SOAS University of London

Centre of South East Asian Studies

Why do we know so little about the Goddess and her worship among the ancient Khmers?

Dominic Goodall (Pondicherry Centre of the EFEO)

Date: 3 March 2021Time: 11:00 AM

Finishes: 3 March 2021Time: 1:00 PM

Venue: Virtual Event

Type of Event: Webinar

Khmer Inscription
Photo: EFEO


All of us start with misconceptions about what Khmer inscriptions and art can tell us, and most find ourselves asking: Why is it so hard to marry iconographic and epigraphic data? There are many partial answers. Often, we have lost crucial parts of epigraphs or misinterpret what survives. The inscriptions were of course in any case not written to inform subsequent generations of strangers about religious ideas and practices, nor to describe and explain the installations they record. So historians are trying to establish answers to their questions by eavesdropping on a discourse that is really about something else. Furthermore, most of the statuary has also been lost — melted down for precious metals, or damaged beyond legibility. And in any case, unlike with churches, Hindu iconography doesn’t necessarily say much about the sect-orientation of its temples. Of course we can turn to prescriptive Sanskrit texts surviving elsewhere that lay down how images should look and how they are to be worshipped. But what has been published of such literature is mostly South Indian and post-12th century, describing notions, practices and iconography specific to the Tamil-speaking South of the Chola and post-Chola periods. And some deities, such as the Goddess and Skanda, although ubiquitous in sculpture, painting and literature, do not seem to have surviving corpora of first-millennium prescriptive literature governing their worship anyway. Each of these issues could be explored in a separate lecture, and “goddesses in Cambodia” is already a huge topic in itself. This lecture will focus on a small handful of objects that elucidate a tiny part of that topic and its difficulties.

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Why do we know so little about the Goddess and her worship among the ancient Khmers?

Khmer Idol
Photo: EFEO/National Museum of Cambodia


Bhattacharya, Kamaleswar. 1961. Les religions brahmaniques dans l’ancien Cambodge: d’après l’épigraphie et l’iconographie. Publications de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient 49. Paris: École française d’Extrême-Orient.

Dumont, Louis. 1953. ‘Définition structurale d’un dieu populaire tamoul : AiyaNār, le maître’. Journal Asiatique CCXLI: 255–70.

Sanderson, Alexis. 2003. ‘The Śaiva Religion among the Khmers (Part I)’. Bulletin de l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient 90 (1): 349–462.

[pp. 30–35 of Introduction to:]
Sathyanarayanan, R., and Dominic Goodall. 2015. Śaiva Rites of Expiation: A First Edition and Translation of Trilocanaśiva’s Twelfth-Century Prāyaścittasamuccaya. Collection Indologie. Pondicherry: Institut français de Pondichéry; École française d’Extrême-Orient.

Schmid, Charlotte. 2002. ‘Mahiṣāsuramardinī, A Vaiṣṇava Goddess?’ In Foundations of Indian Art. Proceedings of the Chidambaram Seminar on Art and Religion, Feb. 2001, edited by R. Nagaswamy, 143–61. Chennai: Tamil Arts Academy.

———. 2003. ‘À propos des premières images de la Tueuse de buffle: déesses et krishnaïsme ancien’. Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 90: 7–67.

———. 2011. ‘Du rite au mythe: les tueuses de buffle de l’Inde ancienne’. Artibus Asiae 71 (1): 115–61.

Speaker Biography

Dominic Goodall is a Sanskritist and historian of religion who has been a member of the EFEO since 2000. He became Head of the Pondicherry Centre of the EFEO in 2002, where he remained until April 2011. Then, posted in Paris from 2011 to 2015, he gave lectures at the École pratique des hautes études (Religious Sciences Section), principally on Cambodian inscriptions in Sanskrit and on the history of Śaivism from unpublished sources. He is now once again posted in Pondicherry, where he continues to pursue his scholarly interests, in particular in Sanskrit poetry and in the history of the Śaiva Siddhānta.

Among his publications are editions and translations of works of poetry in Sanskrit and of hitherto unpublished Śaiva scriptures and theological commentaries. He is currently a professor (directeur d’études) at the EFEO, co-editor with Dr Marion Rastelli of the Viennese dictionary of tantric terminology, the Tāntrikābhidhānakośa. He currently participates in two ERC projects: Śivadharma and DHARMA.

In May 2016, he was elected membre correspondent étranger de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres.

Organiser: SOAS Centre of South East Asian Studies and SOAS Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme

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