contributing editors

Surana Singh
Assistant Professor of Art History at East Los Angeles College

leeSurana Singh is Assistant Professor of Art History at East Los Angeles College, where she has been teaching since 2004. She studied Art History and Visual Culture at U.C. Santa Cruz, where she earned her bachelor’s degree, and completed her master’s degree in Theory, Criticism, and History of Art, Design, and Architecture at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Her research interests are in Modern European and Asian visual culture, with emphasis on India, Germany and Switzerland, where traditional imagery is used in constructs of national identity.

Art History & Travel Series:

Traditional Myth, Hinduism, and Buddhism: Naga at Angkor

In August of this year I had the opportunity to travel to Siem Riep and visit the largest network of temples in the world at Angkor; once the capital of the Khmer kingdom Angkor was founded at the end of the 9th century and is comprised of immense Hindu and Buddhist temples built by Khmer rulers between the 12th and 13th centuries.1

map map
These photographs of maps of the Khmer kingdom were taken by the author at the Royal Palace complex in Phnom Penh2.

Cambodia: Mythological Beginnings
“The word Cambodia derives from the Sanskrit Kambuja, the name of a north Indian tribe associated with the myth of the origin of Cambodia.”i According to the Sanskrit version of this myth, an Indian Brahman adventurer, Kaundinya, threw his spear intending that where it landed he would build a capital. At this time he married Soma, the daughter of the serpent king (nagaraja), who helped him to conquer the kingdom, and together they founded the Kambuja dynasty.ii Chinese records have documented that a man by the name of Huntian arrived in the 1st century CE by ship; he shot a magic arrow at the ship of the queen of the country who then submitted to him, becoming his wife, establishing a dynasty. In Khmer art, the snake figures prominently, not only because the founding of Cambodia is tied to the snake princess, but that according to traditional spiritual beliefs, snakes live in the underworld and gain access to the human world through water.iii

Naga and the Churning of the Ocean
Brahmanism (later known as Hinduism) made its way from India to Cambodia as early as the 1st century CE. The Hindu legend of the churning of the ocean of milk may be found in some puranas (literally “stories of old,” referring to a collection of ancient myths) and in the Mahabharata as one of the secondary creation myths.iv “The ocean is seen as the repository of all potentialities [and] only by the joint efforts of the gods and the [demons] was it possible to churn it, thus retrieving a number of precious objects and divine beings which would benefit mankind.” v The nectar of immortality was promised to the demons, and thus they agreed to join the task of churning the ocean. The demons (asuras) and gods (devas) helped each other, using the serpent (naga) Vasuki as the rope, and Mount Mandara as the pivot, resting on Vishnu as the tortoise avatar (Kurma), churning the ocean in order to produce nectar (amrita). During this cosmic event thousands of beautiful celestial female dancers (apsaras) emerged. Once the churning was over the demons attempted to take the vessel of nectar for themselves, but were distracted by Mohini, a young, beautiful girl. Mohini was in fact the lord Vishnu who transformed himself in order to recover the vessel of nectar from the demons, which he then gave to the gods, who drank the nectar and then were able to defeat the demons.

See the Om Namah Shivaya YouTube link for a five minute video on this story directed by Dheeraj Kumar, airing in India in 1997:

The importance of this narrative is clearly articulated by all of the numerous sculptural depictions of nagas, apsaras, and narrative reliefs found at Angkor3. Upon entering Angkor Thom (the name of the city, not a particular site), on either side of the causeway leading to the entrance gate gods and demons have been sculpted shown pulling on a serpent.

Angkor Thom was established during the late 12th to early 13th century by Jayavarman VII. The name for the city is derived from the word Mahanagara, or the Great City, as inscribed on stone at Angkor Vat during the 16th-18th century. Laterite was used in building the wall surrounding Angkor Thom and there are five gateways (gopuras) leading into the city, marking the cardinal points, the fifth presumably known as the Victory Gate that led from the royal palace.

On the left side of the road, the gods are pulling on the serpent as in the Hindu legend.

Pictured here is a demon (asura) squatting, as he pulls on the serpent.

This low relief representation of a dancer (apsara) is one of hundreds that adorn the walls of Angkor Vat.
As one walks across the raised causeway over the moat to enter Angkor Vat, one is greeted by serpents (nagas) on both the right and the left.

Angkor Vat is named for the Buddhist monastery or Vat, and may be translated as “the City which is a Temple.”vi It was commissioned by King Paramavishnuloka, known posthumously as King Suryavarman II (1113-1150 CE), as a Hindu temple and was dedicated to Vishnu. This is indicated by the low-relief inscriptions found in the southwestern wing of Angkor Vat (in the historical gallery). The five stone towers and the moat are modeled after Hindu cosmology, representing a world surrounded by the oceans, the central tower representing Mount Meru, the residence of the Hindu gods. The number five figures prominently in both Hindu and Buddhist architecture in that the number represents the four directions and its zenith.

In addition to Vishnu, several of the temples were originally dedicated to Shiva. However, in the 16th century the site was adopted for Buddhism and many of the upper register reliefs, like the Hall of a Thousand Buddhas were carved at this time.

At Angkor, serpents (nagas), as pictured here, are composed of multiple serpent heads, combining to form one hood.

The central tower at Angkor Vat (so-called Bakan) contains a 16th century inscription that states the original name for the temple was “Preah Bisnuloka or Vishnuloka” in reference to its dedication to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Buddhism, like Hinduism, has a long history in Cambodia. Hinayana (or Theravada) Buddhism made its way from India to Cambodia in the 3rd century CE and later Mahayana Buddhism arrived by the 8th century. Khmer kings like Jayavarman V and Jayavarman VII supported Buddhism. It would be Jayavarman VII (1181-1218 CE) who would commissioned the Bayon in Angkor Thom with towers comprised of four heads said to be portraits of the king or representations of the bodhisattva of infinite compassion, Lokeshvara (also known by the Sanskrit name Avalokiteshvara, or later as Guanyin in Chinese). The Bayon was dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism but was also erected for the Hindu gods.viii

This is an example of the numerous four-faced towers found at the Bayon and marking the entrance into the city of Angkor Thom.

Representation of the Buddha at Angkor Vat, displaying the dhyana mudra (meditation gesture) seated on the coils of a snake with a multi-headed serpent hood.

Statues of the Buddha were commissioned during the reign of Jayavarman V, depicting the Buddha (enlightened one) seated in a yogi position, not on-top of an overturned lotus flower, which is common to Buddhist iconography, but on the serpent Muchalinda, the serpent king.ix Muchalinda appears in the narrative of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama on several accounts. For example, after having attained nirvana (enlightenment) Muchalinda coiled himself around the Buddha to protect him for seven days from a violent storm.x At Angkor, therefore, the numerous representations of the snake (naga) reflect traditional indigenous spiritual beliefs, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Detail of the coils of the snake made by incising into the stone. Representations of the Buddha on display in the central towers of Angkor Vat are depicted seated on snake coils. This is a characteristic of Southeast Asian representations of the Buddha.

Many statues were desecrated during the period of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) and some statues were sold to buyers outside of Cambodia.

Recently, a statue from Koh Ker, about 60 miles northeast of Angkor Vat, identified as the Hindu warrior Duryodhanna, was attempted to be auctioned by Sotheby’s. This statue in question is one of a pair of warriors; the other is Bhima (Duryodhanna’s cousin) matched by archaeologists to be on display at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California. Eric Bourdonneau, the archeologist who matched both statues claims that French records state that these statues were in place in 1939 and that they were removed in the 1970s. “Archeologists and Cambodian officials say the case of the footless statue is all the more poignant because of the country’s recent history of genocide and plunder, and because researchers have found the very pedestal and feet belonging to the artwork.”xi Since March 2011, the Cambodian government has taken steps in the return of Khmer statues for sale or on display at Sotheby’s, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Norton Simon Museum.

For recent New York Times articles reporting on artworks that the Cambodian government wants returned click the following links:

All reporting and articles were conducted by Tom Mashberg and Ralph Blumenthal.

All photographs in this article were taken by the author, August 2012.

1See the following link on Siem Riep in the New York Times Travel Section:

2For more information see the official website for the Royal Palace at:

3Angkor is a World Heritage Site. This link will take you to the UNESCO website:

4For a bronze example of the Buddha Seated on Muchilinda at the National Gallery of Australia see the following link:

iGrove Art page 2 of 7: Cambodia [Kampuchea] /subscriber/article/grove/art/T013294


iiiGrove Art 16 of 25: Cambodia, Architecture. /subscriber/article/grove/art/T013294

ivAnna L. Dallapiccola. Dictionary of Hindu Lore and Legend. London: Thames & Hudson, 2002: 157.

vIbid: 51.

viClaire Boobbyer, et. al. Vietnam and Angkor Wat. London: DK Publishers, 2011: 212.

viiVen Sophorn ed. Masterpieces in Angkor National Museum Guidebook. Thailand: Amarin Printing & Publishing, 2011: 106.

viiiIbid: 119.

ixGrove Art page 6 of 7: Cambodia [Kampuchea] /subscriber/article/grove/art/T013294

xNiki van den Heuvel “Buddha sheltered by Muchalinda” in artonview, issue 57, autumn 2009.

xiMashberg, Tom and Ralph Blumenthal. “Mythic Warrior Is Captive in Global Art Conflict.” New York Times: February 28, 2012 and “Sotheby’s Accused Of Deceit in Sale Of Khmer Statue.” New York Times: November 14, 2012.

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