The world of 1960 portrayed within the traditonal wat paintings of the Life of the Buddha: Prince Norodom Sihanouk, left, with Mao Tsetung behind him, and to his left, Sukarno, U Nu, Kruschchev, Nehru and Kennedy.
The remarkably lascivious representation of the three erotic daughters of Mara, the 'evil one', sent to entice the aspiring Buddha away from his search for Enlightenment. They represent craving, lust and passion.
Religion and politics always make for strange bedfellows, and a Buddhist temple in
Kampong Thom offers a striking example of how the two can be intertwined together
in ways that leave plenty of room for the imagination.
Speaking of the years 1955-1962 in his Tragedy of Cambodian History, David Chandler
uses the phrase "Sihanouk triumphant", a mood that seems amply illustrated
by the resplendent wall paintings of Wat Kampong Thom, an unassuming temple just
near the center of town.
These murals have survived the fierce fighting of the Second Indochinese War (1960-1975),
the Khmer Rouge regime of destruction (1975-1979) and almost 20 years of civil war
that followed its downfall.
Ironically, after such a remarkable display of endurance, they are now in dire danger
of being washed away by a damaged roof leaking in many places.
More than four decades ago, two skilful painters, Tep Thúun and Sy Nat, covered the
walls of this spacious 1960-1 temple with traditional scenes from the life of the
Buddha. In the back left corner, one finds the typical scene depicting the Buddha's
death and complete enlightenment (parinirvana); and in the centre spot, his cremation
What makes this pagoda most unusual is its depiction of the Buddha's funeral retinue,
with the presence of an excellent likeness of Prince Norodom Sihanouk surrounded
by six world leaders from the four corners of the globe.
At the time of this painting, Sihanouk was both Head of State, due to the recent
death of his father King Suramarit, and head of the government. It looks as if the
traditional cremation ceremony of Lord Buddha has been turned into a hymn to triumphant
Sihanoukism at the time of the apogee of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era.
Many guests at the cremation ceremony are carrying flowers. Could this painting also
represent a memorial to the memory of King Suramarit, who died on April 3, 1960,
thus explaining the presence of many foreign statesmen?
Six international politicians can be identified, expressing the ideology of neutralism
developed in the wake of the 1955 Bandung Conference of non-aligned Afro-Asian countries.
There does not seem to be much logic in their selection, although they represent
the three political blocs: East, West and the emerging Third World.
The most shadowy figure is that of Prime Minister U Nu from Burma who, after dominating
Burmese politics throughout the 1950s, was about to be replaced by a military junta
headed by General Ne Win. U Nu was a devout Buddhist who, in 1947, had been absent
from the Assembly when General Aung San (the father of Aung San Suu Kyi) and most
of his ministers were murdered en masse after independence from Britain had just
been agreed upon.
Also curious is the appearance of US President John F Kennedy, clearly representing
the West, and not French General Charles De Gaulle, a leader much admired by the
Prince since his first visit to the great man in 1948 at Colombey-les-deux-Églises
where De Gaulle had retired after losing office.
Sihanouk, as the young Prince Siddhartha (the earlier name of the Buddha), who must prove his strength in archery and sword-fighting. The officer who presents him with the sword wears a French képi, as does another sitting behind a smiling royal - his mother? The portraits of the donors are Mr and Madame Chhúurng åur, who also appear in the Royal wedding ceremony.
Bearing fans at the end of poles.
Kennedy never came to Cambodia and relations with the United States were gradually
turning sour at the time. This was ameliorated by his flamboyant widow Jacqueline
Kennedy. She was received with great pomp in 1967 as Sihanouk contemplated re-establishing
diplomatic relationships cut with the United States in early 1965.
Khruschchev, in a conspicuous white suit, represents the Communist bloc. Sihanouk
was present at the United Nations General Assembly session during the memorable scene
of the Soviet leader removing his shoe and banging it on his desk during his speech
to a nonplussed audience. It was on this occasion, too, that Khruschchev invited
Sihanouk for a state visit to Moscow with Princess Monique (Monineath), whose serene
beauty impressed him. So Khruschchev must have been much talked about at the time
in Cambodia, just as the newly elected dashing young American president was.
Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Indonesian President Sukarno represent
the Non-Aligned Bandung movement, while Chinese Chairman Mao Tse-tung, situated just
behind the Prince on the mural, is a case apart. Sukarno became a special friend
of Sihanouk at Bandung, where they met for the first time. He would visit Cambodia
no fewer than five times from 1959 to 1965. Sihanouk, who was amused by Sukarno's
"life of a Pasha" which resembled that of "a Javanese king",
reciprocated Sukarno's state visits since they shared an "anti-imperialist"
approach to international politics.
Nehru is a more special case. He was the major intellectual source of "neutralism",
what was referred to in India as panchasila: the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence,
including respect for territorial integrity and national sovereignty, non-aggression,
mutual non-interference, mutual benefits, and peaceful co-existence. These principles
were presented by the five members of the so-called Colombo group (India, Indonesia,
Burma, Pakistan and Sri Lanka), three of whose leaders are present in this specific
wall painting. Nehru had visited Cambodia in 1954, before Bandung, and Sihanouk reciprocated
the visit. The Prince considered the Indian leader his guru, having been initiated
by him to the virtues of neutrality, or as "an older brother from whom I had
much to learn".
We note the absence of Chou En-lai, De Gaulle and Tito, three leaders who counted
much at the time for Sihanouk. This shows the selection of personalities may have
perhaps depended more on the availability of photographs rather than precedence in
the Prince's political firmament.
To top it off, if one looks closely at the right side of the funeral pyre, from which
a sliver of smoke is rising, a monk is bending with joined hands over the feet of
the Buddha sticking out of the coffin. This odd legendary scene is often represented
in pagoda paintings outside Phnom Penh.
Is Mao in the background because he is the last to arrive; and without his presence
it was impossible to cremate the entire body? It would be ironic if this pictorial
element was a reference to a story in which Ananda, the faithful chief servant of
the Buddha in his later years, goes to China to fetch a monk named Kashyapa, who
wants to learn the Dharma. The body of the Buddha refuses to burn until Kashyapa
arrives; only then do the Buddha's feet appear from the coffin, making it possible
for the cremation to occur.1
Although these are speculations, it is worth noting that Mao, looking in the distance,
is not given front-row privilege. Are his eyes turned to the world beyond, that of
his own private utopia? Sihanouk was first invited to meet the ultimate leader of
Revolution in Peking in 1956, in the wake of Bandung where he was lionised by Chou
En-lai. If the Prince was flattered by the attentions he received from the Great
Helmsman of the most populous country in the world, he could also see through the
bonhomie of one who could pass for a "hearty village chief", he claimed:
One of two smaller and more recent paintings hidden behind the statues of Buddha. This depicts the horrors of the Pol Pot regime.
Later, he was to wholeheartedly support the Pol Pot regime. Blind to its excesses,
he saw it only as the classical proletarian revolution he had dreamed of personally
spearheading all his life. Goal-oriented, he was oblivious to the Khmer Rouge's cruel
extremism and coldly indifferent to the human casualties it perpetrated.2
On the same wall, in the third panel to the right, we have one more excellent portrait
of the then Prince-Head of State carrying away an urn in which he has rescued relics
of the Buddha from a dramatic melee of worshippers in ancient Indian attire. He is
followed by a beautiful lady one is tempted to identify as the young, future Queen
Monineath, watched over by an aide-de-camp. He is a good likeness of Commandant Kaem
Van, who came from Kampong Speu. He was a very serious and benign officer who was
killed in 1970, during the early stages of the civil war3. He was second-in-command
after the chief aide-de-camp, Bour Hol, a member of the royal family. The third aide-de-camp
was Pouv Yet, who fell into a Khmer Rouge ambush at Kien Svay in 1972. He had accompanied
the Prince to Hanoi to attend the funeral of Ho Chi Minh in 1969.
There is not the usual Chinese devotee among the crowd, but, surprisingly, a black
Senegalese in his white topee, just behind the Prince.
In the numerous scenes depicting the life of the Buddha at Wat Kampong Thom, there
are a few more surprising details. In the traditional scene of the archery and fencing
contest, when the young Prince Siddhartha (the earlier name of the Buddha) must prove
his strength before being married by his father to Yasodhara, the officer who presents
him with the sword wears a French képi. And so does the gentleman sitting
behind a smiling royal - his mother? As to the very realistic portraits of the donors,
they are identified as Mr and Madame Chhúurng åur, the Changvang Sala Dambong or
president of the Kampong Thom tribunal at the time and his wife. They oddly also
appear in the next painting of the wedding ceremony as bearing ceremonial fans at
the end of poles. This is reminiscent of Renaissance paintings in Europe, in which
the donors were represented as worshippers of the Virgin Mary or other saints.
Prince Sihanouk carries away an urn in which he has rescued relics of the Buddha from a melee of worshippers in ancient Indian attire. He is followed by a beautiful lady one is tempted to identify as the young, future Queen Monineath, watched over by an aide-de-camp, Commandant Kaem Va.
We can end this short description by a look at the "Temptation by Mara's Daughters"
with its stark contrast between the remarkably lascivious representation of the three
young ladies and the unperturbed serenity of Sakhyamuni. Mara is the "evil one"
who sends his three erotic daughters to entice the aspiring Buddha from his determination
to achieve Enlightenment. They represent the three barriers to his achievement -
Tanha (craving), Rati (lust) and Raga (passion) - and are usually shown dancing in
front of the impervious Sakhyamuni.4
The lavish paintings of Wat Kampong Thom, which are in the process of tragically
disappearing, teach the visitor about the life and virtues of Lord Buddha and the
moral lessons of his ten previous existences. Remarkably, they also teach us about
Cambodian history of the past 50 years. Apart from the striking references to Sangkum
days, one can find two smaller and more recent paintings hidden behind the statues
of Buddha. These depict the horrors of the Pol Pot regime, contrasted with the glee
and serenity of the Heng Samrin era.
1. Ray Zepp, Field Guide to Cambodian Pagodas, Bert's Books, p30, undated.
2. Norodom Sihanouk with Bernard Krisher, Sihanouk Reminisces, p111.
3. I am grateful to Mr Oy y, who used to be an aide-de-camp to the Prince in the
late Sixties, for this identification.
4. See Zepp, p18.