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The Cleveland Krishna

A masterwork inspires new technologies and international collaboration
December 1, 2021
Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. 1973.106

Long before the CMA acquired Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan in 1973 as a fragment, with no arms or legs, scholars and connoisseurs interested in the arts of Asia recognized it as a masterwork of early Cambodian sculpture. The museum’s director at the time, Sherman E. Lee, worked unflinchingly for eight years to secure it for the collection after it became available for sale following the sudden death in 1967 of its owner, Michèle Leon-Stoclet. She inherited the sculpture from her grandparents, who purchased the piece at auction in 1920.

The Stoclets allowed it to be published soon after, and by the late 1920s, art historians around the world were praising the high quality of what survived of its carvings: its implicit energy, dynamism, power, charming expression, and subtle modeling of the face and musculature. At the time, its physical beauty and position at the chronological vanguard of Southeast Asian sculpture were sufficient to earn its place among the most important works in the CMA’s collection. Nearly 50 years after its acquisition, much has been learned about the magnificent Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan, and the museum is proud to present the sculpture anew in a major special exhibition.

Who is the Cleveland Krishna?

In South and Southeast Asia during the 500s and 600s, many Hindus recognized Krishna as an avatar or incarnation of the omnipotent creator of the universe, known as Vishnu. The Sanskrit texts written by that time, the Harivamsha and the Vishnu Purana, explain that the Earth goddess, one of Vishnu’s wives, was suffering because of selfish and wicked deeds of a demonic king. To slay the king and save Earth, Vishnu incarnated himself in the form of a human being with dark skin, Krishna, which means “black” in Sanskrit.

Krishna was raised in a rural cow-herding community in northern India. In the autumn of his eighth year, Krishna observed everyone in his village preparing special food for the annual festival of Indra, the thunderbolt-wielding god of rain. Preferring to eat the delicacies himself, the mischievous boy persuaded everyone that it was useless to celebrate the feast of Indra, and that the offerings should be made to the god of the nearby Mount Govardhan, since the mountain provided their food and water and the grass for their cattle.

Krishna then transformed himself into the mountain god and ate all the offerings intended for Indra. Outraged at this affront, Indra sent a horrific storm that unleashed torrents of rain. Seeing their cows drowning in the violent floodwaters, Krishna picked up the mountain itself and raised it like a great umbrella, creating a shelter for them all. The cows felt so safe that their milk began to flow, and the herdsmen and milkmaids then understood for the first time that their beloved Krishna was a god. When Indra conceded defeat after seven days, he knelt at the feet of Krishna and poured holy water over his head in a ceremony that marked his transition from boy to man.

The Cleveland Krishna depicts the young god in the act of performing his salvific miracle. Three examples of this form of Krishna, carved from monolithic blocks of stone, are all from the region of the ancient metropolis of Angkor Borei in southern Cambodia. The Cleveland Krishna and the Phnom Penh Krishna in the National Museum of Cambodia are both from the mountain site of Phnom Da adjacent to Angkor Borei and were carved about 600. The third is from the island sanctuary of Wat Koh, just north of the same city and probably carved 50 to 100 years later. Evidently, this form of Krishna held special significance to the residents of this area.<

Where did the Cleveland Krishna come from?

The sculpture is from a small two-peaked mountain called Phnom Da, which means “Stone Mountain” in the Khmer language. It rises from the mainly flat plains of the Mekong River delta, which are flooded during and after the rainy season. Having a terrain distinct from the forested northern regions, southern Cambodia is blanketed with rice fields and crisscrossed with a network of thousands of miles of canals and rivers that connect the urban and sacred centers with coastal ports.

The exhibition affords visitors the experience of travel along the ancient canals to Phnom Da through a landscape where transportation, commerce, and agriculture depend on successful management of water. Since the image of Krishna lifting Mount Govardhan depicts the divinity in the superhuman act of providing protection from excess rain and damaging floods, visitors can understand the connection between Krishna’s form and the concerns of the population.

Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan (“Wat Koh Krishna”), c. 700. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Wat Koh. Sandstone; 161 (without 27 cm tenon) x 65.5 x 35.2 cm. National Museum of Cambodia, Ka.1625. Photo: Konstanty Kulik 
Krishna Lifting Mount Govardhan (“Phnom Penh Krishna”), c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. Sandstone with remains of lacquer and gilding; 188 (without 43 cm tenon) x 68 x 42 cm. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Ka.1641. Photo © NMC  
Harihara (“Paris Harihara”), c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. Sandstone with gilding; 173 x 75 x 23 cm. Musée national des arts asiatiques–Guimet, Paris, MG 14910. Photo © RMN-Grand Palais / Thierry Ollivier / Art Resource, NY RIGHT 
Balarama c. 600. Southern Cambodia, Takeo Province, Phnom Da. Sandstone; 185.5 (without 49 cm tenon) x 69.5 x 36.5 cm. National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Ka.1640. Photo: Konstanty Kulik

On display in the first sculpture gallery are masterworks of stone sculptures from about 550 to 700 on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia and the Angkor Borei Museum. Discovered at Angkor Borei, they reveal that the residents of the once vibrant, cosmopolitan urban center and its suburbs worshipped the Buddha, Shiva, the goddess Durga, and other Hindu deities known from India and elsewhere in Southeast Asia as well as Krishna, Balarama, Rama, Harihara, and Vishnu—the deities installed on Phnom Da.

In the second, culminating sculpture gallery are the two Krishnas lifting Mount Govardhan alongside two of the other monumental sculptures of gods from Phnom Da: Krishna’s brother Balarama and the dual god Harihara, on loan from the National Museum of Cambodia and the Musée national des arts asiatiques–Guimet in Paris, both for the first time. In all, eight monumental sculptures of Hindu deities have been recovered from Phnom Da, all broken in pieces and found at various times. Through eight life-size, high-resolution 3D models, complete with details and 360-degree views, the gods of Phnom Da are reunited in one dedicated gallery.

The exhibition also shows how the Cleveland Krishna was probably built into a man-made cave halfway up Phnom Da, where the god appears to support the very mountain in which he stands—a vision unique to the Cambodian imagination. As such, Phnom Da becomes like Mount Govardhan itself, and when we enter his shelter, we become members of his beloved community, whom he rescues and protects from danger.

How did Krishna get from Phnom Da to Cleveland?

Surviving evidence suggests that the Cleveland Krishna remained actively worshipped for about 700 years. Around 1300, Thai forces took control of southern Cambodia, and during this time of transition, the eight monumental sculptures were toppled from their pedestals, probably by people wishing to access the consecration gold and gems secreted underneath. The site was then mainly abandoned, but during the 1500s at the earliest, worshippers began to venerate the Paris Harihara again, since a layer of gold was applied to his face as part of a ritual of renewal no earlier than that time.

In the first decade of the 1900s, a new Buddhist community from Vietnam settled at the site and began reusing and repurposing the temples and sculptural sections they found. To the best of our understanding, based on a report published in 1911, the head and body section was taken to France the previous year. Prior to its removal, it appears to have been already in the process of being cut down for use as a body armature in the creation of a new seated Buddha figure.

Seventeen years after Suzanne and Adolphe Stoclet purchased the piece at auction in 1920, 17 stone fragments belonging to four different sculptures that had been collected on Phnom Da were sent to their home in Brussels. Unable to use them, the Stoclets abandoned the fragments at their neighbor’s villa, where new residents, not knowing what they were, used them to support the installation of a new underground water cistern; one of the pieces was used for garden edging.

The fragments remained there until 1977 when CMA curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art Stanislaw Czuma found them and brought them to Cleveland. We now know that five of those 17 fragments belong to the Cleveland Krishna; the remaining pieces were sent to the National Museum of Cambodia in 2005 and 2020, where they have been used in the restoration of two of the other great sculptures from Phnom Da.

View of Phnom Da along the canal from the west, October 2019. Photo: Konstanty Kulik

Visitors to Revealing Krishna can experience the Cleveland Krishna’s fascinating, multilayered stories, context, and histories in awe-inspiring galleries, both digital and sculptural. The exhibition celebrates magnificent works of Cambodian art and reveals the role of museums, new technologies, and international collaboration in preserving and sharing with the world the wondrous manifestations of Cambodian artistic genius.