Saturday, April 17, 2010

90 years old this month

An old postcard showing the opening ceremony in 1920
April 1920 saw the opening of the National Museum of Cambodia. Kent Davis at his website has the inside story and pictures from Nicole Groslier, daughter of the museum's designer and first conservator, celebrating the museum's 90th anniversary.

A far less welcome anniversary, is the arrival in Phnom Penh 35 years ago today, of the Khmer Rouge to begin a period of Cambodian history that has affected every member of the population. Within days the city's inhabitants had been forced out into the countryside and Phnom Penh became a virtual ghost town. The rest is history of the worst possible kind.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Access unveiled

Today marks the welcome return of access to the upper level of Angkor Wat
Today's the day when the frustrating closure of Angkor Wat's upper level comes to an end and visitors are once again allowed to marvel at this magnificent temple's most sacred area. Kent Davis' Angkor Wat Apsara and Devata website has more on the re-opening of the area known as Bakan here. Taking those final, steep steps to the top has been out of bounds for mere mortals since October 2007 and new restrictions have been introduced to ensure the new access isn't abused, news of which I broke here on 5 January. Enjoy it while you can.

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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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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Atop Angkor Wat

Kent Davis, whom I called a man of passion recently, has unveiled his latest book from dizzying heights. Here's his press release for the publication of Angkor The Magnificent.
Titanic Unveiling on Top of Angkor Wat
What links the RMS Titanic and the Cambodian jungle temple of Angkor Wat? Author Helen Churchill Candee survived the infamous maritime disaster to write Angkor the Magnificent, history's most captivating account of Southeast Asia's mysterious Khmer Empire. Her book just reached new heights in Cambodia when publisher Kent Davis unveiled an expanded modern edition of her classic literally on top of Angkor Wat.

Balanced precariously atop a metal scaffold 20 stories above the Cambodian jungle, publisher Kent Davis has recently unveiled Angkor The Magnificent, an expanded edition of Helen Churchill Candee's 1924 Asian travel classic featuring the first published biography of the 20th century adventuress. "It's astounding to think of ancient Khmer stonemasons experiencing this view 1,000 years ago. This is the type of travel adventure Helen Churchill Candee lived for...her spirit is certainly here today!" said Davis at the top of the temple's central tower on a temporary metal framework erected for restoration of the complex pinecone-shaped structure.

Davis held the ceremony at Angkor Wat before donating copies of the book to Cambodia's key libraries including the Biblioteque Nationale, the Center for Khmer Studies, the Khmer Arts Academy and L'Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient. "Angkor Wat is one of the most magical places on earth. Candee's travelogue vividly portrays an Angkor of yesteryear for those looking for insights into these truly magnificent Cambodian ruins" comments Yale archeology professor Dr. Dougald O'Reilly who founded Heritage Watch to preserve Cambodia's heritage. This historic release marks the first time in 85 years that readers can enjoy Candee's evocative descriptions of Asian adventure travel in the land of the lost Khmer civilization. Today, Helen Candee is still the perfect guide to bring the temples to life...for visitors experiencing these wonders in person or from their reading chairs. Angkor the Magnificent is available on in the US and Europe.

The book is produced by DatAsia Press which publishes books focusing on Cambodia and Southeast Asian history. As a researcher with, Kent Davis works to document the importance of women in Asian history and to decode the meaning of the 1,780 apsara (female goddess) portrait carvings found Angkor Wat. Dr. Dougald O'Reilly is an author, archaeologist and Yale University professor specializing in prehistoric Southeast Asia. He is committed to preserving Cambodia's cultural heritage and founded Heritage Watch, a non-profit organization working to preserve cultural icons and stop antiquity theft in Cambodia. To read my earlier review of the book, click here.

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