In Koh Ker

Erin L. Thompson

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Last winter, I visited a stolen goddess at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The label said she was carved in the mid-tenth century in the ‘style of Koh Ker’, an isolated site in northern Cambodia that was briefly the capital of the Khmer Empire. Its distinctive sculptures began to appear on the international art market in the late 1970s, during the Cambodian genocide.

A decade ago, Bradley Gordon, a US-born lawyer, set out to learn how the looted sculptures had left the country. His team drove up and down the only road to Koh Ker that was large enough for trucks, asking people about the digging. In 2019, someone told them to look for a man named Toek Tik.

Tik had led a team of dozens of looters at Koh Ker. When Gordon found him, he had pancreatic cancer and was ready to talk. He wanted to help bring the gods home before he died. Seeing photographs of the Met’s goddess, Tik led Cambodian archeologists to the spot where he had uncovered her in 1997: a room in a temple complex leading to a seven-storey pyramid dedicated to Shiva at the site’s centre. The monsoons had refilled the room with silt. When the archeologists dug down to the floor, they found an empty pedestal and part of an anchoring slab with a foot broken off at the ankle.

Tik said he found the goddess alongside a sculpture of Shiva, meaning she is his consort, Uma (also known as Parvati). She was one of many sculptures that Tik sold to a British art dealer, Douglas Latchford, who visited Koh Ker from his base in Bangkok, offering to buy whatever sculptures the villagers could uncover. Latchford sold the pieces on to private collectors and museums across the world.

Gordon estimates that Latchford made $100 million during his career, which ended with his indictment by US authorities in 2019 and his death the following year. Latchford’s daughter returned the 125 sculptures she inherited from her father to Cambodia in 2021, along with his computer. Phnom Penh asked the Met to give back 45 sculptures, including Uma, based on matches they had made from excavations, interviews with former looters and Latchford’s records.

Uma was still there in November 2022. I spent several hours in the gallery and saw only a handful of visitors glance at her on their way to other, more popular exhibitions. When I crouched down to look at the stumps of Uma’s legs, I saw a dust-covered filament, perhaps an errant human hair, hanging from her skirt. Eric Bourdonneau, a French archaeologist, has created a digital model showing the alignment of her left leg with the foot still at Koh Ker.

The Met removed Uma and several other artefacts sought by Cambodia from public view early this year, but in June, Gordon announced that the museum was still not co-operating with Cambodia’s claims.

I met Gordon in Phnom Penh a year ago. He had agreed to take me and Ashish Dhakal, a journalist and repatriation activist from Nepal, to Koh Ker and Angkor. First, though, I spent nearly a week at the National Museum of Cambodia. It opened in 1920, designed by George Groslier, to hold the artefacts that archaeologists in French Indochina weren’t shipping back to Paris. He enlarged the architectural forms of Cambodian Buddhist temples to create a building that hadn’t previously been needed in a region where sacred artworks generally remained in place.

One morning I saw a member of staff bow towards a sculpture of a reclining Buddha before dusting it in long, gentle strokes. Another climbed a stepladder and ran a feather duster with rainbow-coloured bristles over the shoulders of a Krishna, long after all the dust had to have gone. One afternoon I watched an ant lay a clutch of eggs in a shallow cavity in a sculpture’s broken arm. The eggs fell to the floor and a woman swept them up, singing so quietly I could hear her voice only between strokes of her broom.

Gordon had arranged for us to meet Chhay Visoth, the museum’s director. I asked about the cups of water and coffee I had seen every day on a stone block half-hidden in the bushes near the museum café, next to a vase of half-burnt sticks of incense. Visoth told me that the museum staff set out the cups each morning as an offering to the spirits. Many Cambodians, he said, both visitors and staff, consider the museum a sacred place. A family carried a plastic bag filled with lotus blossoms into the courtyard where we were talking. They placed the flowers into the arms of a concrete copy of Preah Kum Long, the Leper King.

The eighth-century stone original was at Angkor until 1967, when a would-be thief tried to saw off his head. The sculpture was transferred to the museum for safety and now sits near his replica in the courtyard. His fangs identify him as Yama, the Hindu god of death. But his fingers broke off over time, and after the Khmer state religion switched from Hinduism to Buddhism in the 13th century, viewers came to understand him as a legendary king of Angkor who was stricken with leprosy.

Visoth said that many visitors come to the museum in search of a new place to worship after leaving the countryside for the city. More than 90 per cent of Cambodians identify as Buddhist. Dhakal asked Visoth why Buddhist visitors offer worship to sculptures of Hindu deities. We asked many other people the same question, and they all gave the same answer: the external forms of a statue chosen by the spirits do not matter.

Even the looters prayed to the spirits in the sculptures before they took them, asking their forgiveness. Tik told Gordon that his team once overturned a statue and found gold leaf mixed with bones inside its pedestal. Tik took the bones and strung them together as a necklace. He wore it to show his men that the spirits would not harm them. His wife cut the necklace off as he slept and reburied the bones.

On the drive north from Phnom Penh, I asked Gordon how he had learned about the looting of cultural heritage. ‘I went to the British Museum,’ he said drily.

We arrived at Koh Ker and climbed the pyramid, breathless in the heat. Fresh flowers at the top had been laid by people who live in the villages that dot the sprawling site. King Jayavarman IV made it his capital in 928. Although he and his son Harshavarman II reigned there for barely two decades before the capital moved back to Angkor, they built nearly twenty temples. One of them, Prasat Chen, was once filled with dozens of monumental figures illustrating scenes from the Mahābhārata. The sculptures were looted in the 1970s; many were sold on by Latchford.

Some have come back. A gallery at the National Museum of Cambodia holds a group of five sculptures from a single room at Prasat Chen. Bhima faces off against his cousin Duryodhana in a fight to the death. The Norton Simon Museum and Sotheby’s surrendered them in 2014. Balarama, Nakula, and Sahadeva crouch nearby, awaiting the outcome of the duel. Christie’s returned one of them, while the other two had for years knelt on either side of the entrance to the Met’s South-East Asian gallery. The museum returned them to Cambodia in 2013, partly because of the way their broken legs matched fragments still at Koh Ker. Gordon told us that hundreds of sculptures have come back to Cambodia, and hundreds more have been promised. Thousands, probably, remain missing.

I came to Koh Ker thinking it would be an archaeological site like the ones I had visited in Greece and Italy, with sculptures of gods last worshipped centuries ago. But the gods are still alive at Koh Ker. The temple walls have fallen into confusion, and people have laid aside the names of the deities for whom the temples were first built. But still they bring incense, flowers and candles, the same offerings as at any other temple. They are not worshipping as antiquarians or revivalists. They are simply worshipping.

On the last evening of our trip, after spending the day among the temples at Angkor, Dhakal and I went to a drag show in Siem Reap. One performer, singing ‘I Will Always Love You’, slowly turned, her backless white trouser suit revealing a tattoo of the towers of Angkor Wat from shoulder blade to shoulder blade.

I had taken a photograph of Dhakal posing in front of the towers earlier that day. Their outline was drawn on the can of Angkor Beer I was drinking, and on the ‘Angkor What?’ shirt of a british honeymooner I had seen at the National Museum.

There are many different ways of experiencing Khmer sculpture. You can be knocked sideways by its beauty. You can contemplate the course of human history. You can pray to the spirits. You can fill a morning on your way to the beach. You can switch around between these modes of experience as you wish: you needn’t be Cambodian to worship the sculptures, or a tourist to be bored by them. But while art appreciators can get what they want out of a visit to Cambodian art wherever it is housed, or even by looking at replicas, worshippers cannot interact with their gods at the Metropolitan Museum.