A statue of Jayavarman VII sits in the courtyard of our school, as he does by official decree at most schools in The Kingdom. Often mistaken for the Buddha, the last great King of Angkor (1125-1218) sits with downcast eyes, an enigmatic smile on his lips, spine straight, in meditation. Historians acknowledge the Angkor epoch from the 6th to12th century as an era of great art. At Bayon Temple the many Bodhisattvas pictured in the multi-directional faces are thought to be a likeness of Jayavarman VII.
The modern version of the king at our school is made of cement, but curiously looks like he could be a cousin of Gumby. This contemporary version is a rough copy of the ancient sandstone sculpture found at the National Museum of Cambodia, which is missing the lower part of his arms. Some scholars feel the missing arms version is more correct, but most schools prefer their statue with arms and hands. The ancient techniques handed down through the centuries to apprentice sculptors were effectively killed off during Pol Pot’s reign. But the old king is making a comeback, and copies of the tranquil meditator are in demand. Refinement in sculpting technique is bound to find its way back to Cambodia. It’s part of the Khmer DNA.
Old King Jayavarman VII may have inherited his day job from his father, but it appears he enjoyed the family business. He is depicted as both a general at war and a spiritual practitioner in bas relief at Angkor. After the death of his first wife, he married her sister, who predated PC’s Let Girls Learn by encouraging education for girls at the palace. His wife Rajaendradevi was also a poet, scientist, and philosopher queen. Jayavarman likewise looked out for his people. Real estate was booming at that time, so the king came up with the idea for rest stops every 15 kilometers, and health clinics within a day’s walk. He was also tolerant of the old Hindu-Brahmanism religion, but officially moved his kingdom towards progressive Mahayana Buddhism. He also rocks the man-bun.
He ascended to the throne when he was in his late 50s and perhaps feeling a pressing deadline, initiated a boatload of public works, like expansion of highways and waterways, in addition to rest stops, hospitals, and temples. A list of patrons (written in stone, no less—sort of like bricks with the names of donators at a public library) at various sites indicates he had support of his peeps. An inscription at one hospital states, “He suffered his subjects illness more that his own, because it is the pain of the public that is the pain of kings rather than their own pain.” He had the idea he could lead his people to create an earthly paradise. He was a king with a compassionate agenda.
So, while the cement Buddha in the school’s courtyard may look a little dreamy, he represents something greater than a sleepy muse. Jayavarman VII wanted people to enjoy the journey—and to take advantage of the rest stops along the way.