Horse-Trading and Horse-Carving: Horses on Angkorian Temple Reliefs

by Aedeen Cremin

Publication: developed from the poster All the King’s Horses: Where did Angkor get Horses?, displayed at the EurASEAA Conference in Dublin, September 2013

Language : English

October 2013

"All the pretty horses" on Angkorean bas-reliefs, where did they come from? Since horses were not and still not are common in Indochina peninsula, the author studies their geographical origins, defining two main sources: India and Chinese Yunnan.

Notes the author: 'The earliest representation of horses in the Khmer world is as a Vājimukha, horse-headed divinity or guardian. There are two magnificent statues of this being who has a human body, slightly under life-size, and the head of a ram-headed horse, realistically observed. The smaller (135 cm), in early 7th-century Phnom Da style, was found near Kuk Trap village, Kandal, and is now in the National Museum, Phnom Penh. The taller (146 cm), in mid-10th-century Pre Rup style, comes from the former royal capital at Sambor Prei Kuk, Kampong Thom, and is now in the Musée Guimet, Paris.'

The author supposes most of the 'steppe horses' came to Cambodia by trade from Yunnan Province, through modern Myanmar and by sea. She remarks the Cham people were active in horse-trading, bringing herds to Central Thailand also.

One hypothesis is that Khmer sovereigns introduced horse-breeding from India, by way of trade with the Chola people. According to the author, 'the Khmer ruler most likely to borrow from India would have been Suryavarman I (r. 1011–1050), a man of considerable vision and ambition. He extended the boundaries of empire as far west as Lopburi—where he showed respect for Buddhist monks, according to the San Sung inscription (Piriya Krairiksh 2012: 137, 343; text discussed in Bhattacharya 1997: 46). His wars of conquest took at least a decade. Thus he is the most likely ruler to be the ‘king of Kamboja, aspiring for his friendship and in order to save his own fortunes’ who sent to the Chola king Rajendra I in 1020 ‘a triumphant chariot with which he had conquered the armies of the enemy kings in the battles’.'

Note: Regarding horse trading around Early Southeast Asia, Kenneth Hall offers the following insight: 'The horses that were shipped through Funan from northwest India were a very important item of trade for the Chinese (...) During the second century, especially, the Han dynasty had required horses for their wars against the Xiongnu, seminomads inhabiting the steppe region of Central Alliance. The need for the horses became even more acute when the Wei dynasty took control of the Silk Road approaches to China. (...) In Funan, according to the Wu envoy Kang Tai, "there is a saying that in foreign countries there are three abundances, the abundance of men in China, the abundance of precious things in Da Qin [the Roman West], and the abundance of horses among the Yuezhi [Arabian, Indo-Scythian people].'

Photo: Chinese horseman and Khmer soldiers on a Bayon outer gallery bas-relief (by Wayne Johnson, 2013). Below, a Hayagriva bust, Cambodia, 10th century.

hayagriva-10thcentury.jpg#asset:3756

About the Author

Aedeen Cremin

Born in Ireland, active in Celtic studies, Aedeen Cremin moved to Australia in the 1970s where she lectured in architecture at University of Sydney and Canberra.

With degrees from Universities of Ireland, Strasbourg and Sydney, she specialized in landscape archaeology, especially in North Portugal (The Vinhais Survey) and in Australia's industrial heritage (mining and metallurgy). Since retiring to Canberra she has taught archaeology at the ANU and world history at the University of Canberra.

She is currently an associate researcher with the Greater Angkor Project in Cambodia.