Angkor Wat – Marvels of Kamboj (2009)

Angkor Wat – Marvels of Kamboj (2009)


When you visit Angkor Wat, make sure you arrive by the river route. That would be a fitting tribute to an ingenious ancient civilization that flourished and dazzled primarily because of its unmatched ability to harness water, that elixir of life. In an unfortunate paradox, the Khmer civilization that built the splendid Angkor complex also perished perhaps by the same water. According to recent research, Khmer was indeed Wittfogel’s quintessential hydraulic civilization and the largest that ever graced planet earth. But its ability to harness water which was at the root of Khmer’s greatness turned out to be the empire’s undoing as well. At least that’s what the latest theory surmises.

But little did we know about the role of water in the rise and fall of Khmer civilization when we, a group of four women decided to travel to this much acclaimed archeological splendor tucked away amidst lush green tropical jungle in Cambodia. We decided to take the boat all the way from Chau Doc in Vietnam right upto Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and thence to Siem Reap, the seat of Angkor Wat, mainly because we wanted to experience the magic of the Mekong, the lifeline of the entire southeast Asian region. Mekong, born in a lofty Tibetan glacial lake nourishes and sustains life in a large part of Asia and is especially noteworthy for being the only major river system in the world never to be dammed by man!

Mekong Unbridged!

Before you get to Chau Doc, the starting point of your river journey, you have to drive across the entire breadth of Vietnam. Whereas one expects to see lush rice paddies ripe with crop swaying in the gentle breeze, all one sees along the route are urban and semi-urban settlements engaged mostly in trading activities. The road sports a steady stream of traffic most of it motorized two-wheelers. You cross the Mekong a couple of times along the way, but not on bridges, but onboard barges piled with vehicles, ours included. We knew that the mighty Mekong has never been dammed, but now we know that it has not been bridged either, not at least in this part of the world. We cross the international border between Vietnam and Cambodia by boat and eventually arrive at Siem Reap, the town watered by the river of the same name and a tributary of Mekong. En route, you pass Tonle Sap, the massive lake that has the unique distinction of waning and waxing with the seasons and even flowing back up into the river from which it was born!

What a Wat!

Until you arrive at the gates of Angkor Wat, there is hardly a hint to prepare you for the vastness of this complex. Then the Wat bursts on the horizon with all its grandeur and serenity. The temple complex is so wide it seems t o fill the entire horizon. There is a seemingly never-ending walkway on a moat, filled with water – pumped into it using electricity, no doubt – before you reach the grand main entrance to the complex framed by three squat gopurams. This is also your photography point where you can get your picture taken. Don’t be surprised to find your image dwarfed by the grandiose backdrop – that is the way it is meant to be, portraying the insignificance of the individual against the collective aesthetic effort of thousands of sculptors and architects who went on to create this epic in stone.

A Monk on Home Turf at the Main Temple Complex

You enter through the middle gopuram one only to be confronted by another long stretch of walkway framed by more gopurams, tapering ones this time. But tarry, don’t get into the temple complex yet, not before you have seen the sun spray its first golden rays to gild the gopurams , hithero mere shadows silhouetted against the horizon.

You follow the crowd and soon arrive at an expansive pond studded with mauve lotus buds waiting to open with the first caress of the rising sun. It is that magical moment just before dawn, the horizon ablush with the promise of a gorgeous day ahead. There is a huge crowd gathered around the pond, cameras poised expectantly on tripods and facing the eastern horizon to capture the drama of the sun making a grand entrance, first peeking shyly from behind one of the gopurams and then sailing gracefully above them to illuminate the world. If tranquility had a visual image, this would be it – the sight of the three gopurams floating above the pond and reflected in it in the pre-dawn flush.

Massive Pre-industrial Sprawl

The Angkor complex sprawling over 200 square kilometers on the Tonle Sap flood plains at the foot of the Kulen mountains in today’s Cambodia was the seat of a very advanced and refined ancient civilization presided over by the Khmer empire beween the 9th and 15th centuries. Dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu, this temple complex is the largest among all places of worship founded anywhere in the world. Angkor was also the epicentre of the largest pre-industrial urban sprawl known to man. Contrary to popular perception, Angkor Wat is not a single monument, but one – perhaps the grandest – of the many temple complexes that dot the sprawling area. The Angkor monuments are an architectural marvel that dazzle you with their perfection and symmetry, their harmony and their symbolism, but above all, by their impressive scale and sheer size.

Mangled by the French

Who could have conceived a monument of this scale and size and how did they manage to build such a massive structure in a pre-industrial age bereft of cranes and forklifts? And why should a temple dedicated to Hindu gods be built in far away Cambodia where Hinduism subsists only in stone today and not in the Indian subcontinent where it was born? Piecing together information culled from various sources, historians had found an answer to the second question. Kambujadesa , mangled into Cambodia by European colonizers who found its phonetics too tongue-twisting literally, was established by a valiant Hindu king who had his origins in India. The earliest mention of this theory is found in Chinese records which refer to Kambujdesa as Funan, an Indianised settlement in southeast Asia. Chinese accounts have been corroborated by Sanskrit versions which state that a king, possibly of the Chola dynasty married a Naga princess who ruled over the flood plains of the Tonle Sap and settled down in today’s Cambodia to found a kingdom in the early centuries of the Christian era. The Khmer legends also trace the origins of their founder Kamu, the mythical ancestor of Khmers, to India. During the next few centuries, Indian culture became embedded in the region. Sanskrit became the court language and Hinduism and Buddhism, official religions blessed by the ruling dynasty.

Bayon Faces

Hydraulic Kingdom

But recent research seems to have found some answers to the first question as well. A monument so grand as the Angkor complex could have been conceived and executed only by a civilization that was virtually master of its own destiny, a mastery achieved by its ingenious ability to control water. In a landscape held hostage to the vagaries of weather, control over water resources held the key to supremacy. In that sense, the Khmer empire was truly a hydraulic kingdom. Khmer engineers could build complex waterworks that would get rid of excess water during monsoons through appropriately positioned spillways, but conserve water and release it during extended droughts so much so that their granaries overflowed with rice all through the year, year after year. Rice being the currency of the day, the emperor could command the services of the 300,000 labourers it must have taken to build this urban architectural marvel.

Massive feats of engineering ensured that ‘barays’ (reservoirs) five miles long and a mile and a half wide overflowed with water to be used not only for ritualistic or religious purposes, but also for year-round irrigation. This hypothesis, propounded by Bernard- Philippe Groslier, a French archeologist seems to have gained acceptance among historians. A team from University of Sydney, working with two archeologists found fresh evidence to support Groslier’s hypothesis when it chanced upon NASA radar images of Angkor, a region criss-crossed by water channels, tanks, canals, dams and sluices, all man-made. National Geographic magazine quotes Fletcher, a researcher saying “We realized that the entire landscape of Angkor is artificial”. According to these researchers, the Khmer empire flourished and reached its zenith because of its ability to alter the course of Siem Reap river and harness its waters, but fell eventually, because nature triumphed over man’s ingenuity and reclaimed control. This precipitated the decline of the Khmer empire which was no longer immune to floods and droughts, the blight of its neighbouring kingdoms in Asia. From this they come to the conclusion that an ingenious civilization can and does control nature and conquer the challenges of climate and weather, but only for a while. Nature will eventually assert herself, a conclusion not very different from the theory propounded by James Lovelock in his ‘The Revenge of Gaia”

Historians bemoan the absence of any records relating to life in the Khmer empire. The history of the Khmers has been pieced together from a variety of sources including an account by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who is believed to have spent a year in the empire when the city was at its cultural and political zenith around the 13th century. Daguan speaks of splendid religious festivals featuring fireworks and boar fights, royal processions comprising caparisoned elephants and bedecked women.

Eloquent Etchings

But wandering through the Angkor Wat temple complex, you wonder what more eloquent account of life in Khmer empire could be there than the graphic scenes etched in vivid detail on stone in pillars and columns, walls and walkways. Wherever you turn, you’re treated to a rich tapestry in stone, of scenes from everyday life, be it two men hunched over a chess game or a warrior preparing for battle. No doubt the dominant theme of the temple is religious and there are scenes aplenty from Hindu scriptures, but there are also vignettes of everyday life that give us a peek into this glorious civilization.

Fitness is a pre-requisite for visitors to Angkor Wat, just as it is the case in Bagan, Pollanaruwa or Ayutthaya, as indeed it is when you visit sites of Inca, Mayan or Aztec civilzations. There is much climbing to do, up steep and jagged steps and terraces. That Siem Reap can be as hot and humid as Chennai does not help. Allow for at least a week if you want to have the satisfaction of seeing at least some part of Angkor in detail. Even so, you will have to be selective since no one can hope to cover the entire sprawl , the chunk of which is still unexplored and remains buried and hidden in deep jungle. We decide to restrict our peregrinations to Bayon , Ta Prohm and Preah Khan apart from Angkor Wat, the crown jewel.

Angkor Wat was built during the reign of Suryavarman II in the 12th century and took 30 years to complete. The dominant theme at the Wat is of course the cosmogony of the universe. The temple structure is not unlike that of grand temples in Tamil Nadu, the sanctum itself surrounded by concentric rectangular galleries. The gopurams are modeled on Meru, the mythological abode of gods. The most striking part of the temple is the Gallery of Bas Reliefs at the first level. It contains four walls and additional pavilions all engraved with what seems to be miles and miles of scenes from Hindu scriptures. Restrained, dignified and exquisitely life-like, these carvings alone are worth a visit to Angkor. Seeing this gallery, I understand the true meaning of the phrase ‘poetry in stone’.

Bas relief of the King Going into Battle

Churn, Churn

The dominant theme on the east gallery is ‘Mantan’ the churning of the Ocean of Milk with the serpent Vasuki to extract ‘amrut’. In fact, Mantan is a recurring theme not just in Angkor, but in the rest of southeast Asia as well. The bas-reliefs on the east gallery tell the story of creation, birth and new beginning while those on the west dwell on death and aspects relating to the setting sun. Thus you have the Battle of Kurukshetra depicted on the west gallery, the army of King Suryavarman II in the south gallery and the Battle of Lanka, again in the west gallery. There are also scenes from Ramayana and Krishna’s life story etched in stone. There are royal scenes – of processions enlivened by musicians, flag-bearers and jesters, of Apsaras in a playful mood vying for your attention alongside royal women borne on palanquins. A panel depicting ‘Judgment of Yama’ contains scary images of suffering and torture in hell. The gallery is truly a crash course in Hindu mythology.

A frieze depicting Manthan, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Aesthetics of The Leper King

Angkor Thom the other complex was the capital of the Khmer empire during the reign of Jayavarman VII, believed to have been the leper King. Angkor Thom means ‘Great City’ and it was the administrative centre of the Angkor Empire. In its heyday, Angkor Thom was grander than any contemporary European capital. It supports several structures including the Terrace of Elephants, the Terrace of the Leper King, Bayon and Baphuon, albeit in a much more dilapidated state than Angkor Wat itself. Writing of Angkor Thom, Zhou Daguan makes the following observations: “At the centre of the kingdom rises a golden tower (Bayon) flanked by more than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers. On the eastern side is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, eight golden Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers. North of the golden tower rises the tower of bronze (Baphuon), higher even than the golden tower, a truly astonishing spectacle”. But now it is astonishing for just the opposite reason, its state of dilapidation and neglect. How so wondrous a monument as this could have been condemned carelessly to the vagaries of the weather and wanton human destruction wrought by the insensate Khmer Rouge is the tragedy of modern-day Cambodia.

(Published in Frontline dated Aug 15, 2008)

Intricate Bas Reliefs adorn the walls

Bayon, Angkor’s Facebook

Bayon, a Buddhist temple built a hundred years after Angkor Wat, is best known for its 200 massive faces carved on 54 towers. Historians still debate as to whether these faces represent Avalokisteshwara or Jayavarman VII, but whoever they are, they do inspire awe, not by the sheer size and proportion of the faces, but the serene expression that has been so realistically portrayed several hundred years ago by stone masons with nothing more than hammer and chisel. These sculptors had no models, no photographs, no digital images nor electric drills. Carving face of these proportions and at that height, they must have had absolutely no room for any mistakes whatsoever!

Bayon, like the rest of the Angkor complex, is ill-kept and overgrown with trees and weed so much so that it requires very deft footwork to climb without losing your balance and crashing to the ground. Bayon also sports an outer gallery of bas reliefs containing every day scenes like cockfights, jugglers, fishing scenes and festivals. We also visit Preah Khan, the ‘sacred sword’ and a few other monuments, despairing at the abominable state of disrepair they are in.

Even if massive funds were pumped in to restore the Khmer legacy to some semblance of its former state, it might take many years and millions of manhours and still never regain its original glory. I can’t help feeling that this is perhaps Gaia’s way of telling us not to mess with her too much.

Battle scene Bas Relief

(Published in Frontline dated Aug 25, 2009)

3 thoughts on “Angkor Wat – Marvels of Kamboj (2009)”

  • Greetings I am so thrilled I found your weblog, I
    really found you by mistake, while I was researching on Askjeeve for something else,
    Anyways I am here now and would just like to say cheers for a tremendous post and a all round
    thrilling blog (I also love the theme/design), I don’t have time to
    go through it all at the minute but I have bookmarked it and also added in your RSS feeds,
    so when I have time I will be back to read more, Please do keep up the great jo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *