Statues of Identity by Elma Berisha

Early last year, in a spontaneous and unplanned meander, I visited some of the landmark Buddhist and Hindu temples in Malaysia, Thailand and Cambodia. I was quite unprepared for all that I encountered. The visions before my eyes were undoubtedly an extreme form of religious sculptural symbolism and mythological bas-relief. Paradoxically, these forms were as abstractly symbolic as concretely cast in stone: miniatures of multi-armed divinities with elephant heads, monkey faces and female curves in Batu Caves; golden dragon wings and snake statues stretching dozens of metres long, circling Thai temples; the majestic Apsara heavenly maids, as well as headless Buddha statues in Seam Reap, town after town, beheaded by, we were told, the interim conquerors of other faiths in the past.

Headscarfed, I was permitted to climb the central highest temple in Angkor Wat, unlike a few other tourists who were not permitted to climb this sacred tower, either due to their occasional headwear or less than modest attire. Rumours abound that in local culture headwear was disrespectful to the temple. ‘Muslim?’ I was asked and ‘Muslim’ I affirmed. That sufficed. Intriguingly my permit was based on the assumption that a Muslim headscarf is not necessarily symbolic like the other headwear sported around me. Although, given the endless queuing in the tropical heat for the sacrosanct gates to open, the latter one might have been deemed, at best, necessarily functional. While I unsymbolically ascended to the apex of Khmer civilisation, notwithstanding my limited background knowledge of the subject matter, I could still wonder to the tour guide: ‘What is a Vishnu statue doing here, in the prime nest of the Angkor Wat temple?’ Our tour guide revealed some bias as he lamented the many decapitated Buddha statues and excavated bas-reliefs dominating the landscape, for it ultimately turned out that, in fact, the vast historical site stretching beyond 400 square kilometres was originally built as a Hindu temple. Therefore, it was Buddhists who had been the conquerors throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. I pondered the irony of our guide explaining the presence of the eight-armed Vishnu statue at the apex temple, albeit, with a forcefully replaced, still intact, Buddha head! A few months later, amidst other daily work, I came across an online news headline that a Vishnu statue in Angkor Wat was reported to have been damaged by a tourist (other sources were rather citing a ‘damaged Buddha statue’). I was never able to establish whether the motive of this incident was symbolic extremism or otherwise.

The experience resonated within me. I grew up in an ex-communist country where religious symbols were but conspicuous by their absence. Accustomed to a barren, atheist topography of public space, spiced up by one or two national symbols at most, the contemporary Southeast Asian Pantheon invoked an inquisitive self-awareness. How do we win or lose anything by the sheer facile transposition of our symbolic identity upon otherness? How does one religion or ideology win or lose a ‘battle’ by remoulding or distorting the shape or the symbolic identity of statues and images of another? In that instance, as a detached outsider I could ponder over this, as if it were a very remote, unfathomable phenomenon. At that point in time, I did not know that soon I would be confronted with IS’s heart-breaking destruction of ancient artefacts and sacred shrines in the Middle East.

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