Posted by khmernews on November 8, 2006

Wat Phnom is probably the most historically interesting of the Phnom Penh pagodas. Its legend, according to G. Coedes, runs as follows : In the fourteenth century, Lady Penh was building a house near the Tonle Sap, and was about to use in its construction a large koki tree which had floated down the river.

Inside the tree she found four bronze statues of the Buddha and a statue, perhaps of Vishnu. In celebration, she and her neighbors built the hill and erected a sanctuary in the year 1372. The four statues and the stone god were used to make wishes and they brought good luck to the people.

Another more historically verifiable account states the Wat Phnom was constructed by Ponhea Yat, the Khmer King who finally abandoned Angkor Wat to the thais and established Phnom Penh in the year 1422. The hill was built up around the year 1605, and the great stupa is the burial place for Ponyea Yat.

Apart from the historical interest of Wat Phnom, the pagoda boasts some of the most interesting paintings and icons in Phnom Penh. Unfortunately, most of the paintings inside the building are age-darkened and dirty to the point of unrecognizability ( due probably to the constant burning of incense) but some features serve to identify the themes, an of which are found nowhere else in Phnom Penh. Oddly enough, there are virtually no stories of the Buddha’s life in the pagoda; rather, the pictures focus on jataka stories of former reincarnations of the Buddha, or on fantastic creatures from Hindu mythology.

The jataka stories include the Vessanda-Chuchuk story around the base at the left then on the upper level at the right. These include the usual scenes, but one confusion is possible- on the right side are two almost identical pictures of Chuchuk seated at the foot of someone. In the upper scene, it is the hermit showing Chuchuk the way to Vessandaa’s abode. while in the lower scene. it is Vessandaa himself receiving Chuchuk’s  request for his children.

The shipwreck of Mahajanaka, and the hunting accident of Sovanna Sam, are shown on the left-hand wall, along with the tour of hell of Nemireach, complete with the usual sufferers in the cauldron of boiling metal. and the adulterers climbing the thorn tree. The Mahasot picture is one found in older pagodas, that of Mahasot searching for his country wife Amara, who is shown sitting in a tree. A twist to the story of Chandakumaa shows the god not only bringing the ball of fire. but apparently pouring water on the fire where Chandakumaa is to be burnt.

The fantasy creatures are difficult to make out in the obscurity of the pagoda, but they are worth looking for. On the left side is a local legend of a demon chasing a rustic maiden, and a strange picture of a hunter with an elephant’s head chasing a phoenix (hang ) and a peacock (kngaup). On the other side of the interior can be found the god Kun Riesey Chan riding on a phoenix along with Aysou, god-king of the giants, riding on a cow. Next to that is a picture of the four-armed god Niriey (probably Vishnu ) with trident, conch, toothed wheel, and spear, riding a garuda, along with the king of the gods, Preah An (=Indra) riding a three-headed elephant. Preah An can also be seen on the outside of the pagoda just over the entrance.

Another fantasy picture on the right side of  the interior is that of riec sey the winged lion king along with a singed elephant (kuchesaa, or male elephant in the Pali language) and a winged tiger. Next to that is Pit Pchie Taa. a winged creature wint a trident jabbing at woman-shaped fruit from the magic tree, along with a kenorey or woman angel at the right. This may stem from a Chinese legend from Tienjin in which eating  of  the magic woman gives longevity.

Even the few Buddha pictures show marked differences from those found in other pagodas. The Enlightenment scene, which usually shows only gods surrounding  the Buddha, here shows giants or Yiek giving obeisance on the Buddha’s left. Under the Enlightenment scene on the interior entrance wall is the triptych of the Buddha’s mother offering him a robe which she has made, followed by his refusal, and ending with the mother giving the robe to another monk. This story illustrates the Buddha’s generosity, since he already wears a robe and wants the gift to be given to a monk who has no robe. Another fairly uncommon scene is that of the  Buddha giving ten best wishes to his wife and four other women.

Several icons are noteworthy outside the pagoda. At the top of the steps leading to the entrance are bronze friezes, first of chariots in battle, then several of apsaras, which are copies of friezes from Angkor Wat. The statues of  giants standing with magic wands are also Angkor Wat copies. Over the entrance is another version of Preah An (Indra) astride his three-headed elephant. The pavilion to the left of the base of the hill has nicely carved Reahu monsters spewing out their innards, or eating flowers, depending on the interpretation.


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