Basking in the radiant glow of the rising sun, the newly constructed Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, nestled some 51km away from the bustling town of Siem Reap, offers an enchanting visual treat to its visitors.
Dominating its central corridor, a towering four-faced Brahma statue greets foreign sojourners, embodying the warmth and friendliness characteristic of the Kingdom’s hospitality.
While still undergoing the final stages of installation, this exquisite bronze marvel is already radiating an inviting smile, lending a spirited charm to the airport’s ambiance.
With its lively countenance and magnetic allure, the statue seems to whisper a warm welcome to the arriving travellers, a silent assurance that their journey will be an experience to remember.
Boasting an awe-inspiring height of over 7m, the monumental statue commands the heart of an expansive area, instilling an immediate sense of comfort and tranquillity.
This magnum opus, enveloping the beholders with an air of reverence and wonder, is the handiwork of Oul Sopheap, a 48-year-old master craftsman and the proprietor of the esteemed Smith Sopheap Khmer handicraft workshop, nestled away in the serene Takus village in the province’s Banteay Srei district.
“The four-faced Brahma statue that I have been crafting, which is being installed at the new airport, was designed by Ly Raksmey, secretary of state at the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction. I was privileged to have been chosen to bring his vision to life,” confided Sopheap.
Though the timeline remains slightly elusive to him, Sopheap and his diligent team of 20 skilled craftsmen have been meticulously carving, shaping and assembling this masterpiece for nearly a year now.
Their combined efforts have ensured that each intricate carving of the ornamental Kbach pattern seamlessly integrates with the face shape, an exacting process that has consumed the major part of the project’s timeline.
“In terms of dimensions, the statue, including the throne, towers over 7m and spans a cross-section of 5m,” said Sopheap.
“We used seven to eight tonnes of pure copper, creating a surface area of 4sqm. Twelve Tep Pranam [Worshipping God] figures grace the corners, and atop each Shiva and Tep Pranam figure is a dragon’s head,” he added.
Sopheap elaborated on the throne’s distinctive design: “The throne has been crafted in the timeless Bayon style, a blend of divine grace and grandeur. Once fully assembled, it will be a sight to behold.”
In his career, Sopheap has lent his craftsmanship and talent to various state projects, including the Pi Thnou Memorial Monument in Kratie province’s Snuol district, the 12 Angkorian Warlords, the emblem of the Ministry of National Defence, and the upper segment of the Phnom Penh memorial monument commemorating the fallen of World War I, majestically standing guard in front of the French embassy in Phnom Penh.
Elucidating his meticulous process, he said: “My team and I create moulds into which we carefully pour molten copper. Each step in the process demands utmost precision. Any discrepancy in the template will flaw the resulting statue, hence the need for highly skilled craftsmen and attention to detail in every aspect.”
Indeed, Sopheap’s dedication and the exquisite craftsmanship of his workshop have breathed life into this magnificent statue, an iconic symbol of Cambodia’s rich cultural heritage.
In a hushed, contemplative voice, Sopheap delved into his ancestry, recounting how his father once taught at the highly renowned University of Fine Arts (RUA) in Phnom Penh. He also acknowledged his own education under a master craftsman who travelled to Siem Reap to impart his wisdom through several courses.
Despite his efforts to keep the tradition alive, Sopheap expressed his concern for the future of this specialised art form. He observed a dwindling interest among the younger generation, which he attributed to the patience and persistence required to master the metallurgical arts.
In his personal sphere, the torch of craftsmanship appears to be passing to his youngest son out of his four children.
“My youngest son exhibits a natural inclination towards the craft,” Sopheap revealed, his voice warming with fatherly pride. “He often steps away from school to hone his skills.”
Sopheap also extended an open invitation to young enthusiasts, promising to generously share his profound knowledge and experience without reservation.
Ly Raksmey, secretary of state at the land management ministry, and the designer of the Brahma statue, enlightened The Post about the Bayon Temple style influencing the monument’s design.
He recalled the presence of similar Brahma statues in many 12th-century temples, including Ta Prohm and Bayon temples.
Raksmey further explained the symbolism behind placing a four-faced Brahma statue at the airport. The statue represents the four Brahmaviharas – loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, projecting these virtues in all cardinal directions as a blessing to all visitors.
The bronze statue stands as a testament to the rich cultural and artistic traditions of Khmer heritage, providing a glimpse into the beauty of Cambodian art.
“In my observation, many Brahma statues crafted by various artists often lack in ornamental completion. So, careful consideration should be given to the ornamental aspects when crafting future statues,” Raksmey noted.
He stressed the need for fitting all forms and styles to achieve an exquisitely decorated Brahma statue, a guiding principle clearly embodied in the newly crafted statue at the airport.
Adding an architectural perspective, Raksmey pointed out the modern styled canopy at the centre of Siem Reap-Angkor International Airport, which from a Khmer viewpoint, symbolises Mount Meru. The Brahma statue, standing majestically in front of the canopy, becomes the immediate focal point for arriving passengers.
“The sight of the Brahma statue will evoke in visitors the masterful craftsmanship of our ancestors, stimulating their curiosity to explore and learn more about the Bayon temples and others featuring similar statues,” Raksmey surmised.
“I believe this statue, with its rich symbolism and architectural sophistication, will lure both national and international visitors, arousing their interest in the profound architectural concept underpinning its creation”.