Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unforgettable Temples Of Cambodia

Angkor Wat!  I begin with this remarkable temple.  I wonder how best to describe it - numerous books outline its structure, but cannot describe the feel of the place.  Just so you know, it's a giant rectangle, 1.5 km. by 1.3 km. surrounded by a 190 m wide moat.  It is huge!  Made of giant blocks of sandstone that were quarried more than 50 km. away and brought down the Siem Reap river on rafts.  It is built with a painstaking focus on detail - both large and small.  At the time of the equinox, the sun is directly above the central tower in the sanctum sanctorum.  In reply to a question we overheard an Australian tourist ask, "But was it planned or did it just happen?"- Yes!  I have no doubt that all of it was planned - down to every little detail of carving that fills the walls and threatens to overflow, reach out and touch you sometimes.

It is packed with symbolism - the moat representing the cosmic ocean, the Nagas that emerge and spread their hoods are denizens of the underworld and also a bridge between the world of man and that of gods (though they seem more like guardians to me), the courtyards filled with descriptions of the incarnations of Vishnu through the ages and then the five towers with the central one representing Meru, the mountain abode of the gods.  It originally contained a large statue of Vishnu at the very top.

This temple is striking because it combines giant, simple geometric proportions with an ornateness apparent only through the intricate and beautiful reliefs carved on many of the walls.  These carvings are exquisite, done by truly gifted artists who could portray gods, men and nature with equal ease.  There is a giant relief showing the churning of the ocean of milk.  The gods and demons look so determined to uncover the nectar beneath the ocean, the giant serpent Vasuki (used as a rope for churning) looks very distressed, the creatures of the ocean come tumbling out and the celestial beauties (apsaras) float above the ocean heavenwards.

The death of the monkey king Vali in a fight where he was tricked by his brother Sugreev (in collusion with Lord Rama - yes! even the gods were deceitful though they always managed to justify it) shows in the top panel, Vali busy in battle with Sugreev while Rama hides behind a tree, taking aim at Vali.  The lower panel shows the consequence of this heinous act - the dying monkey king, his eyes barely open surrounded by his followers - a troop of monkeys crying their hearts out.  If you wait long enough for all the tourists to leave and stand and stare at it in silence, you feel that the characters might step out any moment and begin to move before your eyes.  Such is the entrancement of this temple.

Monkeys crying their hearts out
 Perhaps I was fortunate to have a migraine the day we were visiting this temple.  As we reached the innermost tower, I could go no further and lay down on the stone steps below while the others climbed the tower.  People came and went past; I lay with my eyes closed.  Finally there were no people and no sounds (an amazing moment in retrospect because when I went back later to climb the tower I realised how continuously busy it is).  I opened my eyes to see an imposing flight of steps leading up towards the sky - inviting one to climb high and find a place of peace and repose.  I took a picture from that angle and I don't know if it conveys what I felt.

Steps leading to the innermost tower, Angkor Wat
After that it was time to leave, to walk back into the world as we know it.

Angkor Wat is by no means the only temple worth mentioning, there are many others though unfortunately most are not as well preserved.  Looting and destruction has continued through the ages, by incoming Buddists, local scoundrels, the Khmer Rouge, the French - endless tales abound.  Another beautiful (and much looted) temple is Banteay Srei, a small temple in pink sandstone filled with intricate and ornate carvings.
Banteay Srei
Beng Mealea - a gigantic temple complex completely taken over by trees is impressive and sad at the same time.  Fortunately trees have no evil agenda unlike men, and it is just a reminder that material objects that are not cared for will sooner or later be taken over by nature.

A tiny fragment of Beng Mealea
At Koh Ker stands the ruined 10th century capital of the king Jayavarman IV - the king who in a short span of twenty years, built a large number of temples dedicated to the trinity of the creator, preserver and destroyer.  Initially I wondered at the need to have so many temples close together, but when I began visiting them, I found a gradual sense of peace and a feeling of strength and comfort descending on me that only increased as I proceeded from one to the other.  Seeing the giant lingas (phallic symbols representing creation and being of the world) and the endless, beautifully engraved (as yet untranslated) inscriptions filled me with admiration for the people who created this using the strength of their beliefs and an extraordinary vision.  It brought to my mind these words -

'Listen,- perhaps you catch a hint of an ancient state not quite forgotten; dim perhaps, and yet not altogether unfamiliar, like a song whose name is long forgotten, and the circumstances in which you heard completely unremembered.  Not the whole song has stayed with you, but just a little wisp of melody, attached not to a person or a place or anything particular.  But you remember, from just this little part, how lovely was the song, how wonderful the setting where you heard it, and how you loved those who were there and listened with you.'  (A Course in Miracles)

Inscription on a column, perhaps in ancient Sanskrit
An intact linga


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