Textile Decor at Angkor

By Ms. Gill Green, Author and independent scholar, Australia

These presentation surveys textiles used for purposes other than costume in the Angkorian period. So far no actual textiles, fragments or threads dating to this period or earlier have been excavated in Cambodia. Neither have other indicators such as impressions on clay, or pseudomorphs (chemical impressions of silk wrappers on bronze artifacts) as have been found on objects excavated from ancient Chinese tombs. So what we have to go on are detailed representations of textiles carved in bas relief most clearly in evidence on gallery walls at Angkor Wat and the Bayon.

Reliefs show that patterned cloth was used to make blinds for windows and screens, curtains, litters, parasols, kittisols, fans and upholstery fabric all essential indicators of social status in the lives of the elite. The most common pattern appearing on these fabrics is that of four-petalled flowers. Interestingly similarly patterned fabric is used to construct hipwrappers depicted on figures of both elite and deities. In contrast while other patterns - ‘solar discs’, spots and weft brocade stripes ? are depicted on latter-period hipwrappers, these patterns do not appear on decor items.

Roundels are the basic motif element of another group of intriguing patterns carved on window and door sills and depicted on panels clearly representing blinds covering balustered windows seen at these same sites. One pattern composition is composed of geometrically-arranged intersecting roundels with flower infills and the other of roundels containing either two confronted, swirling phoenixes or two parrots. These forms seem restricted to use as decorative interior design fabrics and are not in evidence on Khmer costume of the time.

These empirical observations focused on patterned cloth, though at first glance seemingly simplistic, do raise a number of fundamental questions. Who wove cloth like this with its quite specific specifications not only wide enough in the weft to reach seamlessly from waist to ankle but also patterned by relatively complex techniques? Indigenous Khmer weavers are known to have woven cotton on backstrap looms at that time. But narrow strips of cloth, the product of simple, foot-braced backstrap looms, are quite inadequate to fashion textiles associated with elite custom described above. Further, what is the significance of the use of carved roundel patterns appearing only on blinds, walls, window and door sills?

Answers are sought by examining patterns on extant contemporaneous textiles sourced far beyond the Khmer domain of the time. Fine cotton textile fragments with printed patterns including intersecting roundels just like these were excavated in the 1930s in Fostat (old Cairo). These have been identified as Indian export cloths suggesting that cloth imported from India may have found its way to the Khmer court. While cloth with this pattern does not appear on Khmer costume fabrics, interestingly this pattern does appear on the hipwrappers of many sculpted images of Javanese deities of this period. Whatever maybe the reason this pattern appeals to Khmer taste only as a furnishing fabric, it did clearly did suit costume use in the Javanese tradition. Their source may well also have been India or the cloth may have been the product Java’s own active textile economy of the time.

The other roundel-patterned cloths seen on walls at the Bayon feature paired birds, either parrots or phoenixes. Examples of textiles with almost identical patterns, again contemporaneous with the late Angkor period, but sourced in China are relatively well-known in collections. Woven in silk, their motifs are created in the groundweave either by the complex drawloom technique or are embroidered onto the woven cloth.

Angkorian palaces are known to have been structures constructed with wooden frames and walls made with forest materials. Clay or straw sufficed as roofing material. Only temples were constructed of permanent materials such as brick or stone. It seems that kings may well have gained supplies of cloth with roundel patterns from both India and China with which to embellish their relatively plain structures. When it came to replicating the use and location of these cloths in stone temples, the palaces of the gods, their more durable carved depictions, would be eminently appropriate.

So it seems that the Khmer court during the Angkor period may well have been involved in a flourishing textile import trade with both India and China, this trade catering to a desire and a need for ‘designer labels’ appropriate to their status.