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The Emergence of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia: Southeast Asian Perspectives

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Symposium to be held on July 3, 2015

Oganised by THE SOUTHEAST ASIA ART AND ARCHAEOLOGY ACADEMIC PROGRAMME AT SOAS

Mainland Southeast Asia underwent major civilizational transitions when the Hindu-Mahayana Buddhist Angkorian Empire met its end over the 13th-15th centuries and Theravada Buddhism emerged in its wake. While Angkor remained a reference for the new states that developed across the mainland, Theravada Buddhism structured the cultural, social and political forms which continue to define the region. Given the importance of these changes, astonishingly little is understood about how it actually happened, notably in the Angkorian heartland itself. By supporting interdisciplinary exchange on the Theravadin material heritage across the Southeast Asian region (including Sri Lanka) during this transitional period this symposium aims to begin to redress this gap in our regional understandings.

Knowledge on the emergence of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia is partially due to the nature of the transformation itself: marking an abrupt halt in the prolific stone temple construction, statuary production and epigraphic composition which had characterized the Angkorian Kingdom for more than four centuries, the early Cambodian Theravadin complex left relatively little easily accessible material evidence for its future study.

This relative lack has been compounded by scholarly privileging of the spectacular accomplishments of Angkor since the beginning of modern scholarship in the colonial period. Times did change however, and it is time that the body of research on the early post-Angkorian period in the post-colonial era be collectively evaluated and pursued.

Temples and stupas were built and rebuilt, statues were sculpted and retouched, texts were composed and recomposed, practices evolved and legends were born.

Out of this work, the Cambodian state was given new life in and beyond Angkor and, in such, confirmed the hold Theravada had across the region.

The dominant structuring of modern scholarship on the basis of national borders has further limited our understandings of the phenomenon at hand. Certain Theravadin forms and practices came to Cambodia from somewhere else at this time. From where? Why?

And how? What can be discerned about and from the specificities of the Cambodian complex in relation to its Theravadin relatives? By bringing together scholars from across the region, and across disciplines, we aim to break new ground on early Cambodian Theravada and, in turn, shed light on mainland developments as a whole.

Requests for more detailed information and expressions of interest should be sent to:

sg74@soas.ac.uk and at50@soas.ac.uk

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Khmer manuscripts online

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SEACOM southeast asia communication centre

A very useful online resource for the study and research on manuscripts in Khmer and Pali languages is http://www.khmermanuscripts.org/.

This platform is the outcome of a long-term research, digitisation and preservation project carried out by the EFEO in collaboration with Buddhist temples in Cambodia and many Cambodian researchers and monks. The emphasis was on conservation of the manuscripts, preparation of a catalogue and digitisation. The digitisation and online publication of numerous manuscripts makes it possible to study the various facets of the Khmer manuscripts tradition as well as Buddhist and traditional literature in Cambodia.

g OR14068 folio 3

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The Ramayana in Southeast Asia

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Originally composed in India in Sanskrit over two and half thousand years ago by Valmiki, the Ramayana is also one of the most popular masterworks throughout Southeast Asia. This is reflected not only in the literary traditions, but also in the performing and fine arts, as well as in architecture and modern design. The epic tells the story of Rama, his brother Lakshmana and Rama’s wife Sita, who was kidnapped by the demon king Ravana. The main part of the epic is about the fight between Ravana and Rama, who wants to get his wife back. In this battle, Rama is supported by his brother and a monkey chief, Hanuman, with his armies.

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist.  British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Hanuman facing Ravana asleep in his palace after having abducted Sita. From a 19th century album of drawings by an anonymous Thai artist. British Library, Or.14859, pp. 58-59

Knowledge of the Ramayana in Southeast Asia can be traced back to the 5th century in stone inscriptions from Funan, the first Hindu kingdom in mainland Southeast Asia. An outstanding series of reliefs of the Battle of Lanka from the 12th century still exists at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and Ramayana sculptures from the same period can be found at Pagan in Myanmar. Thailand’s old capital Ayutthya founded in 1347 is said to have been modelled on Ayodhya, Rama’s birthplace and setting of the Ramayana. New versions of the epic were written in poetry and prose and as dramas in Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao, Malay, Javanese and Balinese, and the story continues to be told in dance-dramas, music, puppet and shadow theatre throughout Southeast Asia. Most of these versions change parts of the story significantly to reflect the different natural environments, customs and cultures.

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814.  British Library,  Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

Serat Rama Keling, a modern Javanese version of the Ramayana, illuminated manuscript dated 1814. British Library, Add.12284, ff.1v-2r

When mainland Southeast Asian societies embraced Theravada Buddhism, Rama began to be regarded as a Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, in a former life. In this context, the early episodes of the story were emphasized, symbolising Rama’s Buddhist virtues of filial obedience and willing renunciation. Throughout the region, Hanuman enjoys a greatly expanded role; he becomes the king of the monkeys and the most popular character in the story, and is a reflection of all the freer aspects of life. In a series of articles on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog, curators Annabel Gallop, San San May and Jana Igunma explore how the Ramayana epic has been rewritten and reimagined in the different parts of Southeast Asia.
To read the articles, go directly to the Asian and African Studies blog.

Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children, Cambodia

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The Kampot Traditional Music School for Orphaned and Disabled Children (KCDI), was the first specialist music school to be built outside the Royal University of Fine Arts in Cambodia.  The school was founded by British-born violinist, Catherine Geach, from the Royal Academy of Music and ratified as a local Cambodian non-governmental organization in 1993. The decision to build the school was made in 1991 after the founder teaching at the Royal University of Fine Arts saw at first hand the struggle to revive ancient Khmer music following the Khmer Rouge genocide when perhaps many as 90 percent of all Cambodian artists were killed.

The extreme poverty of Cambodia at that time combined with the ongoing war made it imperative that the music school should provide care, scholastic education and vocational training to the most vulnerable children. At that time Kampot, in Cambodia’s remote southwest was badly  affected by civil war and the presence of a Khmer Rouge stronghold in the neighbouring Phnom Vor mountains.

The school currently houses seventeen orphaned children and teaches a further 400 local disadvantaged children from the wider Kampot community.

However, at present the school risks closure and all those children who reside at the school and who have no parents, have nowhere to go. The school’s Cambodian staff are completely dedicated to the school and they have chosen to work without a salary rather than see the school close despite the fact that many come from poor backgrounds themselves.

Those orphaned children resident at the school receive food, clothing, medical care, scholastic education from primary school to university level, vocational training and of course specialist training in traditional Cambodian music, dance and Yike theatre. For students graduating there is a special transition program to teach them how to become music instructors and run their own performance groups as well as supporting them through the first year of University.

The 400 primary school children who attend the school on a daily basis, receive free tuition in the performing arts, both as part of their wider social development and as a specific vocational training. Both residential and community outreach children participate in examinations to prepare them for eventual entry into the Phnom Penh University of Fine Arts.

Because of the global economic crisis, the school has found it harder and harder to find donors. Though the school raises money for itself by giving official performances, has its own fundraising website, sells its own CDs, grows its own fruit and vegetables, it is still not enough to support the school in all its needs.

Yet traditional Cambodian music and dance, have been declared World Intangible Cultural Heritage and indeed the Kampot Traditional Music School is considered by the Cambodian Ministry of Culture a role model for the rest of Cambodia. In 1995, the school received a prestigious UNESCO prize, namely the World Decade for Cultural Development Award given to the best performing arts institutions.

Recently the pupils were invited to perform a première of the Bokor dance, specially choreographed for them at the National Theatre. They have also been invited to perform in Vietnam, Qatar, France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.

Many of those who have graduated have gone on to be professional artists, as well as economists, entrepreneurs and businesswomen.

Despite reaching out to so many children and having such a strong impact in Southwestern Cambodia, the school does not have a big annual budget, mainly because there are no expatriate overheads or salaries. All members of the Board of Directors work on a voluntary basis. All funds go directly to the project.

For further information and to find out about the school’s current Appeal, please visit their website www.kcdi-cambodia.com .

National Museum of Cambodia catalogue online

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The National Museum of Cambodia that was founded in 1920 houses one of the world’s greatest collections of Khmer cultural material including sculpture, ceramics and ethnographic objects from the prehistoric, pre-Angkorian, Angkorian and post-Angkorian periods.

The Museum promotes awareness, understanding and appreciation of Cambodia’s heritage through the presentation, conservation, safekeeping, interpretation and acquisition of Cambodian cultural material. It aims to educate and inspire its visitors.

The turmoil of recent decades has devastated all aspects of Cambodian life including the cultural realm. During the years of Khmer Rouge control the Museum, along with the rest of Phnom Penh, was evacuated and abandoned. The Museum suffered from neglect during this time and after the liberation of Phnom Penh on 7 January 1979 it was found in disrepair, its roof rotten, collection in disarray and garden overgrown. The Museum was quickly tidied up and reopened to the public on 13 April 1979. Tragically, however, many of the Museum’s employees had lost their lives during the Khmer Rouge regime. The resulting loss of expertise, combined with the deterioration of the Museum building and its collection, have made rehabilitation of the Museum a daunting task.

Despite such obstacles the last decade has seen considerable progress, with generous assistance from individuals, foreign governments and numerous philanthropic organizations.

The CKS National Museum Collection Inventory Project (2004-2010) has brought a revitalized sense of order to the Museum’s collection andpersonal confidence to trained Museum staff, who now oversee this important ongoing project. It has greatly assisted the Museum’s international exhibition and publications programs, identification and repatriation of missing works of art, links with re-established provincial collections and the fostering of both established and newly formed conservation workshops in stone, metal and ceramics. It has won international acclaim.

Most importantly, the location and condition of thousands of works of art in storage have been digitally catalogued, with works arranged in a logical and systematic way. Ongoing agendas include digital photography of every work, scanning of extant French inventory cards and cross-referencing the past and present catalogue systems.

Members from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts and staff of the National Museum of Cambodia, together with the Center for Khmer Studies and the Leon Levy Foundation have joined in celebrating the public launch of the ‘National Museum of Cambodia: On-line’ on 3rd January 2014.

A three-year grant from the Leon Levy Foundation has enabled all the primary text and image files produced over a six-year period to be incorporated into a database that is used to fully catalogue the museum collection in addition to providing access to search the present collection on-line in both Khmer and English.

This purpose-built database based on international museum software is the work of Khmer Dev INC, Phnom Penh working in tandem with the museum’s IT programmer – proudly a Cambodian enterprise. It is a necessarily complex system that incorporates demands for three language texts English, French, Khmer, digital colour images and scanned catalogue cards. It performs a host of secondary functions other than ‘search the collection’. The database can be used to off-print museum labels to specified formats, produce loan documentation, has entries for reportage, conservation records with varying formats for search lists as required. One special feature is the capability of this system to be exported to the Cambodian provinces and a version of the cataloguing system made available to staff outside the capital enabling them to catalogue their own collections. Khmer-English glossaries, terminology and geographic location indexes & etc. can be directly sourced from the National Museum system.

Current cataloguing of the collection as at end of December 2013 within eleven categories stands at:
01-Stone 3,307; 02-Ceramics 4,316; 03-Metal 7,367; 04-Textiles 229; 05-Paintings 49; 06-Wood 494; 07-Manuscripts 481; 08-Plastic 30; 09-Glass 32; 10-Skin 21 & 11-Horn 112.

The Museum collection now stands at a total of 16,438 works of art. In 2004, at the commencement of the programs, an estimate of the Museum’s collection numbered around 14,000 objects.

An integral part of cataloguing works of art is documentation and identification – researching art styles, periods in addition to provenance, or history of ownership. Using the new Database Project resources, the Museum is now in a position to digitally present its internationally-famed collection.

The databse, which is being updated regularly, is accessible through the Museum’s homepage.

4th Siem Reap Conference on Special Topics in Khmer Studies

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Plov veach kom borss borng (Don’t abandon the indirect road): Divergent Approaches to Cambodian Visual Cultures

Siem Reap, 6-8 December, 2013

The annual Siem Reap Conference on Special Topics in Khmer Studies is designed to bring together the foremost experts in a very specific subject area, over two or three days, with a view to advancing scholarship in that particular domain.

Following previous successful conferences on Epigraphy & Databases (2009-10), Archaeometallurgy (2011) and the History of Religions (2012), the organising committee of the annual Siem Reap Conference on Special Topics in Khmer Studies is pleased to announce that the meeting will be dedicated, in 2013, to the topic of Art History and Visual Cultures.

Divergent Approaches to Cambodian Visual Cultures, the theme of the 4th Siem Reap Conference on Special Topics in Khmer Studies seeks to promote scholarship which tends to be positioned outside the traditional conventions of Khmer Art History.

Colleagues who wish to present a paper at the conference should submit a paper title and abstract (approx 150 words) by August 15th, 2013 to the organising committee. Attendance of the conference is free. Detailed information can be found on the conference homepage

John Thomson, The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, 1866 Albumen print, British Library, Photo 983 (24)

John Thomson, The Bayon Temple, Angkor Thom, 1866
Albumen print, British Library, Photo 983 (24)

Khmer Thesis Database

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www.khmerthesis.info is an online database which provides information about dissertation theses written by Cambodian researchers about Cambodia to persuade their bachelor, master, and/or doctorate degree. The website also provides information about scholarship, dissertation/thesis defence date and other information relating to the research field. The purpose of the website is to:

  • Disseminate and raise awareness of the current state of research to students and researchers.
  • Provide the possibility for students and researchers to access research information in order to increase their understanding of research in Cambodia.
  • Promote participation of government and private institutions in providing and sharing their research information and documents.

 

Access to the website www.khmerthesis.info is free, and in addition to the general information there is usually a link to the list of contents or an abstract of any particular thesis. The original thesis (mostly in Khmer language) can usually be found at the library of the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) http://www.rufa.edu.kh/.