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123 22 The Face of Death The head is about a third larger than life size. The gray sandstone, if once polished, has returned to the granular surface of stones found in nature. The head is turned down a little; the eyes are closed, a face in composure and emanating serenity. The thick sensual lips are turned in a smile blissful and compassionate. The features are not sharply outlined , if once they were. One sees only the dream of a face in the dense substance of the stone. Slowly I came to realize that it was the face of death. The thought gradually emerged that I would like to die with my eyes on this image. On this twelfth-century Khmer sculpture. I was surprised by this thought; I had never before imagined the circumstances of my death. In 1979, in order to show the world that the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia was a fait accompli, the government announced that Phnom Penh and Angkor were open to group tourism. Although forbidden by my US passport to go to Vietnam or Cambodia, I was able to locate and join an Australian tour. We were ten in the group. We had twelve days in Vietnam and two in Cambodia. The first day in Phnom Penh we visited the Tuol Sleng “Genocide Museum,” a former school building used as a detention center by the Khmer Rouge police. We looked at the barren rooms where some twelve thousand people had been tortured and killed. The walls of the corridors were covered with the photographs that were taken of prisoners when they were brought here, often with bruised and battered bodies, and then of them after they were executed. We looked at the rooms piled high with skulls and the commingled bones of now unidentifiable people. In the afternoon we visited the museum in Phnom Penh, which had been closed by the Khmer Rouge authorities. It was there that I saw the stone head. The handwritten sign identified it as that of Jayavarman VII depicted as the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara. While the rest of the group wandered about the museum with the guide and then sat down in the small cafeteria for tea, I remained gazing at this head. The second day we flew to Siem Reap to visit Angkor. Founded 124 V I O L E N C E A N D S P L E N D O R perhaps in 802 c.e., Angkor was the capital of one of the great water kingdoms, where wet-rice agriculture required a vast and everywherecoordinated system of canals and locks and gave rise to a hierarchized political system, at the top a divinized king. Greater Angkor became the largest preindustrial urban settlement in the world, spreading over 1,150 square miles.1 Jayavarman VII (reigned circa 1181–1218) is identified by historians as one of the greatest Khmer kings; he extended the Khmer kingdom to its greatest extent, eastward into Vietnam, northward into Laos and Burma, southward into the Malay peninsula. The temples at Angkor exhibit long friezes depicting the wars of the rulers, the massacres inflicted on the armies they defeated, the tortures inflicted on their captives. The temples built under orders of Jayavarman VII also feature such friezes. But there is this sculpture where he is depicted as the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Many scholars believe that the two hundred gigantic faces turned in every direction on the Bayon state temple he had built depict the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara. His people and the people of Cambodia today revere him as the greatest of the Khmer kings. He ordered and supervised the building of the Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon, and Neak Pean temples in Angkor. He ordered 102 hospitals and 121 rest houses to be built throughout the kingdom. An inscription found in Angkor reads: he suffered from the maladies of his subjects more than from his own. He also ordered that schools to train artists be set up in every city and town. The temples built and sculptures chiseled during his realm evolved distinctive stylistic traits, and art historians see the works made after his death to show a slow decline. What today is known as Cambodian classical dance is the dance elaborated and codified during his time. Was he the leper king that the Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan wrote of in his chronicles? A bas-relief in the inner gallery of the Bayon temple depicts the king wrestling with a...


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