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January 15, 2014 By davidjones
By WALTER MASON— Angkor Wat is a vast stone temple at the heart of an ancient stone city. But at the ends of its corridors and the centres of its hidden rooms lie surprising Buddhist shrines still active in a place abandoned for hundreds of years. These Buddhist statues are imposters, hasty late additions to a religious building constructed to accommodate the myths and rituals of Hinduism. They are splendid still, some draped incongruously in new and garish orange robes, the polyester glowing harsh against the cool, old stone. They are alive, thriving on the centuries of mystical memory that make Angkor Wat one of the most fascinating and mysterious places on Earth. Among these ancient religious ruins there still exists a living, beating heart of spirituality that has survived almost 1,000 years. Imagine the incredible spiritual power that exists in such a place. These days the revered King of Cambodia, for whose ancestors the ancient temples at Angkor were built, lives in his official residence right in the centre of Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. I often wonder if he thinks about what it would be like to live at
only to be discovered and celebrated over again. But its presence must play in the king‟s heart and mind. . of course. reminding him that his was one of the greatest of the lost civilisations. Though it was lost to the world for centuries. The five famous lotus-bud towers still rise above the flattened landscape so characteristic of Cambodia. This rediscovery very nearly destroyed it by creating a market for the exquisite sculpture that was littered all through the jungle which covered the complex. Of course. It was a royal palace. the refined and beautiful Buddha heads becoming such iconic items that they are reproduced now in cement and resin and found in gardens and on coffee tables across the world. Cambodian religious art is simply the best in the world. 40s and 50s. and much of its best statuary is now in collections all over the world. though it far surpassed Versailles in scale. when you go to Angkor Wat now you are more likely to see hundreds of Chinese and Korean tourists on package holidays. for any modern head of state. Maugham thought that everyone should see Angkor once before they die. the central one containing the holiest of shrines once attended only by the King himself. The grounds of the museum also house a University of Fine Arts and a College of Traditional Performing Arts. It is more than compensating for its centuries of obscurity. rumours of this great complex would pop up occasionally in Europe. It reminded them of an oriental version of the Palace at Versailles. who became its great publicist and created a vogue for Cambodia and for Angkor in particular. as well as in places like the National Museum of Cambodia – an astounding institution – probably one of the best in the world – in an exquisitely designed building. It is in this museum that you will see the best sculpture of the Angkor period. They were charmed by Angkor Wat and its surrounding reservoirs and canals. The temple has been plundered over the centuries. principally in the accounts of Spanish and particularly Portuguese Catholic missionaries who would periodically stumble upon the place. Angkor Wat was once again “rediscovered” by the West in 1860 by French Protestant naturalist Henri Mouhot. It has tantalised the popular imagination.that other place. Writers and aristocratic travellers like Somerset Maugham and the eccentric Sitwells travelled to Angkor in the 1930s. periodically slipping from the collective memory. Angkor Wat would be uninhabitable. and now still the largest standing stone religious structure in the world. temple and eventually tomb for a god-king and the hundreds of women who attended him. Angkor Wat was built over a 30 year period beginning in 1113. To come face to face with them in their original stone glory is really quite exceptional.
standing on the back of an elephant. galleries and temples that served the empire‟s religious purpose. the Naga. emerging at the end of stairways on balustrades. to whom the place is meant to be dedicated. The temples were allowed to house only women. Kent Davis. is still there in the antique stone. nine or eleven heads. The dancing. He had hundreds of wives. It represents an extraordinary moment in religious history where an ancient civilisation shifted from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism and later to the more deliberately primitive form of Theravada Buddhism. For Angkor was a city of women.850 women carved into the stone at Angkor Wat alone. And the faces are still quite recognisably those of the women you meet outside on the streets of 21st century Siem Reap. He was also attended by an all-female bodyguard. and out of it are carved the most sensuous and alive statues – Garudas. crowding out the image and idea of Vishnu. The King and his women walked through these galleries and cloisters. All we have left are the stone cloisters. This Naga. which it continues to practise today. and his hooded.). Each evening the King of Angkor had to ascend to the . What‟s so eerie about Angkor Wat now is that it stands alone. During the Angkorian empire – when this place was the centre of a vast city of over a million people – the Kingdom extended its rule over huge areas of south-east Asia. making them the real subject of the temple. was the special protector of the Angkorian empire. They are imbued with clothing and jewellery and attitudes that are quite individual. apart from the god-king himself. They look out at you from every wall and from every column. cobralike image. The King & His Wives The stone temples at Angkor are covered with intricate carvings of women. attending to a particular religious cult that was said to be the very purpose of the Khmer people. And into these structures are carved religious iconography. Thailand and Malaysia. plus attendants and staff and the sacred court musicians and dancers. Just constant. claims that there are 1.Angkor Wat was not constructed as a Buddhist temple. bearing seven. Burma. and certainly each is different and quite unique. a picturesque police force that made quite an impression when he paraded amongst his people outside the temple walls. monolithic stone structures dedicated to a purely religious purpose. It is said that these carvings are in fact portraits of the very women who lived here. the snake king. over the whole of the Mekong Delta. looming up at the visitor in an attitude both threatening and majestic. writing in the recent book To Cambodia With Love (Andy Brouwer ed. It‟s the most extraordinary communication across the centuries. Laos. There is no record anymore of the places where people actually lived and pursued their everyday lives. Bodhisattvas. with none of the immense wooden city which once surrounded it. flying and singing angels called apsaras and the more substantial and sensuous goddesses or devadattas.
and these threads stayed around our wrists for almost a year. it was sacked by the sister Hindu Kingdom of Cham – in . though century by century it fell into further disrepair. the Queen of Serpents. The glory of the Angkor Wat period was short lived. another evocation of Mount Meru. with a well 120 feet deep. with a real conviction amongst the Khmer people that whoever could build Angkor Wat must still be possessed of extraordinary talents. and the reason behind their great stone city. though they have no real understanding of why this is so. These days in the surrounding areas you can have your palm read. though on far less grand a scale than Angkor. If the Queen of Serpents were not to appear. in a recreation of the mythical Holy Mountain of Meru. This conviction has fed into some of the more unfortunate moments of recent Cambodian history. the city of Angkor became a place of pilgrimage for the Buddhists of Cambodia. the King was doomed to die the next day. and all of these activities have an especial significance on the hallowed ground of Angkor. This was the mythology of the Khmer people. This included the island of Java. The continued existence of the whole world. They saw themselves as the creators of humanity. This mythology continues even into the present day. relied on the religious duties of the Khmer King. He was locked into the holiest of shrines each night of his life to consummate this supernatural relationship. and Cambodian Buddhist culture has no taboos surrounding the eating of cows. These shrines are still recognised as holy by the local people. Attesting as well to Angkor Wat‟s Hindu heritage is the presence of shrines to the sacred cow at various points around the city. He was said to be the descendant of an intrepid Hindu family that had managed to conquer vast swathes of Asia. where a relative built the extraordinary temple of Borobudur. Wizened old women performed the thread-tying ceremony on me and my partner. and the keepers of humanity‟s secrets. almost from the day it was deserted as the centre of royal power. And if the King didn‟t appear then the Khmer kingdom would be destroyed and the world would end. This is the central tower of Angkor Wat. Having been completed in 1150. they believed. its bottom scattered with sacred golden objects.temple at the summit of the complex and spend the night with his only true wife. The Amazing Construction of the Temple So who built the place? The king Suryavarman the 2nd built Angkor Wat as a Hindu temple dedicated to Vishnu. make offerings to Buddhist monks and have the special blessed red thread tied around your wrists. something we took as an auspicious and remarkable sign – they normally only last for a month or two. Indeed. with the genocidal butcher Pol Pot employing this imagery to justify his savagery and his lunatic ambitions. recognising the special significance of this amazing place. The holy ground surrounding the ancient and mysterious (and fundamentally Hindu) Angkor Wat has been colonised by the more modern Buddhists.
Monks and magicians are all privy to these tales. and a central idea behind the architecture of Angkor Wat. so that they in fact map out an even more ancient – and perhaps even extraterrestrial – set of astronomical records.000 years ago. but a religious and symbolic purpose. just as the towers of the temples were evocations of Mount Meru. The average tourist is almost entirely unaware of the sacred intent of the ground on which they wander. and to be amongst it is to feel a connection that cannot be described or defined. This last theory still has some currency today. They suggested that it was self-created. somehow emerging entirely perfect from the jungle floor. Some others thought that it had been created through magical intervention – that such a feat of construction was impossible given the technology of the time. The temples are surrounded by still-functioning reservoirs. all of which hinge on the destruction of Cambodia and the eventual return to power of the Khmer on the global stage. As might be expected in such an ancient. Giants and demons make up the balustrades of the stone bridges in Angkor. the fundamental creation myth of Hinduism. Certainly they are shared at drunken gatherings of men all over Cambodia. It is no accident that it calls to so many people from across the world. Australian Cambodia expert Milton Osborne explains it best in his book The Mekong: “Symbolically. they say – one day we shall be great again. the sacred mountain at the centre of the universe. In the nineteenth century. Maverick historian Graham Hancock believes the temples mirror the constellation Draco as it would have been seen some 12. there is much talk of prophecies found etched in the stones of Angkor. when Henri Mouhot asked the locals how it was built they were as mystified about its origins as he was. artificial lakes and ornamental pools. The prophecies are quite spooky in their prescience. . These served. Many have hinted that Angkor contains wisdom that is Atlantean in its origins. representing the act of the churning of the ocean of milk. though perhaps they speak more to the agony of a powerless and impoverished nation destroyed by war and internal conflict. with one of my smart young university-educated friends in Phnom Penh confessing to me that he was sure the Khmer had once been giants. sophistication and architectural complexity seemingly out of its time. Angkor is a point of power. It is written in Angkor. At this point in history the Cambodian people had forgotten the greatness of their empire. Others still wondered if it was constructed by a prehistoric race of giants who embodied the perfection of the Khmer nation. mysterious and palpably spiritual place. the water that surrounded the temples represented the „seas‟ of the Hindu universe. The lost civilisation archetype is at its most powerful in this place because it provides such solid and inexplicable evidence of technology.modern-day Central Vietnam – in 1177.” Such incredible complexity exists in this antique cityscape. not a practical purpose as the earliest French archaeologists supposed.
of contemplation rather than exertion. After he died in 1218 the Khmer Empire began its slow and sad decline. We respond to majesty. There is something. as well. and the Khmer . not just as the supreme ruler and representative of the Godhead. It has suffered the effects of war and the disastrous Khmer Rouge years. This dance has survived. He led Cambodia during its very brief period in the sun and remains a great hero to the Cambodian people. such as Thai boxing. descendent of the man who constructed Angkor Wat. The Legacy of the Khmer Empire The Khmer empire is responsible for so much of what we recognise as south-east Asian culture – including many of the things we normally attribute to Thailand. The King rendered himself. In 1865 Cambodia became a French protectorate. That is the connection between the ruler and his people – perhaps all people. I am always delighted to be in the presence of this enormous cosmic friend. The traditional story of the Ramayana – though considerably changed in its Cambodian version – is carved on kilometres of stone panels in Angkor Wat. quite miraculously. no matter how many hundred elderly Korean ladies might be pushing past me in the hot sun. Thai dancing. The real truth is probably Jayavarman the 7th was a recluse who rarely left his Temple at Bayon and was said to have leprosy. from which it is only now beginning to rescue itself. The women of the temple spent much of their time re-creating the stories in sacred dance. even the Thai script is derived from Khmer. Cambodia is still a very poor place. and recognise its presence and its guiding hand. if you ask them). which has his own fac e carved into dozens of towers scattered at random around the temple. through its continuous royal patronage. thereby combining in his person the multiple religious currents of the Khmer. said to contain eighteen to twenty thousand carved figures. supremely human in these heads. That‟s when he built the enigmatic Bayon Temple. He is so much still revered that they are making a new movie about him featuring Khmer martial arts and a muscular movie star playing the king. the epitome of the God-King.The man who restored the Angkorian empire to greatness was Jayavarman the 7 th. even across the division of ages. Nonetheless he seems to have been a strong and capable leader and he got rid of the invading Chams in 1181. which the Khmer called Prey Nakor (and still do. and speak of gentleness rather than fear. The full lips and plump cheeks are beautiful. but also as the Bodhisattva Lokesvara. including the city of Saigon. so perfectly recreated throughout the complex. which was itself derived from Sanskrit. Angkor Wat is its jewel. and these days is performed once again on the terraces of the temples of Angkor. ceding vast amounts of territory to Thailand and Vietnam – including the whole of what we now know as Southern Vietnam. From the 17th century the Khmer empire began to spiral downward. glorious and majestic still.
The city was said to have been founded by an elderly woman who. They had come from Angkor. . more subtle still. scavenging for firewood in the debris washed up by a recent flood.people are justly proud of it. 315 kilometres to the south-east. and finally as shrines to the tourist dollar. and their stones will continue to speak to people a thousand years after we have gone. In our enthusiasm for this ancient site it‟s important that we not glamorise the poverty that still blights the nation or. then Mahayana Buddhist temples. too. But there exists as well a great continued interest in the traditional arts. spiritualise it. Around this grew the city of Phnom Penh. And Angkor Wat is no longer the centre of political power in modern Cambodia. The capital city is Phnom Penh. magically transported in the floodwaters. They have seen such a strange shift over the centuries – as Hindu temples. the arts that you can see being practiced on the 900 year-old carved stones of Angkor. split a log and found in its hollow five religious statues – four stone Buddhas and one bronze Vishnu. called Penh. decided to have them enshrined on a hill (Phnom in Khmer) on her property around 1372. and it‟s a country of immense poverty and injustice. eventually the new heart of the Khmer kingdom. The Cambodian people struggle to exist. They will survive this. But at its very centre remains the spiritual energy of Angkor. Interestingly enough. Phnom Penh has its own spiritual and mystical roots in Angkor. The temples of the Angkor area are still alive as points of worship and pilgrimage. then Theravada Buddhist temples. The woman.
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