At its height, the Khmer empire spanned the breadth of Southeast Asia, exerting a powerful influence that emanated from the vast tracts of land under its control in what is today Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Vietnam. Beginning with the reign of the great king Jayavarman II (reigned 802–850), the Khmer ruling elite generously supported a rich artistic tradition in stone carving, metalworking, and weaving centered in the site of Angkor. The plethora of works of art that survive exhibit a striking synthesis of stylized design and naturalistic modeling and are highly sought after by collectors.
This head of a dvarapala is an example of the diversity of religious iconography in the Khmer stoneworking tradition. Dvarapalas are fierce Hindu guardian deities that, in pairs, commonly adorn the thresholds of temples, shrines, and religious spaces. During the Angkor (Khmer) period (802–1431), large numbers of these familiar deities were made of the native gray sandstone of central Southeast Asia. This head is carved in the round to show a lightly bearded dvarapala with an ornate coiffure that is surmounted by a stylized diadem in raised relief. The massive head and the apotropaic imagery so attentively modeled on its face—especially the mesmerizing, bulging eyes and sharp, protruding fangs—have been crisply modeled in the linear manner of the tenth-century Koh Ker style. Named after the site of the same name in northern Cambodia that briefly served as the capital of the Khmer empire in the tenth century, this style was characterized by sculptures of deities that are monumental in scale, highly stylized, incorporate linear modeling, and, as here, display distinctive, enigmatic smiles.