Goddess Images in Cambodian Art


A review of The Symbiosis of Image, Monument and Landscape:  A Study of Select Goddess Images at Prasat Kravan, Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei in Cambodia, by Soumya E. James.

In this dissertation, Soumya James argues that the “divine feminine” played a crucial, but often overlooked, role in the art of Angkor, a kingdom which included present-day Cambodia and periodically extended into parts of neighboring Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam (ca. 9th – 15th century CE). Following the important revisionist work of such historians as Barbara Watson Andaya and Trudy Jacobsen, James seeks to address the marginalization of women and gender studies that has, until recently, characterized much of the scholarship on pre-twentieth century Southeast Asia (e.g., Barbara Watson Andaya, The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu:  University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2006; Trudy Jacobsen, Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History. Copenhagen:  Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2008).

James characterizes her approach as “integrated” and emphasizes the inextricable links between sculpture, architecture, myth, “localized” Hindu beliefs and practices, landscape, and performance art (p. 6). Rather than introduce previously unknown or unpublished works of art, she re-examines “older evidence” (p. 5) — primarily inscriptions, bronze and stone sculpture, and temple reliefs — in light of recent research on Tantra and relatively recent Khmer performance traditions, as well as through frequent comparisons to Balinese art and culture. While her study has relevance for the entire Angkorian period, her focus is primarily three monumental sites:  the 10th century temples of Prasat Kravan and Banteay Srei and the mostly 11th century carvings in the riverbed and banks of the Kbal Spean River in the Kulen Mountains northeast of Angkor.

Chapter 1 sets forth the aims and methodology of the dissertation and provides some brief historical background. Here, James introduces several ideas that guide the work as a whole. She defines the “‘divine feminine’ as the female divine energy that is personified as a goddess in myth, art and as abstract objects such as elements of the natural world” (p. 2, n. 1). Invoking the concept of permeability, she emphasizes interactions between the “male” and “female” in Khmer mythology, art, and performance traditions in which gender boundaries are fluid or blurred. She likewise stresses the symbiotic relationship between animate and inanimate realms and between site, monument, cosmology, and devotee.

Chapter 2 broadly summarizes data and theories pertaining to connections between South and Southeast Asia. Emphasis is placed on trade between these regions and on select archaeological evidence. After a brief mention of theories of “Indianization,” James presents an interesting critique of Sheldon Pollock’s recent formulation of the “Sanskrit Cosmopolis” (The Language of the Gods in the World of Men:  Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006). In contrast to Pollock’s view of the supraregional, transethnic, and universalistic character of Sanskrit language and literature across South and Southeast Asia, James calls attention to the localization of Indic influences in Southeast Asia and in so doing follows a perspective pioneered by Paul Mus and O.W. Wolters (Paul Mus, India seen from the East: Indian and Indigenous Cults in Champa. Cheltenham, Victoria: Centre of Southeast Asian Studies, Monash University, 1975 [originally published in 1934]; O.W. Wolters, History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1999 [originally published in 1982]).

Among the localisms that Pollock downplays and James rightly reasserts is the prominence of women in the Cambodian inscriptional corpus and the “ubiquitous presence of the feminine” in Khmer culture (p. 56). From the perspective of post-colonial critical theory, Chapter 3 examines the historiography of Cambodia and argues that scholars and explorers, particularly those of the French colonial period, relegated women and the divine feminine to a peripheral status. This view, she argues, had a lasting influence and is largely responsible for the neglect that women and the divine feminine have suffered for so long in scholarly research.

In Chapter 4, James reviews the recent scholarly literature on Khmer women and gender. In addition to discussing Jacobsen’s aforementioned reappraisal of the important roles that women have played throughout Khmer history (notably in the Preangkorian period), James suggests that dance and performance traditions are key to understanding the role of the feminine in Khmer culture and art history. The importance of dance is due not only to the role of female dancers themselves, but also to recurrent feminine themes and important female characters in Khmer dance dramas. Acknowledging that little is known about the particularities of Khmer dance in the past, she cites research by Toni Samantha Phim, Ashley Thompson, and Paul Cravath to demonstrate the persistent centrality of dance in Khmer culture, particularly as a “magico-religious activity” and as a means of communication between the human and spirit worlds that was critical to harmony and prosperity (Toni Samantha Phim and Ashley Thomspon, Dance in Cambodia. Kuala Lumpur:  Oxford University Press, 1999; Paul Cravath, Earth in Flower:  The Divine Mystery of the Cambodian Dance Drama. Holmes Beach, FL:  DatAsia, 2007). The second half of this chapter addresses Tantra and the role of the feminine in Tantric traditions. James suggests that both Khmer dance and localized Khmer Tantric traditions share features of permeability, fluidity, and the fusion of the masculine and feminine. It is at this point that James pivots to specific art historical evidence and foregrounds her own original arguments: “… Tantric practices combined with local beliefs surrounding the potency of the feminine … found artistic expression at sites like Prasat Kravan, Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei” (p. 114).

In Chapter 5, James develops the idea that in Angkorian art the divine feminine embodied chthonic forces capable of energizing her divine male consorts, bestowing blessings on the king and bringing fertility to the kingdom. At Prasat Kravan, she focuses attention on relief images of Lakṣmī, including perhaps Tantric Mahalakṣmī, an identification first made by Kamaleswar Bhattacharya in 1965 (“Notes d’Iconographie khmère:  XII. Les images de Lakṣmī à Prasat Kravan,” Arts Asiatiques 11, 1965, pp. 45-52). Her argument is that the goddesses drew power from the ground, activated the site, and that the resultant conjoined power of god/Viṣṇu and goddess/Mahalakṣmī emanated from the temple to permeate the human realm. Similarly, numerous images of Viṣṇu reclining on the nāga (serpent) Ananta and accompanied by Lakṣmī were carved into the Kbal Spean riverbanks in order to enact and consecrate a sacred geography. Utilizing myths, inscriptions, and Tantric notions of “power substances,” James interprets the water of the river as an “activating agent” arising through the “exchange of fluids between the male and female forces” that flows down the mountain and into the “‘womb’ of the kingdom…to impregnate the land” (p. 184). At both Prasat Kravan and Kbal Spean, according to James, the male and female are united through interaction with natural elements, and it is this tandem power that underlies the meaning and purpose of the relief images.

Chapter 6 examines a relief image of the goddess Durgā Mahiṣāsuramardinī (“slayer of the buffalo demon”) on the west pediment of the inner east gate at the temple of Banteay Srei. Through discussion of 19th century Khmer goddess traditions, Southeast Asian rituals associated with Durgā, and depictions of Durgā in India, Java, Bali, and Cambodia, James suggests quite compellingly that the placement of Durgā above the door of the gate enacted a transformative experience in which the “devotee” became a sacrificial offering and also perhaps divine. She argues furthermore that the images of a “dynamic” Durgā and “a relatively stable” Śiva on the east pediment are intended as an interactive and complementary pair, perhaps comparable to two dancers, dynamically engaged in a continual “generative process” (p. 240).

James is aware of the challenges of her interpretations and admits that the “disparate” and “fleeting” evidence (p. 135) may result in a “precarious” approach (p. 232) and “tentative” conclusions (p. 154). Still, she is to be commended for boldly assembling a wide range of evidence in order to offer some original interpretations of several important Angkorian monuments. Also appreciated by the present reviewer is her emphasis on visual imagery not merely as symbolic representation, but as a generator of power and a potential catalyst for transformative experiences in the viewer (e.g. pp. 224-25). Here she draws inspiration from anthropologist Clifford Geertz (Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), but such arguments also resonate well with some other recent art historical scholarship (e.g. Michael D. Willis, The Archaeology of Hindu Ritual:  Temples and the Establishment of the Gods. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Despite certain challenges posed by the evidence and methodology, this study has the potential to offer a significant reappraisal of the “divine feminine” in ancient Khmer art.

Paul A. Lavy
Assistant Professor of Art History
Department of Art and Art History
University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa

Primary Sources

Prasat Kravan (temple), Angkor, Siem Reap province, Cambodia, consecrated 921 CE
Pre Rup (temple), Angkor, Siem Reap province, Cambodia, consecrated ca. 961 CE
Banteay Srei (temple), northeast of Angkor, Siem Reap province, Cambodia, consecrated 967 CE
Kbal Spean (carved riverbed and banks), Kulen Mountains, northeast of Angkor, Siem Reap province, Cambodia, ca. 11th-12th cent. CE

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2011. 277 pp. Primary Advisor:  Kaja M. McGowan.


Image: Apsaras dance taken from the 12th century Bayon temple at Angkor in Cambodia. Wikimedia Commons.

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