An epic in stone

Print edition : August 28, 2009

Angkor Wat at sunrise. In this magical moment, the sun makes a grand entrance on the eastern horizon, first peeking shyly from one of the gopurams and then sailing gracefully above them to illuminate the world.-

A VISIT to Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, by the river route would be a fitting tribute to an ancient civilisation that flourished primarily because of its unmatched ability to harness water. According to recent research, the Khmer civilisation was indeed Karl Wittfogels quintessential hydraulic civilisation and the largest on the earth. Paradoxically, its ability to harness water turned out to be its undoing as well. At least that is what the latest theory surmises.

But little did we, a group of four women, know about the role of water in the rise and fall of the Khmer civilisation when we decided to travel to this archaeological splendour tucked away amidst lush green tropical jungle. We took a boat all the way from Chau Doc in Vietnam right up to 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 South-East Asian region. The Mekong, born in a lofty Tibetan glacial lake, is especially noteworthy for being the only major river system in the world never to be dammed by man.

Until you arrive at the gates of Angkor Wat, there is hardly a hint of the vastness of the complex. Then the Wat bursts on the horizon and seems to fill it with all its grandeur and serenity. A seemingly never-ending walkway on a moat filled with water takes you to the grand main entrance framed by three squat gopurams. This is also the photography point, where one can get pictures taken. Do not 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 created this epic in stone.

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

A terrace in the Angkor Wat complex, which is situated on a 200-sq-km area on the flood plain of the Tonle Sap lake at the foot of the Kulen mountains.-

We 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 before dawn, the horizon ablush with the promise of a gorgeous day ahead. There is a huge crowd gathered around the pond; cameras remain positioned on tripods and facing the eastern horizon to capture 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 tranquillity had a visual image, this would be it the three gopurams floating above the pond and getting reflected in it in the pre-dawn flush.

The Angkor complex, situated on a 200-square-kilometre area on the flood plains of the Tonle Sap lake at the foot of the Kulen mountains, was the seat of a very advanced civilisation presided over by the Khmer empire between 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 centre 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 dazzle us with their perfection and symmetry, harmony and symbolism and, above all, their scale and size.

Who could have conceived a monument of this scale and size and how did they manage to build it in a pre-industrial age? Why should a temple dedicated to Hindu gods be built in Cambodia, where Hinduism subsists only in stone today, and not on the Indian subcontinent, where it was born?

Piecing together information culled from various sources, historians found an answer to the second question. Kambujadesa, mangled into Cambodia by European colonisers who found it a tongue-twister, 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 Kambujadesa as Funan, an Indianised settlement in South-East 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 Tonle Sap and settled down in todays Cambodia to found a kingdom in the early centuries of the Christian era.

Apsaras in the second level at the gallery.-

Khmer legends also trace the origins of their founder Kamu, the mythical ancestor of the Khmers, to India. During the next few centuries, Indian culture became embedded in the region. Sanskrit became the court language and Hinduism and Buddhism the official religions blessed by the ruling dynasty.

Recent research seems to have found answers to the first question as well. In a landscape held hostage to the vagaries of the weather, control over water resources held the key to supremacy. In that sense, the Khmer empire was truly a hydraulic kingdom. Khmer engineers built complex waterworks that got rid of excess water during the monsoon and conserved water and released it during extended periods of drought. So much so, the granaries overflowed with rice all through the year.

Massive feats of engineering ensured that barays (reservoirs) five miles long (1 mile = 1.6 kilometres) and a mile and a half wide overflowed with water to be used for ritualistic or religious purposes and for irrigation. This hypothesis, propounded by Bernard-Philippe Groslier, a French archaeologist, seems to have gained acceptance among historians. A team from the University of Sydney, working with two archaeologists, found evidence to support Grosliers hypothesis when it chanced upon radar images of Angkor by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which showed man-made water channels, tanks, canals, dams and sluices criss-crossing the region. National Geographic magazine quotes Fletcher, a researcher, as saying: We realised that the entire landscape of Angkor is artificial.

Fish design in bas-relief.-

According to these researchers, the Khmer empire flourished because of its ability to alter the course of the Siem Reap river and harness its waters, but fell eventually because nature triumphed over mans ingenuity and reclaimed control. This precipitated the decline of the Khmer empire, which was no longer immune to floods and drought, the blight of its neighbouring kingdoms in Asia.

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 and royal processions comprising caparisoned elephants and bedecked women.

The Angkor Wat temple complex itself provides an eloquent account of life in the Khmer empire through the graphic scenes from everyday life etched in vivid detail on stone pillars and columns and walls and walkways. The dominant theme of the temple is no doubt religious there are scenes aplenty from Hindu scriptures but there are also vignettes of everyday life that give us a peek into this glorious civilisation.

A battle scene at the Gallery of Bas-Reliefs. Restrained, dignified and exquisitely life-like, these carvings alone are worth a visit to Angkor.-

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 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 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 the grand temples in Tamil Nadu, the sanctum itself surrounded by concentric rectangular galleries. The gopurams are modelled on Meru, the mythological abode of gods.

'MANTAN', the churning of the Ocean of Milk using the serpent Vasuki by Asuras.-

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.

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 South-East Asia. 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, there is the battle of Kurukshetra and the battle of Lanka depicted on the west gallery and the army of King Suryavarman II in the south gallery. There are also scenes from the Ramayana and from Krishnas life etched in stone. There are royal scenes of processions enlivened by musicians, flag-bearers and jesters and of Apsaras in a playful mood vying for 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.

Devas, in the east gallery.-

Angkor Thom, the other complex, was the capital of the Khmer empire during the reign of Jayavarman VII. Angkor Thom, or Great City, 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, the Bayon and the Baphuon, albeit in a much more dilapidated state than Angkor Wat.

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 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.

In the west gallery, the battle of Kurukshetra.-

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 whether these faces represent Avalokiteshwara or Jayavarman VII. Whoever they are, they inspire awe, more for the serene expression on them than for their sheer size and proportion. Bayon, like the rest of the Angkor complex, is ill-kept and overgrown with trees and weeds so much so that it requires deft footwork to climb without losing balance and crashing to the ground.

Bayon also sports an outer gallery of bas-reliefs containing scenes of everyday life, such as cockfights, jugglers and fishing, and of festivals. We also visit Preah Khan, the sacred sword and a few other monuments, despairing at the abominable state of disrepair they are in.

One of the 54 towers at the Bayon temple in the Angkor Thom complex. The towers have 200 massive faces carved on them.-

Even if massive funds are pumped in to restore the Khmer legacy to a semblance of its former state, the work might take many years and millions of man-hours and it still might not regain its original glory.

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