Lisa Ackerman (l) of the World Monuments Fund points at one of the four new statues while WMF senior architect Cheam Phally (centre) looks on. Photograph: Luke Hunt
When French archaeologists began their first digs around the temple ruins of Angkor Wat in the early 20th century, few would have appreciated the magnitude of what lay ahead.
One thousand-square kilometres of jungle was cleared along with the knee-deep pigeon droppings that had eaten away at the motifs and apsaras, or celestial nymphs, while the rain-sodden bas reliefs had become unstuck from the foundation walls.
As part of the restoration process, thousands of stones were dismantled, given a number and eventually reassembled along with half-baked attempts to fix broken statues with cement and building concrete replicas based on foreign interpretations.
Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, insists each generation of archaeologists did their best with the tools and materials of the day, but many had not understood the technology used by the Khmers of antiquity.
With that in mind, the New York-based WMF has pulled out all the stops for the production of four statues, the first of their type in perhaps 800 years, which will adorn the roof top of the East Gallery, home to the Sea of the Churning Milk – a bas relief of battling gods and demons symbolising immortality.
Each carving stands little more than 30 centimetres tall, each with an apsara – a traditional Khmer symbol – at the centre surrounded by a lotus, and each with its own personality.
“This would have been unthinkable 20 years ago,” Ackerman said. “To have this done 20 years ago would have risked accusations of trying to falsify what this was like all those centuries ago.”
Nineteen fragments were collected from the statues that originally sat atop the gallery. Scientists determined the original stone contained a high clay content, making it heavy when wet. Fresh grey-blue sandstone was dug from nearby Bangmealea, a quarry similar to those used in Angkorian times.
From the fragments and composition, architects could determine grooves were cut for drainage. A remit was written commissioning four statues with a different look and of varying detail, and Sasha Constable, a British artist who has lived near Angkor Wat for a decade, was commissioned to oversee the project.
“Carving these sculptures meant I tried to imagine what it was like for the carvers of ancient Angkorian times. Every sculpture has its own individual life,” she said. “Hopefully, they will blend in to the original structure and complement their surroundings.”
Hers was no simple task, however. The fragments came from only the lower half of the original statues, and Constable spent many additional hours ploughing through records kept at the Conservation D’Angkor in Siem Reap, which were photographed and used with line drawings from the 1960s, to gain a better understanding of the original designs.
Once placed, the statues will be positioned with the setting sun as a backdrop illuminating the centre and casting an enormous silhouette across the grounds of the gallery from where King Suryavarman II and his heirs presided over their kingdom.
Ackerman stressed the idea was not simply to fill the holes left on top of the roof with cheap copies, but to produce original carvings befitting of Khmer antiquity.
“The current work is an extraordinary example of the mixture of research, artistic inspiration, and a contemporary desire to help visitors understand the grandeur that greeted Khmer people centuries ago,” she said, adding the bas relief of the East Gallery remains a sacred place.
To this day, Khmer culture venerates the Sea of the Churning Milk; the motifs surrounded apsaras ascending to the heavens as the gods struggle over a naga snake with their demons. It’s that battle which creates the churning of the milk and the myth of creation.
Interpretations of the struggle can be found depicted in artwork of ordinary Khmer homes, and these fundamental Hindu beliefs remain a foundation within Cambodia’s Buddhist culture.
It was for these reasons the APSARA Authority, charged with governing Angkor Wat, was receptive to the carvings, although final approval is pending. The statues were unveiled last week at a meeting of the International Co-ordinating Committee, comprising archaeologists and architects whose focus is Angkor Wat.
Working with Constable was local sculptor Chhay Saron, a 53-year-old father of three and former soldier who lost a leg to a land-mine. He spent the late 1980s in refugee camps along the Thai border, where he was taught sculpting, and now focuses on fusing Khmer traditional art with Western Christianity.
He said life as a soldier was cruel and hard. But when asked about the prospect of being the first Khmer sculptor in centuries to contribute authentic original artwork to Angkor Wat, Chhay Saron’s face lights up.
“It was because of the war I lost my leg; it was because of that I learned to carve,” he said in broken English. “I prefer apsaras; they are the perfect woman.”
Several of Chhay Saron’s works have been received by the Vatican, while the Catholic Church in Spain has sent steady orders for statues of the Virgin Mary, enough for him to build his own team of more than 10 artists and assistants.
“I have admired his work carving in wood and stone, so I thought it would be the perfect partnership for tackling this project,” Constable said. “With his experience and training in carving traditional Khmer motifs, he was brilliant at re-creating what we thought would be on the sculptures.”
Whether the four statues will gain public acceptance is yet to be determined, and guessing how Suryavarman II or Jayavarman II – the Hindu monarch who founded the Khmer empire in the year AD 802 – would react from their heavenly abodes is a bit tricky. But Constable is optimistic.
“Hopefully the last kings of Angkor would have appreciated the apsara dancing sculptures and given the artisans who worked on the project a day off to celebrate their contribution!”
To contact the reporter on this story: Luke Hunt at [email protected]