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Unique Wat Bo

By: Andy Brouwer Posted: September-27-2010 in
French-style military types on the wall murals at Wat Bo
Andy Brouwer

Cambodia has only two major painted narratives of the story of Rama in Khmer art, the murals of the gallery that surround the Silver Pagoda in Phnom Penh and those that are found in the vihara of Wat Bo in Siem Reap. The story itself is Indian in origin and the Cambodian version, called the Reamker was localised and adapted, and can be found in bas-reliefs and carvings on the Angkor temples and in theatrical dance and shadow puppet stories. The Silver Pagoda murals were painted at the back-end of the 19th century, whilst those at Wat Bo date from 1920-1924 and were executed by two shadow puppet designers, Ta Peul and Kong Dith, though some claim it may've been earlier.

There are 111 scenes depicted on the walls of Wat Bo and the earliest ones in the story actually correspond to a Thai version of the Reamker story, possibly because Siem Reap was under Thai jurisdiction until 1907. Characters like Rama, Ravana, Hanuman, the gods fighting the evil asuras, the legend of the King of the Nagas all appear and tend to point to this fact. When I visited Wat Bo recently, the main vihara was closed because the head monk was not in attendance. However, without much persuasion, the head layman opened the doors and wooden windows so I could have a good look around, though sections of the murals have been worn away over time and much of the story takes place high up and out of easy eye-shot in the gloom. You'd need extra lighting and a step-ladder to be able to see and photograph them clearly. I had neither.

What makes the murals of Wat Bo so unique is the 'patchwork' arrangements of the story panels, the colours used in the painting and that the action unfolds in a series of episodes, based on a specific character or event, such as Rama, Hanuman, the abduction of Sita, and so on. One of the interesting features I noticed in the murals was the French influence and the depiction of western costumes, both military uniforms and otherwise, especially in important ceremonies.

Wat Bo, also known as Wat Raja Bo, is the largest and oldest in the town, and the province of Siem Reap. With over 100 monks, and founded at the end of the 18th century, it has a triple roof with wooden pediments in situ. Over one of the doors you can see a Siamese coat of arms, a reminder of the Thai control of the area. Other buildings in the pagoda grounds include a sala and a library and Wat Bo is renowned for its traditional arts and crafts and music. Definitely worth a few minutes of your time to visit the murals of the main vihara, as long as you can find the man with the key.


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