Thursday, February 07, 2008

Angkor Wat: Enduring architectural achievement

7 Feb, 2008
Nivedita Choudhuri
TNN (India)

The Angkor temple complex in Cambodia represents one of humankind’s most astonishing and enduring architectural achievements. Even after hundreds of years of neglect, the dozens of spires and thousands of feet of intricate stone carving – all without the use of mortar or machines – stand as a monument to what ancient civilizations were capable of.

But this is not yet another story of how yet another Indian tourist was bedazzled by the sheer magnificence of the iconic Angkor Wat main complex... There are literally hundreds of temples and shrines in and around what is known as the Angkor temple complex and Angkor Wat is only one of them, although it is by far the most famous.

You’re getting my drift, right? While the sheer scale of the main temple is breathtaking, there are many of other temples there that are almost as spectacular, and are often more interesting to tour too since Angkor Wat is more crowded.

One of my favourites is the Bayon. Built as the state temple of Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII in the early 13th century, the Bayon’s most distinctive feature is the multitude of face-towers which rise up to its central peak. There are more than 50 towers and most are carved with four faces on each cardinal point.

The Bayon is also unlike most other temples as no walls surround the terrain. The temple has two sets of bas-reliefs carved at different times. Those on the walls of the outer enclosure were carved earlier and deal with historical subjects, from battles with the Chams to scenes of daily life. The bas-reliefs on the inner enclosure are taken from Hindu mythology.

The Bayon is at the centre of Angkor Thom, one of the largest Khmer cities ever built. The city gates have face-towers and the wonderful south gate has two rows of gods and asuras lining the bridge across a moat.

The Bayon, my driver told me, is best seen during early morning as the sunrise creates an eerie effect on the faces.
My husband and I passed on next to the Bapuon, which was the state temple of Yasodharapura in the 11th century. On the way we passed an amputee musician who was playing a cello-like instrument. A small crowd had gathered around him as the melodies rose through the air. Some people stepped forward and dropped dollar bills into a bowl.

Bapuon is essentially a massive five-tiered pyramid set within a long enclosure, but its ruined condition obscures its former importance. It is in the process of being restored, and parts of the temple are closed for work.
The Elephant Terrace, Leper King Terrace and Phimeanakas are a few minutes’ walk from Bapuon and can be covered in no time at all. The Elephant Terrace is a huge platform at the heart of Angkor Thom and its bas-reliefs showing hunting scenes with elephants are particularly striking. The Leper King Terrace is another massive platform with carvings of mythological scenes.

Phimeanakas was the state temple of King Suryavarman I in the 11th century. We didn’t feel like climbing the steep and narrow steps of the Phimeanakas and decided instead to rest for a while near a pond on the temple premises...

If we had hoped for a few minutes of peace and quiet, we were wrong! A couple of urchins materialised out of nowhere just as we had made ourselves comfortable and started chiming “one dollar, one dollar” in what they thought, I’m sure, is a very Yankee accent.

The dollar is ubiquitous in touristy Siem Reap – the town closest to the Angkor temples – and its surroundings and the humble Cambodian riel is all but forgotten!

A little more than 20 km north of Angkor sits the small but remarkable temple of Banteay Srei. The isolated and semi-wooded setting at the foot of the Kulen mountains should have been just perfect, but the mess of souvenir shops and restaurants outside the temple takes away some of the charm.

Banteay Srei was not a royal temple. It was built by one of King Rajendravarman’s counsellors in the 10th century. The temple’s miniature proportions and superb decorative carvings in pink sandstone act as a magnet for visitors.
Most of the lintels and pediments are within the inner enclosure, and show Shiva, Durga and Vishnu, among others.
Sightseeing over, we decided to while away time in the souvenir shops that were stocked to the brim with brass and bronze figures, masks, colourful cloth for sarongs and hats, paintings, jewellery, gems, woodcarvings, T-shirts with temple prints and kramas.

A krama, by the way, is a sturdy garment that can be used as a scarf, to cover the face, carry children or for decorative purposes! It is fairly inexpensive and makes for an excellent souvenir. We haggled hard and managed to bag some lovely brass figures of Ganesh and Vishnu for a fairly reasonable price.

Unlike other temples at Angkor, Ta Prohm has been left as it was found. The walls, roofs, chambers and courtyards have been repaired to stop further deterioration, but the temple has been left in the stranglehold of trees. The unrestored state of Ta Prohm, coupled with the size and complexity of its layout, makes orientation a little difficult.

Do watch your step: the interiors are pitch dark and my husband and I both tripped in our enthusiasm!
On the final day of our tour, we went on an outing 30 km beyond Angkor Wat to a mountain region of waterfalls and riverbed carvings. The appalling road surface notwithstanding, an excursion to Phnom Kulen is worth it just to look at the hundreds of lingams carved into the bed of a river flowing down the peak!

In the early 9th century, King Jayavarman II ordered that part of the river be diverted so that the lingams could be carved. According to legend, he declared himself king on this peak and with him began four centuries of Khmer rule that produced the exquisite Angkor temples.

Phnom Kulen also represents a change of scenery for those who have spent days looking only at temples and wish to see something of rural Cambodia.

Regardless of how much you have read about it and how many photos you have seen of it, the Angkor temples will astound you. You don’t have to be a serious temple enthusiast to enjoy the wonders of this incredible site. It’s a world made to impress.

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