Sunday, 9 March 2008

Splendour of a magnificent past

Sunday, March 9, 2008
Sunday Herald

The remains of the mighty Khmer empire are there for us to see at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, writes Vaasanthi

As I stand before the magnificent temples I can hardly think of the tumultuous history of the land on which they have been standing for centuries. As if mocking history, they are a reminder of a past splendour that also speaks of what must have been an unrivalled empire spanning across South East Asia. Forgotten to the world for centuries, hidden behind the steaming jungles of Cambodia, rediscovered in the 19th century by diligent French explorers, the thousand-year-old stunning religious monuments of Angkor Wat stand as a testimony to human aspirations and imagination.

From Bangkok in Thailand, it is an hour’s flight to Siem Reap the nearest town to the fabled temples of Angkor in Cambodia. Siem Reap, a little more than a village before, is now undoubtedly Cambodia’s fastest-growing town.

It seems to have undergone a metamorphosis ever since the miraculous discovery of the temples. The past decade has seen its rapid growth from a sluggish impoverished village to a booming tourism spot. It is brimming with tourists from all round the world and quickly reinventing itself as a sophisticated centre for the new wave of visitors passing through each year. There are 100 hotels and thousand guesthouses and the number is going up every month; restaurants and bars every week.

It is still a small town with all the charm that goes with small towns. Thanks to tourism development the roads are good and the streets clean and oh, the people from old to the young and the very young always smiling and friendly. Who can say that this has been a land ravaged mercilessly in recent history by war and crime? They seem to have put their lives of recent past of terror and trauma behind to revel in the memory of a glorious past, which now remains a source of inspiration and national pride.

Contemporary Cambodia is the successor state to the mighty Khmer empire which during the Angkor period (9th to 15th centuries) ruled much of what is now Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The remains of the empire are there for us to see at Angkor Wat, the ultimate of Khmer genius, described by travel brochures as ‘unrivalled in scale and grandeur in Southeast Asia’.

Tough times

The first glimpse of Angkor Wat is indeed staggering especially if you remember what Cambodia has gone through. Things were good in the past, culminating in the vast Angkor empire, unrivalled in the region during four centuries of dominance. Then the bad set in, from the 13th centuries neighbours steadily chipped off chunks of its territory. In the twentieth century it went downright ugly, as a bloody civil war lead to the brutal rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-79) from which Cambodia is still recovering.

But meet the man in the street, you will hardly see any rancour towards the evil done. Cambodians have weathered through poverty, bloodshed and political chaos but their smiles have not faded. The tourists that throng and rush to the temple campus in the wee hours of the morning to catch the magnificent view of Angkor Wat at the first light of dawn are not bothered either. Their main worry is the overcast sky that threatens to break into a pouring rain.

As the sun slowly lights up the sky Angkor Wat turns into an ethereal golden hue with its reflection weaving magic in the lily pond. It is like divine inspiration. And yet it is the work of human hands that toiled to create such divinity out of sand stone. It takes some time to see how big the temple complex is.

Angkor’s monuments are spread throughout a huge forest. Heading north from Siem Reap, you first come to Angkor Wat, then the walled city of Angkor Thom to the east and west of this city are two vast reservoirs which helped to feed the Angkor Thom population. Further east are the temples of Ta Prohm and Pre Rup and in the north east is the beautiful well preserved temple of Banteay Srei. There are in fact a hundred temples and probably more.

What is of particular interest to the Indian visitor is the remarkable evidence of the spread of Hinduism and its gods and fables across the seas and the earth more than a thousand years ago. Angkor Wat temples are a celebration and glorification of the Hindu god Shiva and the mythologies of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Though the lingams are no longer there and stone statues of the Buddha have taken over, the carvings of scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata on the walls of the long corridors of Angkor Wat have been restored and are intact. Hinduism and Buddhism were both the preferred faiths followed alternately according to the reigning king’s belief. The myth of the churning of the milk ocean by Asuras and Devas seems to have fascinated Angkor sculptors and kings. There are two huge rows of the scene at the gate of Angkor Thom temple.

Naga worship must have been prevalent as the snake motifs with erect hoods are carved in stone almost in all the temples. In the temple of Bantaey Srie, which is praised as the jewel of Angkor, the pillars come alive with dancing apsaras and the gateways are filled with exquisite carvings depicting scenes from the Ramayana. So the story goes...

There is an interesting story about the origin of the Indian connection. Cambodia came into being, so the story goes through a union between a Hindu Brahmin named Kaundinya who sailed by and a princess, the daughter of a dragon king who ruled the watery land. They fell in love and the king gave the land as dowry to Kaundinya to rule over. The kingdom was called Kambuja. The myth may or may not be true but it does say something about the cultural influences that affected Cambodia. Cambodia’s religious royal and written traditions stemmed from India. Buddhism spread there when Asoka sent his emissary to Cambodia. The long list of powerful Angkor kings has Hindu names beginning from Jayavarman II- who started building Angkor Wat two hundred years before Raja Raja Chola built the big temple of Tanjavur— the list has names like Yashovarman, Harsha varman, Rajendra Varman, Ishwara Varman— similar to the names of the Pallava kings of south India.

The French ‘discovery’ of Angkor in the 1860s made an international splash. It was only in 1901 the Ecole Francaised’Extreme-Orient began its long association with Angkor by funding an expedition to the Bayon temple. In 1907 Angkor, which had been under Thai control, was returned to Cambodia and the EFEO took responsibility for clearing and restoring the whole site. Since the temples had Indian connection and the theme Hinduism, the cooperation of the Indian government was also taken for some sites. It was a stupendous task indeed. The monuments of Angkor were left to the jungle for many centuries. A large number of monuments are made of sandstone that tends to dissolve in prolonged exposure to wind and rain.

Monuments that wow!

At Ta Prohm, the jungle had stealthily made an all out invasion. The huge roots swoop down the monuments as if to devour them and the visual is at once breathtaking and awesome. What is striking about the sculptures is that no structure is made out of single rock boulders like you see in the temples of South India, but an assembly of blocks. The remarkable symmetry and serenity that prevails in the faces of the Bayon temple is truly amazing. The temples of Angkor are the heart and soul of Cambodia. When our guide made a repeated reference to ‘My people, my country’ there was not only a natural pride but also the belief that Angkor was a true symbol of inspiration for the people to rise to eminence leaving behind the memories of suffering and trauma…

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