The Battle Of Kurukshetra Mural At Angkor Wat
Permission to use image granted by Apsara Authority, 29/11/2017. Do not copy or re-use this image without permission of the Apsara Authority.
The Battle Of Kurukshetra Mural is one of several murals on the exterior walls of the central building at Angkor Wat. It depicts the final battle of the great Hindu epic The Mahabharata. The mural was crafted in the early 12th century during the reign of Suryavarman II. The other bas-relief murals around the central building are the Procession of Suryavarman II, Heavens And Hells, Churning of the Sea of Milk, Victory Over The Asuras and The Battle Of Lanka. These 'scriptopict' annotations and the following information are intended to lead visitors to a deeper appreciation of The Battle Of Kurukshetra Mural and its meaning beyond it's much photographed, extraordinary aesthetic beauty.
The Battle Of Kurukshetra in The Mahabharata
'What is found here, may be found elsewhere. What is not found here, cannot be found anywhere.'
- Shloka 33, Chapter 56, Adi-Vamshavatarana Parva, Mahabharata1
The Mahabharata is greatest epic of all history, in all the world. It is certainly the longest epic with 90,000 Sanskrit couplets composed and compiled between around 800BC and 400AD in India. It includes stories within stories, of all kinds, around the overall plot of the feud between the Kaurava's, lead by Prince Duryodhana, and the Pandava's lead by Prince Yudhistra with his brothers Arjuna and Bima. The story culminates in the Battle of Kurukshetra, depicted in the mural at Angkor Wat.
It's no accident that the only weakness of King Yudhishtra, son of the god Dharma, or 'Justice', is playing dice. Yudhistra's loss of everything in a rigged game of dice is one of the main causes of the war. Dharma is a central theme running throughout The Mahabharata. Dharma, which we translate here as 'justice' has a broad meaning relating to morality, the rules of right and wrong and good conduct. As well as meaning an abstract and universal sense of right and wrong, Dharma also means what the right thing for a person to do is in any particular circumstance and according to who they are. For someone of the Kshatriya or warrior caste it is cowardly to refuse a fight or to strike an enemy while they are resting, while for a holy person it is inappropriate to fight at all.
Even though the main characters of this epic are of the Kshatriya caste, the rules of war are not the only kind of Dharma The Mahabharata deals with. It's broad appeal has as much to do with the profound questions and answers that apply to everyone's life, as with the adventures of these warriors. Yet it is not so much breaking the rules of Dharma that causes strife, rather it is those unforeseen and complicated circumstances we all encounter which plunge Dharma into doubt and confusion.
It is not always clear what the right course of action is. Each character upholds Dharma in their own way, yet there sometimes arise situations that force them to betray one rule of Dharma in order to uphold another. As an example, it is clear what the rule is as to who should succeed the throne, and until the Kuru and Pandava princes it had been clear who the heir to the kingdom was, but because of one prince's virtuous vow of celibacy, the untimely deaths of heirs, multiple wives and unusual circumstances of conception and birth, it's unclear whether the succession belongs to the Kuru or the Pandava princes.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment leading to the war is when the Pandava prince, Yudhishtra, loses first his kingdom, then himself, then his brothers and then their wife, Draupadi, to the Kurus in a game of dice in which the Kurus cheated. Draupadi, wife to all five of the Pandava brothers, asserts that, as he had already lost himself, she was no longer his to lose. The Kurus none the less claimed her and insulted her in front of her husbands. Duryodhana, first among the Kuru princes invited her to sit on his thigh. Bima, the strongest of the Pandava's vowed to break that thigh. In one of the most famous scenes of The Mahabharata the Kurus attempt to disrobe Draupadi but are thwarted by the intervention of Krishna who made her veil never ending as it unraveled.
In a world full of violence, uncertainty, deceit and injustice, Krishna says that so long as we ourselves uphold honesty and justice, only then can we be certain that they haven't completely vanished from the earth. When Arjuna, the most skilled warrior of all, hesitates to blow the conch to launch the battle in which he must fight his brother and teachers, and in which thousands will die, Krishna holds a conversation with him, while the armies wait, that comprises the whole of the book Bhagavad Gita. Krishna explains that everyone must die, that this war has been set in motion to correct an injustice, that all these armies have come expecting to fight for Dharma, that the only thing to do, without thinking of himself, is to forget about victory and defeat, to realise that even inaction is action, to think only of doing what he is there to do, what is right for him, Arjuna the warrior, to do there at that moment in time and space, and to launch the battle.
These and many more twists of plot and philosophy lead to the catastrophic war, heralding the end of an age, plunging the world into darkness, a war in which brother fights brother, mothers set their sons against each other, noble warriors fight dirty, honest men lie, invincible demons face irresistible weapons, immortal sages choose death, where light fights illusion, and the god of sustaining the universe, incarnate as Krishna, urges all to annihilation in the final Battle of Kurukshetra.
Difficulties In Interpretation
Some interpretations of figures in the mural are clearer than others. While there is a consensus on some of the figures, there is no single authoritative source identifying all the figures in the mural. The interpretations offered here do not claim to be authoritative and are the best I can make according to my own research into The Mahabharata and the only surviving primary source on the era in which the mural was created, Zhou Daguan's Record of Cambodia, as well as some secondary sources. I hope this inspires others to investigate and to hear of any corrections. To form your own opinions or simply to find out more, please follow the sources listed below and speak with people with a deeper understanding of the Angkor Wat, the history of Khmer and/or The Mahabharata.
While some figures and events are unambiguous, such as the death of Bheeshma on the bed of arrows, various factors make interpretation difficult, such as:
- The same character may appear in several locations on the mural. (In pictorial narrative the subjects are often a series of events in which the same characters, places and objects may re-appear)
- Distinguishing details may have existed in the paint that once covered the stone.
- Events are not necessarily depicted in temporal order in any direction.
- Many of the figures are similar in physique, attire, accoutrements and weaponry.
- There are many characters who appear important on both sides.
- In the source material there are many events, many of which have similarities, so it can be difficult to confirm if a depiction is of one event and not another.
- The mural is teeming with figures. It is not always clear which are central characters and events, and which are intended as incidental fighting among soldiers.
For example, there are several decapitated heads in the mural and there are also several significant decapitations in the battle described in The Mahabharata making it difficult to disambiguate which is which. On the right hand side, generally accepted to be the Pandava side there are many warriors on chariots. More than one could be any of the Pandava brothers. In most iconography Arjuna is easily identifiable as the greatest archer of all, with a chariot driven by Krishna. He is regularly described as filling the sky with arrows, yet in the mural more than one chariot riding warrior on the Pandava side is firing a superhuman amount of arrows. Are these Arjuna at different moments or is Arjuna only one of them, given that Arjuna is not the only skilled archer?
The second chariot rider from the centre wields a fan like, multi pointed javelin. Towards the end of the battle Yudhishtra, the Pandava King, kills Shalya with a javelin. This is a significant moment, but one of the most famous of the episodes in the battle is when Karna is compelled to use the invincible javelin, given to him by a god and certain to kill whoever it is used against, though it may only be used once. Karna had been saving it to defeat Arjuna but is compelled to used it against Gatotkacha, the rakshasha (demon) son of Bima, who was annihilating the Kaurava forces. Although a popular and crucial turning point, this scene cannot be found elsewhere. Who is holding the spear, Yudhishtra or Karna?
While Bima is often regarded as one of the figures riding an elephant, he was more famed for killing elephants on the Kaurava side than riding them and is also depicted in the central wrestling scene. Does Bima appear more than once? We can only make our best guess with the information available and remain open to changing our interpretation.
The interpretative process goes back and forth between asking what the imagery in the mural refers to, and seeking in the mural what we might expect to find, given our knowledge of the story.
View the mural for a more specific attempt to identify figures and events.
The following are some characters and events we might expect to find in a depiction of the battle.
|Murder of Abhimanyu||Possibly|
|Death of Bheeshma||Yes|
|Death of Jayadratha|
|Bima killing elephants|
|Death of Drona / the lie about the death of his son Ashwatthama||Possibly|
|Arjuna's son Abhimanyu trapped in the maze formation||Possibly|
|Bima rips open Dushusana's chest to eat his heart and wash Draupadi's hair in his blood|
|Arjuna kills Karna when his wheel is stuck in the mud||Yes|
|Arjuna's hesitation / Krishna blowing the conch to launch the battle||Yes|
|Magical weapons of various kinds.||Yes|
The following are some features of the mural that seem significant, though the specific meaning may be unclear.
|Sun-like device on armour near top of Kaurava side||Possibly Karna|
|Figure standing in the saddle near the centre on the Pandava side||This figure stands out prominently from the other soldiers, so seems to depict a specific scene.|
|Large gongs at the bottom on each side||Generally to beat the sound of war|
|Javelin in the eye||There are several significant javelin deaths in the story and many instances in the mural.|
|Foot on head||Bima placed his foot on Duryodhana's head when he finally defeated him, but it's not clear whether those depicted are that incident.|
|Severed heads||Several heads are severed in the story and several are depicted in the mural.|
|Tall banners and sprouting standards on poles||None seem to identify anyone in particular.|
|Many lie slain with arrows||There are many instances of warriors killing vast amounts of soldiers but it's not clear the cluster of dead soldiers relates to a specific incident or depicts the general outcome of the battle.|
|Large Pandava spear with a tip like a fan||This weapon is clearly unique and significant. If it were on the Kaurava side it would clearly be Karna's invincible weapon, but it is on the Pandava side. There are many uses of magical weapons, though most of them are arrows. There are several significant deaths by javelin, but it's not clear which instance this is or if it is merely to indicate Yudhistra by his preferred weapon, the spear. The spear is also generally symbolic of the ability of wisdom to penetrate the darkness of confusion, doubt and illusion, which is Yudhistra's most distinctive personal quality.|
Visiting Angkor Wat
A guide at Angkor Wat will probably provide the best means of reading and interpreting the mural on site. These annotations are no substitute for a guide who can answer follow up questions and offer the kind of insights that only local knowledge can provide.
Visitors are still welcome at Angkor Wat, but it remains a sacred site, so if you have the privilege of visiting please pay attention to the Apsara authority recommendations and abide by all their advice to respect and preserve this magnificent treasure for all humanity for millenia to come (see the brochure and video). This includes appropriate dress for men and women and respectful photography. Also, please do not touch. Some stone is quite soft and a grain of sand may remain on your hand. Around 2 million foreignors visit Angkor Wat each year. How many grains of sand are in a block of stone? Decorative details especially can be quickly worn away.
Angkor Wat in Google maps:
Permission to use image granted by Apsara Authority, 29/11/2017. Do not copy or re-use the mural image without permission of the Apsara Authority. This image is provided for educational use and not for profit basis only.
Images were taken using my (William Pascoe) own phone (Samsung A3) in panorama mode. This produced several long images due to interruptions by other onlookers. I attempted to use microscopy image stitching plugins available in Fiji to combine the segments but none were able to make good matches. The images were stitched manually using GNU Image Manipulation Program by laying one over the other and adding a fade to alpha at the edge. Given the inherent glitches in low quality panorama mode pictures the small mismatches were insignificant over all. Note that panorama view causes some image errors such as blurring and staggered duplication of features which can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from actual staggered duplications in the mural (such as the ranks of soldiers and horses' legs).
The image annotation software is a modification of Abhishek Dutta, Ankush Gupta, and Andrew Zisserman's VGG Image Annotator (VIA) http://www.robots.ox.ac.uk/~vgg/software/via/
- Angkor Visitor Code Of Conduct Phnom Penh: Apsara Authority accessed 2017, http://apsaraauthority.gov.kh/?page=detail&ctype=article&id=1758&lg=en
- Brook, Peter (dir) The Mahabharata 1989 [film] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhqkRGISQr8
- Coe, Michael D Angkor and the Khmer Civilization London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.
- Coedes, George Angkor Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1963.
- Debroy, Bibek (trans.) The Mahabharata (7 Vol.) Gurgaon, Penguin Books India, 2015. [complete translation]
- Freeman, Michael & Jacque, Claudes Ancient Angkor Bangkok: River Books, 2013.
- Narayan, R.K. (trans) The Mahabharata Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 2016. [abridged translation]
- Pai, Anant (Author, Editor), Kadam, Dilip (Illustrator) Mahabharata (3 Vol. Set) Amar Chitra Katha Mumbai: India Book House / Padmini Mirchandani, 2010. [comic]
- Tully, John A Short History Of Cambodia Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2005.
- Zhou Daguan, A record of Cambodia: the land and its people translated by Peter Harris. Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, 2007.
- Shloka 33, Chapter 56, Adi-Vamshavatarana Parva. This is the final phrase of the books that introduce and set the scene for the recitation of the Mahabharata. By the time this phrase is uttered we are already several layers deep in quotation, attesting to the oral tradition and the narrative architecture of stories within stories in the potentially infinitely deep ocean of story - in the written text (available to me through Debroy's translation) Souti says that Vaishampayana said these words about the great Bharata composed by Vyasa. Debroy's more precise translation is, "Whatever is found here on dharma, artha, kama and moksha, may be found elsewhere. But whatever is not in it, cannot be found anywhere else." p151 Debroy, Bibek (trans.) The Mahabharata (7 Vol.) Gurgaon, Penguin Books India, 2015. [complete translation]