The Khmer civilization, today embodied by the temples and ruins of Angkor, one of mankind's most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements, flourished from 802-1431 A.D. From the great citadel of Angkor, the kings of the Khmer Empire ruled over a vast domain that reached from what is now southern Vietnam to Yunan, China and from Vietnam westward to the Bay of Bengal. The original city was built around the Phnom Bakeng, a temple on a hill symbolizing the mountain that stands in the center of the world according to Hindu cosmology. Successive kings enlarged the city, building other temples devoted to various Hindu deities and large reservoirs used for irrigation, which also symbolized the ocean surrounding the holy central mountain.
Elephant-headed Ganesha, also known by the title Vighnesvara (the lord of obstacles) during the Angkor period, is probably the most popular and easily recognizable deity in the Brahmanic pantheon. Here he is represented seated in the posture of a yogin with his characteristic potbelly, a feature that may relate back to the Indian legend where Siva, his father, allowed him to be the first to partake in the offerings of food brought by believers. He is worshipped as the protector of new enterprises and the surmounter of obstacles. His relation to the elephant, the largest land animal in the world, no doubt suggests the origin of his powers to triumph over difficulties, whether physical or mental. He holds in his upturned left hand a round object that may be a modaka, or sweet, that Ganesha is typically shown holding in the pre-Angkor period, derived from earlier Indian iconography. In his other hand, he probably holds a broken fragment of his tusk, which is consequently missing from his jaw. This attribute symbolizes his mutilation and rebirth. The decapitation of his human head and the placement of its elephant substitute imbued Ganesha with magical powers and divine enlightenment, literally the powers of man and animal merged into one being. This sculpture, dating from the golden age of Khmer culture, likely would have served as a private idol to be worshipped on a small shrine in the home.