This 10th-century Angkorian capital city of the Khmer Empire covers a vast area, consisting of dozens of temples hidden in dense forest. At least two of these temples are very well-known, the temples of Koh Ker and Chen. The latter is the temple from which the statue currently contested in a New York court case was looted. Video clip: The Lost Wonder
Kong Vireak (left), Director of the National Museum of Cambodia with the 10th century Khmer statues, known as the Kneeling Attendant. (Photo the Journey of Pandavas by Nhean Socheat)
THE JOURNEY OF PANDAVAS SHOULD NOT BE INCOMPLETE
On June 11, 2013, after more than forty years away from home, two 10th-century Pandava statues – also known as the "Kneeling Attendants" – were returned to Cambodia from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The statues will be brought to the Peace Palace of the Council of Ministers where they will be displayed for the World Heritage Committee Conference. The act of returning these statues is clearly significant and Cambodia should take advantage by showcasing its return. But while it is important that Cambodia showcases the successful return of these statues, it is equally important that we complete its journey home. Returning these statues to their original location will serve as a powerful symbol of Cambodia's success in restoring its past. Indeed, the long journey of these statues and their restoration to their historic home will carry great symbolic meaning for the long struggle that Cambodians have waged in coming to grips with their past.
Cambodian history has come to be defined by two events: the illustrious Angkor period and the traumatic years of genocide. In stark contrast to its beautiful Angkorian past, Cambodia has suffered decades of war and mass atrocities. Beyond causing the tragic loss of life, these events have devastated Cambodia’s social fabrics. While partly a consequence of these events, illegal looting and trafficking of cultural property threatens Cambodia’s rich cultural identity. Cambodia’s treasured artifacts, even today, continues to face the risk of being stolen and sold in illicit markets.
Cambodia today is striving to move from the horrors of its past through a variety of efforts and mechanisms. The prosecution of Khmer Rouge crimes is underway at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), and genocide education programs blanket the countryside. Under the umbrella of international and Cambodian law, the ECCC is seeking to bring a sense of justice and closure for victims of the Khmer Rouge. In addition, the genocide education program teaches the younger generation about the history of this tragic time period. With an eye toward dialogue, reconciliation, and public awareness, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport and the Documentation Center of Cambodia (DC-Cam) are seeking to build a lasting foundation of truth and memory. Likewise, the restoration of Cambodia’s cultural heritage plays an important role in helping Cambodians heal and achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation is about bringing people together, restoring relationships, and building a better society. The protection and restoration of Cambodia’s cultural heritage contributes to this process by rooting Cambodians in their shared glorious past.
In this vein, the return of the Pandavas statues is significant to the people of Cambodia. The statues’ return symbolizes the restoration of the kingdom’s spiritual and cultural identity. In addition, with the public display and discussion of their return, Cambodians will develop a greater awareness of their shared cultural heritage. It is the combination of these effects that makes the public repatriation display an important piece of the statues’ return.
In addition, the repatriation of the statues comes on the occasion when Cambodia takes a role as a host country for the 37th World Heritage Committee Conference. This event is an important event both for Cambodia and the world, and the statues will form an important piece of this event by encouraging the world community to take greater responsibility in protecting and restoring the cultural heritage of looted nations.But after they are restored and their symbolic message is achieved, we should complete the statues’ journey home. Returning the statues to their original location will bring a sense of closure to this tragic time period, and it will symbolize another milestone in Cambodia’s renewal of its past. (Date: 13 June 2013. Author: Sirik Savina)
OWNERSHIP OF HISTORY: THE KNEELING PANDAVAS
The decision by the Metropolitan Museum of Art to repatriate two 10th century statues to the Kingdom of Cambodia comes at an important time as Cambodia continues its struggle to reclaim its cultural heritage.
The statues―which have been referred to as the “Kneeling Pandavas” (or “Kneeling Attendants”) ― are life-sized sandstone sculptures that have guarded the doorway to the Museum’s Southeast Asian Galleries since 1994. They were illicitly taken from the Koh Ker site during the 1970s, and the Museum decided to return the statues to Cambodia after investigation and further discussions with the Office of the Council of Ministers of Cambodia. As the Director of the Museum stated, “The Museum is committed to applying rigorous provenance standards not only to new acquisitions, but to the study of works long in its collections in an ongoing effort to learn as much as possible about ownership history.”
The Museum’s decision is important because it sets a positive example for the world community with respect to already acquired cultural property. Under current international standards, museums are bound to make every effort with respect to establishing the full history of cultural property prior to acquisition. However, with respect to already acquired items, the onus of due diligence seems less weighty―making the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s decision an important step forward in the restitution of illegally and illicitly acquired cultural property.
But outside of the salutatory effect that this decision may have on other museums’ policies, the return of these statues is also important for calling attention to the Cambodian people’s struggle to reconcile with a turbulent past.
Cambodia has experienced decades of war, mass atrocity, and social upheaval that have had a deleterious effect on the country’s national identity and heritage. Many priceless artifacts were removed from the country and sold to foreign collectors; and while war, atrocity, and social upheaval have disappeared, the effects of this turbulent past on the country’s heritage remain today.
Cambodia is a land of incredible beauty and history. Temples, mosques, statues, and artwork of renowned beauty cover the countryside. Their remoteness adds to their beauty, but it also provides opportunities for exploitation. Poverty and a lack of understanding amongst ordinary Cambodians accentuate the risk of looting or the illegal removal of priceless treasures. While better law enforcement and greater awareness by foreign organizations and governments has helped stifle this outflow of national heritage, there is the continuing need to restore cultural property that was illegally or illicitly acquired in the past.
In a case pending before the federal district court for the southern district of New York, the U.S. government has sought the return of a sandstone statue of the mythic Hindu warrior known as Duryodhana. The statue originates from the Koh Ker site in Cambodia, and it is a depiction of the antagonist of the Mahabharata—an epic battle described in The Bhagavad Gita. The prosecutors in the case allege that the Sotheby’s auction house provided inaccurate provenance information on the statue in an effort to sell it.
While the case is important for establishing the truth about the Duryodhana’s history, it stands as another example of the arduous struggle that Cambodia must wage to reclaim its heritage and all the more reason to encourage greater responsibility and due diligence on the part of organizations, governments, and collectors with respect to protecting and restoring Cambodia’s cultural heritage. (Date: 13 May 2013. Author: Youk Chhang)