Thursday, February 07, 2008

Indra at Phnom Chisor

The lintel of Indra on 3 elephants at Phnom Chisor
Images of the god Indra on the great white elephant Airavata, either seated or standing, at the centre of decorative lintels over the grinning head of kala are perhaps the most popular in Khmer iconography and adorn lintels facing east, the direction of which he is the guardian. However, Indra isn't the most popular figure featured on the Phnom Chisor lintels as I found out on Sunday. More on the most popular imagery in another post. For now, let's investigate Indra a bit more. Originally one of the first ranked gods, his shining light declined in status later on. From the king of the gods he dropped down to lord of the atmosphere who governs the weather, with his weapon, the thunderbolt, carried in his right hand. The elephant he rides, usually with three heads, was born from the Churning of the Ocean of Milk story. Amongst the Indra myths that exist, he's said to have had many love affairs and adulterous relationships.
At Phnom Chisor, I located two Indra on Airavata lintels, both facing east, the first (above) is located on the eastern gopura that looks down onto the royal processional stairway, on the edge of the summit of the hill. Above the kala head - the kala is a monster with the frontal features of a lion, huge bulging eyes and a grin that exposes fangs, with two hands holding decorative garlands in its mouth, but with no lower jaw - is Indra seated on three separate elephants rather than a single elephant with three heads, which is the norm. On the incomplete pediment above the Indra lintel is a dancing form of the god Shiva - the dance is the tandava, which symbolises the destruction of the world - and in this example, he appears to be playing a flute. The other figures by his feet are Karikkalammaiyar on his left and Devi to the right close to a small figure with four heads.
The incomplete pediment of the dancing Shiva and flute
The second Indra lintel is also on the eastern gopura but faces inwards towards the central vihara. This is a more traditional example with Indra astride a three-headed Airavata, again above a grinning kala head holding onto garlands that end in makaras disgourging a three-headed naga. All the lintels at Phnom Chisor are in sandstone while the walls of the gopura are in laterite and the inner sanctuaries in brick.
I appreciate that this level of detail is only of interest to a handful of people but it certainly adds another dimension for me when I am in the middle of the Cambodian countryside and am trying to date a temple when all I have to go on is a carved lintel, often very badly worn through time. Phnom Chisor was mainly built during the reign of Suryavarman I and from the Baphuon architectural style in the first half of the 11th century, when the king extended the empire quite considerably.
Indra seated on a three-headed elephant above kala

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