Daughters of Angkor
Asian Women in Divine Context
Devatas at Angkor Wat
The temple of Angkor Wat in modern Cambodia protects a divine mystery that begs the fields of anthropology, sociology, science, mathematics and religion for an explanation. Audiences enjoying the breathtaking “Angkor – The Untold Story” by Singapore’s Asparas Arts dance troupe are actually seeing much more than an artistic performance: they are witnessing an imaginative interpretation of history, brought to life by its creator Aravinth Kumarasamy. While the mystery remains unsolved, these talented performers offer one explanation as to how and why this grand Khmer monument may have come to be.
A Scene from Angkor - An Untold Story : Devtas bless Angkor Wat
A Scene from Angkor - An Untold Story : Devatas Remind Queen Suryavana on the Vision for Angkor Wat by Suryavaraman II
The temple is set in a particularly remote part of Southeast Asia, surrounded by mountains and dense jungle. In the early 10th century, it was there that Hindu pilgrims from India established the ancient city of Yasodharapura. Two hundred years later the Khmer Empire came to rule most of what is now Southeast Asia from this capital city.
As Europe struggled in the Dark Ages, King Suryavarman II built the massive temple that would define the Khmer civilization for a thousand years. Today its modern name is Angkor Wat, meaning “City Temple,” and the site lives up to its name. From outside its moat, the site measures.93 X .81 miles (1.5 x 1.3 km)...about 3/4 of a square mile (2 sq km). By comparison, the Vatican is .17 sq. miles (.44 sq km) so Angkor Wat is nearly 5 times that size. Since its construction between 1,116 and 1,150 AD, it has been an important pilgrimage destination, first as a Hindu shrine dedicated to Vishnu, then as a Buddhist temple.
The Khmer people built Angkor Wat—still the largest religious structure in the world—as a “temple mountain” symbolizing Mount Meru, home of the gods in Hindu mythology. The 2.2 mile (3.6 km) long moat surrounding the complex represents the oceans, three additional levels represent the home of the gods, with five central towers representing Mt. Meru’s peaks at the center. In short, Angkor Wat is a model of heaven on earth.
Angkor Wat at Sunset
Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, a contemporary of Marco Polo, is credited for giving us the “best” written account of the Khmer civilization. He recorded his visit to Suvannabhum, the legendary Khmer “Land of Gold”, 150 years after Angkor Wat was completed. But a little more than 100 years after Zhou’s visit, the powerful Khmer civilization mysteriously collapsed. Theories of its downfall abound but nothing is definite. You see, aside from limited temple inscriptions no written records of the great empire survived its demise. Centuries passed and dense jungle swallowed the magnificent Khmer temples and cities. Western scholars had never learned that the great Khmer race ever existed.
In 1586, one of the first Westerners to visit the temple was a Portuguese monk named Antonio da Magdalena. He wrote that Angkor “is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of”. But it wasn’t until the late 18th century that French explorers rediscovered the ruins, initiating 150 years of intense scholarship that continues today. Despite their efforts, it seems that they missed the most important keys to the temple’s puzzle…hidden in plain sight.
Angkor Wat when re-discovered
On November 2, 2005 my wife and I crossed the Rainbow Bridge on our first visit to Angkor Wat. I had no preconceptions or clear expectations of the temple, but within minutes of entering I was overwhelmed, but not by the magnitude of its soaring structures in the hot jungle setting. I had expected “architectural grandeur” from one of the Wonders of the World. What I wasn’t prepared for was this temple’s human side—one by one I encountered realistic carvings of women who greeted us throughout our exploration.
The maidens, generally called apsaras or devata (no one knows what the ancient Khmers called them), met us at every entrance, in every sanctuary and on every level of the structure. Questions began forming in my mind; I was perplexed by what I saw. Quite obviously the images of these women were a major part of the monument’s design and purpose. Quite obviously they had dominated the monument since it was built. Yet, nothing I had read mentioned that clearly. Tourist books dismissed the devata with a clichéd sentence or two, “…and beautiful carvings of heavenly dancers are used to decorate the temple’s bare limestone walls.”
Wherever we went, friendly, frozen faces peacefully gazed at me from another era, yet their features were quite familiar. Clearly, their daughters still sold water outside the temple. I just passed one of their sisters, walking with her wedding party across the Rainbow Bridge. Even my own wife, born just two hundred miles to the north, echoed their beauty and strength. In my heart I knew these images of women were much more than “decorations.”
The Smile of the Devata at Angkor Wat
My first realization was that these were portrait carvings, not random faces dreamt up by simple stone carvers. Behind each visage was a story about a woman as real as you and I; they laughed and loved and dreamed in this world, not in heaven.
Who were they? Where did they come from? How much power did they wield? Why were they glorified at such a fantastic cost to the empire? What sort of hierarchy do they represent? What happened to them? How could anyone write anything about Angkor Wat without speaking of them immediately and at length? My growing feeling was that this temple only existed because of the women.
Throughout that day and into the night I thought of their stone portraits, precisely coded with myriad variations of crowns, jewelry, poses, ethnic features and attributes. A quantitative analysis could certainly unlock the secrets these complex women have guarded for so long. I committed myself to understanding the devata, as they pledged themselves to the Khmer empire for unknown reasons so long ago. I imagined returning to a Western world filled with historical research about these fantastic women. With 140 years of intense Cambodian study surely there must be volumes of books written about them. Instead I found that—perhaps blinded by their beauty—historians and archeologists had written almost nothing.
To their credit, the French have done more than any other country in researching the Khmer civilization and restoring temples long since abandoned to the forces of nature. Upon acquiring the Siem Reap area from Siam, they wasted no time beginning their work. The first Angkor conservator, Jean Commaille, cleared and surveyed sites for nearly nine years before he was murdered on April 29, 1916 during a payroll robbery. Enter Henri Marchal, the second conservator of Angkor Wat, but it’s really his daughter Sappho who is more relevant to our investigation.
Born in 1904, she was only 12 when her father took her to live in one of the most remote, primitive jungles of the world. It must have been a lonely life for a young girl. Fortunately, Sappho discovered a group of teenage girlfriends quite near her home; the devata of Angkor Wat. Whether at her father’s behest or of her own accord, Sappho began studying her ancient Khmer peers, sketching their hairstyles, clothing, crowns and jewelry.
In 1927 she published the first book ever written about these devata; “Costumes et parures khmérs d'après les Devata d'Angkor-Vat,” with nearly 500 drawings and 14 pages of text. Her book was the first (and only) quantitative analysis of these women ever done. She was 23 years old.
Sixty-seven years would pass before Dr. K. M. Srivastava, a renowned archaeologist with the Archeological Survey of India, wrote the second and only other book about the devata of Angkor Wat. Since 2005, I have been following in their footsteps to complete a definitive study using modern technology.
Today, the captivating devata portraits still charm every visitor to Angkor Wat, as they have for centuries. Every book about Khmer art, monuments, culture or history features at least one photo of these women with in a descriptive sentence or two, but it is there the analysis ends and the mystery begins.
A scene from Angkor - An Untold Story : Vyjayanthi as a Devta (Priyadarsini Govind) watches over Angkor Wat
Quite clearly their images were a major part of the monument’s design and purpose. Today we have no idea who these women were, or what they can tell us about their civilization. It is time to decipher the devata images to understand the wisdom and secrets they hold about the Khmer empire of the 12th century.
Devata.org continues the work Sappho Marchal began in the 1920’s with its a systematic analysis of the carvings by location and features. In 1927, however, the complexity of the entire task was beyond her ability. Each of the 1,796 portrait carvings embodies dozens of attributes, resulting in more than a hundred thousand details. When combinations are taken into account the variations are nearly infinite.
Modern computer technology is enabling us to create a complete catalog capable of tracking more than 60 features on each carving. For the first time in history, experts from various fields will soon be able to conduct comprehensive analyses and interpretation of the collection of carvings as a whole, precisely mapped by location and indexed by feature parameters. When complete, the database will reveal hierarchies, details and anomalies in the carvings that have been hidden since they were created.
A scene from Angkor - An Untold Story : Vyjayanthi as Devata (Priyadarsinin Govind) dances at Angkor Wat
And when their message is revealed, the “Daughters of Angkor Wat” will again hold significance in the history of women in our world.
About Kent Davis
Kent Davis is co-founder of DatAsia Press—a publisher focusing on the history and culture of Southeast Asia—where he works as chief editor and translator (English, Thai, French). His background is in marketing communications, public relations, historical research and elementary curriculum design, development and implementation. Having worked and traveled extensively in Southeast Asia since 1990 he is well-regarded as a specialist in related topics.
Since 2005, Davis has also worked as an independent researcher with Devata.org documenting the 1,796 devata (goddess) images at Angkor Wat to determine the nature and role of these women who appear in divine context.