A tableau of fragments from a 10th-century statue of a dancing Shiva is spread out in a silent ode to its fragmented past. 

Laid upon cushioned tables, each shard of history is tagged for identification.

It is a process that is unfolding like an archaeological detective story, with the conservators from the National Authority for Preah Vihear (NAPV) and the French School of Asian Studies (EFEO) piecing together a cultural puzzle that has waited centuries to be solved.

“The process of assembling the sculpture is being carried out by a joint Cambodian and French team, and is approximately 65 per cent complete,” says Chhan Chamroeun, deputy director at the Department of Conservation of Monuments. 

Chamroeun, leader of the Dancing Shiva statue team, explains that the statue was excavated from Prasat Krahorm (Red Temple), at the Koh Ker archaeological site in Preah Vihear province in 2012.

The 5m-tall figure had been broken into over 10,000 pieces, both large and small.

Chamroeun says the team grouped together more than 2,500 pieces of the statue’s exterior and commenced assembly in 2019. 

According to history professor Sambo Manara, Koh Ker was constructed in the 10th century under the rule of Jayavarman IV, while Rajendravarman reigned in the 940s, during the same century. 

The 5m Dancing Shiva is about 65 per cent restored. Photo supplied

“These sculptures are rare because our country was divided, with one capital at Koh Ker and another at Yasodharapura [Angkor],” he tells The Post. 

The statue is a remarkable artefact of Khmer heritage, significant not only for its size, but also for its exceptional iconography, which reflects the religious symbolism of the Khmer Empire during its zenith. 

The depiction of Shiva dancing is a theme found in Hindu mythology, symbolising the cosmic dance of creation and destruction.

The statue, therefore, represents a fusion of artistic excellence and deep spiritual meaning, embodying the cultural and religious beliefs of the Khmer people at the time.

Bilateral collaboration

The French team of archaeologists, led by Eric Bourdonneau, comprises eight specialists in stone, iron and glue, while a local team led by Chamroeun includes 10 local archaeologists.

“The Cambodian team consists of 10 people, and the French team has eight, rotating according to their area of expertise,” Chamroeun explains.

The collaboration, overseen by the French team, focuses on assembling the statue, using its original stone fragments, which comprise about 70 per cent of the sculpture. The remaining pieces are damaged beyond repair or have been lost to looters.

Once the smaller pieces of the sculpture were assembled, the French team provided guidance to erect the statue.

Chamroeun acknowledges that although it is now standing upright and partially reassembled, its quality may not match that of the original stone sculpture, due to factors such as the quality of the glue used and the conditions of storage.

As an archaeologist, he calls on every Cambodian, regardless of age or gender, to participate in preserving ancestral property and rejecting attempts to destroy national and international heritage.

He highlights the uniqueness of the Dancing Shiva, noting that at 5m tall, it is possibly the largest dancing idol in Southeast Asia. 

“As far as I know, there is none bigger than this,” he adds.

Gathering form

As the narrative of the reconstruction advances, larger fragments begin to interlock, reconstructing the majestic form of the deity. 

They begin to find their rightful place, slowly redefining the statue’s shape, muscle by muscle, curve by curve.

With each placement, the essence of the dance becomes more apparent, the once-shattered iconography now standing nearly complete. 

The restoration transcends the mere fusion of stone, evolving into a cultural revival that weaves the lost splendours of the past into the living tapestry of the present. 

The first period of assembly lasted for eight months, before the global pandemic disrupted operations. 

The construction team began gathering and transporting more than 10,000 stone pieces to the Angkor Preservation Site, where Chamoeun’s team began the complicated process of assembling the artefact. 

“It is about 100 times more difficult than any project I have worked on. I have been studying and repairing sculptures throughout my career – this one is probably the most difficult,” Chamroeun tells The Post. 

“Even the French team, known for their restoration work on temples in Central and Southeast Asia, were uncertain where to begin,” he adds. 

The process of assembling small stone pieces into medium-sized ones is particularly challenging due to missing parts, notably the forearm pieces of the six-handed statue. Their absence complicates estimating the length and orientation of the arms.

The team analyses the placement of each piece with a laser projection team before finalising their decision. They reference images of statues from the same era and of similar dance figures to determine the most suitable positioning.

“Assembling this statue is complicated, but we are all driven by love. We will persevere until it is once again standing,” says Chamroeun.

According to the original timeline, the assembly will be completed by the end of 2024. However, he expresses his doubts, noting that the work may extend into early next year.

Determining a new home

The French team proposed keeping the sculpture in a gallery near the Red Temple at Koh Ker for visiting tourists, while the NAPV are considering a museum location.

“It depends on the final decisions of the leadership,” Chamroeun tells The Post. 

“Perhaps the statue should return to Koh Ker, but it may not be placed in its original location,” he muses.

Based on current information, the Dancing Shiva is likely to be housed at the Angkor Conservation site in neighbouring Siem Reap province for three or four years, until a dedicated storage facility is constructed.

Established by France over 100 years ago, the Angkor Conservation site is administered by the Department of Safeguarding and Preservation of Monuments, which operates under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

“The reason we have dedicated so many resources to the statue is because it is very unique and highly meaningful for understanding the history of ancient Cambodia, in particular the monarchy at the time of Angkor,” says Eric Bourdonneau, who leads the French team from the EFEO.

“The statue is basically an image of what known as the Devaraja cult in the 11th century, a cult to the god in charge of the protection of the Kingdom and the king,” he explains.

Bourdonneau, who has been working with the EFEO in Cambodia since the 1990s, focuses on Ancient Cambodia agrarian and societal organisations, as well as the development and renewal of social elites in Southeast Asia.

He outlines the project’s objectives. Firstly, from a heritage perspective, the restoration aims to reclaim the masterpiece and showcase its uniqueness to the public. 

“Secondly, from a scientific and historical standpoint, our goal is to determine the correct positioning of the limbs and understand the significance of its hand gestures,” he tells The Post.

 “It is essential to gain this knowledge so we have a real understanding of its meaning,” he says.

A violent past

The identification of the statue is supported by documentation from the 1950s and 1960s, as well as photographs taken after thieves vandalised the statue in 1992, removing its five-faced visage and two-headed scalp.

Following the theft, the French team salvaged one face and six armbands for preservation and restoration at the National Museum of Phnom Penh, while the remaining three faces, body, and other parts were left at Koh Ker.

“The conservators had a chance encounter with one of the thieves later at Koh Ker, and it shed light on the motivations behind the destruction. It was speculated that the thieves believed the Khmer ancestors had concealed a diamond the size of an egg within the statue, prompting their destructive quest,” says Chamroeun.

Contrary to rumours suggesting the statue was destroyed by explosives, his examination of the Red Temple revealed no evidence of shrapnel damage. 

Instead, he observed chisel marks on the stones, indicating deliberate vandalism aimed at extracting small pieces of the sculpture.