Thursday, February 12, 2009

Beautiful women

Two of Angkor Wat's devatas pictured earlier this week, bathed in the early morning sunshine
The Phnom Penh Post today caught up with my good friend Kent Davis and a part of his current work in examining the beautiful women of Angkor Wat. No, not the souvenir sellers that pester you to buy a t-shirt but the beautiful dancers carved into the walls of this magnificent temple. Here's what they had to say.

The mysterious women of Angkor - by Jessie Beard
Researcher Kent Davis theorises that the many carved images of women found throughout the temple complex hold the key to the origins and purpose of the ancient monuments.
A team of researchers, led by US educational program and marketing executive Kent Davis, is analysing 7,000 digital photos taken in November 2008 for a database that will attempt to unveil a mystery that's been bugging Davis since he first visited Angkor Wat in November 2005. He wants to determine why there are so many images of women in the temples, and he's postulating a theory that Angkor wasn't built to honour kings or gods, but to glorify women.

When Davis first came to Angkor, he immediately became fascinated by the carvings of women and instinctively felt they had been historically trivialised as decorations. "I wasn't prepared for the temple's human side as realistic carvings of women greeted me. Quite clearly, the images of these women were a major part of the monument's design and purpose," he said. "These women who are so extraordinary and so filled with significance have remained unstudied and unappreciated in modern times. The fact that they have been hidden in plain sight during 150 years of intense Khmer scholarship is truly amazing. But a quantitative analysis could unlock the secrets these complex women have guarded for so long."

Using a computer database, the project involves recording the diverse features of the women, enabling detailed analysis of them for the first time since they were carved. Davis also departs from convention by referring to the women shown in temple carvings as devatas, not Apsaras. "No one knows what the ancient Khmers called the women at Angkor Wat. I generally choose to use devata for historical and semantic reasons. About a hundred years ago, some scholars began using the Hindu term apsara, and that became more common over time." Davis's use of the term devata and his quest to comprehensively analyse the collection of female carvings was also inspired by the work of a young French woman, Sappho Marchal, who began classifying the women by their attributes in her own personal drawings. Marchal lived at Angkor Wat and was the daughter of the second curator of the Angkor Wat conservation program. She published a book, Costumes et parures Khmers d'apres les davata d'Angkor-Wat, in 1927, and when Davis discovered her writings, he became even more determined to finish what Marchal had started all those years ago.

Davis has already evaluated 1,780 carvings of women and expects to include over 1,800 carvings in his study. He said that once he amassed about 25,000 digital photos of the carvings he was studying, the sheer complexity required that a computer database be used. But on April 17 last year, Davis's project received a major setback - fire gutted his house and studio, destroying a collection of more than 2,000 books on the history of Southeast Asia and material he had prepared to republish the book Angkor the Magnificent, originally written in 1924 by American socialite and Titanic survivor Helen Churchill Candee. The book is credited with introducing the concept of Cambodian tourism to Americans, and Davis's revised version was scheduled to go to the publisher the day after the fire. But the biggest setback was the destruction of Davis's original notes and manuscripts on female statues at Angkor Wat, including a hard drive containing about 25,000 photos of the female carvings.

Not to be deterred, Davis returned to Angkor Wat last November to redo some photography. "I had logistical help from three Cambodians and three European scientists in Cambodia. But due to the independent nature of the study, their contributions are unofficial. Now, the only limitations to progress are time and money. I have most of the photo data again and have built the database program. The process of preparing the images and inputting the data will be quite time-consuming. The first paper published will be a technical study I just completed with Michigan State University researchers using computer technology to analyse the faces of the 259 devata on the West Gopura. Beyond the database, I have an enormous amount of research data about the images in relation to Cambodian, Southeast Asian and South Asian culture. The introduction to this body of work will be published in the anthology to be called Daughters of Angkor Wat, through my publishing company DatAsia."

"Ultimately, my goal is to work with Cambodian researchers and the Apsara Authority. But the onus is on me to prepare substantial evidence before approaching them with my paradigm, which is that the primary reason Angkor Wat was built was to protect, honour and glorify these women, as well as the feminine principles that they represent. My view is that Angkor Wat is there because of the women," he concludes.
Kent Davis (left) and myself, when we met up in Phnom Penh in December

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andy, I'm really glad that Mr. Kent Davis is studying and putting together a book on the "mysterious women of the Angkor monuments". I can't wait to read this new book, and hopefully it will include all the beautiful pictures of all the "devatas" of Angkor and even the devatas as represented by the classical Khmer dances of the present-day as well. I think it is good idea that Mr. Kent Davis is researching into this "forgotten women" of the Angkor Khmer civilization period. Thank you and wishing him well for taking this unprecedented interest into the "mysterious women" of Angkor.

In fact, I, too, was strucked by these beautiful women depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat. It seems like they are eternally standing there at Angkor Wat, if only they can come to live again! Very uniquely Khmer in origin and meaning, especially these "devatas" at Angkor Wat. God Bless Cambodia.

February 13, 2009 2:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations to Mr. Kent Davis for taking the interest in studying the Khmer's "devatas", dubbed the "mysterious women" of Angkor Wat and even all of the Angkor monuments as well. I wish him the best in his persue and demeanor. I also hope that more and more scholarly people like the two of you will take interest in studying and discovering the "mysterious" Khmer symbols of dieties, etc... I, personally even find all of the many animals such as the multi-headed giant snakes, the garuda, the elephant headed, the stone lions, the hanuman monkey, the bull, etc. which are all very common in all the Khmer artworks, to be fascinating. I wish someone will bring to light and understand of all of this Khmer iconic beliefs so interested people, like myself, can understand their meaning from the Khmer perspective. Maybe, we can learn something from the ancient Khmer belief in order to discover why they build such magnificient monuments that seemed to scatter all over the former Khmer empire as well, but mostly at the Angkor Archaeological Park, though. Thank you.

February 13, 2009 2:15 AM  
Anonymous Kent Davis said...

Chum reap suor Andy & all,

Thanks for reposting Jessie Beard's article so quickly. Man, you're fast! I'm especially delighted to see comments from Cambodian readers who have inherited this legacy.

The Khmer women of Angkor Wat are clearly among the world's most extraordinary artistic, historical and cultural treasures. I will keep working until the world knows that. (-:

In fact, these women are much more than "artistic" treasures...they embody the glory, power and wisdom of the Khmer Empire that shaped Southeast Asia, and continues to influence the people throughout this region.

Their portraits capture that empire's beauty, intelligence and diversity. For nearly 1,000 years these women have preserved many secrets to share with their Khmer descendants and with the world.

Today, these ancient Khmer mothers, daughters and sisters symbolize Cambodia's potential. My hope is that their meaning will help guide the Cambodian people to future glories.

February 13, 2009 10:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Kent Davis has really done some wonderful things in promoting Cambodia culture. In addition to the books about Cambodia that he's already published he has a few more in the works that are anxiously awaited.

The fact that he's been able to continue this work after losing his home and belongings along with much of his work in a fire last year just speak to the commitment of this wonderful person. That's good Kamma.

Arkun chareun!

February 14, 2009 7:43 AM  

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