish a book on this topic titled, Daughters of Angkor Wat.
Davis said the primary objective of his work “is completing a quantitative database of every woman honoured at Angkor Wat by tracking 65 characteristics for each carving. This will enable, for the first time in modern history, mathematical trait analysis among the entire complex population”.
To this end, in 2008 Davis initiated a cooperative facial pattern recognition study with Dr Anil Jain and his team at Michigan State University’s Department of Computer Science and Engineering.
Last week Davis issued a press release announcing that initial findings will be revealed by the MSU team on August 22 during the International
Conference on Pattern Recognition in Istanbul, Turkey.
Davis hails this as “the release of the world’s first scientific study of the devata, titled Clustering Face Carvings: Exploring the Devata of Angkor Wat”.
In Davis’s press release, he says, “Scientists at this year’s International Conference on Pattern Recognition will be considering one particularly captivating mystery: Who are the beautiful women portrayed in the 12th century temple of Angkor Wat?
“Angkor Wat contains the most extraordinary ancient portrait gallery in the world, and every subject honoured is a woman.”
Davis wraps up the release by saying, “Ultimately, this objective comparison tool could enhance anthropological, sociological and historical understanding of this and other ancient civilisations. With this new study, the ignored ancient women of Angkor Wat are one step closer
to claiming their royal status in world history.”
But not all archaeologists share Davis’s enthusiasm for the theory.
In February 2009, the Phnom Penh Post featured a news story about the involvement of Michigan State University in Davis’s research and few days later the Southeast Asian Archaeology Newsblog, responding to the Post’s article, carried an item saying, “His theory is that because of the thousands of apsara images that adorn the walls of the temples, Angkor was built to glorify women. Does it sound like a Da-Vinci-Code-sacred-feminine flavour transposed onto the Southeast Asian context to you?
“Of course, we should just ignore the architecture, the royal inscriptions and historical accounts that suggest that buildings of Angkor were temples
to Khmer gods.”
This sparked a spirited thread of comments from readers including a comment from someone called Nemi who said Davis’s theory was a “little bit like saying that the Playboy mansion is a tribute to women”.
Davis, of course, weighed in with a 2150-word defence of this theory.
And really, who can knock him? He’s a fascinating man with a fascinating theory, and whether he can prove it is open to question. But he’s touched on an aspect of the temples which, to date, has been mostly overlooked, and he’s at least created an interesting debate.
He may be wrong, but then again, he may be right.