HOLMES BEACH, FL – Anna Maria Island is home to one of the world’s few researchers working exclusively on Angkor Wat, a Buddhist temple half a world and nine centuries away.
Kent Davis, former owner of Anna Maria’s Siam Garden Resort with his wife Sophaphan, is captivated by the women of Angkor Wat, a temple in Cambodia that he says is the largest religious structure in the world.
Originally a Hindu shrine, now a Buddhist temple, Angkor Wat is five times the size of the Vatican in Rome, he told about 40 members of the Artists’ Guild of Anna Maria Island meeting at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation.
But while most women portrayed in Vatican art can be identified by contemporaneous writings, the “Daughters of Angkor Wat,” as he calls them, remain unknown.
Angkor Wat devata in the central tower facing north.
The 1,780 very different women are portrayed in stone, scantily dressed and heavily decorated with different jewelry, headdresses, flowers, fruits and other distinctions that have been the subject of his research since his first visit in 2005.
“I was not prepared for the temple’s human side,” said Davis, who coincidentally gave the presentation on the night of a full moon, four years to the day after his first visit to the temple.
Group of devata (sacred women) on Angkor Wat's second level.
With his photographs of each woman to guide him, he is on an Indiana Jones-style quest to track down who the women were, what they represent and why they were so important to the Khmer Empire, which built the moat-enclosed monument between 1116 and 1150 AD. The empire, which disappeared into the remote Cambodian jungle, was not a precursor to the Khmer Rouge, the “red” regime responsible for the genocides of 1.7 million people in the late 1970s, Davis said.
Built to represent the home of the gods in Hindu mythology, Angkor Wat’s architecture contains information on the seasons, the calendar and astronomical events, he said, but the overwhelming presence of the women’s images, with little having been written about them, is a mystery demanding investigation.
Three devata facing east on the top level of Angkor Wat.
Davis says their importance is evident, especially considering that the image of King Suryavarman II who commissioned the building of the temple is in a location far more inconspicuous than most of the women. But few have studied the subject, with only a handful of books written on the women, who may represent goddesses, priestesses or members of the royal court.
Davis is compiling a database tracking the characteristics of every woman portrayed at the temple, and plans to publish it his initial finding in the book, Daughters of Angkor Wat, due in early 2010…but the ending of what he calls “the world’s greatest archaeological mystery” has not yet been written.