The return and reunification of the head of a Harihara statue has been in the news as of late. The head was taken to France from the southern Cambodian hilltop temple site of Phnom Da in the 19th century by the French scholar Etienne Aymonier. Phnom Da is just outside the walled city of Angkor Borei, home to the earliest dated Khmer inscription and a central place in what some (including me) might argue was an early state-level society in Southeast Asia.
These statues, although perhaps perceived as primarily art objects now, were intimately tied to the power and status of early rulers. Art Historian Paul Lavy has suggested that the Harihara statues specifically played an important role in the strategies of emerging rulers seeking to expand their power.
Paul Lavy’s article [free PDF download at this link] on the Harihara statues in Pre-Angkorian Cambodia is one of the first articles I read as a young grad student studying up on ancient Cambodia and one of my all-time favorites. It elegantly intertwines art history, archaeology, and history into a model that makes so much sense, it’s hard to think of an alternate interpretation for these data. Here, I will briefly summarize his argument.
Our story begins in the Pre-Angkorian Period. This is a time period where we have very little archaeological research, but there are some inscriptions, the expansion of Hinduism, the construction of small (compared to the Angkorian period) temples, and several emerging Khmer art styles.
In looking at the distribution of different sculptures, Lavy (2003: 25) notices that Vishnu sculptures are found primarily in the Mekong Delta region of Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as along other coastlines including peninsular Thailand, Java, and Sumatra. He can identify only one Vishnu statue (from Stung Treng province) that was found in northern Cambodia (Lavy 2003:25). Inscriptions found with the dedication of Vishnu statues suggest that Vishnu was associated with the power of rulers.
Conversely, in northern Cambodia, NE Thailand, and Laos, Lavy (2003: 25-26) notes a large number of dedications to the god Siva and depictions of Siva in his non-anthropomorphic form, the linga. Lingas and the god Siva were associated with the authority and “territorial control” of rulers (Lavy 2003: 26-27). In both cases, Siva and Vishnu were used by rulers to associate themselves with a larger Hindu cosmology, but that each might represent particular style of rule in each region.*
Harihara is a representation of both Vishnu and Siva in a single form. The earliest appearance of Harihara in Khmer art occurs in the 7th century. Lavy (2003: 27) observes:
Harihara seems to have had its greatest appeal in Pre-angkorian Khmer culture and it achieved this degree of popularity in no other region of Southeast Asia or India, or indeed at any time in later Khmer history – though the epigraphic and art historical evidence from Cambodia indicates that Harihara continued to be worshipped through the thirteenth century, albeit in an ever-diminishing capacity.
Later, Lavy (2003: 32) notes that “more references to, and images of, Harihara appear during a two-century span of the Pre-angkorian period than occur over the course of the six centuries of the Angkorian period that follow.”
What accounts for the unique popularity of Harihara in Pre-Angkorian Cambodia?
As with dedications to Siva and Vishnu, the Harihara statues are related to royal rulers and their power and authority (Lavy 2003: 37). Lavy argues that the early sculptures of Harihara and inscriptions describing dedications to Harihara are found associated with the ruler Isanavarman I. Isanavarman was based in northern Cambodia, and the area around modern Sambor Prei Kuk (the capital of Isanapura), but was interested in controlling the coastal trading area of southern Cambodia/Vietnam – an area that was more strongly associated with Vishnu. As Lavy (2003: 39) argues.
Harihara, then, served as a visual expression of the integration of varying regional styles of rule rooted in the symbolism and power of Siva and Visnu.
Harihara symbolized the political aspirations of rulers who were attempting to unify large, and socio-politically disparate, regions of Cambodia. It is no coincidence that in 802 CE ,when Jayavarman II was able to conquer and unify Cambodia, he named his early capital Hariharalaya (the modern town of Roluos, just outside of Siem Reap).
These Harihara statues and specifically the statue from Phnom Da that was recently restored is a material reminder of this time period. Rulers were trying to consolidate their power and win over the hearts and minds of people by integrating regions with different styles of rule and different allegiances into one.
*Lavy (2003:36) cites Aeusriwongse in pointing out that non-elite members of society likely did not view the gods as belonging specifically to a Hindu cosmology, but may have instead perceived them as “local deities that were syncretised with these gods to varying degrees from place to place.”
Citation: Lavy, Paul. 2003. “As in Heaven, So on Earth: The Politics of Visnu, Siva, and Harihara Images in Pre-angkorian Khmer Civilisation.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34:21-39