Friday, 27 February 2015

Old Pictures: Angkor Wat

In 1860, as is often popularly recorded, the French explorer Henri Mouhot discovered Angkor Wat lost in the jungle. Fortunately for the world he didn't keep this to himself. He produced a series of pictures.


And that was it. Angkor Wat had burst onto the global scene like Kim Kardashian after her sex tape. Everybody wanted a piece. Well, a few people anyway. The first ever photo was taken in 1866 by a man named John Thomson.

Many other pictures and photos followed in the years after.


(From the top:1871 drawing by a travel writer called Frank Vincent; undated 19th Century photo; all other photos from the 1920s)

There's one small problem with some of the above: it's not entirely true. It's roughly there, but it flatters Henri Mouhot and skews our perspective on Angkor Wat. Mouhot didn't discover it at all. He did a pretty good job by getting there - it was fairly in the depths of the jungle - and his pictures certainly boosted the popular appeal in the West, but Angkor Wat was far from lost. It had been known about for centuries. It was never really lost in the first place. From the mid-16th Century, it was a major Buddhist pilgrimage site. Pilgrims as far away as Japan visited, and it's to them we need to look to for the first ever picture (as far as I can tell) of Angkor Wat. It was an overhead plan, Japanese-style, done in the 1630s by someone called Kenryo Shimano. Information online is a little vague. I think the original is now lost, but a 1715 copy remains. The two images below are probably this 1715 version, one of them cleaned up, but possibly the first is original. Either way, they're old.

The fourth king of Thailand liked it too. Rather a lot. In 1860, possibly swept away in Mouhot-mania or perhaps because everybody in Thailand already knew about how great Angkor Wat was, he sent his army in to dismantle the entire temple and take it back to Thailand piece by piece. In the 19th Century, Cambodia was under Thai control and this would be the ultimate demonstration of their domination. Except his army got sick when they started trekking through the jungle, and Cambodian resistance fighters started picking them off. Screw this, they said, and went home. The king of Thailand had to rethink his strategy and instead built a model. You can see it today in the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, within the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok.


1 comment:

  1. This is a very enchanting history lesson! The pictures are really beautiful in a rustic way, A lot of things in their prime time werent famous but are now so it doesnt suprise me that it gained popularity now.


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