My Days with the Gods
Silk Air flight from Singapore to Siem Reap, lands slightly late, which itself is rather unusual, considering the reputation of the airline. The flight is jam packed with tourists from all corners of world. I can notice Caucasians, Chinese and Africans in the crowd. There are however very few Indians in the plane. The German couple sitting next to me is very friendly and wants to know about me and India. The airport is clean, nice and on one level. No climbing. I walk straight to the arrivals lounge. A huge white statue of a rider on a white elephant welcomes me. I presume that the statue is of Buddha because of the hair style of the rider. Much later, I realize that the rider could not be Buddha as no where else, he is shown sitting on an elephant. I had taken pains earlier to get an e-visa for me. Getting past immigration is done fairly fast as most of my co-travelers are still stuck at the Visa-on-arrival counters and there are no lines here. The whole attitude and approach of the airport security and immigration staff very much reminds me of India, because of their unfriendly, suspicious and authoritative air. The Air terminal architecture however is quite distinct and impressive and most importantly user friendly.
I come out of the terminal and is welcomed by Mr. Bunla, my trip coordinator. While I chat with him, I notice another big statue standing in the corner. The face and the head gear of the statue, appear rather strange. I however notice something very familiar. The statue has four hands and two of them hold a conch and a disc. I realize immediately that the statue is of the Hindu god Vishnu, the maintainer and preserver of the Universe and the humankind. The disc in his hand is the formidable ‘Sudarshan Chakra’, or the wheel that destructs all evil. My days with the Gods have just began.
I am driven to a hotel. The room appears neat, clean and decently comfortable. There is no extravagance here. I quickly have some grub and get ready for my first encounter with the abode of the Gods.
The city of Siem Reap is located in Central-Western part of Cambodia, not far away from Cambodia’s largest river, Tonley Sap. The name of the city ‘Siem Reap’ is itself rather strange. It means defeat of Siam (Thailand). Its like calling city of Amritsar, defeat of Pakistan or city of Peshawar, defeat of Afghanistan. In the vicinity of this city ‘Siem Reap’, ancient Cambodian or Khmer kings, had set up their courts here in the first millennium and had continued it till middle of the second millennium. After that period, continuous and grave threats from the Thai rulers cross the border in the west, forced the Khmer kings to shift the capital city to Phnom Penh, which is the capital of Cambodia even today.
Khmer culture and religion was always deeply connected with India. The kings took Sanskrit names and followed Hindu or Buddhist religions. They worshiped Hindu Gods and followed Hindu rituals.
90% of Cambodians even today are Theravada Buddhists. Another fact, which is worth noting is that Khmer kingdoms never faced any Islamic invasions in the history. This must have been perhaps the main reason for Khmer temples and idols surviving last eight or nine centuries.
In the Khmer language, Angkor means a ‘Nagari’ in Sanskrit or a city. I am on my way now to visit the greatest of the ancient Khmer cities, named as ‘Angkor Thomb’, which literally means a great city. My car stops and I get down. A magnificent spectacle stands right in front of me. A solid stone wall about 8 meters high is completely blocking my view at the end of my vision like a backdrop. This wall is separated from my present position by a 100 meter wide moat. The part of moat on my left is full of water with few water lilies. I also see a wide stone paved causeway bridging the water, right in front of me. At the other end of the causeway, I see a huge Gopura with 3 huge smiling rock faces carved in the stone. On both sides of the causeway stone railings, broken in few places stand supported by balusters.
Causeway with Railings shaped like a snake and balusters shaped like human torsos. Left hand Torsos are of Gods and right hand torsos are of Demons
A Deva or a God’s head used as a baluster
An Asura or Demon’s head used as baluster
The entry gate Gopura with 4 benign faces of King Jayvarman VII
I start walking towards the causeway. I realize that the stone railing has been shaped like the body of a snake with scales. On the right side end, the stone snake has raised its great fan with five heads and on the left side end, its tail curves upwards. The balusters on the left side are large human torsos with faces that look somewhat serene and calm. The baluster torsos on the right side have faces that look cruel and mean. All the torsos hold the stone snake railing firmly in their hands. On either side there are 54 balusters. I suddenly realize that what is unfolding before me is the complete scene of churning of the cosmic sea from a story from Hindu mythology. The serene faces on the left are Devas or the gods and the mean faces on the right are the Asuras or the demons. The snake in their hands is the sea snake Vasuki , which is being used as a rope to churn the cosmic sea.
I am just amazed at the imagination of these Khmer builders and architects. I approach the causeway and have a look at the Gopura. This entry building has the entrance at the center. I can also locate the Hindu god Indra riding the, lotus flower plucking, Airawat , an elephant with three heads and who was supposed to have come out of the same sea churning process. Indra is holding his thunderbolt in his hand and seems to be guiding the churning process of the cosmic sea. There are two engraved sentries on either side of the gate and some Gandharvas seem to escort God Indra. What really attracts me to the Gopura are the four huge faces at the crest, carved in the stone. It is now believed that the faces are of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII or Avalokiteswara. While passing through the entrance, I look up. I do not see the normal archway. Perhaps arch and keystone construction skills might not have been developed in those times. An arch like opening has been created here, by placing forward, stones of successive layers (Corbel arch). I see that my car is waiting on the other side of the Gopura. I have now entered the the great city of Angkor Thom. I feel that for all visitors to this great city, the huge faces of the king are offering their blessings for a safe and happy journey. I sit in the car still wondering about this amazing 3D presentation of the mythological story of churning of the cosmic sea. My car is now proceeding to the famous temple of ‘Bayon’, which is located at the exact geometric center of this great city of Angkor Thom.
The layout of Angkor Thom city built by Khmer King Jayavarman VI as his capital, during his rein (1181-1220), is of exactly square shape, each side of this square being 3 Kilometers wide. It covers an area of 145.8 hectors or 360 acres. The entire city is enclosed within a solid stone wall and then further protected by a 100 meter wide moat. There are five gateways to the city each having an entry Gopura like the one through which I have just passed. Zhou Daguan, a chinese emissary to Khmer kingdom has chronicled how this city looked during its glory. He writes about the golden towers on Bayon temple and a Golder bridge with Gold lions on either side. There is a dense forest on either side of the road. It is rather difficult to imagine the magnificence of this ancient city as described by the Chinese emissary.
Magnificence of Bayon temple
The magnificent temple of Bayon is located exactly at the geometric center of square shaped Angkor Thom. From the south gate of the city, the temple comes into view after traveling about one and half kilometers. My car takes a sharp left turn and drops me right in front of the east entrance of the temple. My first view brings disbelief in my eyes. The temple looks huge, and unwieldy with a central tower towering above 54 other towers. I climb a stone paved platform and go near. My surprise is complete. Each of the 54 towers, bears four smiling faces of Kind Jayvarman VI, just like the entry gate, in all cardinal directions. It seems to me that the English writer George Orwell might have picked up his idea of ‘Big Brother is watching you’ from here. However the faces here are not watching any one or suspecting anyone. The faces here smile and are benign. They seem to bless everyone. Later I learn that the smile on their faces is known as ‘Smile of Angkor’.
Smile of Angkor
The outer walls of the first and second level galleries have some of the best bass reliefs found in Angkor. I decide to take a stroll around the galleries. The bass reliefs picture scenes show a fantastic variety of subjects. There are warriors fighting wars on the land and on water, scenes from everyday life of the khmer people and certainly the Gods in their various Avatars. God Vishnu mounted on his eagle Garuda, fights the demons. God Shiva appears in his celestial palace. The pictures combine so well that in spite of being in a melee, there is no discordance. And to top it all, the ‘Apsaras’, those divine beauties from the heaven, are everywhere, right from the main entrance to the bass reliefs and the corners.
Hand to Hand fight between Khmers and their enemy Chams
A favourite pass time, a cock fight
A SHIVA Lingam temple engraved on the rock
Hindu God SHIVA
Hindu God VISHNU being worshiped
God Vishnu, riding an eagle or Garuda fights the Demons
Another short walk brings me in front of another giant temple. This one is called ‘Baphuon’. This was built by the Khmer king Udayadityavarman II sometime during 11th century. During its glory days, the central tower was covered with bronze. There is a long elevated passage that leads me to the temple. This is big temple and was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. Outer wall of the temple covers an area of 425 by 125 meters. Disappointment awaits me at the end of the causeway. The temple is being renovated with Japanese help and is closed for viewing. I only manage to get a picture of the temple.
I walk further North. On my left I can now see a huge pedestal which is about 300 meters long. I have reached the Terrace of the Elephants. This was built by King Jayvarman VII again during 12th or 13th century. The entire facade of the platform is decorated with bass reliefs showing elephants, Garuda the eagle and some lions. Some of the elephants are with three heads. Some wooden structures were erected on this pedestal for the king. This pedestal was used by the king to review his army and celebrate joyous occasions with the people.
Terrace of Elephants
Garuda the Eagle
Next pedestal on the north has a strange name it is called Terrace of the laper king. It is now believed that this actually was the Royal crematorium. The bass reliefs on the walls seem to confirm this theory, as all the faces shown on this wall are sad or serious looking. There was a statue erected on the platform(Now in Phnom Penh museum), which is now believed to be that of the Hindu God of Death ‘Yama’.
A Good Bye to Angkor Thom
I see my car waiting in the parking lot. Its time to say good bye to Angkor Thom. Tomorrow morning I visit the greatest temple of them all. The world famous temple of Angkor Wat.
As I come down to hotel lobby, my watch shows just 5 ‘O’ clock in the morning. However, my trip coordinator, Mr. Bunla is already waiting for me. I get into the car and we speed towards Angkor Wat. Watching the Sun rise from behind this temple is the Reason for my departure at this unearthly time. While traveling, I remember that the Khmer language word ‘Wat’ has come from a similar Thai word, which means a temple. I note in my mind that both these words must have come from the Sanskrit word Watika. Angkor Wat therefor means a temple city. The construction of this temple was started during the reign of Khmer King Suryavarman II or during 1113-50. However, it seems that the construction work, which took 30 years to complete, was completed only after the demise of the king, as his after death title or name, ‘Paramavishnuloka’ appears in one of the bass reliefs on the first level. It is believed that the design of this temple was made by a Brahmin minister of the king, Divakar Pandit, who was believed to be endowed with divine powers. Cambodians however attribute the temple to Hindu mythological architect of the Gods, ‘Vishwakarma.’ There has been a considerable debate as to whether Angkor Wat was built as a temple for God Vishnu or a tomb for the king. I think it is better to leave these debates to experts only.
Such kind of thoughts raced through my mind, as my car came to a screeching halt in total darkness. Whatever light I could see, was from the headlights of a streaming line of cars, which brought visitors to the temple. I get down and look in the front. I see a huge stone pedestal with some steps and railing. I climb the steps in light of my flashlight and walk in the direction where everyone else is going. We are stopped by a human chain of security guards , who inform me that the temple opens at 5.30 A.M. There is nothing to do but wait and look into the darkness. I slowly realize that the pedestal was getting filled up with people. Most of them carried in their hands some or other kind of an expensive photographic apparatus produced by leading camera manufacturers of the world. I hide my modest camera in the palm of my hand and wait patiently. At exactly 5.30 A.M. the security guards break the human chain and allow the crowd to proceed. I prefer to wait on the pedestal, as I have been told that one of the best views of ‘Angkor Wat’ Sunrise can be seen from the very place I stand.
In spite of so many people being around, only sound that I can hear is the faint rattle of a diesel engine driven pump. This is unusual because in India, whenever few people gather together, a virtual cacophony results almost immediately. After another 15 minutes, I sense some kind of black shadows far away on the background of a pitch dark bluish sky. Another few minutes gone, I can now see a huge moat of water just in front of me. This is the outer moat of Angkor temple. This one is about 200 meters wide and has a perimeter of about 5.5 Km. There is a wide causeway (12 meters or 39 feet wide) stretching in front of me for 250 meters. On other end of the causeway, I can now see a long brownish blackish line extending right up to the full breadth of my vision. Sky takes a slightly lighter shade of dark blue. The brownish line turns out to be a long covered gallery with a row of square pillars in front. On my sides, two solid stone Lions stand guarding the way to the temple. I see now that the continuity of the gallery far ahead is broken at the middle and at some distance away from the middle on both sides, by three slightly damaged Gopuras, which stand tall. These Gopuras also serve as entry gates to the inner temple complex. As things light up, I can see that the gallery and the Gopuras, which I see in the front, are really just a facade for the temple. I see clearly far behind this facade, 5 tall peaks of the temple itself. The harmony, the balance, the proportions and the symmetry, everything is highly impressive. This view can be compared only to that of the Taj Mahal. No wonder that the locals believe that Angkor Wat was built by Gods themselves. I realize that I have no words to describe this colossal monument.
Its already 6 ‘O’ clock in the morning. There is no rising Sun seen anywhere. The Sun rise was supposed to be at 5.54 A.M. Then I see that the horizon is completely covered with gray and dark gray clouds. I would not be able to see the Sun rising from behind Angkor Wat. today. I only can see some brief pinkish orange streaks on the east horizon between the clouds. I give up and decide to go to my hotel to have a quick breakfast and then return here again to see this majestic creation of the Khmers.
Famous English Author Somerset Maugham visited Angkor Wat in 1959. After his visit, he spoke to few people. His exact words were “ No one! No one should die before they see Angkor”.Angkor Wat produces that kind of reaction in your mind. The layout of this temple is a symbolic representation of the world, as described in the Hindu scriptures. Five peaks at the center represent the peaks of Mount Meru. The outer wall represents the mountain ranges at the end of the world and the moat represents the water that is beyond the borders of the world, dark, unfathomable and unknown.
I return to the temple after some hearty breakfast. I have to walk a lot today. I cross the first causeway, climb few steps and enter the central Gopura of the facade. This facade is a narrow and very long structure. In front of me, I see another raised walkway supported by a low balustrade. This walkway is 350 meters long and is 9 meters wide. At the end of the walkway, I see now for the first time, the Inner temple of Angkor Wat. Instead of walking straight to the temple, I turn right and decide to explore the facade gallery. I see a huge standing figure of Buddha at some distance. I can see that there is something odd about this figure. The figure has eight hands, four on either side. This was originally an idol of the Hindu God Vishnu, with eight arms. The head was replaced later to make him appear like Buddha. But the original carving of ornaments, garments and some golden colour can still be seen. I continue to walk along the gallery up to the end. There is a way provided to go round the facade and see the wall facing the temple. On this wall I can see some beautiful bass reliefs of Apsaras, Divine Nymphs from the heaven. I return to the central walkway and start for the inner temple.
The main entrance is blocked due to some repair work being done and I use a diversion to enter the temple from another hall called Hall of Echos. Angkor Wat has been built on 3 levels just like the Bayon temple. The first level Galleries are of a size 215 Meters by 187 meters. The second level, rises in the middle of first level and has a size of 100 Meters by 115 Meters. Standing tall at the center of the 2nd level, third level is of the size of 60 Meters by 60 Meters square. The central sanctuary raises above this level. Third level rises an astonishing 40 Meter above second level. The total height of the temple from ground is 65 Meters or213 feet. These numbers do non mean much on paper unless one actually starts climbing up. Obviously, since it was not possible for Khmer architects to construct a multistory structure, as requisite technology and materials were yet to be developed, they must have opted for this pyramid like temple mountain construction.
I had read somewhere that there are two ways of visiting the temple. Level by level or go to the top first and then come down to the first level at the end. I choose the second alternative and start climbing the steps to second level. On my way up I can see beautiful carvings along the stair case. While climbing the steps, I can also see that the outer walls of the gallery on the second level are almost bare without any carvings. This indicates that perhaps bronze or silver panels were fixed on these walls from outside. This possibility is supported by number of holes seen in the outer walls, where wooden pegs might have been fixed to support the bronze panels. The steps finally lead me to the second level gallery walls, which face the third level structure. As I go round these inner walls, I can see that the walls and on the corners are carved with beautiful bass reliefs of Apsaras, the heavenly belles or celestial Nymphs with whom Gods live in the heaven. I wonder why repetitively such figures have been carved by the temple builders at this level. The figures may appear repetitive, but as I look closely, small and minute differences can be seen in each and every Apsara carving. The crowns, the necklaces, what the Apsaras hold in hand, differ in every frame. Some Apsaras appear single, some in groups of two and in few places, groups of four or five. It is believed that the fascination of Khmer kings with Apsaras, really began with the concept of a God-King, directly acquired from India. Khmer people believed like Indians of that period, that their Kings were incarnations of the Gods. Since the Gods always had Apsaras associated with them, Khmer kings had Apsara carvings on the second level of the temple, where ordinary citizens were not allowed and also found justification in maintaining a large troupe of concubines.
As I reach the eastern face of the gallery I see a tall flight of the wooden steps with steel railings provided for the visitors to go up to the third level. This arrangement pleases me and I decide to leave the Apsaras and go up to the third level. The third level does not have bass reliefs or carvings on the walls. An indication that these were covered with either Gold or Silver sheets. Only the King and his chief priest had the privilege of coming up to this level. The central sanctuary, soars 17 Meters above this level. I was surprised to find the central core of the sanctuary, where the statue of God Vishnu would have been, completely filled up and sealed with brickwork with four odd images of Buddha installed in four directions outside the brick walls. The French excavators, digging here, had found a central shaft about 27 Meters deep filled with a hoard of Gold objects down below. What I see here is just a solid brick wall. The view around from this level is exquisitely breath taking.
I start climbing down, pause briefly in the second level galleries to take a few shots, and soon reach the first level to see the main attraction of Angkor Wat, the bass reliefs on the external walls, all around the galleries. These galleries are huge. On East and West, they extend to a length of 215 meters and on North and South the length is 187 meters. On each side, there is a central Gopura to enter the temple promenade. On either side of this central Gopura, the stone walls are engraved with superbly detailed pictorials, to the height of at least 3 meters. Just imagine a canvas for a picture 100 meters long and 3 meters wide. Gives an idea to the greatness of these bass reliefs, isn’t it?
Level 1 gallery of bass reliefs
The bass relief on Southern part of the Gallery on the west shows the great war described in the Hindu Epic ‘Mahabharata’ . The war is shown in three levels, the foot soldiers on the lowest level, seniors commanders in the middle level and the princes and the kings on the top level. The detailing is so superb that I get a feeling of watching a real close and hand to hand battle going on in front of my eyes. In the final scene, Prince Arjuna is ready to launch an arrow towards his Guru, Bheeshmacharya, who is lying on a bed of arrows, waiting to die. I walk further towards the southern gallery. Here Khmer King Suryavarman II is shown leading his troops to combat. Later part of the bass relief has a very interesting story. The Hindu God of death ‘Yama’ is shown here riding a bull water buffalo. He watches his assistant ‘Chitragupta’ taking a decision about sending dead souls either to heaven or hell and forcing the sinner souls with a stick through a trap door towards hell, which is depicted on the lower level of the bass relief with all tortures and punishments. The scene is just fantastic.
On the eastern gallery, full story of the churning of the cosmic sea by Gods and demons is pictured. Unfortunately except for one end, where God Shiva is braving the poison fumes of the five headed sea snake Vasuki, under strains of being used as a rope by the Gods and demons, rest of the bass relief is closed for repairs. I feel disappointed but walk on. Further stories open up from Puranas and the epic Ramayana as I walk towards North gallery. I complete my circuit around the galleries.
It is time to leave as my watch shows the time to be 1 P.M. I have spent close to 5 hours in this monument. I walk back along the walkways, turning around innumerable times, to get one last look of this colossus in stone.
I decide to have for my lunch, genuine Khmer food. The dishes are cooked in coconut milk and I find them very tasty. One reason for this may be the similarity with Thai cooking, which anyway I love. For desert, I try some kind of sago porridge.
I am now on my way to see the greatest fresh water lake in South-East Asia, the Tonle Sap river. This river is quite unusual not because of its large basin but something else. This river joins the great Mekong river near Phnom Penh. For most of the time of the year, Tonle Sap carries water to Mekong. However during monsoon season, the quantity water in the Mekong river starts increasing as distant snows in Tibet start melting. Mekong swells so much that sometime during month of October, waters of Tonle Sap stabilize and actually stop flowing. After this, the flow of water reverses suddenly and Mekong water starts flowing in Tonle Sap. This hydrological freak creates a huge fresh water lake in Tonle Sap river bed, where the water levels rise as much as 10 meters in this season. The reverse flow of water also bring enormous quantities of Fish to the Tonle Sap. For generations and generations, people of Cambodia have survived on this bounty of nature. I decide to take a boat ride, which turns out to be quite interesting, as I can see number of floating villages, complete with schools shops and religious places on my way. While riding the boat, I also see an amusing sign-post right in the middle of the river that says ‘One Way’. All of us see these road signs every now and then on the streets. But, this sign-post, standing in middle of the river, giving exactly the same message, appears rather strange to me.
On way back, I visit a school, run by the Ministry of education, to teach budding artists in arts and crafts of Cambodia. Its fun to watch those artists work on wood , sandstone and silk to create beautiful little masterpieces, which can find their place in our living rooms.
In the evening I go and watch a ballet performance. This is commonly knows as Apsara dance in Siem Reap. This form of classical dance had a long history. It originated from the Royal court dancers during reign of Khmer kings. During those days, the ballet performances were reserved for the king and his court. The art form was almost lost during the civil war. However after 1990′s , there has been a revival and formal training is given to the dancers in the School of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. The dance form has 3500 defined movements with specific meanings. The story of the Ballet is usually about Cambodia’s origins or about a union between a hermit named Kampu and an Apsara named as Mera. I think that the story runs very parallel to the story of Sage ‘Vishwamitra’ and the Apsara ‘Menaka’ from the Indian scriptures. It is really a small small world, after all.
The ballet performance is quite enchanting. The attire of the dancers is very similar to the attire of the heavenly Apsaras, shown on the temple walls, except obviously for the bare part of the upper torso. The dancers wear crowns with intriguing shapes and are similar to what I have seen on the temple walls. The movements are mainly expressed through hands and facial gestures. The musical accompaniment is distinctly different either from Indian, western or Chinese music.
As I hit the bed, I feel greatly satisfied with the day. It has been a long day indeed. Tomorrow I need to travel about 30 KM away from Siem Reap, to visit the most beautiful temples of Angkor. The temples of ‘Banteay Srei’.
I am on my way to visit the Angkor temple called ‘Banteay Srei’. This temple is not a part of the Angkor Archeological Park and is located at least 25 KM to the north of Siem Reap. For anyone who wants to visit a temple in Siem Reap, the person must first pass through a check post, set up by the Apsara Authority, the organization which looks after the safety, security and maintenance of the temples. My car had to travel by this check post today, even when I was going to a place bit far away. At the check-post, I present my 3 day pass for visiting the temples and only then could proceed onwards. I am told that if a vehicle is found to have bypassed the check-post, it would surely be stopped further on the way. A fine of 200 Dollars per person and 100 Dollars for the driver is collected from the errant vehicles. To avoid payment of such huge fine, everyone seems to follow the rules. On way, I see a large lake and decide to stop here on my way back. The landscape on this road to Banteay Srei, reminds me of south India, with paddy fields stretching on both sides to the limit of my vision. This area, in which I am traveling, is known as ‘East Baray’. This name comes from the name of a huge water reservoir built by Khmer kings, which had existed on this very land few centuries ago. Because of this, the soil is very rich here. This fact however does not reflect in the rice crop yields, as the farmers are dependent only on monsoon rains and there is a general shortage of fertilizers. In the days of Khmer Kings, farmers in this area, grew 3 rice crops every year, with the abundant water supply from East Baray. Farmers today, can just grow at the most, one crop in an year. The villages along the road however, look fairly affluent. I learn that the affluence has come because of the flow of tourists along this road. My car now takes a sharp left turn and comes to a halt in a nicely developed parking area. This is the entry area for the temple of ‘Banteay Srei’. It is clear that someone has taken lots of pains to plan and develop this area with well arranged basic tourist facilities. The time is 10 ‘O’ clock in the morning but the Sun is already scorching. It is important that any visitor to Angkor, must carry with him a good quality Sunscreen cream.
I start walking towards the temple.Banteay Srei means a Citadel of the woman. This was not the original name of this temple. The temple was known earlier as ‘ Tribhuvanamaheshwara’ (Shiva, the God of three worlds) or ‘Ishwarapura’ ( Abode of God). This temple was built during the reign of king Rajendravarman (944-968) and Jayavarman V (968-1001) and was dedicated to Hindu God Shiva. This temple surprisingly, was not built under authority of any of the Khmer kings and was built by Yajnyavaraha, a Brahmin adviser to the King, who also was of Royal descent. The present name was adopted much later. Why this temple is called a Citadel of the Women, could be anybody’s guess. I read that the name came from presence of some of the dainty and feminine carvings on the temple.
The first view of this temple could be a sort of an anticlimax, if one visits this place after visiting a temple like Angkor Wat. Compared to the bombastic dimensions of Angkor Wat, this place is a miniature or even could be called tiny. This might have been necessary to highlight or emphasize the fact that the temple is not built under King’s authority. As I walk towards the temple, I compare it to the temples in India that I have seen and I rate this one as just one amongst those. Nothing very special. I walk through a gate. This must have been a Gopura in the past but now only a door frame exists. There is a sort of passageway and I proceed on that. On both sides, I see ruins of several buildings. There are sign-boards here, that the ruins are worth a visit. I however continue towards the entry tower or Gopura. This Gopura, is part of a red enclosure wall which completely encloses the temple complex. I look upwards. I see a triangular shaped Fronton on top of the door frame. The Fronton is completely filled with incredible kind of engraved figures of Gods, animals, flowers and many other shapes. I realize as to why this temple of Banteay Srei, is called the most beautiful temple in Angkor. I enter through the Gopura into the inner courtyard and cross a pedestal, on which a broken sculpture of Nandi the bull is seen. Only legs and part of the body exists. I look ahead and see a sea of pink and red in front. Each and every building in this complex has been constructed from a special pink sand stone, which gives a special aura to the whole complex. They say that the sandstone even smells like the Sandle lwood from India. Inner complex has several annex buildings all along the perimeter. These have been mostly destroyed and only the walls stand erect. At the center, there is another enclosure with an entry gate. This entry gate is blocked. However as the enclosure wall is of only few feet height, I can clearly see all the details of the buildings inside this central enclosure. As I go round the enclosure and see the walls and particularly the lintels on the door frames, my mind is filled in wonder. I had never seen before such exquisite and dainty carvings on stone. The bass reliefs at other places are carved in such way that a picture materializes in your front. In Angkor Wat, some of the bass reliefs have three or even four depth levels to make carvings appear more realistic. But the carvings here, are three dimensional. A flower or a sea shell kind of shape, appears as if the real thing has been pasted on the stone. This is just unimaginable.
There are three sanctuaries at the rear with the middle one having an elongated shape. In the front there are two side buildings called libraries(I do not know why?) . Most of the structures have only one entry door. However on all sides of the structure, dummy and engraved door panels are seen. There are few idols of monkey faced humans sitting next to the sanctuary doors. I understand that these are not originals but copies. The originals have been moved to museums for safe keeping.Attempts have been made to steal even the replicas. The lintels on the doors and the windows each tell a story from Hindu mythological scriptures. Since I have read most of the stories in the past, its fun for me to see the carvings in details. I can see Demon king Ravana shaking the Himalayan abode of God Shiva, while Shiva’s wife Parvati is terrified. In another panel, Krishna fights his uncle Kounsa in his palace. There is a beautiful fronton depicting God Indra blessing the animals, birds, trees and humans with celestial rain . One of the best frontons depicts the story of the God of Love Kamdeva, shooting his flowery arrows at Shiva so that he would get enmoured with the beauty of Parvati. Shiva gets angry instead, opens his third eye and burns Kamdeva. Later, Shiva marries Parvati and brings Kamdeva back to life.
Shiva and God of Love
Shiva and Ravana
I go around the temple and manage to get some good shots of the temple reflections in the waters of the mote. While returning, in one of the side buildings, a fronton showing Vishnu’s Man-Lion incarnation, is kept on the ground. This is another exquisite example of the art at Banteay Srei.
Because of its beauty and the small size, this temple has been looted the most. Even the celebrated french author Andre Malraux, tried to steal four Devata statues from this place. Most of the original statues have been now moved to museums with dummy replicas kept here. But such is the beauty of these sculptures that attempts were made, to steal even the dummy replicas.
Reluctantly, I move out of Banteay Srei and start my return journey. I stop on my way, to see one more temple ruin. The temple of Preah Rup was built by Khmer King Rajendravarman II (944- 968). I included this temple in my itinerary because this temple was built some 175 years before Angkor Wat. This temple sanctuaries are built with bricks, which were glued together with a vegetable glue.
The temple construction appears similar to Angkor Wat, with three levels. I find the climb rather steep. My efforts are rewarded however, when I reach the top. I see some beautiful carved panels showing Indra riding a three headed elephant and an Apsara in much simpler attire.
On the road, I cross again the big lake. The shoreline is dotted with many fine Khmer food restaurants. I decide to break my journey here and enjoy some Khmer dishes for my lunch.
The lake in front is known Sra Srang (Royal Bath) and is called many times as the largest swimming pool in the world. It was built specially for King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) to allow him to bathe in Royal grandeur and also meditate. An island was built in the middle of the pool with a wooden hut for that purpose. I linger for few moments on the Bathing platforms and imagine how the things must have been hear one millennium ago.
After lunch, I am on my way to see perhaps the last temple on my itinerary, the temple of Ta Prohm. This temple was again built by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) dedicated to his mother. Some say it is a Buddha temple. There is view also that this temple was originally for Brahma, the ancestor of all Hindu Gods.
Ta Prohm is a classic example of the encroachment of the Jungle on structures left unattended for a long period. There is so much vegetative growth here that even in the blazing sun, the temple area , always shaded because of the huge trees, is very cool and relaxing.
The car drops me at the east entrance. At the entrance I see a big signboard announcing that the Government of India and Cambodian Government are co-operating to renovate this temple. I really feel happy that Indian Government is making some effort to restore this precious heritage of the mankind, particularly when it bears such direct relationship with ancient Indian culture and traditions.
Incredible Ta Prohm
It is not possible to walk straight through Ta Prohm on a per-determined route. The trees have grown in such haphazard and crazy fashion that you have to go round avoiding them. I loose all sense of orientation and just follow the guided path. On my way, I see a big crane and few experts working on the roof of one of the Galleries, which was damaged recently, when a giant tree s fell on it during a thunderstorm. In spite of the unwieldy and unearthly growth of the trees, collapsed walls and heaps of stones lying everywhere, I see some beautiful carvings and Apsaras, hidden in nooks and corners. At one place I find a Unique Lintel decoration with the Trinity of Hinduism, Bramha-Vishnu -Mahesh. Unfortunately the central Shiva is missing from the decoration, perhaps stolen. Further down the path, I see even more number of trees growing on top, sides and along the temple balconies and galleries. The stone walls cracked because of this onslaught, have turned green with moss as moisture leaks through. In some dark alleys of the temple, I get a very eerie kind of feeling. But then, just on the next corner, a beautiful carving appears suddenly.
Hindu Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesha
West side Gopura
As my car is speeding towards Siem Reap, I have a strange feeling that even though I have seen for last three days, many temples of the Khmer era, I am unable or incapable to complete the whole picture of Angkor in my mind. In other words, there is no closure. Something is missing and I can clearly see th missing link. The temples I saw were all empty shells. There was no idol seen in any of the temples. The central sanctuaries, were just vacant waiting for someone to take the place of honour. . I know that I would have to look for this missing link, otherwise my trip to Siem Reap just would not be complete.
I decide to go to the Angkor National Museum for the missing link. The name of the museum is somewhat misleading. It is actually a commercial enterprise launched by Vilailuck International Holdings, a private trust from Thailand. They have invested money in the buildings and infrastructure. The exhibits however, are all genuine and are on loan from National Museum in Knom Penh and ‘ ‘Ecole Française d’Extrème Orient (French School of Asian Studies)’, originally a french institute, now run by Cambodians. The museum even though much smaller than National Museum at Knom Penh, covers only Angkor era and would suffice my purpose.
The museum has eight halls. The first hall has thousand Buddha idols. This does not interest me much because many places boast similar kind of Buddha exhibits. However next 7 halls have the exhibits, I am looking for. There are statues of Khmer kings, their history, wars and achievements. There are idols or at least the replicas of the idols of the Gods that adorned the temple sanctuaries once. Vishnu in his full glory, Shiva in human form and also in Linga form. The next hall exhibits the stone inscriptions that were found in the temples. Some are in Khmer language and some in Sanskrit as their legend plates suggest. However the Sanskrit inscriptions are not written in the Devnagari script as done in India. My efforts to read these are futile. Here the Sanskrit inscriptions are written only in Khmer script. There are more halls depicting other objects like pots and utensils. The final hall has many statues of Apsaras, some beheaded, some without legs or hands. Still the beauty of the original work of art quite in place. Some more details about jewelery, ornaments and the costumes of men and women of those times. I come out of the museum, totally satisfied. I realize that I have spent about 2 hours here.
There is no feeling now of any uncertainty. No dissatisfaction of having only watched a shell. I feel sort of complete with a feeling that I have seen the temples of Angkor completely and fully.
As I think about these temples, Khmer kings and people, I feel saddened by the fact that Indians know so little about this place and its people. Here are the people who still claim that their ancestor was an Indian, they still follow a religion born in India, picked up Indian culture a millennium and a half ago, made it their own and raised the glory of that culture to unprecedented grandeur and have left these glorious monuments behind for all the world to see. Yet, Indians, know so little about them, have done almost nothing, as these people suffered in horrible civil wars and are still struggling to become a nation. Not many tourists from India come here. There are no direct flights to Siem Reap from India.
I have mentioned before a quote from famous English author Somerset Maugham. He says that “ No one should die before seeing Angkor Wat” I would prefer a little modification to this quote. I would like to say that No Indian should even think of dying before seeing Angkor.