Cambodia, Koh Ker period (928–944)
H. 17 cm.
This small mandala displays an image of Surya standing on a raised base in the center within an arch decorated with lotus-leaf motifs. He holds a lotus bud in each hand confirming his identity. Surya is surrounded by eight lesser deities, six of which are shown half kneeling; a seventh is seated cross-legged, and the eighth is shown surrounded by clouds. The deities are each clothed in a sampot can kpin arranged in Koh Ker style.. Each is also adorned with a diadem and earrings. The numerous parts appear to have been modeled in wax separately and then assembled, after which the piece was lost-wax cast all in one pour.
The present mandala appears to represent a Khmer version of the Indian planetary deities known as the Navagraha. Such mandalas were first created in India with the aim of acquiring good astrological treatment. The Khmer did not illustrate the same deities as the Indian Navagraha group but created their own version, the Nine Devas fig.1). These include not only planetary deities but also dikpalas (directional deities) and astrological deities, such as Surya (sun), Chandra (moon), Rahu (eclipse), and Ketu (comet). (1) In ancient Cambodia the planets were associated with the days of the week: Surya (Sunday), Chandra (Monday), Yama (Tuesday), Varuna (Wednesday), Indra (Thursday), Kubera (Friday), Agni (Saturday), plus Rahu, the demon who swallows the sun and moon in eclipses, and Ketu, the comet deity. The last two are extra-celestial phenomena always joined to the Khmer group and are quite different from the navagraha of India who have different attributes and no vehicles. (2)
The present mandala shows Surya in the center surrounded by the eight lesser deities arranged in clock-like fashion. The figure seated cross-legged in front of Surya and holding two lotus-buds can be identified as Chandra, the moon deity; the figure shown in a cloud bank at three o'clock is Rahu, the deity responsible for eclipses. Their identifications are confirmed by the similarity of their iconography to the images of Chandra and Rahu among the Nine Devas on a Koh Ker–style wall-coping (fig.1), where Chandra is the second and Rahu the eighth deity, reading from left to right. The last figure on the mandala between Rahu and Chandra has his hair arranged in yaksha fashion and holds one lotus bud in his left hand, so must represent Ketu, the comet deity.
Mandalas were, and are still today, very important implements in Tantric practices and are intended to serve as guides to the tantrika (practitioner) in his quest for the ultimate truth. In his meditation, a tantrika would move from the periphery of the mandala to the center where the major deity is placed. Few ancient Khmer mandalas have survived intact, so this example is important not only for its completeness but also for its help in clarifying the identity of the surrounding deities. Another small Khmer mandala with Surya as its focus is in the Art Institute of Chicago. (3) The Chicago mandala is later in date and has eight fine simhas (lions) supporting the base, but none of the Nine Devas are individualized; without the iconographic clues provided by the present Koh Ker style mandala, the Nine Devas would have gone unidentified.
These small mandalas were personal sacred implements that would allow the tantrika to practice Tantric rituals wherever he might be. In traditional cultures, mandalas are not considered works of art but secret icons for individual worship that were never intended to be viewed in public. They are consequently never mentioned in Khmer inscriptions.
For a thorough discussion of the Khmer Nine Devas, see Bhattacharya
1956; Malleret 1960; and Jessup et al. 1997, nos. 58, 62.