Fish scenes, symbolism and kingship in the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat and the Bayon
Tyson R. Roberts
- Angkor Wat's "Churning of the Sea of Milk" bas-relief masterpiece is unique among "Churning" depictions for its naturalistic presentation of fishes and other aquatic animals. Their behavior clearly indicates that they have been poisoned, as related in the myth of the Churning. The poisoned fish are being cut in two by the sword of Suryavarman II as Vishnu. Also notable is the inclusion of the mythical beast known as gajasimha. The little known Angkor Wat bas-relief called the "Fete nautique des Dvaravati", also a masterpiece, realisticany portrays people making music, playing chess, fishing, hunting, and engaged in other aeti vities, in the midst of a forested wetland filled with birds, fish, crocodiles and other animals. The scene also portmys two royal pleasure boats, one with Garuda on its prow and the other with a gajasimha. Gajasimha is an Indian and Khmer makara associated in Khmer iconography with the Hindu god Vishnu. Suryavarman II was one of the few Khmer kings to be identified with Vishnu. Garuda and gajasimha were employed repeatedly to symbolize this relationship. This symbolism is employed in several significant innovations in Khmer iconography. These include replacement of the naga Ananta or Sesha by a gajasimha in representations of Vishnu Anantasayin; the distinctive "Garuda-gajasimha" balustrades, and use of the head of gajasimha or its elephantine trunk as the apical finials (dong chivea. Iliya, or chota) on Cambodian, Laotian, and Thai Buddhist temples. Fish figure importantly in numerous Bayon bas-reliefs. Many of these depict ordinary people engaged in activities such as cooking, gambling, cockfighting, and fishing. Others apparently depict events or incidents in the life of Jayavarman VII including his military victories, building activities, and apotheosis as Jayahuddha or Buddha-King, as well as his tolerant attitude towards other religions. There are also indications that he had an abiding interest in natural history.