Monday, June 4, 2012

Battle Royal of Koh Ker, now come the spectators!

The story of a three dimensional sandstone sculpture at the Prasat Thom temple located on a vast archeological site called Koh Ker, about 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is getting more and more curious. Near the entrance of the Prasat Thom sandstone temple at Koh Ker, which was dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, a sculpture commissioned by Cambodia's Khmer King Jayvarman IV, sometime around 930 CE and consisting of two free standing wrestlers, was discovered by the french scholars. In this sculpture, two figures of wrestlers were more than 5 feet tall and each must have weighed more than 125 Kg. The wrestlers wearing intricate headgear, were shown in battle ready stances. It is believed that the two wrestlers are none other than the Hindu mythological figures of Duryodhana and Bhima from the classical Hindu epic Mahabharata, in a battle stance.

Great Hindu epic Mahabharata, like all epics, is essentially a story of a battle between good and evil. The evil in this story is represented by hundred Kourava princes and the good by five Pandawa princes. The chief or main tormentor of good is the eldest Kourava prince 'Duryodhana'. Mahabharata describes in detail, how Duryodhana's end came. Duryodhana's closest ally 'Karna' fighting a battle royal from his chariot was defeated by supreme worrior Arjuna, by employing unfair means. Duryodhana totally disappointed now ran away and hid himself near a lake but came out later to face his destiny. Pandawa princes offered him a one to one fight with any of the Pandawa's, with weapon of his choice. Duryodhana stood up to this challenge, and agreed for a one to one battle with Bhima using a mace. Both the worriers being equally good and proficient in the skill of fighting with a mace, get into a fight.

They look and jump on each other to start this fight to finish and kill the opponent. It was this moment in the battle of good against the evil, that was picked up by King Jayvarman IV (928-941 CE) to put into a sandstone sculpture as the ideal adornment for the entrance of Prasat Thom Temple of Hindu God Vishnu. Instead of creating a bass relief as was the practice, king decided to create a sculpture in full round form, where these two worriers would be seen standing freely on ground ready to leap at each other. The sculptors, on their king's wishes, created a sculpture that was unique and extra ordinary in every sense.

I have dealt in detail, in two previous blogposts (Would Duryodhana ever come home? And Wrestlers of Koh Ker), how the twin statues of the two wrestlers Duryodhana and Bhima were plundered or looted from the site during civil war days of Cambodia. Those were the days of complete chaos, power struggle and genocide, when looters hacked the long forgotten and inaccessible temples and pillaged priceless antiquities and sold them to western collectors. The wrestler's statues were also hacked near the foot and at the ancient site of Koh Ker today, only the feet of the wrestlers, firmly anchored to the ground, remain.

It however now appears that the Koh Ker sandstone sculpture did not consist of of just two royal wrestlers. There were also at least two spectators, created in sand stone, who not only were watching this fight to finish from a side but also appeard from their stance, to be ready to join the fight, if need arose. Along with wrestlers, these spectators statues were also plundered or looted during Cambodia's civil war and have been now found displayed at present in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both the spectators statues, about 4 feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds each, are seen wearing jeweled wristbands, armbands and crowns. One of the sculptures also is shown wearing an earring known as 'Kundala'. It is obvious that these two spectators are not ordinary bystanders or attendants as are being described by the museum. From their adornments, they are definitely princes. The sitting pose in which they have been shown is known in India as 'Battle stance' or 'Veerasana'.

For anyone, who is familiar with the story of Mahabharata, it would be obvious that these two spectators in kneeling position, can not be anyone else, except two of the Pandava Prince Bhima's (One of the two wrestlers) four brothers, Yudhishtira, Arjuna, Nakul and Sahdeva. Since both these statues look similar, I can hazard a guess. They could possibly be the Twin Brothers, Nakula and Sahdeva. Their attire, battle stance and smile on their face tells it all. They have just won an epic war, their brother is ready to destroy their principal enemy. It is natural for the sculptor, to show them smiling under such conditions. The over all grandeur of this whole Koh Ker sculpture is just unimaginable and is subject of greatest admiration. It is our misfortune that such grand art creations were hacked and looted by people for their personal greed.

The heads of the two statues had been donated to the museum in 1987 and 1989, and the two torsos were given together to the museum in 1992.Three of the items — a head and both torsos — are listed as gifts from Douglas A.J. Latchford, a British citizen living in Thailand. He says that these three items were the property of Spink & Son, a London dealer known for its sales of Asian art. Spink $ Son requested Mr. Latchford to provide financial aid to them so that the pieces can be given to museum as gift. Marsha Vargas Handley, the wife of Raymond G. Handley, has gifted the other head to the museum. She purchased it for $42,000, again from Spink & Son. Both Latchford and Handley say that Spink & Son never gave them any information regarding how they got the pieces. A spokesman for Spink says that it no longer has any of the paperwork for the statues. The museum acknowledges that beyond the names of the donors it has no records on the statues’ origins, even though it has a longstanding policy to investigate the history of donated antiquities.

US Federal prosecutors, investing the case of statue of Duryodhana already have enough evidence based on which they believe the temple was looted after 1970, during Cambodia’s civil war. They have compiled testimonies from villagers who say the temple was virtually unmolested until the 1970s, and reliant on the fact that until the late 1960s, Koh Ker lacked the roads needed to carry away such heavy statues.

The Cambodian government is now convinced that the two life-size 10th-century statues displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, were looted definitely from a jungle temple of Prasat Thom. and plans to ask for their return. Im Sokrithy, a director of Apsara, the Cambodian agency that oversees heritage and land management at the sprawling temple complex in Cambodia says that “The government is very serious about moving this forward, and we are getting much legal advice. We are taking a forceful position, and we hope they can be returned.” The Museum however says that so far it has not been contacted by Cambodia and has no information to suggest the works were stolen.

Some new information has been now provided by Anne LeMaistre, the UNESCO representative in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. She says that her agency is now preparing a report with properly laid out evidence that the sculpture at the Prasat Thom temple actually consisted of a group of 12 statues. The two statues at Metropolitan Museum of Art, the statue of Dryodhana, brought to US for auction by Sotheby's and the statue of other wrestler Bhima, displayed at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif. USA, are all part of this 12 statue gruping. This grouping was broken up, plundered or looted when Cambodia was destabilized by civil war.

This last piece of information is simply just astonishing. I can not even imagine the kind of grand spectacle this sculpture must have been when it was safe and intact. It does not require much imagination to realize that the remaining statues would be of other characters present during this episode from Hindu classic Mahabharata. If we ever find these remaining statues, I am quite sure that two of these would be the remaining Pandava brothers, Yudhishtira and Arjuna, one of their wife 'Droupadi' and one of the most important character of them all, the real hero of Mahabharata, Lord Krishna.

4 June 2012


On December 12th 2013, truce was finally called, when Sotheby’s, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa and the US federal government have come to an agreement about Duryodhana statue from Koh Ker, Cambodia. This comes seven months after the Metropolitan Museum of Art returned the pair of 10th-century Khmer statues known as the Kneeling Attendants that had been looted from the Prasat Chen temple. Sotheby’s have agreed to return the Duryodhana statue looted from the same temple that has been blocked by US from sale for two years. The negotiations have been long and arduous and legal wrangling very nasty for a cultural property dispute.

The consignor, Decia Ruspoli di Poggio Suasa, who had long owned the statue, and Sotheby’s have “voluntarily determined, in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage,” that it should be returned. In return all accusations against them that they were dealing in stolen property would be dropped.

That only leaves the Norton Simon Art Foundation in Pasadena, which still owns the other Mahabharata warrior Bhima's statue, who is Duryodhana’s opponent in the deadly battle created in stone at Koh ker, Cambodia.

12th January 2013

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