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Goddess Images in Cambodian Art

A review of The Symbiosis of Image, Monument and Landscape: A Study of Select Goddess Images at Prasat Kravan, Kbal Spean and Banteay Srei in Cambodia, by Soumya E. James.

By Paul A. Lavy

In this dissertation, Soumya James argues that the “divine feminine” played a crucial, but often overlooked, role in the art of Angkor, a kingdom which included present-day Cambodia and periodically extended into parts of neighboring Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam (ca. 9th – 15th century CE). Following the important revisionist work of such historians as Barbara Watson Andaya and Trudy Jacobsen, James seeks to address the marginalization of women and gender studies that has, until recently, characterized much of the scholarship on pre-twentieth century Southeast Asia (e.g., Barbara Watson Andaya, The Flaming Womb: Repositioning Women in Early Modern Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2006; Trudy Jacobsen, Lost Goddesses: The Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History. Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2008).

James characterizes her approach as “integrated” and emphasizes the inextricable links between sculpture, architecture, myth, “localized” Hindu beliefs and practices, landscape, and performance art (p. 6). Rather than introduce previously unknown or unpublished works of art, she re-examines “older evidence” (p. 5) — primarily inscriptions, bronze and stone sculpture, and temple reliefs — in light of recent research on Tantra and relatively recent Khmer performance traditions, as well as through frequent comparisons to Balinese art and culture. While her study has relevance for the entire Angkorian period, her focus is primarily three monumental sites: the 10th century temples of Prasat Kravan and Banteay Srei and the mostly 11th century carvings in the riverbed and banks of the Kbal Spean River in the Kulen Mountains northeast of Angkor.

Read the full review

(H/T Max Dashu)

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