A trip to Asia is always an adventure but when with some members of the family and I visited Cambodia last month, it turned out to be a voyage of discovery.
On landing in Phnom Penh the immediate thought which rushed to my mind was the communist regime of Pol Pot and the atrocities perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, and later these atrocities came to life when with some members of the family, we visited the Genocide Museum which was in fact a school converted into a prison and torture house. This genocide of 22000 people within this prison reminds us of the flawed nature of human beings and how cruel dictators can become in the pursuit of their ideologies. We did not visit the killing fields to spare some of the members of the group of the horrible and ghastly scenes they might encounter.
At the other extreme, a visit to the Angkor region reveals the grandeur and the engineering feats of the Khmers in building the largest religious structure in the world. I had read about Angkor Wat and seen documentaries of this world heritage site but a visit to Angkor Wat was a completely different experience.
Before going to visit Angkor, we found some time to visit the national museum in Phnom Penh to familiarize ourselves with the rich Khmer heritage. Among the many artifacts, which are kept in the museum, is the famous sculpture of the reclining Vishnu which had been taken from Angkor Wat. Angkor is a region with innumerable temples built between the 9th and 12th Century over an area of 500 acres.
Angkor Wat, the main temple of the complex was built as a Hindu temple by King Suryavarman (1113-1150) in 1192. It is rectangular in shape and measures 850 metres in width and 1000 metres in depth. It is the most impressive temple structure I have come across. From a distance the temples of Angkor Vat look like a number of pyramids in the form of mountains. We started the visit at its western point and walked through a large alley about 450 metres long with two waterways on each side, and are flanked by stone balustrades in the form of elongated Nagas.
As we approached the structure, we had to climb up on a raised platform and walk through galleries and courtyards past several towers before we reached the main tower which is about 200 metres high. These galleries around the main tower are more than 500 metres and are covered like embroidery with elaborate relief friezes depicting in minute detail the epic battles of the Ramayana. The relief carvings show us the different phases of the battle, the royal parades, the soldiers, the hand-to-hand combats — all reflect the artistic genius of the people.
The other temple we visited was Bayon which lies at the centre of Angkor Thom. It was built by the Mahayana Buddhist ruler Jayavarman VII (1181-1219). Its central tower is very impressive, and in its many towers are repeated sculptures of the ruler as an aspiring Bodhisattva so that whatever every direction one may turn towards when looking at Bayon, one will encounter the face of the ruler frontally or in silhouette. There is no doubt that these statues were celebrating earthly majesty and the divine. The temples and the alleys leading to them are decorated with life- size statues of gods while the mural and bas-reliefs which depict the religious mythologies of India are simply majestic.
At Ta Prohm Temple, what fascinates the visitors are the massive roots of the tropical forest which entwine the buildings and give the sculptures a picturesque quality of their own. While many of the temples are undergoing restoration, it has been decided that, for some buildings, the huge roots would not be displaced as they had become an integral part of the temple over time and it was deemed wise to retain the balance between these temples and nature.
When the Khmer kings converted to Buddhism, several changes were made to the temple. The lingam had been removed in several temples and some of the statues of Vishnu had their heads replaced by those of Buddha. Further to the North east of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom, we visited an older temple made of sandstone dedicated to Lord Shiva, Banteay Srei. This fascinating temple, while on a smaller scale compared to the other Angkor temples, is filled with delicate carvings on red sandstone, depicting various aspect of Hindu mythology, including the battle between Sugriva and Vali and Siva Nataraja, and has retained its Hindu references.
Apart from the changes made to accommodate Buddhism, the temples and the sculptures have remained unaltered. Among the innumerable bas-reliefs which adorn the walls of the temples, my favourite remains the great myth of creation which depicts of Lord Vishnu, assisted by the gods and demons holding a big snake to churn the ocean of milk. This bas-relief has become an icon in South-East Asia and is reproduced in many sculptures adorning public and private buildings, an example of which is the huge and splendid monument which adorns Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. The other frieze is the reclining Vishnu which, it seems to me, has become a prototype for the many statues of the Reclining Buddha which is found in some of the greatest Buddhist pagodas in South-East Asia.
Angkor Wat and the other temples had been inspired by Dravidian architecture at a time when South Indian merchants traded in ancient Cambodia and erstwhile waiting for the monsoon to return home. These temples had never been forgotten as is mistakenly thought. They were always known to the Khmers and had been visited by Westerners since the 16th century. It is wrong to attribute to the Frenchman, Henri Mouhot the rediscovery of Angkor Wat though but he certainly popularised it for Westerners.
No document has survived to tell us about the history of these temples, but fortunately, the stone inscriptions in Sanskrit, written in Khmer alphabets and later in Pali, have helped historians and archaeologists to partially reconstruct the history of Angkor. There is still a lot which is unknown about Angkor and NASA radar technology had recently identified an urban sprawl of 1000 sq kms beneath the tropical vegetation. One can expect further discoveries about the Khmer civilisation in the future.
* Published in print edition on 20 December 2013