Mystical Paintings Suddenly Appear at Angkor Wat

Previously undetected 16th century paintings are discovered the Temple of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.

Over 200 paintings dating to the 16th century were recently discovered at Cambodia's Temple of Angkor Wat, the world's largest religious monument.

Angkor Wat is already famous for its spectacular bas-relief friezes depicting ceremonial and religious scenes, so this newly uncovered series of images only adds to the temple's importance. This map of the temple shows, in red, where the newly found paintings are located.

"The paintings found at Angkor Wat seem to belong to a specific phase of the temple's history in the 16th century A.D. when it was converted from a Vishnavaite Hindu use to Theravada Buddhist," wrote Noel Hidalgo Tan and colleagues in a paper published in the latest issue of the journal Antiquity. Tan is a researcher in the College of Asia and the Pacific at Australian National University.

"Vishnavaite" refers to the fact that the temple was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu. It might have served as a mausoleum when it was first built during the 12th century reign of Suryavarman II (1113–1150 A.D.). "Theravada" refers to the oldest surviving branch of Buddhism.

Digital photography and a program called DStretch enabled Tan and his team to see and photograph the paintings, which are otherwise invisible or nearly invisible to the naked eye. Without such technology, the images went undiscovered for over four centuries.

Many boats were depicted in the paintings, and always with red pigment. The color's significance remains a mystery.

The greenish-blue background behind this boat makes it look as if it is drifting along water. This painting, and the others uncovered at Angkor Wat, date to the relatively unknown ‘middle' period of Angkor's history. This was after the city of Angkor had ceased to be the capital of the Khmer Kingdom, but before it was "rediscovered" by the Western world in the 19th century.

This is just one of several elephant paintings uncovered at Angkor Wat. Elephants, as well as horses, were the most commonly depicted animals, but images of lions, monkeys and other creatures were also included in the paintings.

"Animal paintings display a variety of artistic styles and colors, appearing as solid silhouettes and line drawings in both red and black," according to Tan and his team.

The researchers refer to this creature as a "zoomorph," meaning a mythical creature based on animal forms. Tan and his colleagues believe that many of the newly uncovered paintings were commissioned by King Ang Chan during his reign between 1528 and 1566.

Tan and his colleagues suspect that this image might be a preliminary sketch of Aspara, a female spirit of the clouds and waters. Both Hindu and Buddhist mythology refer to such celestial singing and dancing nymphs.

The Monkey King is one of China's most enduring mythological figures, and is featured in many Buddhist teachings. In one story, the Buddha is said to have come into the world as a Monkey King who unselfishly risks his own life to save his troop.

These are "thought to be stencils, which would have been laid out prior to carving," Tan and his team wrote. Since the carving never happened in this case, the researchers suspect the temple was abandoned for a period before it became a Buddhist place of worship.

This painting of a stepped pyramid includes a mirror image of the building in the lower register, "as if depicting a reflection on water," according to the researchers. The image might depict Angkor Wat itself. To this day, the mirror image motif is commonly seen on postcards from Cambodia.

Tan and his colleagues suspect this image is of a stupa, dome-shaped structures erected as Buddhist shrines. Usually stupas are in memory of Buddha himself, or of a Buddhist saint.

The Khmer orchestra, also known as the pinpeat orchestra, is a musical ensemble that performs the ceremonial music of the royal courts and temples of Cambodia. A typical Khmer orchestra consists between nine and 12 traditional instruments.

This photograph shows modern Khmer orchestra instruments -- kong vong (gongs set in a semi-circular frame) and roneat (a type of xylophone). Note how similar they are to those depicted in the Khmer orchestra painting at Angkor Wat.

The paintings discovered at Angkor Wat, including this elaborate scene featuring riders on horseback, are among the earliest examples of painted temple murals in post-Angkoran Cambodia, according to the researchers.