|The towers of Angkor Wat|
A visit to Angkor leaves me with a backpack full of questions.
Whose tranquil face is it, I wonder, that is carved on each facet of the 54 towers that cluster thicket-like in The Bayon temple? Is it, as widely believed, the visage of Jayavarman VII, the great Khmer ruler who built The Bayon or is it of the Buddha? How is it that people who composed such exquisite verses in stone could also carry out acts of great cruelty some of which they depicted on stone panels? And what drove the apparently unassailable Khmer empire that created marvels like Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to all but disappear?
But I’m getting ahead of the story, so let me go back a bit, to the beginning.
A few years ago, I was invited to a conference in the Cambodian town of Siem Reap. Now Siem Reap is the gateway to the Angkor Archaeological Park — a 400 square kilometer World Heritage Site dotted with temples, monasteries and other remnants of the mighty Khmer empire that lorded it over parts of modern Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar from the 9th to 15th centuries. The conference itself sounded interesting, but what was really interesting was that it included ‘field trips’ to some of the Angkor sites.
|Ta Prohm's gnarly trees|
It’s not often that an invitation to visit a World Heritage Site comes along. So I grabbed the opportunity. A couple of weeks and a series of adventures — a visa that almost didn’t come through in time, waitlisted tickets and a flight on an Air India aircraft that shuddered and groaned ever so often — later I landed in Siem Reap on a lovely early summer evening.
Driving along sedately from the airport to the hotel, it was ‘Angkor’ and ‘apsara’ all the way. Every other restaurant, hotel or shop was either an ‘Angkor this’ or an ‘apsara that’. It was a gentle but extremely visual introduction to just how crucial the Angkor sites are to Siem Reap.
For Siem Reap breathes tourism. Tourism is the engine that powers the town’s economy. Yet, there was a very laid back feel to the place. Traffic — including the ubiquitous tuk-tuks — mostly puttered sedately along the leafy avenues with hardly a honk to be heard. Despite the frenetic construction activity, there was almost no rubble or dust on the streets. And though the US Dollar rather than the Cambodian Riel ruled, the bargaining was determined but friendly, with lots of smiles all around.
The Angkor Archaeological Park covers such a large area — some of it forested and difficult to get to — that it’s almost impossible to do any justice to it in a couple of days. So I didn’t even try and instead chose to spend a few hours each in a handful of the major sites.
Angkor Wat or 'temple of the capital city' is the acknowledged centrepiece of the Angkor sites. Originally dedicated to Vishnu, it was built by Suryavarman II as his state temple. Over the years, however, in keeping with the changing religious affiliations of the Khmers, Angkor Wat has also changed its affiliations.
|The faces of Bayon|
Yet, its Hindu origins are quite evident. For instance, the galleries that run along its façade have exquisite carved panels that depict scenes from Hindu religious texts including the Ramayana, and the Mahabaratha. Though some of the carvings have eroded with the ravages of time and human action, I could spot a few familiar images including one of Hanuman rushing to Rama's aid and another of Bhishma resting on a bed of arrows.
Angkor Wat is still a functioning place of worship, where Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism co-exist in apparent harmony. Turn a corner and you’d probably stumble into an alcove with sticks of incense, flowers and other offerings to the gods.
Captivating Angkor Wat is. My favourite site though is the slightly mysterious Ta Prohm with its towering strangler fig and silk-cotton trees sprouting out of the rocks, their roots twisted around the structure’s stone blocks in an embrace so tight that it seems as if it is all one pulsing being. And in a sense indeed it is, for the trees and the buildings keep each other going. Built by Jayavarman VII as a royal monastery or ‘raja vihara’, Ta Prohm is being conserved and restored by a team from the Archaeological Survey of India.
Jayavarman VII, it seems, had this thing for building. His greatest contribution, perhaps, is the walled city of Angkor Thom and the intriguing State temple The Bayon — with its forest of towers with giant faces carved on each facet. He’s also believed to have built Banteay Chhmar, one of the more hard-to-access Angkor sites.
|Sculpture at Prasat Kravan|
I was also fascinated by another Angkor gem — the smaller and rather less famous Prasat Kravan temple. Believed to have been dedicated to Vishnu, it consists of five brick structures built on a single platform. It was quite magical visiting Prasat Kravan in the gloaming, with its bas-relief sculptures on brick of Vishnu and Lakshmi bathed in the warm glow of oil lamps and a few diffused spotlights.
The sculptures, which almost seem alive, are believed to be the only surviving examples of this style of work in Khmer art, said our guide Pich Keo, a former director of conservation at Angkor and a professor at the school for guides in Angkor.
“Why,” I asked Pich Keo, “Did the Khmer empire crumble so suddenly?” It was, perhaps, a combination of factors, he replied. Changes in the weather patterns leading to droughts and floods, a falling water table, the spread of Theravada Buddhism and invasions by the Thais — all could have played a part in the decline of the Khmer empire.
Pich Keo, though, was more troubled by what could happen to Angkor today. With millions of tourists — including many Cambodians — visiting the region, the pressure on infrastructure is growing, the water table is dropping and some of the Angkor sites face issues like flooding, he said.
However, being a World Heritage Site also means that the Angkor monuments are part of a UNESCO-led effort to safeguard the site and its surroundings. Equally important, lots of Cambodians now visit the Angkor sites, obtaining insights into their heritage and the indisputable need to protect it. So perhaps this time around, Angkor has better prospects than it did as the heart of the Khmer empire all those centuries ago.