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Khmer traditional dress and textiles: early manifestations of Indian styles and motifs.

STONE AND METAL SCULPTURES OF THE ANGKOR PERIOD (9TH-12TH CENTURIES) have captured the attention of researchers since the late 19th century. The focus of study has been the identity, iconography and archaeological context of these art works. Beyond these characteristics, however, are lesser-studied attributes of the figures represented in the sculptures--their dress and the materials from which these were fashioned. Perhaps because dress and textiles are, in some sense, taken for granted--being associated with "women's work"--their contribution to historical and cultural studies of the Angkor period has been little explored.

However, George Groslier, the renowned French art historian, did early on in his career as Founding Director of the National Museum in Phnom Penh, undertake a detailed study of the dress and textile patterns seen on Angkor-period sculptures. He recognized that surveying the styles of dress and their evolution over time could assist in establishing the chronology of Khmer sculptures. He published his analysis in 1921. (1) Archaeologist Jean Boisselier published a similar investigation in 1966, (2) and this author introduced wider dimensions in her article published in 2000. (3) Inherent in these studies is the assumption that the styles and patterns are not simply figments of the sculptors' imaginations, their minute attention to detail affording a level of confidence in the assumption that that they were modelled from "life".

Surveys of dress depicted on Khmer sculptures, from the 7th century onward, demonstrate developments in their styles. Until the 9th century, deities wear simple unpatterned cloth wrapped around the hips--in the case of males extending no further than mid-thigh, and for females to the ankle. From the 9th century a male style appears where the ends of the cloth are passed between the legs to be secured at the back. Accessories such as belts and additional decorative lengths of cloth embellish this style. The 10th century is distinguished by the appearance of finely pleated cloth for both male and female dress. During the late 12th to 13th centuries, while the styles themselves are maintained, patterned cloth is now in evidence. Patterns are especially prominent on the textiles worn by the figures depicted in Angkor Wat bas-reliefs, including people participating in historical processions, military battles and parades, as well as the heroes of Indian epics such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana.

Styles of Dress and Use of Textiles

Dress styles on Khmer sculptures indicate classes in society. They distinguish workers from the elite, men from women, soldiers from non-combatants. The male garment, sampot, is fashioned by wrapping the cloth around the waist then twisting the two ends of the cloth together at the front, passing these between the legs and securing them at the waist behind. The simplest sampot utilizes a narrow length of cloth that barely covers the hips and is characteristic of servants and slaves (figure 1). A wider cloth is used in depictions of Khmer soldiers, showing the wrapped textile covering the hips with the two ends of the sampot depicted sweeping away from the body at the back (figure 2). Deities wear a style extending from waist to mid-thigh with the twisted ends fanned out decoratively at the back and the whole secured with an elaborate belt (figure 3).

Princesses and female commoners wear skirt cloths, sarung, knotted at the waist and hanging unhindered down to the ankles. Along with skirt cloths, an interesting example of the growing opulence and extravagance at the Khmer court is illustrated by the dress of the heavenly dancers sculpted on the upper registers of Angkor Wat reliefs (figure 4). They wear elaborate hip-wrapper ensembles depicted with graceful arched swathes of cloth emerging from beneath the waist edge. On careful observation, it is clear that these apsaras are actually wearing two lengths of fabric. One length is narrower and wrapped around the hips forming an undergarment like the male sampot (as seen on some apsaras); the second one of much wider length, the sarung, is wrapped around on top of this undergarment. The long ends of the undergarment are then eased out from beneath, and allowed to fall along the sides.

None of the men or women portrayed in sculpture wear upper body garments, except for warrior kings and their soldiers who wear short-sleeved, tightly fitted upper body garments or sometimes protective cuirasses, together with sampots (figures 2, 5 and 6). Some depictions show longer jackets with short sleeves (figure 7) displaying a variety of patterns. In addition to the different styles of dress used by various members of the society, the bas-reliefs also depict textiles in the context of royal regalia such as fans, parasols, upholstery and partitions--all with patterns similar to those seen on dress. What was the stimulus for the development of more sophisticated dress styles, and where did the patterned cloth originate?

Maritime Exchanges between South and Southeast Asia

During the Angkor period (9th-12th centuries) maritime trade routes were well established and there is evidence of Indian merchant guilds trading with Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. (4) Khmer sculpture attests to the presence of Indian brahmans in the courts of Khmer kings, as seen in reliefs on the walls of Angkor Wat (figure 8). Along with these depictions of brahmans, many magnificent sculptures of Hindu deities have been discovered in Cambodia dated to the pre-Angkor and Angkor periods. Inscriptional evidence is also of great value. Several inscriptions from the official Chola port of Nagapattinam in southern India attest to the ties between Rajendra Chola and the Khmer king Suryavarman i in the mid-nth century. (5) Khmer inscriptional records refer to travelling Khmer merchants and also confirm the participation of the foreign merchants in Khmer commercial centres. (6) The eyewitness account of Zhou Daguan regards the fabric from the "Western Seas" as the most refined that he observed at the Khmer court in 1296, during his stay in Cambodia as a Chinese emissary. Scholars believe this refers to textiles from parts of India.

Many anthropological and ethnographical studies have illustrated that the adoption of iconography, new beliefs and customs and luxury goods from well established and successful cross-border or cross-regional societies, is a pretext local leaders use to claim privileged knowledge and to wield authority. In the Khmer context, the reasons for adopting new customs including appropriate dress possibly indicate the conscious effort on the part of the rulers to establish themselves within a broader culture. (7)

Maritime contact with the Indian subcontinent as well as inscriptional records strongly suggest that India was the predominant influence prompting novel dress styles. Researching Indian sculptural representations of the same period would provide comparative data. An invaluable source of Indian styles and patterns is provided by Moti Chandra's detailed investigation of Indian sculpted forms from the early first millennium ce through to the 16th century. (8) Apart from visual data, Chandra's research has considered information on dress styles provided by literary and linguistic references.

A visual comparison of Indian and Khmer dress styles demonstrates many similarities particularly in male dress. The "minimal coverage" style, a narrow length of cloth wound around the waist then passed between the legs and hitched at the back is common to both traditions. In India it is called langoti and in Khmer language, dop. The wider Khmer male hip-wrapper sampot either covering the hips or extending to the thigh, both wrapped in the same manner, is very similar to the Indian dhoti. Additional narrow lengths of cloth slipped under waist belts and suspended at the centre front of hip-wrappers embellish both Khmer and Indian male styles. The skirt cloth sarung worn by Khmer women is a length of cloth simply wrapped around the waist and knotted or secured by a belt. This is a style related to the lungi, which is, however, worn mostly by males in India. The cropped bodices and jackets worn by Khmer soldiers are seen in similar context in Indian images. (9) Not all dress items, however, are common to both the Khmer and Indian traditions. Breast-bands and shawls either for the head or shoulders are often worn by Indian women, but not in the Khmer tradition. Similarly, the turbans and footwear worn by Indian men are not seen in the Khmer imagery.

By the 12th century textile patterns become an outstanding feature on Khmer sculpted images that illustrate dress styles (figure 9). When we compare the Khmer patterns with Indian textiles as described in Moti Chandra's detailed study we find evidence to support the proposition that Indian cloth was used by the Khmer, with which they shaped their new styles of dress.

No Indian textile fragments from the Angkor period have survived in any form other than representations in stone and bronze. But similar patterned textile fragments of Indian origin have been discovered and documented from other parts of the world, confirming the existence of and trade in Indian textiles during the Angkor period. Major find-sites of Indian textile fragments were Fostat ("old Cairo") in present-day Egypt, and Quseir al-Qadim on the Red Sea coast. These sites have yielded fragments of exported cotton cloth from Gujarat in western India. It should be noted, however, that the Fostat site, discovered in the 1920s, appears to have been an ancient "waste dump" so its archaeological investigation with respect to dating the finds can only be speculated on. In the case of the site of Quseir al-Qadim, however, excavated some decades later, rigorous archaeological methodology has been applied and the textile fragments are more securely dated, and "... can be assigned to the 13thand early 14th centuries". (10)

Ruth Barnes has meticulously documented the fragments in museum collections generated from these sites. (11) Her analyses show that the cotton fragments were patterned by the block-printing technique using mordants or resist pastes. In addition some patterns were directly painted onto the cloth and there is an indication that others were tie-dyed (bandhani). The principal pattern dye colours are indigo blue and madder red or reddish brown, with the pale background colour provided by the natural cotton.

It seems that dress was not the only use for textiles at the Khmer court. An interesting use of textiles is indicated by the patterns on the so-called "false windows" of a small number of 12th-century temples in the Khmer domain. These representations suggest that Indian textiles functioned as items of soft furnishing in the royal residences of the kings, and were then replicated in stone for the residences of the deities. The false windows are constructed using decorative stone balusters for the lower section while the upper section is filled in with a solid stone block or blocks suggesting what would these days be termed a "blind". The surfaces of many of these blocks are patterned with the same motifs seen on dress textiles.

The windows of Wat Banon (late 10th to late 12th century) show the same four-petal flower central field pattern combined with a multi-stripe border as on the apsara hip-wrapper (figure 10). Significantly, this implies a date possibly as far back as the late 10th century for Indian textiles of this type in the Khmer region, much earlier than previously determined by other means. It could be, however, that despite this very early date, the patterns could have been added to the "blind" later. Four-petal flowers and multi-stripe borders also appear in Indian sculptures and on textile fragments found at the Egyptian sites. False window blinds with different patterns are seen on a number of other 12th-century Khmer temples. Four-petal flowers contained in vertical bands appear at Ta Phrom at Tonle Bati, Takeo province (figure 11) while similar flowers appear but in diagonal bands at Wat Nokor in Kampong Cham province (figure 12). An intriguing pattern descriptively named "intersecting circles" is seen on false window blinds at Bayon and Preah Khan. Fragments of Indian export textiles corresponding to all these sculpted patterns are documented in the Egyptian finds. A fragment with the "intersecting circles" pattern has been dated to the 13th century and is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. (12)

What Were the Khmer Sources of Textiles?

Even though the Bayon bas-reliefs depict commoners engaged in craft-related activities such as pottery or fishing-net manufacturing, there are no scenes depicting spinning, weaving or fabric-dyeing activities. There is very little evidence of textile manufacture other than utilitarian cloth by Khmer weavers during the Angkor period, and these weavers could not have produced patterned silk and cotton luxury textiles. The account of Zhou Daguan comments on cotton weaving on simple backstrap looms by hill tribe people during the late Angkor period. (13) These looms are not associated with silk weaving, and this view is indirectly supported by his observations mentioning Siamese weavers and repairers producing Khmer silk garments. It is equally possible that certain patterns were ordered from Indian suppliers by royal patrons for their exclusive use.

Although this discussion has focused specifically on similarities between Khmer and Indian textile patterns, mention must be made of another distinctive style of pattern, suggestive of textiles, on Angkor-period architectural elements. These patterns are composed of close-packed medallions, each medallion containing a motif, generally floral or avian. These are particularly prominent on walls, window-ledges and door-jambs at Angkor Wat, and they also adorn false window blinds at the Bayon, Wat Nokor and Banteay Kdei. Interestingly, in contrast to the Indian-style patterns, these medallion-patterned textile representations do not appear on Khmer dress at this time, even in a royal context, but only as soft furnishings. Medallion array patterning and these particular enclosed motifs suggest a Chinese or even West Asian origin, so they most likely represent textiles sourced from those regions, each equally renowned for weaving expertise.

The argument in this essay for the influence of Indian traditional styles and the availability of Indian-sourced textiles during the Angkor period is simply an overview of a very complex subject. But recognizing the presence value of luxury textiles and acknowledging their use in Khmer dress and domestic furnishing enlivens the appreciation of daily life during this period of Khmer history.


(1) George Groslier, (ed.), Recbercbes sur les Cambodgiens, Paris: Augustin Challamel, 1921, pp. 39-56.

(2) Jean Boisselier, Manual d'arcbeologie d'extreme-Orient premiere partieAsie du Sud-Est. Tome I, Le Cambodge, Paris: A&J Picard, 1966.

(3) Gillian Green, "Indie Impetus: Innovation in Textile Usage in Angkorian Period Cambodia", Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, vol. 43, no. 3, 2000, pp. 277-313.

(4) Burton Stein, A History of India, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998, p. 125.

(5) Puttur copper-plate inscription dated 1020 CE, in Annual Report on Indian Epigraphy (are), 1949, no. 50, pp. 3-5; Arcot inscription dated 1114 ce, in are, no. 119 of 1888. Also published in Epigrapbia Indica, no. 5, p. 105; Kenneth Hall, "International Trade and Foreign Diplomacy in early Medieval South India", Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, no. 21, 1978, pp. 75-98.

(6) George Coedes, Inscriptions du Cambodge (IC), vols. I to VIII, Hanoi and Paris: Ecole francaise d'Extreme-Orient (efeo), 1937-66. IC262, K.263 from IC, IV, pp. 108-39; K.987 from IC, VI, pp. 183-86 and 225-27.

(7) George Michell, "Architectural Traditions at Vijayanagara II: Islamic Styles", in Anna Libera Dallapiccola and Stephanie Zingel-Ave Lallement, eds., Vijayanagara: City and Empire, New Currents of Research, vol. 1, Stuttgart: Steiner Verlag Wiesbaden.

(8) Moti Chandra, Costumes, Textiles, Cosmetics and Coiffure in Ancient and Mediaeval India, Delhi: Oriental Publishers, 1973.

(9) Ibid., pp. 77, 97.

(10) Ruth Barnes, Indian Block-Printed Cotton Fragments in the Kelsey Museum, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993, p. 26.

(11) Ruth Barnes, Indian Block-Printed Textiles in Egypt: The Newberry Collection in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2 vols., Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.

(12) Newberry Collection, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, accession no. EA 1990:1099.

(13) A backstrap loom is a very simple loom common to indigenous people around the world. It requires two beams, one in front of the weaver--the breast beam, and the other attached to some firmly anchored point in front of her. The warp threads are wound from one beam to the other. Other wooden rods are inserted into the warp to facilitate the weaving process.

Caption: 1 Bayon relief detail showing Khmer workers: the males wear minimal hip-wrappers (sampot); the females wear patterned wraparound ankle-length skirt cloths (sarung).

Caption: 2 Relief detail at Angkor Wat showing a Khmer soldier wearing pleated sampot and patterned cropped jacket.

Caption: 3 Sculpture at Preah Ko depicting a male deity (rear view), wearing pleated sampot secured with belt.

Caption: 4 Angkor Wat relief of apsara with composite hip-wrapper: undergarment with multiple weft banding and "dot" outer edging, combined with overgarment with four-petal flower pattern.

Caption: 5 Angkor Wat relief with Khmer warrior wearing a patterned sampot and a short bodice with printed, swirling pattern.

Caption: 6 Angkor Wat relief showing a Khmer soldier wearing pleated sampot and patterned cropped jacket, on which the pattern appears to be tie-dyed (bandhani).

Caption: 7 Angkor Wat relief of Khmer soldiers wearing knee-length, patterned sampots and jackets.

Caption: 8 Angkor Wat relief showing Hindu ascetics wearing minimal hip-wrappers (langoti).

Caption: 9 Patterns sketched from Khmer textiles as depicted on basreliefs.

Caption: 10 A false window in Wat Banon, Battambang region, with a pattern of four-petal flowers (central field) and four bands of geometric motifs forming an outer border, visible on the bottom edge and left-hand side. There is an enigmatic V-shaped central ridge.

Caption: 11 A false window in Ta Phrom at Tonle Bati, Takeo province, with a pattern of four-petal flowers in square geometric array.

Caption: 12 A false window in Wat Nokor, Kampong Cham province, with a pattern of four-petal flowers in diagonal geometric array.

All images courtesy Gillian Green.


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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Green, Gillian
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2015
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