Monday, March 9, 2009

Sophia University in Cambodia

After paying a 20US$ admission fee and flashing the ticket to one of the numerous security agents scrutinizing foreigners (native Cambodians don't need a ticket), you are ready to enter the premises of Angkor Wat. The first view you get is of a magnificent causeway, constructed with large slabs of stone, over a huge 190-meter-wide moat that surrounds all the four sides of the Wat premises. As you step on to the causeway, you'll notice uneven edges, pits, chipped corners, and a few unwalkbable areas. When you have advanced almost half the distance, you'll see on the left a large board stating prominently that repair work is going on thanks to the involvement of Sophia University Angkor International Mission!

Sophia Mission Logo
Yes, our little university has a pride of place in Cambodia, especially in Siem Reap, where numerous Cambodian cultural assets such as the Angkor Wat are. The board along the causeway shows photos of the opening ceremony after partial restoration, and you can see in them the faces of Yoshiaki Ishizawa, Sophia University President, and Toshiaki Koso, S.J., Sophia University Chancellor, along with the chief dignitaries of the country. The repairwork, whose planning began perhaps in the early 1990's, is only partially over and is being continued even now.

Prof. Ishizawa lectures
Thanks to the initiatives of President Ishizawa, Sophia University has been involved in Cambodian activities for many years. As he himself likes to acknowldege, he was introduced to Cambodia when he was a student by the jovial and affable French professor Fr. Paul Rietsch, S.J. Since then, he has become an avid researcher, and subsequently scholar, of Cambodia. According to rumors, currently he is the most knowledgable Japanese authority on Cambodia. He appears frequently on Japanese TV programs presenting his discoveries and introducing Cambodia, always with a face that exudes uncontrolable enthusiasm and cheerfulness.

Sophia Logo at Kdei
Currently, Sophia's name may be found not only on the causeway to the Angkor Wat, but also on several other Cambodian locations. Most notable perhaps is Sophia's name at the entrance to Banteay Kdei, another temple complex near Angkor Wat. Apparently Sophia Mission in Cambodia has been entrusted with the task of conducting excavations at this site--built by Emperor Jeyavarman VII in the late 12th or early 13th century--and the Sophia team has been busy digging, cleaning up, and inventorying there for several years.

Kdei Premises
It was here at Banteay Kdei that the Sophia team discovered quite unexpectedly in March 2001 an extraordinary collection of 274 Buddhist objects, including many ritually decapitated Buddha statues, a stone pillar with about 1000 carved Buddhist images, and several 'unbeheaded' Buddha images. This was such a rare and marvelous find that it was reported in several local and international newspapers, and those involved in the discovery also have written academic articles [see Marui, Masako. 'The Discovery of Buddhist statues at Banteay Kdei temple', _Journal of Sophia Asian Studies_, 19 (2001); Ishizawa, Yoshiaki. 'Special issue of the inventory of 274 Buddhist statues and the stone pillar discovered from Banteay Kdei Temple', _Renaissance culturelle du Cambodge_, 21 (2004), 2 vols.] Some of these statues are in excellent condition as if made only yesterday!

Kdei Sophia Discovery
Thanks to this remarkable discovery of Buddhist relics, Sophia became involved in putting them all in the specially constructed Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum in the northern province of Siem Reap. It is said to have been built at an expense of one million US dollars, with generous donations from Japan. In display at this museum are all the Buddhist objects that the Sophia team excavated at the Banteay Kdei Temple. The next time you go to Angkor Wat, make sure to visit the museum and appreciate the plaque honoring Sophia University! (Entrance fee 3 US$).

Preah Norodom Sihanouk-Angkor Museum
Sophia also has a rather luxurious (by Cambodian standards) research center in Siem Reap, close to the Spean Neak Bridge, by the side of the river. It has a nice front-yard, an altar for a guardian deity, a quiet watch-dog, generous office space, and several rooms for visiting researchers. Two academics represent Sophia's interests there, Mr. Satoru Miwa (Site Manager and Research Fellow of Institute of Asian Cultures) and Ms. Chie Abe (Researcher and coordinator). They welcome visitors generously and give them a guided tour of their offices and explain the kinds of work they do there. Given the large number of Japanese tourists and their own heavy workload, they can't serve as tour guides to temples in the city, but they really go out of the way to assist visiting Sophians...

One of the excavated Buddhas
Although I've examined several Sophia-related Websites, I can't find any single one in English giving a comprehensive picture of the history and activities of Sophia's work in Cambodia. There seem to be quite a lot of information in Japanese, for example, at the site entitled Sophia University Angkor International Mission: This page, in fact, has some English documents (see, some easily identifiable, but some hidden among pages with Japanese titles.

Here I list a few significant web-pages that may be of interest:

(1) Various English documents are listed among Japanese ones here at the official Sophia University Angkor International Mission site

(2) Here's an official document concerning Sophia University activities posted at APSARA, the Cambodian Government's Autorité pour la Protection du Site et l'Aménagement de la Région d'Angkor ("Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap").

(3) "Sophia University team finds Kannon pillar in Cambodia." An article reporting the discovery of Buddhist objects, published in _Yomiuri Shimbun_ (August 25, 2001) and currently preserved at _Buddhism Today_

(4) Sophia University Angkor International Mission: A Japanese/French webpage located at Sophia University. Although the text is not English, there are interesting photos of the excavation site and the fantastic finds.

[This blogger was in Cambodia for about three weeks and just returned to Japan.]

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

very interesting and informative.