One day, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara gazed down upon the Six Realms of existence and was saddened by what he saw there.  Despite his vow to help all other sentient beings attain enlightenment, every day there was more suffering in the world, and he could not see an end to it.

In despair, he cried out to the Buddha Amitabha for help – and was answered.  The Buddha gave Avalokiteshvara eleven heads with which to hear the pleas and prayers of those who suffer, one thousand arms with which to reach out to them, and, pressed into the palms of his many hands, one thousand eyes to keep guard and help beings see the path towards enlightenment.


This popular Buddhist story, commonly associated with the Kagyu school of Mahayana Buddhism, explains the origin of the thousand-arm manifestation of Avalokiteshvara.  One of the most widely venerated bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara has male or female manifestations in almost every Buddhist culture and is represented in Buddhist art around the world.  One of the most accessible of the bodhisattvas, his mission in the world is to extend the Buddhas’ compassion to all humankind, helping us escape from an unending cycle of suffering and death.


At the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in Cambodia, however, it is humankind’s turn to help Avalokiteshvara.  Built by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII, who also built many of the better known Buddhist temples in the Angkor temple complex a little more than 100 kilometers to the southeast, Banteay Chhmar is one of the finest Southeast Asian architectural masterpieces of the late 12th Century.  Most likely built in honor of King Jayavarman VII’s son who died in a war against the Champa kingdom of present-day Vietnam, the temple complex features monumental face towers and a massive moat.  Perhaps its most stunning feature, however, is its one-kilometer arcaded enclosure wall, featuring intricately detailed bas-reliefs recording the military, spiritual and cultural history of the ancient Khmer kingdom.


In the southwest sector of this enclosure wall stand two intact bas relief carvings of Avalokiteshvara, each standing at just over two meters tall.  Staring out from the rough stone, his feet planted firmly on a lotus flower, his many faces smile with benevolence and his thousand arms spread wide in compassion.  Originally, the gallery featured eight of these spectacular carvings, but in January 1999, four of the images were jack-hammered off the wall’s stone blocks and loaded onto a truck headed across the Thai border.  Two of these stolen treasurers were later found and returned to Cambodia, where they are now on display in the National Museum in Phnom Penh, but the other two remain lost.  The four carvings left untouched by the looters have been greatly destabilized by unchecked vegetation growth and the lack of a proper wall foundation.  Surveying of the area has revealed that the two southern-most Avalokiteshvara carvings on the wall have collapsed, but they remain buried under the ruins of the roof vaults.


Over the next four years, GHF is planning to undertake the restoration of the Avalokiteshvara carvings in partnership with the Cambodian Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, the Department of Scientific Computing (IWR) at Heidelberg University, and Friends of Khmer Culture.  Due to the incredible artistic, cultural and spiritual significance of the carvings, and their high interest for visitors to the site, the project has become a top priority for restoration work at Banteay Chhmar and is scheduled to begin in earnest in 2013.


Already, the combined GHF-IWR team have commenced documentation and collected data on over 2000 stone blocks from the Avalokiteshvara carvings and recorded four of the extant images – two on site and two in the National Museum - using a 3D scanner.  

Once the carved blocks are scanned, they can be examined and manipulated in 3D on a computer, precluding further damage and erosion at human hands.  The scans also give the conservation team more accurate data on the relief carvings, as unchecked vegetation growth and the changing light of the jungle can obscure a human-eye view of the carvings’ dimensions.  As the 3D scans are analyzed and studied in Heidelberg, they will allow the Cambodian conservation team to piece this stone puzzle back together with greater precision and efficiency.


John Sanday, GHF’s Regional Director for Asia & Pacific and Project Director at Banteay Chhmar, says, “This collaborative project will be a major breakthrough for the GHF Banteay Chhmar Conservation Training Project as it will enact GHF and the Ministry of Culture’s goal to establish the Heritage Conservation Unit, providing the MCFA with a much needed, trained group to take care of the monuments under its care.”

Tags: Avalokiteshvara, Banteay, Buddha, Cambodia, Chhmar, GHF, John, Sanday

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