Statue’s Head, Body Reunited After Generations

The head and body of a seventh-century Khmer statue were at last reunited on Thursday in Phnom Penh after an international agreement was brokered that allowed the head to be brought home to Cambodia from Paris, where it had spent the last 126 years.

After over a decade of negotiations that involved France’s Ministry of Culture and Cambodia’s Council of Ministers, the head was formally set on the body during a ceremony at the National Museum, where the complete statue will now reside.

A restoration team sets the head of a seventh-century Harihara statue on its body on Thursday during a ceremony at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The two parts of the statue were reunited for the first time in centuries after a French museum agreed to permanently loan the head to Cambodia. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
A restoration team sets the head of a seventh-century Harihara statue on its body on Thursday during a ceremony at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. The two parts of the statue were reunited for the first time in centuries after a French museum agreed to permanently loan the head to Cambodia. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“Making this happen will have taken years,” museum director Kong Vireak said at the event.

The pre-Angkorian statue depicts Harihara, a combined representation of two Hindu deities, Vishnu and Shiva. Its disembodied head was found in the early 1880s by French official Etienne Aymonier at Phnom Da mountain in Takeo province, according to Pierre Baptiste, curator of the Southeast Asian collection at the Musee Guimet in Paris.

“This head was among the artifacts that were sent to France—with King Norodom’s authorization—to show the importance of Khmer art, and from 1889 on, it was exhibited at the Musee Guimet,” he said.

During the 20th century, excavations at Phnom Da unearthed numerous statues plus a headless torso broken into several pieces, Mr. Baptiste said. They were brought to the National Museum, where they pieced it together, never knowing for certain if the head in France was the match.

Restoration staff prepare to place the head of the Harihara statue atop its body at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily )
Restoration staff prepare to place the head of the Harihara statue atop its body at the National Museum in Phnom Penh on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily )

“It’s only recently that we were able to make a cast of the upper part of the statue in Phnom Penh and bring it to France to check whether our head actually matched that body,” he said.

Once the match was confirmed, the diplomatic process began—the Musee Guimet agreed to permanently loan the Harihara’s head to the National Museum, while Cambodia offered a permanent loan of the pedestal of a 10th-century Cambodian statue that is in the French museum’s collection.

And so Harihara’s head and body were at last joined together.

“It was a perfect fit,” said Chea Socheat, the museum’s deputy director of conservation, who sealed the pieces together.

[email protected]

© 2016, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.