Protecting the Protector of Phimai

by Boreth Ly

Were the builders of Phimai following a "visual narrative program"?

Phimai Boreth Ly1

Publication: The Journal of the Walters Art Museum, Vol. 64/65, A Curator's Choice: Essays in Honor of Hiram W. Woodward, Jr. (2006/2007), pp. 35-48

Published: 2007

Author: Boreth Ly

Pages: 14

Language : English

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Following his personal approach of art history, the author explores the political and ideological’ contentsof statuary and architecture at the 12th century Buddhist temple of Phimai, nowadays in Thailand.

In the eleventh century, an inscription appeared that made clear reference to the function of Buddhist Tantric images as political protectors of the Khmer kingdom. A case in point is the recently discovered Sab Bak inscription (dated 1066 c.E.), which vividly states: ‘[T]he images ofVrah Buddhalokesvara were installed by the Venerable Sristyavarman, who had supernatural power, in the past, on Abhayagiri, with the intention that Java not attack Kambuja [Sruk Khmer]. Later on, the nine images deteriorated. The venerable teacher by the name of Dharanindrapura has renovated these deteriorated images and reinstalled them once again. In this way, they became free from harm. Indeed, his pupil, VrahAcharyyaDhanu, has installed these images in the year 988 [saka] which is in the reign of His Majesty King Udayadityavarmandeva. May he live long and remain powerful for the rest of his reign’.” 

In closing, the author states that Phimai was mainly organized to express the symbolic power relation between sacred image, patronage, and kingship’, and it is probable that the five narratable” episodes from the Ramayana at Phimai are present in order to reinforce and to further underscore this political agenda.’

Photo: Assembly of the Gods and Return to Ayodhaya [?],Southeast pediment and lintel of the mandapa, Phimai (author’s photo).

Tags: art history, Phimai, sculpture, Tantric Buddhism, Java

About the Author

Boreth Ly

Boreth Ly

Boreth Ly is Assistant Professor of Southeast Asian Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Born in Cambodia, he was educated in France and the United States. Dr. Ly has conducted field research and traveled extensively in Southeast Asia. 

At the University of California at Santa Cruz, he teaches courses on Ancient and Contemporary arts of Southeast Asia and its diaspora.

He has published numerous articles on the visual culture of Southeast Asia and its diaspora, co-edited with Nora Taylor Modern and Contemporary Southeast Asian Art: An Anthology (Ithaca, NY, SEAP, 2012) and more recently Traces of Trauma, Cambodian Visual Culture and National Identity in the Aftermath of Genocide (University of Hawai’i Press, 2020).