9-headed naga


“L’Art Indo-Chinois”, written by (Matgioï) Albert Puyou, comte de Pouvourville (1861 – 1939, first published in 1894,) has for a long time been the must read, must study book for those who specialised in the art of Indo-China. Why and when it disappeared out of sight is unknown, but in 1996 Nabu Public Domain Reprints, aware of the expiration date of the copyright decided to republish this book in a photocopied form.

Albert Puyou, comte de Pouvourville, a Nancy-born Swiss who took the penname of Matgioï when writing on Taoïsm, was a Swiss national who initially at least served in the French foreign legion in Indo-China, and later as an inspector or inspector-general in France’s standing army (See “l’Affaire de Siam”). De Pouvourville was born Swiss in Nancy that in his early childhood used to be a Swiss city. Once an army-officier he must have applied for, or had been given the French nationality.
De Pouvourville spent most of his adult life in what is now called Vietnam, upper Laos and a part of Cambodia. The qualification of “adventurer” that we encounter in several internet-entries is unwarranted.

Matgioï, “on the other side of the fence”, is the title of one of De Pouvourville’s books. Matgioï therefore is not to be translated with “other side of the fence”, but, unless a knowing Vietnamese comes up with a better translation, with “œil du jour”, i.e. day-to-day observations.

Being an inspector De Pouvourville visited the French military settlements, their legacies, and Asian counterparts of the then French empire. He seems to have had ample opportunity to specialise in the art of the region, especially the art of building and construction. As such he had the opportunity to visit the new palace of the Siamese King Rama-V in Bangkok(1), that of the Cambodian king in Phnom Penh, and he travelled as far as Yünnan and Nanjing in China to report on the revolution that was brewing over there.
He furthermore describes the politico-military situation in the region and writes how Vientiane, the capital of Laos in the year 1827, well before the formal occupation by the French in 1893, despite it being reduced to ruins remained a centre of Buddhist studies with several monk-schools.
Later on he writes how “Mr. Résident supérieur Brière” in 1895 “re-establishes the religious and political capital of the Mekong-basin on the ruins of Vientiane.” (“L’Affaire …”) In neither of his works however De Pouvourville shows the slightest knowledge of Buddhism, nor an inclination to studying the subject.

As De Pouvourville must have been the first, or maybe one of the first Europeans to become a Taoïst, he is mostly remembered in that capacity. His skilfull observations into the art of South-East Asia seem to have slipped out of the memory of archaeologists and art connoisseurs.
A few researchers into politics and religion mention De Pouvourville.(2) Since Mark Sedgwick’s publication De Pouvourville is dubbed a cultural pessimist. However, when we read his lines, both on art in “L’Art Indo-Chinois” and on Franco-Asian politics in “La Révolution …” and in “L’ Affaire …”, we cannot but conclude that here was merely a conservative man who preferred the quality of old-fashioned plain wood over modern veneer, and whose qualities as a diplomat were what could be expected from a colonist in the 19th Century. However, his views on the Asians whom he met in Indo-China and China proper did not entirely reflect the European prejudices. De Pouvourville abhorred the Siamese who in his days made an effort to establish or re-establish their kingdom by taking Laos, part of Cambodia, Vietnam and Yünnan, and thereby greatly annoyed the French “Protectorat” in Indo-China, but his name-calling was politically motivated, not racially. He abhorred the English, the other colonial power on the other side of Siam. He abhorred the northern branch of the Chinese White Lotus Society and the Boxers and came up with the “yellow race”, a qualification that the entire continent of Europe would adopt, but he had the utmost respect for those Yünnanese who came to the aid of French military settlements when times were tough. He called the hill-tribes in todays northern Vietnam “ces sauvages” (the wild, uncultivated ones) but when he pleaded that France would maintain its strongholds in Indo-China it was out of love for the population.(L’ Affaire …)

Despite the fact that nearly all high-quality furniture that the French 19th century produced was made of Indo-Chinese hardwood, and despite the fact that the Indo-Chinese hills produced tea — which the French did not drink until late 20th century — one has the impression that The Protectorate in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam subsisted on the income of taxes, whatever taxes they were: taxes that allowed the Indo-Chinese to continue living on their lands, taxes on every pork slaughtered, etc. It’s not before a commercial treaty with Siam, in 1893, that we read of the expected exportation from the Siamese port of Paknam of hides, cotton, dried vegetables, silk and wax. (L’ Affaire …)

One of the things we may laud in De Pouvourville is that he in his “L’Art Indo-Chinois” dared to call the Angkor Thom complex in Cambodia “les palais des rois” (palaces of kings), and rightly so. This epithet of “palais des rois” came to be neglected somewhere during the 20th century when archaeological expeditions, and Cambodian officials who furthered the printing of books on the subject, choose the term “temple complex”. We may assume that this shift in outlook took place under the influence of an “our temples” uttered by senior Buddhist monks. However, it’s my guess; there’s no proof. Neither is there any proof of the contrary. All written sources in the days of the ancient Khmer kings must have been kept by their Hindu or Brahmanical purohita, house-priests. Either these purohita fled with the entire corpus of manuscripts, or they hid the lot, never to be found again, or their collection of texts came to be destroyed when disgruntled Siamese and Birmese troops in the first years of the 15th century finally and forever destroyed most of the palatial buildings and their contents. There is proof of repeated attacks and counter-attacks. The modern assumption that the Angkor civilisation was abandoned under the pressure of an untenable system of barais (huge ponds) and canals may be correct, but the buildings of Angkor could have survived this abandonment if not for the prior wanton destruction by neighbouring armies. Calamity upon calamity.

The following two pages deal with the philosophical aspects of Indo-Chinese art and the nine-headed naga, seen by De Pouvourville at Angkor Thom(4), and still in place. He just mentions it in passing. But as it is one of those instances where we might get a glimpse of the Khmer life not just influenced by the Indian religious tradition but by the Chinese as well, it might be of interest.


(1): Before March 27, 1889 when diplomatic contact between Siam and “the Protectorate”, i.e. the French occupation of Vietnam ceased — “L’ Affaire de Siam”, p.18 reprint
(2): Mark Sedgwick [ Abd al-Azim] “Against the Modern World : Traditionalism and the Secret Societies of China”. When Mark thinks he cites De Pouvourville’s “le péril jaune” (the yellow peril) correctly, he misreads the author’s last page of “L’ Affaire …”. “Le péril jaune” in that case, seen in the light of the 19th Century Sino-Japanese war, is a warring Japan, not China.
(3): See “La Révolution et les société secrètes en Chine”; La Revue de Paris, 3 avril 1912
(4): l’Art Indo-Chinois, p. 92.

In July 1893 the Siamese king demands restitution of the provinces Siem Reap (Angkor) and Battambang, then under the sway of the French. Since the 15th Cent. these provinces were under the rule of the kingdom of Ayutthaya (Siam). From those days onward there was a back and forth between Siamese and Cambodian kingdoms until the days of the French Protectorate. It would take until 1907 before Angkor again became part of Siam. After the independence of Cambodia in 1953 Angkor (Siem Reap) and the other province were declared territory belonging to the newly formed state of Cambodia.
As the British occupied Burma and the French the states east of the Mekong, and as both colonisers sought to establish a bufferzone between their respective territories, the outcome of diplomatic and military efforts was in the end that in 1896 Siam (Thailand) more or less within its present borders became this “État tampon”, the bufferstate between the two. (L’ Affaire …)
The result of this state of affairs has been that Siam/Thailand has never been colonised by either of the two, or by any other state for that matter.

Cont’d tomorrow

9-headed naga



Before proceeding to descriptions of the nine-headed naga (naaga; definition 1), it seems useful to highlight the difference between Western and Asian sculpting. Page 119 of de Pouvourville’s “L’ Art Indo-Chinois” shows how much we in the West are enslaved to our way of judging what “art” is or should be and what the purpose of it is. We think that this insight of ours is universally shared and that our art, and ours alone, is at the apex of artfulness. Take a particular rendering of for instance the human body, and the question to what purpose we sculpt — “we” between brackets. On the subject of Indo-Chinese rendering of sculptures, and in particular that of the Vietnamese, De Pouvourville says: “… monumental statues never existed among them. The buildings that have statues are very clearly constructed as houses for these same statues. Never do we find images (statues) in-between pillars, nor a (mere) filling of empty spaces, nor a masquerading of shoddy renderings. It seems that for the artists of this country the human figure has always been too noble to be treated as an accessory item. And where there is one (such a rendering of an ordinary human) it’s rendered in stone, and everything is made and combined in a way to make it stand out in a handsome way (that is, in a way that shows how far he or she advanced on The Way).”

Too noble?

Until the export of Western art to Asia and other continents took place, and until there were stipends that allowed full-time and full-fledged Asian artists to work and study abroad, the human figure in Indo-China was not too noble to be sculpted. This has never been a consideration. It’s as if we were having a discussion on the feathers of an earthworm, as worms do not have feathers such a thing cannot be discussed.


In his travels throughout Vietnam De Pouvourville didn’t come accross any statue that in style could be compared to the Greek or Latin examples with their skilfull display of musculature and facial expressions referring to some or other all too human emotion and/or the strength or frailty of the human body itself. Indo-Chinese religious cultures were designed to go beyond the all too human towards an enlightened state of whatever kind, and only this state needs to be displayed in an idealised way, as a goal, as a model to be followed, or even as a model that the sufferer merely observes with a tinge of envy: will I ever be as content or happy? Can it be done? Therefore Indo-Chinese statues are not made for mere decoration; they represent eternal values and as such are not human in the ordinary sense of the word. They are not displayed as mere decorative items, although the house-owner displays them on lower chests in a designated corner of the house, and although restaurant-owners display them somewhere, as guardian angels, or as an indication of their religious inclination.

Same Taoïsm, and yet

As such the Indo-Chinese insight into the representative value of sculptural art differs greatly from at least the Chinese tradition of painting. This is not the place to go deep into this difference although it is of interest to note that both the Indo-Chinese and the Chinese art-forms greatly rely on Taoïsm, and could have developed into a similar form of expression, but they didn’t, not always at least. In the artistic and cultural sense of the word Indo-China is not a mere copy of China.

cont’d tomorrow

9-headed naga


As a general introduction to the naga (pronounce: naaga) one might repeat Suhas Chatterjee’s “Indian Civilization and Culture” (Delhi 1998):

“The Naga or serpent cult had been a dominant cult all over India. The two seals of Indus valley demonstrate the serpent worship prevalent among the Mohenjodaro people. In (the vedic scriptures) Yayur Veda and Atharva Veda we get the reference of serpent worship. During the reign of Kushana king Hubiska (ruled between 111 and 180 [and must have ascended the throne as an infant]) a naga statue was installed in a tank (a water reservoir). The naga was considered the guardian of the treasures and the guiding spirit of the departed soul of the ancestors. … (Hindu god) Vishnu rests on the S(h)esa naaga, (hindu god) S(h)iva wears snake (phanibhusan). Parsvanath, the Jaïn saint has the snake symbol.”

Mr. Chatterjee’s entry says nothing about a nine-headed naga, but India Profile states that in Hindu philosophy the snake with “nine heads represents finality, unity with the forces of nature and the ideal state of spiritual liberation.”

There are some more references to nine-headed nagas in Hindu literature, but they all seem to amount to the same concepts of finality, auspiciousness, and even are seen as an avatar of god Vishnu.

angkor thom

One might think that the nine-headed naga is a Khmer-adaptation of the Indian Hindu lore, but Zhou Daguan, a Chinese envoy in the late 13th century, relates a legend regarding the Phimeanakas, one of the Cambodian Angkor-monuments. He says:
“Inside the palace there is a gold tower [the Phimeanakas], at the summit of which the king sleeps at night. The local people all say that in the tower lives a nine-headed snake spirit which is the lord of the earth for the entire country. Every night it appears in the form of a woman, and the king first shares his bed with her and has sex with her. […] If for a single night this spirit does not appear, the time has come for this […] king to die. If for a single night he stays away, he is bound to suffer a disaster.” (http://www.angkorguide.net/en/library/naga/naga693.html)
It is of interest to note that the Mekong river was of old called the river of nine dragons. Naga, dragon, nine, all these have been powerful symbols in Indo-China, in India, and in China.

Indo-China developed its own mythology concerning the snake that in a deïfied form appeared as naga, even a naga with multiple heads, upto nine heads.
Did the Khmer kings, or rather, did their purohita (Hindu or Brahmanical house priest) adjust the indigenous legends around the snake/naga to fit or co-embrace the Indian symbol, and was the Indian lore their only reference, or the reference that building masters-cum-artists relied on?
As we see above Chinese envoys were sent to the Angkor court, and Angkorians most certainly have travelled to China. And China too had its mythological theories about snakes and a nine-headed snake monster by the name of Xiangliu. And Chinese mythology knows Kung Kung, the serpent god with nine heads, a god of wisdom.
Furthermore, says another source, “The number nine is special in China as it is the largest possible single digit. … Nine was considered the number of the emperor.”

Hence we might conclude that the Khmer kings and their courtiers did not only amalgamate Hinduïsm, Buddhism (that knows a naga in its one-, respectively five-headed form) and the indigenous belief system, but at least it tried to please the Chinese envoys as well. By positioning nine-headed nagas at the entrance of their palatial complexes they sent the message abroad: the Chinese emperor, might he wish to visit us will be welcomed by the number nine that he alone is allowed to employ, either in artefacts or in embroideries on his costumes. And at the same time the Khmer king issued an implicit statement: me too, I’m an emperor in my own right.