Devatas

The Devatas of Angkor.  The temples and buildings of Angkor are replete with images of devatas, minor female deities, posing stiffly but elegantly on walls and posts, often but not always near doors or windows.  They are guardians of a sort, though perhaps not of the sort to scare off unwanted visitors.  Their function, rather, would appear to be that of hostesses and custodians of the religious shrines which they grace.

The devatas of Angkor are known for the variety of their hairstyles and headdresses, as much as for their peaceful and sometimes enigmatic Mona Lisan facial expressions.  For whatever reason, the Angkorian artists were much better at sculpting the devatas’ upper bodies than they were at sculpting their lower bodies, which are often stiff and awkward.  As Maurice Glaize, author of the classic Guide to Angkor put it, “The fresh vitality of their youthful figures with their bare torsos – the grace of their supple gestures and of their slender fingers, holding a lotus or playing with a string of flowers – distracts one from the weight of their legs, that invariably suffer – and their awkward feet presented always in profile due to an inability to express their foreshortening.”

Periodization of Styles

Devatas served as a motif in Cambodian architecture from the beginning of the Angkorian period in the early years of the 9th century A.D.  They are prominent in the temples of Hariharalaya, the first major Angkorian capital, located in an area southeast of Siem Reap that is today called Roluos.  They are prominent also in the greatest of the temples, Angkor Wat, an early to mid-12th century foundation, and in the temples of the late 12th century and early 13th century attributed to King Jayavarman VII.  It is possible to draw stylistic distinctions between the devatas of these three periods.

1. Devatas of Hariharalaya (9th century)

The temples of Hariharalaya are Preah Ko, Bakong, and Lolei.  They are characterized by small brick towers the entrances to which are surmounted by elaborate lintels featuring mythological animals and godlike beings.  The true entrances to the towers, as well as the false doors on the sides which do not have entrances, are flanked by sandstone carvings of figures standing in the entrances to buildings that may themselves be temple towers.  The figures are either male dvarapalas (guardians) bearing weapons or demale devatas bearing such items as flywhisks.  The devatas tend to be full-bodied rather than elegant, and are executed in a relatively high relief (at some points and from some angles almost seeming to detach themselves from their background).  Their expressions are earthy and friendly rather than remote or mysterious.

2. Devatas of Angkor Wat (first half of the 12th century)

Angkor Wat is remarkable among Angkorian temples not only for its grandeur and scope, but also for its perfection and completeness.  (By contrast, the brick towers of Hariharalaya exhibit perfection but are relatively small, while the temples sponsored by Jayavarman VII are grand in scope but often incomplete in the details.)  The hundreds of devatas gracing the walls of Angkor Wat, from the outermost enclosure to the central temple tower, contribute to that perfection.

In contrast with the earthiness of the devatas of Hariharalaya, the devatas of Angkor Wat exhibit a certain spiritualizing angularity and stiffness reminiscent of Gothic style figures in medieval Europe.  Unlike the devatas of Hariharalaya, they are not confined to the simulated entrances of temple towers, but are found everywhere on walls and pillars, alone or in groups.  They are carved in a low relief, and frequently project but little from the wall’s surface.  Though some carry prosaic items such as fans, many are depicted holding lotus flowers.  The devatas of Angkor Wat are known to exhibit a tremendous variety of hairstyles and clothing styles.  Many wear a crown of three tall spikes which must have been common at the court of the Khmer monarches.  Some of the devatas smile, others do not, but all guard an air of mystery about them.

Scholars claim that the presence of the carved devatas serves by means of a central mythological theme to emphasize the holiness of Angkor Wat.  The temple is a model for Mount Meru, the home of the gods in Hindu mythology.  The moat represents the oceans surrounding the Mount Meru, and the sucessive enclosures represent mountain ranges.  The five towers of the innermost elevated enclosure are the five peaks of Mount Meru.  In mythology, the home of the gods was staffed by demigoddesses called Apsaras who served and entertained the gods and their guests.  These demigoddesses are represented by the devatas.  The presence of the devatas, then, serves to further the identification of the temple with the mythological home of the gods.

The following video is about the devatas of Angkor Wat:

3. Devatas of Jayavarman VII (end of the 12th century and early 13th century)

The Buddhist monarch Jayavarman VII initiated an unprecedented program of monumental construction after coming to power in the late 12th century.  His foundations include the temples of Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and the Bayon.  The temples are vast in scope, but exhibit the traces of a hurried construction, and so lack the perfection of Angkor Wat.

In the matter of decorative details, the foundations of Jayavarman VII sometimes seem unfinished or crude.  Certainly, the devatas are not executed with the same artistic skill and care as those of Angkor Wat.  They exhibit less variety in their appearance.  Many have suffered the ravages of weather and vandalism and are quite eroded.  Others, however, remain undeniably charming, their stiffness balanced by a genuine friendliness.

The following video is about the devatas of Ta Prohm:

The photos below are of devatas that grace the walls of Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan.  Top row: Devatas from the uppermost level of Angkor Wat, placed as if to greet the visitor who dares to climb the steep stairs to the top.  Second row:  On the left is a devata from Preah Khan; the other two are from the uppermost level of Angkor Wat.  The picture in the middle of the row is a closeup of the picture in the middle of the top row.  Third row: Devatas from Ta Prohm.  Fourth row: A devata from Preah Khan.  To the left is a picture of the whole figure, in the middle, a picture of her upper body, and to the right, a picture of her feet.

Related pages of this site: 3 Preah Khan; 4 Ta Prohm; 5 Bayon (three temples in which devatas are prominent); 6 Apsaras (celestial dancers); 14 Angkor Wat.