SOAS University of London

Scholar’s work inspires generous gift to Cambodian temple restoration fund

21 March 2013
A carved doorway miraculously still standing

The scholarship of a SOAS academic has prompted a substantial donation to support the restoration of an ancient Cambodian temple.

The benefactor, who wishes to remain anonymous, made the ‘generous gift’ to the Global Heritage Fund (GHF) in honour of Dr Peter Sharrock’s research on the temple of Banteay Chhmar.

Dr Sharrock, Senior Teaching Fellow in History of Art and Archaeology, claims in his latest book Banteay Chhmar: forest citadel of the Khmer Empire (River Books, Bangkok summer 2013) that the temple city was nothing less than the twin hub (with Angkor) of the Khmer Empire in circa 1200.

The California-based GHF is an agency working to save endangered world heritage sites.  GHF initiated the restoration of the vast and now remote ruin five years ago and is training a team of Khmer restorers who will work on similar sites across northwest Cambodia. The province is now building a road to the site to facilitate access by tourists, many of whom cross the nearby border with Thailand to reach the temples of Angkor.

The citadel reached its apogee in 1203 when the Khmer army crossed the Annamite mountains and annexed the central Cham kingdoms (in modern Vietnam). The latest inscription found on a sanctuary doorway in Banteay Chhmar shows that the temple was still active in 1216. But the great Buddhist king died shortly thereafter and the empire began to gradually shrink in the ensuing decades under his less inspired and less energetic successors. By the 14th century the surrounding forest probably began to invade the graceful, brightly lit, pillared, five-metre high sandstone sanctuaries, embellished with remarkable carvings and surrounded by 15-metre high towers bearing giant faces of Vajrasattva, the supreme Buddha of northern Buddhism. A century later the Thais of Ayutthaya captured Angkor and Banteay Chhmar and removed the latter's distinctive images from the temple's sanctuaries. 

The restoration effort has enabled the identification of the special carving style of the Banteay Chhmar workshop in icons that have long graced museum and private collections around the world. Eventually the corbelled stone roofs -- the Khmers did not have the arch -- collapsed and the tropical vegetation took over the vast ruin.

Apart from the looting of icons -- which sadly continued until GHF started securing the moated temple -- the crumbled temple structures remained in a fairly pristine state, undisturbed under the tropical undergrowth below towering forest trees. The architects and archaeologists working on the restoration therefore have great hopes that Banteay Chhmar will yield many of its precious secrets as the thousands of tons of sandstone blocks are gradually raised and reconstitued as one of the jewels of the great Khmer Empire.

Robert Woods, Chief Development Officer of the Global Heritage Fund, said of the donation: “This support also helps us to ignite new economic development for local communities in developing countries; often alleviating poverty in the regions in which we work.”

On receiving a letter from the GHF informing him of the donation, Dr Sharrock said: “I'm delighted and humbled by the thought that my research has enabled the current restoration of this Khmer treasure to continue.”