Garuda, Vajrapani and Religious Change in Jayavarman VII's Angkor

By Sharrock, Peter D. | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Garuda, Vajrapani and Religious Change in Jayavarman VII's Angkor


Sharrock, Peter D., Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Since the 1920s, when French scholars discovered, in astonishment, that King Jayavarman VII's (r.1182-c.1218) great state temple, the Bayon, was originally Buddhist, there has been little work on how this king achieved the momentous shift of the ancient Khmers from four centuries of state Saivism to state Buddhism. As the only texts from the period are a number of temple inscriptions, we are obliged to complement our search for clues to Jayavarman's imperial politico-religious agenda with close study of the decoration of his temples; and here, as Jean Boisselier says, even minor changes in form, size and motif can reveal messages of political and cosmological import:

   To accord only a decorative role to all these suparnas [eagles,
   Garu.das], particularly in the Bayon period, when the smallest
   scroll of foliage can recount so much history, would be to
   misunderstand the meaning of Khmer decorative sculpture. (1)

This paper takes up the invitation to further research that Boisselier made in this pioneering paper of 1950 (2) and looks at changes in icons and architecture to address the question of how the king achieved the historical turn to Buddhism; it argues that there are many overlooked signs in the sacred art that support Boisselier's tentative iconic observations and that point to a sustained campaign to achieve political legitimisation by imposing the Buddhist state.

The change in Jayavarman's Garuda icon that Boisselier detected, along with the widespread deployment of the new model around consecration platforms, when seen alongside other late changes in Jayavarman's temples, are found to signal a major religious event. The new icon points to an important background role in the new state Buddhism for the warrior Bodhisattva of Tantrism, Vajrapani ('thunderbolt-in-hand'), as the protector of all who turn to the Buddha. The deployment of this Garuda/Vajrapani icon is then seen to align with both the appearance in the material record of a dozen bronze consecration conches embossed with the tantric Buddhist supreme deity Hevajra, and with the addition of large new sanctuaries in the king's existing temples that are emblazoned with a striking new dancing goddess motif. It is proposed that the sanctuaries were established to undertake large-scale tantric Buddhist initiations. Together, these and other overlooked iconic pointers are seen to disclose a well-planned and sustained campaign to get at least the ancient Khmer elite to accept the historical shift to state Buddhism.

Temples as the powerbase and the archives of the regime

The drive behind erecting temples on earth for the gods was to align the human state with cosmic forces capable of conferring legitimacy and power; political expediency could thus invoke religious authority and supernatural power. The temples became, as Davidson puts it, 'testaments to royal legitimacy' and the 'archives of a ruling house'. (3) Jayavarman VII, a gifted communicator, was quick to exploit this means of projecting his regime's legitimacy and its new cosmic alignment with the Buddhas. In the tradition set by his own Mahidharapura dynasty, (4) which established itself in the erection of the large tantric Buddhist-dominated temple complex at Phimai (modern northeast Thailand) between 1080 and 1107, the principal vehicle Jayavarman chose for conveying his regnal strategy was a series of large, walled temple complexes designed to regroup the capital's population under Buddhist administrations. Jayavarman VII took power by force in 1182 (5) 'to save the land heavy with crimes' (6) following a period when the Khmers were split into competing factions, (7) suffered a Cham incursion and regicide and underwent an embattled five-year interregnum. Jayavarman immediately marshalled Angkor's quarrying, transport, engineering, masonry and carving resources in a building programme that was to double the city's temple population within a generation.

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