Art in Cambodia: The incomparable Khmer sculpture

Sculpture has a very special place in the Cambodian culture. The best illustration of this art is the Angkor Temples. This world-famous spot is a breathtaking archaeological site where the know-how of sculpture is embodied by the omnipresence of the famous Apsaras on the walls of Angkorian temples. From small statuettes to the huge sculptures, these are all survivors of a long period of uncertainty during which many works of art and artists disappeared under the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, this ancestral art still continues through the new generations and has been listed a UNESCO's World Heritage Site.

The birth of the Khmer sculpture

The first appearance of the works of sculpture date back from the Kingdom of Funan (from the 2nd to 6th century) in the Mekong Delta. It was in this province, considered as the cradle of the Khmer civilization, where the first historical sites, containing engravings and statuettes with Indian footprints, were discovered. The 7th century marked the beginning of the liberation of the Khmer sculpture and the development of its unique style and know-how. Through the progress of works in the territory, the centuries that followed it represented the peak of Angkorian sculpture.


Consecration and wonders of the world

At the beginning of the 10th century, King Yasovarman I decided to move the capital of his Kingdom to Angkor, formerly known as Yasodharapura. Thanks to some soil, rich in rock (laterite, sandstone, etc.), the various Kings of the capital built more than a thousand temples and sanctuaries between the 9th and 13th centuries. It was during this glorious period of the Khmer Empire that the art of sculpture was at its peak. Those famous structures with exceptional dimensions are a demonstration of the talents of the Cambodian architects and builders.

The extravagant temple of Banteay Srei, nicknamed "The Citadel of Women", is one of the perfect illustrations of the skill of the sculptors during those time. It was the only temple built in pink sandstones and its facades were entirely and finely carved. Each sculpture captivatingly retraces a history associated with the Hindu mythologies.

A cultural pass

At the end of the unforgettable period of the Khmer Empire, stone carvings were less practice and over the time, they were replaced by wood carving. This transformation was related to the mass conversion of the people to Theravada Buddhism in the 15th century. Lacquered statues or huge panels were then designed, on which, the scenes depicting the history of the Cambodian culture were carved. Today, the city of Battambang is home to many workshops and craftsmen who transform raw wood into works of art.

 Discover our article on The revival of the Cambodian lacquer.

The Cambodian sculptural art, based on wood or stone, almost vanished during the Khmer Rouge period. During their regime, from 1975 to 1979, the majority of the craftsmen were either killed or forced to cultivate fields and carry out earthworks. Some survivors then left to escape the regime. It was in 1992, thanks to the joint efforts of the European Union and several NGOs, that they resumed their work while training and educating young Cambodians to the rebirth of this ancient art. After the dark decades, the art of sculpture is now making a glorious revival in modern Cambodia.