Lineage and Legitimacy: Exploring Royal-Familial Visual Configurations in Cambodia
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As with those of many other rulers, the portrait of Norodom Sihanouk (1922–2012), the former king of Cambodia, has been used at various times in order to convey his sovereign status. This was particularly true of his official portrait, which remains a common presence in both public and private spaces throughout Cambodia. This portrait and multiple versions of it were put to work with press photographs and newsreels of Sihanouk engaged with everyday life, along with the king’s own cinematic oeuvre, to create a visual landscape that reinforced his central presence in Cambodia’s spiritual, social, and political life. All versions of Sihanouk’s official portrait comprise a head and shoulder shot, with his face slightly angled to the side and his gaze focused on a space beyond the frame. He wears a suit and tie, although their colors vary. In some versions the digital manipulation is minimal and lines are visible on his face; in others, the portrait has been more obviously altered and his face becomes shadow-less and wrinkle-free, his hair a solid gray mass. The official portrait is often accompanied by those of his wife, Monineath, and his son, King Sihamoni, presenting a royal-familial triad expressing kingship, past and present.
This paper explores this royal-familial portrait-triad by probing how and why legitimacy and lineage are expressed through visual representations of family ties. Consideration will be given to examples of historical antecedents and the particulars of their resurrection in twentieth-century Cambodia. I suggest that there is a structural power inherent within triadic configurations and that such an arrangement reinforces dynamics of legitimacy. Indeed, longstanding notions of political order in Cambodia are grounded within the triune of Nation, Religion, and King. Often more complex, multidirectional flows of power are expressed in these visual configurations, whereby the authority of the sovereign son strengthens that of his parents, which enables the son to retroactively inherit the power conferred upon his ancestors. Although the right to royal inheritance is “in the blood,” royal succession in Cambodia is not tied strictly to primogeniture and thus there are often competing heirs to the throne, meaning lineage and legitimacy must be more forcefully articulated. This paper will also consider the materiality of the images in question: how such portraits are replicated, disseminated, and displayed.
This paper has its origins in more than two years of research in Cambodia, an extended period that coincided with the death of Sihanouk, who passed away in Beijing on October 15, 2012. On that day I was with friends in a village in Siem Reap Province celebrating the final day of Pchum Ben — Cambodia’s festival of hungry ghosts. In the days immediately after his death, I traveled to the capital, Phnom Penh, to witness the vast numbers of mourners who came to the Royal Palace. Further research was carried out in the towns of Siem Reap and Battambang, where I documented the array of photographs of the king that appeared on sale. Three months later I attended the spectacular five-day funeral, in Phnom Penh, during which I interviewed mourners and workers in photographic studios and documented the explosion in photographic practices, tracing the unofficial production and consumption of images circulating within this visual economy. This documentation of royal and political photographs continued during a period of research in Cambodia from late 2015 until May 2016.
Portrait of a Modern “God-King”
The only child of Norodom Suramarit and Sisowath Kossamak, Norodom Sihanouk led a complex royal and political life. After the death of King Sisowath Monivong, in 1941, he was selected for the throne by the governor-general of French Indochina, under the belief that the young prince would be acquiescent to French colonial rule. Instead, in 1953, Sihanouk negotiated Cambodia’s independence. Two years later abdicated the throne and called on his father, Suramarit, to replace him as king. Sihanouk established the Sangkum Reastr Niyum party, which advocated a policy of Buddhist Socialism, and went on to win national elections, after which he took on the role of prime minister. In 1960, King Suramarit died and Sihanouk became permanent Head of State, with his mother, Queen Kossamak performing as the ceremonial monarch.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Sihanouk made visits to the countryside, accompanied by photographers and film crews. These trips, with their attendant photographs and newsreels, demonstrate Sihanouk’s desire to cultivate images of affection for, and affiliation with, rural Cambodians. At the same time, visits to new factories and schools showed his involvement with the development of the modern nation-state. Indeed, he has perhaps most endured as the symbol of Cambodian independence and nationhood.
During the 1960s, Sihanouk failed in his attempts to keep Cambodia neutral during the America-Vietnam war and was deposed in an American-backed coup in 1970, following which he offered words of support to the Khmer Rouge, who would take control of Cambodia five years later. Exiled within the Royal Palace and later overseas, Sihanouk was not to return to the throne until 1993. He abdicated again in 2004, citing ill health. Norodom Sihamoni, Sihanouk’s eldest son with his wife, Queen Monineath, who had spent much of his early life overseas, was crowned king in October 2004. He was appointed by a special nine-member council and approved by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The figure of Sihanouk cannot be divorced from the historical trajectory of Cambodia over the last century. In the first instance, this is due to his commitment to guiding the development of the nascent Cambodian nation-state and his machinations in the tumultuous political landscape of the country, as it was forced to confront its position in the wider geopolitical currents of the Cold War. Sihanouk’s continual vocal presence in Cambodian politics posed challenges to the post-1979 government of Hun Sen and tensions existed between the government and the Royal Palace. King Sihamoni is less politically involved than his father, whose abdication did not mark the end of his interference in politics. Sihanouk explored new mediums to make his views public, including becoming a prolific blogger. For many in Cambodia, Sihanouk’s critiques of the government — and often simply his presence — were seen to temper the postwar regime.
Second, Sihanouk’s fate and that of Cambodia were inextricably linked because of the longstanding notion of the body of the king as the establishment of order and the belief that a good and righteous ruler ensures the prosperity of a nation. This understanding has its roots in Angkorian concepts of kingship and order, remodeled in the post-Angkorian Theravāda landscape so that the king’s own body comes to replace the cosmological structuring force of Mount Meru. This equivalence between the person of Sihanouk and the country is in accordance with traditional Theravāda Buddhist conceptions of kingship and was encouraged by Sihanouk himself, who played up the role of paternalistic protector of Cambodia.
Over the decades, as Sihanouk’s physical presence in public life waxed and waned, so too did the visibility of his portrait. Throughout his turbulent career, the arrival of the person of Sihanouk was often marked by the appearance of his portrait; for example, the painter Vann Nath (a notable survivor of Khmer Rouge prisons) recalled painting huge portraits of Sihanouk to mark his visit to Battambang in the late 1960s. Archival photographs of the visit by the French president Charles de Gaulle in 1968 show the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh filled with portraits of the two leaders looming over the crowd. Sihanouk’s retreat from Cambodia and/or from the political theater was underscored by the absence of his image in the public arena. For example, several outbreaks of revolt in the immediate aftermath of the 1970 coup reportedly centered on peasant anger at the new regime’s removal of Sihanouk’s portrait from offices and shops. It would be naive to suggest that such protests were, in actuality, attributable to the removal of the portrait. Nonetheless, the suppression of his image became symbolic of his ousting from power in Phnom Penh and a tangible locus for volatile popular unrest in the provinces. In later years, following his triumphant return to post–Khmer Rouge, postwar Cambodia and his re-coronation in 1993, photographic portraits of Sihanouk, sometimes hand-painted with color, were erected in Phnom Penh to mark occasions such as his birthday celebrations. Indeed, when Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in 1991, after years in exile, he was greeted by sizable crowds who lined the streets from the airport to the Royal Palace, many of whom held versions of the official portrait, which were also hung from billboards lining the roads.
On the one hand, Sihanouk’s death represented his ultimate departure from political and royal life; on the other hand, it also marked his spectacular final return to Cambodia. At a literal level, this return was embodied in the two processions of his body in Phnom Penh, once on arrival from Beijing in October 2012 and again during the funeral procession in February 2013. Yet the now-permanent absence of his body allowed the figure of Sihanouk to continue to participate in political life, as witnessed by the degree to which his portrait flooded the visual landscape of Cambodia immediately after his death. Besides the official photo-portraits that were displayed across the country, large numbers of images circulated unofficially, assembled in laminated photo-posters or placed on small pin badges (figures 1 and 2). These were purchased in markets, pagodas, and streets and presented on social media, circumventing official channels of image production. Such images were, of course, commemorative, concerned with recounting key events from his life and, by extension, narratives of recent Cambodian history. But beyond this, these portrait-photographs became politically charged, acting as illustrative, didactic expressions of ideal Buddhist-Cambodia kingship, often in implicit critique of the country’s current political elite. For example, some mourners expressed their fears over the loss of their protector. There was, most of all, an explicit need to make the face of the king visible. The celebration of the king’s face, as a marker of his presence, is also exemplified in the numerous sightings of his apparition, the most famous of which occurred on the night of October 21, when crowds in Phnom Penh, the provinces, and beyond saw the king’s face on the surface of the moon. This preoccupation with seeing and presenting his face is in accordance with the announcement of his arrival on Cambodian soil. In this case, the photographic portrait fulfils its primary function of making present that which is absent, acting as a kind of medium, to conjure the dead into the present moment, at the same time acting as a repository for memories.
Often Sihanouk’s official portrait was, and it continues to be, displayed alongside the official portraits of Sihanouk’s wife, Queen Mother Monineath, and his son and successor, King Sihamoni. This royal triptych can be commonly seen tacked onto the walls of homes, offices, and businesses, with either Sihanouk or Sihamoni in the center. Immediately after his death, however, his official portrait was often displayed alone, usually on a larger scale and encased in a virtual and/or physical decorative frame (figure 3). Photographs of the three family members were found within the laminated photo-posters, often either pictured together, at Sihamoni’s coronation, for example, or another royal function, or in posed studio photographs that usually had diverse backgrounds digitally imposed, apparently to produce a variety of images. In some laminated posters, a younger Sihanouk is pictured with his parents.
Multiple configurations of the family triad were also expressed in ways other than the triptych of the photo-posters. These official portraits, displayed at public and institutional sites, were selected and distributed by the Ministry for the Royal Palace under His Excellency Kong Sam-ol. According to Prince Sisowath Thomico, Sihanouk’s nephew and former aide, Sihanouk himself took no part in selecting his official photographs, nor did King Sihamoni or the Queen-Mother.
The most interesting example I witnessed occurred over a period of several months in the town of Siem Reap, in northwest Cambodia. The precise location of this visual event is a traffic junction next to the shrine of Preah Ang Check and Preah Ang Chem and the Royal Residence, which marks the intersection of two arterial roads. On the north–south axis is Route 6, the highway that connects Siem Reap with Phnom Penh to the south and the Thai border to the north; on the east–west axis the river road leads from the central area of town to the temples of Angkor. Indeed, both the Royal Residence and the shrine are at the gateway to the temples of Angkor, deliberately designed as such by colonial urban planners during the French Protectorate. In March 2013, the official photo-portrait of Sihanouk, as described above, was removed from its ornate frame next to the Royal Residence, where it had been on display from at least the time of the king’s death, and was replaced with an image of Norodom Suramarit, Sihanouk’s father (figure 4). Each photograph was placed in a white rectangular frame within a more elaborate metalwork installation. The rectangular frame was flanked by the two royal animals, the gajasingha, a lion with an elephant trunk, and the rajasingha, or royal lion, each of which held a royal five-tiered umbrella. The Royal Crown of Cambodia with rays of light emitting from it was placed above the frame. All elements of the frame were studded with small white bulbs, which were illuminated after dark.
Unlike Sihanouk’s official photograph, that of Suramarit had been taken at an event in the Royal Palace. He is pictured seated on a throne-chair, dressed in regal attire, including a crown. A banner placed on either side of the frame, which remained unchanged throughout this period, read ព្រះចៅ កម្ពុជា, meaning the royal or auspicious ruler/ sovereign of the Kingdom of Cambodia. Beneath the photograph, yellow text on a blue background praised Norodom Suramarit. In early April 2013, the photograph of Suramarit was replaced by one of Queen Kossamak, Sihanouk’s mother. Like the portrait of her husband, she was pictured in monochrome within a decorative digital border. She was also dressed in traditional Khmer attire and the image appeared to have undergone minimal digital manipulation, in contrast to other royal family photographs circulating unofficially at this time. Each photograph was also printed within its own virtual gilt frame, although the three-dimensional illusion was shattered by text printed in English on the lower left-hand corner: MINISTRY OF ROYAL PALACE.  The photograph of Kossamak remained in place until April 10, when it was replaced by a picture of apsara dancers extending happy Khmer New Year greetings.
During the same period, on the opposite side of the road, at the southern intersection, a billboard displayed a triptych of photographs of King Sihamoni. Each image was strongly redolent of popular images of his father. The central image was Sihamoni’s official portrait, which closely echoes that of his father. To the right he was pictured kneeling in front of a peasant family with palms spread in a generous pose; to the left he smiled broadly as he harvested rice beside hunched-over farmers; dressed entirely in white, he appeared to enjoy the labors of Cambodia’s substantial rural population. This billboard was mirrored by a third, also on the southern side of the intersection on the opposite side of Route 6. This frame held the official portrait of Sihanouk and a rather symbolic photograph of him, again dressed in white, kneeling on the ground, using his hands to cover a sapling with soil. I shall return to this configuration below.
Expressions of Kingship
Sihanouk modeled himself as a compassionate Buddhist leader, welcoming modernity while maintaining continuity with the monarchy reaching back a thousand years. Sihanouk employed the image of Angkor in relation to himself and saw in his own “Buddhist socialism” the legacy of the late-twelfth-century king Jayavarman VII, who was the first and only Buddhist king of Angkor. The legendary status accorded to Jayavarman VII portrays him as a deeply religious man who took on the suffering of his people and attempted to alleviate it, and who had also extraordinary military prowess. This ideal was presented across three primary visual representations from his reign: the seated, meditative “portrait-statues,” which have conventionally been thought to be sculpted in the likeness of Jayavarman, presenting him as a devotee rather than a divinity; the multiple faces that comprised his state-temple, the Bayon, and similar “face-tower” temples; and the bas-reliefs of his temples that recorded his military feats. In a similar vein, Sihanouk cultivated his own visual record in film and photography demonstrating his Buddhist piety and protection over the nation-state, negotiated through a royal paternalism. Sihanouk also promoted the legend of this twelfth-century king as he evoked his name and deeds in conjunction with his own brand of Buddhist monarchy in many of his speeches. For example, in March 1960 Sihanouk gave a speech at the inauguration of Jayavarman VII College, in which he contested claims that the reign of Jayavarman was decadent, proclaiming that the ruins of his temples serve as testimony for the greatest period of Cambodian history. As Sihanouk was associating himself with similar good deeds, one can read into this conscious recalling of Jayavarman VII an attempt to create a direct lineage between the two Buddhist monarchs.
Although Jayavarman VII was the prodigious builder of Angkor’s last great religious-political architecture, his precise name and history did not survive intact during the centuries between his reign and that of Sihanouk’s. Instead, many of the specific names, reigning dates, and recorded deeds of the great Khmer kings of Angkor were resurrected by European archaeologists and epigraphers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This is not to say that the history and memory of Angkor, including visual forms representing royal power, were not preserved and cited in the post-Angkorian period. Ashley Thompson’s research has persuasively demonstrated that knowledge and memories of Angkor were well-woven into the socio-cultural tapestry of Cambodia’s Middle Period (approximately between the fourteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries), sometimes explicitly but more often implicitly. Despite this, Cambodia’s so-called golden age was brought into sharp relief via the central position it was afforded in European colonial histories, as French scholars concentrated their efforts on the monumental temples of Angkor, consequently placing far less emphasis on Cambodia’s later cultural periods. Given that late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Europeans had opined that Cambodians were ignorant of their own past, it is perhaps unsurprising that Sihanouk and his entourage were keen to evidence their knowledge of the “dates-and-names” history as they began to draw implicit analogies between Sihanouk and his Angkorian predecessors, as much for the benefit of international audiences as for that of an internal Cambodian audience.
Brahmanic Angkorian kingship was instituted and maintained through “magic rites” and the installation of an object of some ritual significance, which enabled an intimate connection between the king and the divine. Because of the ambiguity surrounding the precise association between kings and gods in Angkorian beliefs and practices, there is scholarly uncertainty over what precisely happened to this divine association when Jayavarman VII, the first Mahayana Buddhist monarch at Angkor, took the throne in 1181 CE. Consecrating statues that linked the royal to the divine seem to have been maintained, although Jayavarman VII’s kingship appears to be a pivotal moment that signaled the beginning of a shift from the idea of a king ruling by divine right to the more Theravāda Buddhist notion of a monarch sanctioned by his karmic merit and ability to defend and uphold the dharma, according to the ten royal virtues laid out in the Pali canon, which emerged in the centuries after his rule.
Kingship in Cambodia has nevertheless rested on two primary forms of legitimacy: the first is merit, acquired via divine association, the accrual of good karma, and/or the ability to be the protector of the dharma; the second is kinship. Of course, royal kinship can be taken as evidence of having obtained the requisite good merit or divine fortune to have been born into such a family and such circumstances. It was therefore beneficial for kings to demonstrate their connections to previous rulers, and maintaining lineage ties with past kings continues in Cambodia today.
Newly crowned kings ritually bathe in water from Phnom Kulen, which is believed to be pure. It is no coincidence that this water is taken from what is believed to be the location of the declaration of Cambodian sovereignty in 802 CE. Nevertheless, kingship was not always straightforwardly inherited; therefore, it was necessary to demonstrate the requisite merit by cultivating a compassionate yet strong persona.
The veneration of one’s family and ancestors to ensure posthumous royal legacies was an important preoccupation of Angkorian kings, and this concern can be seen in the making, enshrining, and dedication of statues within temple complexes. The use of figurative statues was a means not only to announce the arrival of a new leader but also to demonstrate continuity. As Ashley Thompson has noted, epigraphic as well as art-historical evidence reveals a “distinctively individualistic or personal relationship” between the king and his statues. During the Angkorian period, these statues were usually iconographically rendered under the guise of a deity and associated with an individual by way of an inscription. Ritual dedication via honorific titles was a key aspect of Angkorian semiotics of power and thus the names of a king and his ancestors were combined with divine suffixes. The artistic and architectural programs of successive kings followed a similar pattern: They would consecrate statues of their parents and ancestors, apotheosised as deities and identified by an inscription composed of the individual’s name and the divine epithet. The king would then install his own statue within his own state temple. This process can be understood as a way of ensuring retroactive legitimacy for the king by setting up multiple, triangulated configurations of kinship and kingship ties. The practice of apotheosis meant the king’s parents were deified whether or not they had been monarchs themselves, thus associating the king’s own bloodline with the Brahmanic gods, adding a legitimacy to his reign and aiding the transformation of his personhood into a divine structuring entity. The king also established himself within a divine royal lineage by venerating his predecessors. In addition, a king commissioned inscriptions calling on his successor to protect and honor the king’s state temples after his death. This entire process was crucial in maintaining a royal line that did not rely on primogeniture.
The reign of Jayavarman VII marked a departure from the preceding custom, in part because he elevated Mahayana Buddhism to the status of state religion. However, the cult of expressing kingship appears to have altered little. Jayavarman VII employed the same mechanisms of political legitimation as did his predecessors, but these were now framed by a Buddhist cosmological and ritual order. Thus, he continued in the tradition of consecrating temples and statues to his ancestors utilizing honorific and divine titles, but he did so on an unprecedented scale and using a clear triadic model. He dedicated the vast temple of Preah Khan to his father, apotheosised as the bodhisattva Lokeśvara, and the temple of Ta Prohm to his mother, apotheosised as the bodhisattva Prajnāpāramitā. The result of the union of the (male) bodhisattva of compassion and the (female) bodhisattva of wisdom is the Buddha. The Bayon was Jayavarman VII’s own state temple, the principle image of which was a large Buddha seated on a nāga, a serpent-deity. In this case, the family triad is represented architecturally on a vast spatial scale at three temple complexes, as well as in the principle statues that were housed in the main sanctuaries at each temple. This particular configuration is uniquely monumental, but the same triadic configuration is repeated in the sculptural record of this period. Statues of Buddhist and Brahmanic triads existed in Cambodia for centuries before the twelfth, but the Buddhist triad became a central theme of Jayavarman VII’s reign. Triads in stone and bronze, as well as in the form of votive tablets, have been discovered, many of which show the Buddha seated upon a nāga flanked by Lokeśvara and Prajnāpāramitā (figure 5). In other examples, Prajnāpāramitā is found at the center or the Buddha is accompanied by two Lokeśvara figures. However, it is the triad of Prajnāpāramitā, Buddha, and Lokeśvara — or mother, son, and father — that was articulated in the very arrangement of space of Jayavarman VII’s capital. The formulation of this triad is an exercise in illustrating the Buddhist pantheon. But is also demonstrates the desire to express a Buddhist lineage associated with the king’s own family line, based on the links forged between the deities in question and Jayavarman VII’s ancestors. The Buddhist triad functions as one of many strategies for legitimating the monarch’s claim to the throne. Jayavarman VII came to power after a protracted war, which strongly suggests there were other contenders for the throne, requiring the merit and kinship to be strongly reinforced.
My aim here is not to draw an explicit comparison between royal representations from those of the twelfth and twentieth centuries, nor do I want to suggest that the visual economy of Sihanouk’s reign involved a conscious or straightforward replication of the past. However, I do want to draw attention to the echoes of the royal-familial triads that are found in the visual record during Jayavarman VII’s reign and at the end of Sihanouk’s life. I do this in order to outline some possible historical antecedents of triadic representations, particularly as they illuminate the ways in which royal power has been articulated through the division and multiplication between one and many bodies and especially at moments of possible rupture in the stability of the monarchical line. The familial triad at the Siem Reap intersection is an example of a dual familial triad developed and revealed over time, highlighting the historic royal authority of Sihanouk’s father and the royal inheritance of his son as the present king. Ultimately, this configuration emphasises the primacy of Sihanouk’s legacy as having conferred this regal status; he is the central figure from which royal power radiates. In creating an iconographic association between Sihanouk and Sihamoni, the royal authority of the latter is reinforced by being portrayed in similar guises as his father. One could also ask, however: Does the repeated referral to Sihanouk undermine Sihamoni’s own royal standing — that is, independent of his father?
Disseminating Ideas of Lineage and Legitimacy
Within the Angkorian context, the deification of the king institutes the deification of his parents, demonstrated concretely via the consecration of statues, the dedication of temples, and the use of honorific titles. This process of associating the parents with the divine enables the retroactive association of their son — the king — with divinity. Thus, the triad-as-statue exemplifies rightful royal-divine lineage as well as solidifying the continuity of this lineage from the parents to the son. Other concepts are also made materially manifest in the form of the triad.
In the case of the Jayavarman VII triads, the qualities of compassion and wisdom are expressed in the “parental” figures of Lokeśvara and Prajnāpāramitā. The triadic form articulates the extension of these qualities as transferred from parent to child. But in this transfer, there is an interesting interplay between a parent and a son. In effect, the son/king becomes his own parent. The Buddha is formed from the union of perfect wisdom and compassion. But as bodhisattvas who have delayed their own passage into Buddhahood, the Buddha can be understood as a being formed prior to Lokeśvara and Prajnāpāramitā: in effect their parent, much as the king bestows divinity on his own ancestors.
Although the photographic triads of Sihanouk, Monineath, and Sihamoni do not employ a Buddhist or divine iconography or association, they are clear visual articulations of royal inheritance, whereby the authority of the younger king is obtained via reference to his father. In the example of the photographs on view in Siem Reap after Sihanouk’s death, the familial connections play out on an expanded scale. Homage is paid to Sihanouk, his parents, and the new king, beginning with Sihanouk’s father, who was made king by his own son. Sihamoni became king not by his father’s death, but by virtue of his abdication.
What on first glance is a simple narrative of royal lineage becomes more complex as Sihanouk becomes the pivotal figure in bestowing royal authority to the intergenerational actors. As the story of his family is told, he looks on, from the other side of the road. Through the choice to include images of Sihanouk and Sihamoni toiling the land, the notion of a king being intimately connected with the soil of Cambodia is writ large, literally and metaphorically.
It bears repeating that I am not arguing that the configuration of Sihanouk’s family portraits explicitly reference Jayavarman VII’s triads or that they can be simply conflated. Nor do I want to suggest that all or any aspect of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Khmer culture must have its antecedents in Angkor. However, the use of various triadic configurations within state-sponsored religious and/or political imagery within the Cambodian complex demonstrates the visual articulation of legitimacy and lineage: by way of the visual formulation of parental relationships, whereby the son maintains the ultimate position of authority, inheriting his own power. There is something inherently useful in setting up a clear, easily identifiable family/ kinship lineage, and this efficacy has been experimented with in different socio-cultural periods and in various representational mediums. As Rosalind Morris has noted, royalty within the Siamese tradition does not depend on the sacral blood of the first-born son: Kings in Cambodia and Siam were not born as such; rather, they were appointed by their fathers, and other political actors, and their elevated status is explained by their accumulation of merit.
In the case of Sihanouk, establishing a regal line was imperative in the face of the fractures that existed between royal factions during Sihanouk’s lifetime. Threats posed to the stability of the Cambodian monarchy, as well as Sihanouk’s changing official roles, meant that presenting a continuous royal narrative was all the more pressing. In the case of Jayavarman VII, we can surmise from his vast artistic and epigraphic output that there was a need to emphasis his right to rule based on his merit and his meritorious bloodline.
Sihanouk’s photographs were able to be disseminated widely, during his lifetime and posthumously, in multiple formats, such as monumental public displays, and across the borderless spaces of the Internet and social media. The use of retouching — often with a heavy digital hand — is a means to beautify the image, as is befitting a Buddhist monarch. Similarly, it is well documented that statuary from the Jayavarman VII period was disseminated throughout his empire. Perhaps the most well-known example are the “portrait” statues, thought to be fashioned in the likeness of Jayavarman VII, examples of which have been found in Angkor Thom, Phimai (in modern-day northern Thailand), and Preah Khan of Kompong Thom. Furthermore, the Preah Khan inscription recounts that twenty-three Jayabuddhamahānātha were sent to locations throughout the Empire.
Jayavarman VII and Sihanouk’s multiple triads were produced on a variety of scales. The large billboard photographic displays, entire temple complexes, and grand stone sculptural triads are fixed and monumental, dwarfing the viewer and suggesting power through sheer scale. At the other end of the spectrum, the smaller laminated photographs that are for sale in the markets and displayed in offices and the smaller bronze triads are transportable, more easily produced, and able to be disseminated across territories. They enabled the same subjects to be rendered on multiple scales, to divide the recognizable monumental bodies into many, identical manifestations that can physically travel, thus making power — expressed through the royal body — visible everywhere.
A rather obvious difference between the triads of the twelfth century and those of the twenty-first is their materiality: The earlier forms were sculptural, manufactured in various sizes and materials, whereas those of the present time are photographic, often enhanced by digital postproduction. Of course when I use the term “photography,” I refer to a medium with manifold technological and social functions; photography is a diverse phenomenon. Yet one of the medium’s key qualities is its ability to be easily reproduced and disseminated. Sculpture and photography differ in their materiality, their processes, their dimensionality . . . but I suggest that with the present examples, whereby images are used as a means to institute power, the statues — especially the smaller votive tablets — and the photographs under discussion share the quality of being the most effective and readily available technologies of replication, representation, and display of their day.
Reproduction and copying are an important aspect of Buddhist image-making and both John Clark and Clare Veal have argued there is a power inherent in multiple reproductions of photographs of kings within a Thai Buddhist context. One criticism often leveled at mass-produced images is that they show a lack of innovation or a monotonous quality. I would argue that the repetition in widely available, “mass”-produced artefacts can be the innovation in itself. The innovation comes not from the form or the content, but instead from the ability of this form and content to be repeated; and it is from this replication that the power derives. The omnipresence of the face does not diminish its power.
I will end with a note on another example of the triadic configuration in Cambodia. Over the years, it has been common to see portraits of the three leading figures of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), Chea Sim, Hun Sen, and Heng Samrin, on party posters and signs. When the official portrait of Sihanouk was removed from outside the CPP’s offices in Siem Reap, it was replaced with a photo of Hun Sen, who has been prime minister since 1985. Dressed in fatigues, his gaze is on a space above and beyond the camera lens and his arm is raised in the gesture of a triumphant wave. His wife, Bun Rany, is visible above his left shoulder, looking off to the right of the frame. Behind her is a line of soldiers. Behind this framed photograph, encased within a golden virtual frame, over the CCP building was hung a billboard that featured the portraits of Chea Sim, Hun Sen, and Heng Samrin, each looking to the left, all dressed in suits, surrounded by clouds (figure 6). In another version of this triad, the men are surrounded by halos of light that form a triple-peaked background reminiscent of the silhouette of Angkor Wat.
In the final day of Sihanouk’s five-day funeral, I encountered a street vendor who was selling three-dimensional hologram posters of Sihanouk with Angkor Wat in the background, which appeared to have been manufactured in China (figure 7). According to the vendor, these were not popular with the crowds, perhaps because of their higher price, the politics of their subject matter, or that these highly kitsch items were viewed as incongruent and possibly disrespectful. In any case, the two that I purchased provoked little interest among the mourners and it proved difficult to get even a response as to why they were disliked.
The first poster has an outline of Cambodia’s borders, within which are images of mythological apsara (celestial nymph) dancers, several Angkorian temples, and the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. At the center of the country is a photograph of an elderly Sihanouk and Kossamak, both dressed in gray, with their hands clasped in prayer in the traditional form of greeting and a sign of respect.
The second poster is more visually and symbolically interesting. At its center is Angkor Wat, its famous towers — so much a symbol of Cambodia — reflected in the still ponds beneath. Appearing from the clouds in the upper-left quadrant of the poster is Sihanouk smiling, his disembodied hand waving in greeting. The right side of the poster is dominated by the face of Hun Sen, his hands raised in prayer to his mournful-looking face. The men are dressed in matching suits and ties. Although Hun Sen is meant to be making this gesture to Sihanouk, the gazes of each man never meet due to the angle of their positioning; therefore, these gestures of warm greeting and solemn respect are thwarted. Nevertheless, is this an attempt to portray Hun Sen as the protector of and successor to Sihanouk’s legacy?
The triad has been employed to demonstrate royal legitimacy and lineage. However, in present-day Cambodia, the power of the king is for the most part symbolic, confined to images and ritual practices. What will happen to these photographs of Sihanouk? How long will they continue to be displayed alongside his wife and son successor? And how will the visual cultivation of power change in the age of digital media? Many of these answers will depend on the country’s changing political landscape. As Astrid Norén-Nilsson has noted, the public outpouring of grief after the death of Sihanouk contrasted starkly with the royalist parties in the 2013 national elections for the first time failing to win any seats. Her research demonstrates that although cultivating a royal persona provided Sihanouk with legitimacy, this achievement failed to extend beyond the King-Father himself; instead, Hun Sen has assumed the mantle of royal-political legitimacy. Tolerating and maintaining Sihanouk’s portrait, within the public sphere and at a cultic level, would, in this case, be expedient for the Cambodian People’s Party. Perhaps Sihanouk’s image will take on the revered cult status that King Chulalongkorn’s has in Thailand. Perhaps, in the coming decades, these photographs will fade into nostalgic memory as the ruling elites employ new strategies over power, which may or may not involve greater control of the digital sphere, and as younger generations eventually take down the faded Norodom family photograph triptychs that adorn walls in homes and businesses across Cambodia. Expressions of power and kingship may adapt existing codes to create new configurations.
Joanna Wolfarth is a specialist in Cambodian culture and completed her PhD at the University of Leeds in 2014. She is currently a research associate at SOAS University of London and a visiting lecturer at Sotheby's Institute of Art.
This article draws on components of my doctoral thesis, completed at the University of Leeds in 2015, under the guidance of Professor Ashley Thompson. The research was made possible thanks to a doctoral scholarship and a travel grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I am grateful to Syionn Sophearith and Sineth Siv for their help in arranging and conducting the interviews that inform parts of this article, as well as to Yean Reaksmey and Sok Vathanak for their assistance with Khmer translations. I would also like to thank to my PhD examiners, Nora Taylor and Maki Fukuoka, as well as the TAP Review’s editors and the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback. And thanks to Eoin Shea for patiently proofing drafts.
Heng Monychenda, “In search of the Dhammika Ruler,” in People of Virtue: Reconfiguring Religion, Power and Moral Order in Cambodia Today, eds. Alexandra Kent and David P. Chandler (Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2008), 310.
Nora Taylor has convincingly argued for the necessity of an ethnographic approach in the field of contemporary Southeast Asian art because of a general lack of textual historical sources. “The Southeast Asian Art Historian as Ethnographer?” Third Text 25 (2011), 475–88.
Eang Mengleng, “Monks Stage Mass Prayer at Palace for Late King Father,” in the Cambodia Daily, 22 October 2012, http://www.cambodiadaily.com/sihanouk/monks-stage-mass-prayer-at-palace-for-late-king-father-4647 [accessed 23 May 2013]; Eang Mengleng and Simon Lewis, “One Million Line the Streets in Final Farewell to King Father,” in the Cambodia Daily, 19 October 2012, http://www.cambodiadaily.com/sihanouk/one-million-line-the-streets-in-final-farewell-to-king-father-4473 [accessed 20 October 2012].
For a detailed treatment of Sihanouk and this period of Cambodian history, see David Chandler, “The Tragedy of Cambodian History,” in Pacific Affairs 52 (1979), 410–419, and The Tragedy of Cambodian History (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 1999); and Milton Osborne, Sihanouk: Prince of Light, Prince of Darkness (Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 1994). For a discussion of Sihanouk and the nexus of colonialism, Buddhism, politics, and nationhood, see Ian Harris, Cambodian Buddhism (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005), 144–56.
Milton Osborne, “Death of a Survivor: Norodom Sihanouk,” in The Interpreter, 15 October 2012, http://www.lowyinterpreter.org/post/2012/10/15/Death-of-a-survivor-Norodom-Sihanouk.aspx [accessed 17 October 2012]
His website contains historical documents, correspondence, photographs, press clippings annotated by Sihanouk, and his own commentaries on current affairs. Ruom Ritt, who Sihanouk claimed was a childhood pen pal and now lived as a virtual hermit in France, wrote letters that were highly critical of Hun Sen. http://www.norodomsihanouk.info Associated Press, “Royal Blogger Takes on the World,” in Wired, 28 May 2005, http://www.wired.com/culture/lifestyle/news/2005/05/67676; Julia Wallace, “The Royal Blog,” in Latitude, 9 January 2013, http://www.latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/29/the-royal-blog-of-norodom-sihanouk
For example, at the coronation of King Sisowath, in Phnom Penh in 1904, the king himself was identified with Mount Meru: parts of his body corresponded to the universe, explicitly making the king himself the axis of the entire universe. Robert Heine-Geldern, Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1963), 6.
For an account of the relationship among the figure of the king, the bodies of the king, and the nation, see Ashley Thompson, “The Suffering of Kings: Substitute Bodies, Healing, and Justice in Cambodia,” in History, Buddhism, and New Religious Movements in Cambodia, ed. by John Marston and Elizabeth Guthrie (Bangkok: Silkworm, 2006), 91–112.
Author’s field notes, October 2012–March 2013. In addition, Ashley Thompson has proposed a connection between the large gatherings of mourners after the death of Sihanouk and the large numbers of people attending opposition demonstrations in the national elections in 2013. She holds that his death marked Sihanouk’s final, great return to Cambodia as he was affectionately embraced once again by the people in public outpourings of emotion that were just as concerned with the generic institution of kingship as they were with the person of Sihanouk. Ashley Thompson, “Introduction: Journée d’Étude, ‘Histoire et Théâtre,’ unpublished speech given on 25 October 2013 at the Cartoucherie, Paris.
For more about frames within photographic portraiture in Southeast Asian Buddhist contexts, see Rosalind C. Morris, “Photography and the Power of Images in the History of Power: Notes from Thailand,” in Photographies East: The Camera and Its Histories in East and Southeast Asia, ed. by Rosalind C. Morris (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 132–36.
This is recorded in the artistic and epigraphic record of the period. For an example of a narrative of a compassionate yet military ruler, see the Prasat Chrung inscriptions. Georges Coedès, “Stèle des Pràsàt Crun d’Ankor Thom,” in Inscriptions du Cambodge (Paris: Imprimerie d’Extrême Orient, 1952), IV, 207–56.
Georges Coedès saw three elements of Jayavarman VII’s power represented within these three forms. See “Le Portrait dans l’Art Khmer,” in Arts Asiatiques VII (1960), 196. For the artistic oeuvre of this period and a description of the division of the royal body into three, see Joanna Wolfarth, “Faces of Cambodia: Buddhism(s), Portraiture and Images of Kings” (PhD thesis), University of Leeds, 2014.
See Milton Osborne, “History and Kingship in Contemporary Cambodia,” in Journal of Southeast Asian History 7 (1966), 1–14, for details of the references to Angkor made by Cambodian kings and politicians in the mid-twentieth century. In her account of contemporary references to Sdech Kân (the archetypal “man of merit,” according to Khmer legend), made by Prime Minister Hun Sen to bolster his political legitimacy, Astrid Norén-Nilsson points to a 2003 remark by Hun Sen when he suggested he was the reincarnation of Jayavarman VII (the archetypal Preah Bat Thommik, or “Dharmic Ruler”). See also Norén-Nilsson, “Performance as (re)Incarnation: The Sdech Kân Narrative,” in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44 (2012), 8.
Ashley Thompson, “Lost and Found: The Stupa, the Four-Faced Buddha, and the Seat of Royal Power in Middle Cambodia,” in Proceedings of the 7th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists, Berlin, 1998 (Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, University of Hull, 2000), 245–64; “Memoires du Cambodge (unpublished doctoral thesis, University Paris VIII, 1999); “The Future of Cambodia’s Past: The Messianic Middle-Period Cambodian Cult,” in History, Buddhism, and New Religious Movements in Cambodia, John Marston and Elizabeth Guthrie, eds. (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2004), 13–39.
Among the scholars who have seriously taken up the question of the divine–royal connection are Philippe Stern, “Le temple-montagne khmèr, le culte du Liṅga et le Devarâja,” in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient 34, 1934, 611–16; Hiram W. Woodward, “Practice and Belief in Ancient Cambodia: Claude Jacques’ Angkor and the Devarāja Question Angkor,” review of Angkor Cities and Temples by Claude Jacques and Michael Freeman, in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 32 (2001), 249–61; I. W. Mabbett, “Devarāja,” in the Journal of Southeast Asian History, 10 (1969), 193–201, and “Kingship in Angkor,” Journal of the Siam Society, 66.2 (1978) 1–58; Herman Kulke, The Devarāja Cult, trans. I. W. Mabbett, Data Paper no. 108 (Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Programme, Cornell University, 1978); Paul Mus, “Cultes Indiens et Indigenes au Champa,” in Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient, Vol. XXXIII,(1933), 367–410; P. Dupont and G. Coedès, “Les Stèles de Sdŏk Kǎk Thom Phnom Sandak et Práah Vihār,” in the Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrême-Orient (1943), 56–154.
Thompson, “Angkor Revisited: The State of Statuary,” in What’s the Use of Art? Asian Visual Culture and Material in Context, ed. by Jan Mrázek and Morgan Pikelka (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008), 182.
The inscriptions of Jayavarman VII’s reign also pay remarkable attention to the Mahayana concept of the trikaya. Scholars have recognized that this invocation makes clear reference to the theory of the multiple bodies of the Buddha, yet none has explored the significance of this invocation, even as it appears in the very first verses of the primary epigraphy of the reign of Jayavarman VII. This is a startling oversight, considering the often meticulous scholarship generated over the last one hundred and fifty years concerning the art and architecture of Angkor Thom. I argue that the unambiguous, repeated statement of the three bodies of the Buddha, divided yet one, provides hints into the philosophy governing image-making in Angkor Thom at that time, given the broad range of figurative — bodily — statuary that was produced.
For Hiram Woodward’s work on tantric Buddhist elements of Jayavarman’s reign, in which he schematizes the multiple and interrelated triads of the period, see “Tantric Buddhism at Angkor Thom,” in Ars Orientalis 12 (1981), 57–67.
Research suggests that statues also moved beyond territorial borders. For example, recent findings show that several centuries later, statues in the Early Ayutthaya style were certainly disseminated, and also apparently produced, throughout central Angkor. See Martin Polkinghorne, Christophe Pottier, and Christian Fischer, “One Buddha Can Hide Another,” in the Journal Asiatique 301 (2013), 575–624.
Hiram Woodward and Janet G. Douglas, “The Jayabuddhamahānātha Images of Cambodia,” in the Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 52/53 (1994), 105–111; Christophe Pottier, “À Propos de la Statue Portrait du Roi Jayavarman VII au Temple de Préah Khan de Kompong Svay,” in Arts Asiatiques (2000), 171–72.
John Clark, “Icon and Image in Modern Thai Art: A Preliminary Exploration,” in Contemporary Aesthetics 3 (2011), 1–31; Clare Veal, “The Charismatic Index: Photographic Representations of Power and Status in the Thai Social Order,” in Trans Asia Photography Review 3 (2013).
This was certainly the case until the death of Chea Sim, in June 2015. Gradually, CPP posters featured just Hun Sen and Heng Samrin. At the time of this writing, late 2016, Chea Sim has not been replaced.