Last update: December 8, 2023
From the early 12th to the middle of the early 13th century (end of Angkorian iconography), the neck of some harps is surmounted by a Garuda head គ្រុឌ (Angkor Wat, Bayon, Elephant Terrace, Banteay Chhmar, West Gate of Angkor Thom).
Garuda is a mythical bird of Hinduism, vehicle of Vishnu វិស្ណុ. Among the Karen of Myanmar and Thailand, the harp and the bird are intimately linked. Often, the top of the neck ends with a bird's head or only evokes it. Other Karen see the instrument differently: the sound box represents the body of the bird, and the neck, its tail. The "Harp of Angkor Wat" also shows a bird's head.
This representation of a Garuda's head in Angkor Wat is the oldest we know and the only one attested for this temple. In front of the harpist stands a bowed figure, one knee on the ground, hands clasped. There is probably a connection between him and the figures in the scene above. Enigmatic...
The Bayon presents two scenes with Garuda's head harps: one in the south outer gallery, eastern section, which we call "Buffoonery scene", the other, north gallery, western section, called "Circus scene".
This "Buffoonery scene" comes from the Bayon, southern exterior gallery, eastern section. It took us several years to precisely identify the two heads of Garuda because the sculpture is high up, eroded and only perceptible under a certain lighting!
Two Garuda's head harps are shown in perspective. From the instrument to the back, only the neck and the outline of the head are visible. The design of the junction between the top of the neck and the heads is imprecise and, therefore, so is our trimming. Similarly, only the profile of the head of the second harpist is visible. In front of the harps, two zither players, only one of which is represented. This is one of the rare scenes in which the sculptor chose not to represent the small cymbals. At right, a dancer with a stick and a singer.
The Circus scene (Bayon, north gallery, west wing) depicts a sung joust accompanied by a string orchestra, in the context of physical jousting with hand-to-hand combat and knives. Two "teams" confront each other. The singer on the right, in the foreground, can be clearly seen expressing himself vehemently while the one on the left, alone and introspective, prepares his reply. Sung jousting is still well known today in Cambodia, especially those accompanied by the lute chapei dang veng.
Given the limited sound volume of the string instruments of these times, we do not think that they accompanied the stops presented in the above scenes.
Each harp is surmounted by a Garuda head, unfortunately very eroded.
These two colorized images come from the 1932 Dufour Mission collection. They offer more detail than the bas-relief in its present state. Indeed, as long as the Angkorian monuments remained under the vegetation cover, they were relatively protected from hydraulic erosion.
The Terrace of the Elephants offers us two high relief sculptures that contributed first and foremost to the progress of the project of reconstitution of the Khmer harps by Sounds of Angkor. Indeed, we discover with astonishing precision one of the two existing tuning devices, the peg tuning device; it shows us how the string engages on the peg and the direction of winding.
Another very beautiful image of a man playing the harp was discovered late by ourselves in the vastness of the Terrace of the Elephants. The top of the neck is surmounted by a decoration that could represent a Garuda's head since the two other instruments of this same Terrace represent such instruments. The shape of the head is suggestive. The lower part of the sculpture is damaged but shows a typical male position.
On June 19, 2020, appears in the viewfinder of our research, a new harp with Garuda's head, which we expected more. Within the framework of the restoration of the western gate of the city of Angkor Thom, excavations are carried out by Apsara Authority in charge of the protection and management of the Angkor Archaeological Park and thanks to the important financial support of Lok Chumteav Seang Chanheng.
At the time of our discovery, the block was on the ground, waiting for the end of the excavations and the final reassembly.
The relief shows a harpist whose genre is undetermined; however, given all the iconography known for this subject, there is little doubt that it is a man. The face is mutilated, but the right hand is clearly visible, plucking the strings. His left arm seems somewhat oversized and the hand is passing behind the neck. The head of the Garuda is perfectly identifiable. It is comparable to that of the Circus scene of Bayon (left orchestra) and that of the Angkor Wat harp described above. The neck is straight. The foot of the instrument is visible at the front. In front of the harpist, the figure on his knees is most certainly a singer (jester?) given the position of his outstretched right arm. The staging of these two figures recalls that of the great harp of the Terrace of the Elephants described above.
The temple of Banteay Chhmar offers two occurrences of harps with figuratively shaped tops.
This Banteay Chhmar temple orchestra is composed of three instruments: harp, monochord zither with double resonator and small cymbals. The top end of the harp is eroded. However, given its general shape and the multiple occurrences of the Bayon and the Terrace of the Elephants, there is little doubt that it is, again, a Garuda head.
This Banteay Chhmar temple orchestra consists of a harp, a double resonator monochord zither, cymbalettes and a singer. The top of the harp appears to be decorated with a chest, head, and leg of a horse, which seems impossible given other known occurrences in similar situations. For the moment, only the image of a Garuda's head is plausible.
The Garuda's head harp is the object of several types of representations:
We will examine all of these scenes.
The three sites explored above - Bayon, Elephant Terrace, Banteay Chhmar - show string orchestras accompanied by a bard and a jester. The bard is usually standing in front of the orchestra. The various representations of the jester are quite similar: belt and necklace of bells, sometimes stick and ponytail. On the bas-reliefs of the Bayon and Banteay Chhmar, the jester performs a dance by raising his leg high. Sometimes the bard seems to tickle the underside of his foot.
The harp associated with this type of scene is, except exception, always surmounted by a Garuda head.
In two cases, one can see, behind the harpist and under the protection of the Garuda, a character - jester or bard (?) - who seems to defy the king or the gods.
In the southern outer gallery of the Bayon, there is a buffoonery scene in which the harp is not surmounted by a Garuda's head. On the other hand, Garuda heads are present at the ends of the armrests of the royal seat. We think that in this scene, comic elements have been deliberately introduced: "sardonic" smiles of the musicians, cymbalists with two right hands, the harpist's left arm passing in front of the string plane and not behind it, the zitherist's left arm at the bottom rather than at the top, a bard seeming to tickle the bottom of the dancer's foot.
In this scene in the east gallery of Banteay Chhmar, the harp is not surmounted by a Garuda head. One finds the same ingredients as in the Bayon scene with the musicians positioned in the same way. There are on the other hand two dancers around the jester.
North perron of the Elephant Terrace.
In the large plan above, a major sculpture located north of the Elephant Terrace, one can see, on either side of the lower register, on the left, a Garuda's head harp and a jester, and on the right, a singer with his index finger outstretched and his mouth open to reveal his teeth.
North perron of the Elephant Terrace.
Another harp, geographically below the previous one, gives us the same information about the tuning device. Here, the singer is placed behind the harpist. Another image, similar to this one, is in Banteay Chhmar (see above). The harpist and the singer, like all the characters represented in high relief in this immense ensemble, are "abnormal", which respects the framework of the buffoonery. They can play, speak and sing facetiously without having to fear either royal power or the wrath of the gods.