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Tracing the roots of Buddhism in Cambodia

A statue of a 13th-century seated Buddha at Tep Pranam, a terrace in Angkor Thom. Tun Puthpiseth
A statue of a 13th-century seated Buddha at Tep Pranam, a terrace in Angkor Thom. Tun Puthpiseth

Tracing the roots of Buddhism in Cambodia

Theravada Buddhism has been the dominant religion in Cambodia since the 13th century, but exactly how it arrived in the Kingdom remains a burning question for researchers like Dr Tun Puthpiseth. He is an art historian and archaeologist giving a public lecture on the subject at the French Institute on Tuesday night – the first in a series about Buddhism at the Institute throughout the year.

“At first we thought the connection to Theravada Buddhism was with Sri Lanka, but in fact, based on our research – and that of others – we did not find evidence, such as inscriptions or sculptures, that testifies to that connection with Sri Lanka,” Puthpiseth said last week.

It was a only a few years ago, at a symposium in London that united historians, art historians and archaeologists studying Theravada Buddhism, that a new consensus emerged around a possible link to what is now Myanmar, also known as Burma, among other theories.

“Why the link with Burma? Because we tried to make comparisons with sculpture and bas-reliefs, in Cambodia at Angkor and in Burma, and there was a link,” he said, adding that there was also an inscription found on the back of a cross-legged meditating Buddha statue at Angkor that is thought to show influence from Bagan.

“This is a piece of evidence that needs discussion. It takes time to verify if that’s really a link with Bagan, but we can say there’s no [direct] link with Sri Lanka,” he said.

Puthpiseth, who is the director of academic affairs at the Royal University of Fine Arts, has devoted years to researching Khmer Buddha statues and bas-reliefs. His doctoral thesis submitted to the Sorbonne examined 238 such artefacts from the 13th to the 16th centuries. His talk will also discuss the perceptible changes found in the artistry of Buddha statues.

“It’s not that it’s the same sculpture [as in Bagan] – we don’t really see that, but it’s the [choice] of representations that bears likeness: in Angkor they will show a story from the life of the Buddha, and in Bagan we will find the same story” represented similarly, he said.

Another piece to the puzzle may come from the Burmese Glass Palace Chronicle, which follows the house of the Pagan dynasty and notes that around 1180 a child of Jayavarman VII took a “study-trip” of some kind to Sri Lanka alongside a group of Burmese religious teachers. While Puthpiseth notes that there’s no known record of the event in Cambodia, the timing fits the period of potential Burmese influence, despite some reservations among historians about the accuracy of the chronicle.

If the evidence for the link to Burma continues to build, he notes, it would add a significant piece to the puzzle of how Theravada Buddhism spread outwards from Sri Lanka after the 1st century – eventually becoming the dominant religion in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Theravada Buddhism in Khmer Lands, a lecture by Tun Puthpiseth, will take place on Tuesday at 6:30pm at the French Institute, #218 Street 184. Free entry. The lecture is the first in a series titled Buddhism and Society by the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia.

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