16: The Angkor Temple Complex

(Although located in Travelogues SEA2 Chap folder, this article is part of SEA Empires. These 7 chapters, 10>16, belong between SEA5:Ch8a & SEA6:Ch09. This particular article is excerpted from SEA Travelogues SEA3:Ch15 & SEA3:Ch17.)

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Multi-headed Buddhas of Angkor Thom

Although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple in the complex, there are also many other exquisite Khmer temples.

Sopheap: “Angkor Thom is sometimes called Bayon. Historians think that this temple complex was one of the last to be built. Angkor Thom is different than Angkor Wat. While Angkor Wat is noted for its structure, Angkor Thom is noted for its size.”

Me: “But Angkor Wat is huge!”

Sopheap: “Angkor Thom makes the temple complex of Angkor Wat look small.”

To get to Angkor Thom, we had to drive past the dense forest of tall trees that shielded Angkor Wat from curious eyes. As we approached the outer gate of the complex, Sopheap stopped the car and let us out.

Sopheap: “We’ll walk from here.”

From our perspective the outer gate seemed to be a crumbling mass of stone with a V shaped portal in the middle. However on each side of the wide pathway (perhaps 15 to 20 feet wide), there were countless life sized sculptures in stone of humans, which seemed to be pulling a huge rope. Upon closer examination, it seemed that each one was unique.

Miranda: “The figures on the right seem uglier than those on the left.”

Me: “Maybe just an optical illusion.”

Sopheap: “No, she’s correct. The sculptures on the right are meant to represent the demons while the ones on the left are meant to be the gods. That’s why they are better looking. They are pulling against each other  - the good and the evil. Their tug of war churned up the sea of milk. This is the way the world was created according to Hindu mythology.”

Me: “So these figures represent the creation myth?”

Sopheap: “Exactly. The King was conveying that his city participated in the creation of the Universe. The Khmer believe that the world is constantly coming into existence. So this representation shows that the Khmer kingdom is part of the churning of the milk by the gods and demons that creates the world anew. In contrast to your Greek statuary, which represents past events, the Khmer symbolism is meant to be current. This is the big difference between the Khmer and most other cultures. Our mythology is alive today not in the past.”

As we strolled down the walkway, the gateway became increasingly enormous. Seen from a distance it appeared quite small, but now that we approached the entrance to the complex we began to realize how big it was.

Serena: “Look at that huge head on top of the gate!”

Laurie: “Whoa! A gigantic Buddha head.”

Miranda: “There’s another one on the side.”

Sopheap: “There are actually four Buddha heads facing each of the four cardinal directions.”

We were blown away to see these huge Buddha faces staring at us from the top of the portal. As we walked around the wall, we saw all four faces - each looking impassively out at the world. They seemed to guard the entrance as well as watching to see what was happening. No matter where we were, one of these faces observed our every move.

The gigantic head was a six foot cube that sat on top of the wall, which was already over twenty feet tall. Then a ten foot high spire projected from the top of the head. Quite an imposing and awe inspiring structure. Anyone visiting this ancient kingdom would certainly have been impressed by the size and symbolism of this entrance - no matter what culture they came from.

After pausing for about a half an hour to inspect the crumbling stonewall of the outer gate, we proceeded on to the main temple. While Angkor Wat was enormous, Angkor Thom was even more immense - in all ways. It would have been very difficult to survey the whole complex without a car.

The main temple was topped with more of these 4-sided heads. Because it was in greater disrepair than Angkor Wat, the gigantic heads seemed to almost emerge from the stone, rather than being sculpted into it. It was like looking at a picture with objects embedded in it rather than being plainly displayed.

While the statuary of Angkor Wat consisted mainly of scenes from Hindu mythology and great battles, Bayon, as the main temple was called, had many scenes from the village life of the Khmer world. There were cockfights, gambling, builders, festivals - all represented there, as well as victorious elephant battles against the Cham culture of Vietnam.

Looking up at the myriad 4-sided heads it was next to impossible to detect any order to the arrangement. While Angkor Wat was laid out in an incredibly orderly fashion, the Bayon was almost chaotic. It was like being in an unusual geologic formation. It reminded me of the glacial landscape of the High Sierras, where sharp ridges obscure the next level and blend in with the multi-leveled terrain that was in the background. There was a bewildering array of levels with these huge 4-faced heads staring at you, watching from every corner.

Sopheap: “No one knows for sure what the heads represent. Some say it is Buddha - others Shiva or perhaps Vishnu. Many think it is the king himself. The face certainly has the racial characteristics of a Khmer. I think it is a combination of all. The Khmers initially worshipped Shiva, then Vishnu, and in their final phase, when this complex was built, had begun converting to Buddhism. I think the king constructed the temple to identify himself with all of these gods. This established him as a god king like Rama. It also connected him with the Khmer tradition. Remember that for the Khmer the spirits of the dead are still with us. So the king was affirming his connection with the royal spirit world as well as identifying himself as a god. The past, present and futures are one in the Khmer world. Just as we are experiencing all worlds as we speak.”

On the walls were pictures of the longhaired Yogis as well as bald Buddhists – both in identical postures of mediation.

Sopheap: “Our king was supposed to be an ascetic, practicing austerities like the Yogis. Purifying himself, he purified the nation.

Me: “They must have thought their world would last forever.”

Sopheap: “It has. Can’t you sense it.’”

More tingling. I was in the Presence.

Involuntary tears of release welled up expressing thanks for whoever arranged this grand Experience.

Climbing to the top layer of Bayon, we looked down on a vast courtyard that spread out below us.

Sopheap: “A whole city lived here - dancers, sculptors, architects, cooks, artisans, kings, priests, soldiers and all the rest necessary to continue the building. The king, as had the kings before him engaged the complete Khmer population in this spiritual project. Entire generations were engaged for their whole lifetimes. Remember that serving the king and the Khmer culture was identical to serving the gods. The king was great because he engaged the entire nation in this spiritual pursuit - proving to everyone that he really was a Buddhist Bodhisattva.”

The experience is so overwhelming that we merge with the environment to commune with the spirits of the Khmer. Eternity is forever. In a similar fashion the Reader is transported to Angkor when he or she comprehends these words.

The bewildering array of sights and sensations - the hot sultry day in the jungle - brown faced Cambodian children selling souvenirs, from post cars to native instruments and T-Shirts. The wispy clouds in the sky frame these ancient towers as they have for centuries. These gargantuan heads look down upon us wherever we go - as they have forever.

Overwhelmed I bowed my head and prayed - expressing my gratitude to the Universe for leading me here to Cambodia, as well as here to write this narrative. Tingling all over my body as I let the spirits of the Khmer enter in.

The fact that I was moved by the experience, when in the temple and when writing about it, shows that the influence of this divine king continues throughout time. Hopefully the Reader is able to enter the same state.

The Rose Temple

Although overwhelming, there was still more architectural diversity yet to the see in the wondrous Angkor temple complex of the Khmer. Again the temperature was about 80˚ with high humidity. Although we were perspiring, it wasn’t uncomfortable as the tall trees of the rain forest shielded us from the sun.

Banteay Srei or the Rose Temple was constructed by a powerful Brahmin priest 967 CE. Its nickname is derived from its color. It was carved out of pinkish sandstone. It is called the gem of the temples because it is so small and beautifully preserved. It is most similar to the Indian temples after which it was modeled.

It is easy to see from the pictures that the temple was quite intimate, not at all massive. While the gateway to Angkor Thom was over forty feet in height, the gateway to this temple doesn’t even reach 20 feet.

The stone cutting below seemed to be diaphonous, transparent. It seemed as if these fiery crowns actually merged with the sky behind them. The reflections on the ornately carved surface gave the illusion that the sky appeared to shine through the lattice work rather than being blocked by it.

Because the sculpted reliefs at Banteay Srei were deeply cut into the sandstone, the figures almost seemed to be standing in the round. The realistic rendering was awesome, as can be seen in the picture below.

There were mainly historic-mythological scenes at Banteay Srei, as existed at both Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The scene above portrays the slaying of King Kamsa by Krishna, an event narrated in two Indian texts. In typical Indian fashion the stories are written as if they really happened. Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, and so must be fairly mythical.

Also note the Bronze Age chariots at the bottom of the frieze. They are of interest primarily because the Khmer never used chariots or the bronze military technology to enslave their peasantry. The scene is a classic Aryan scene of domination transplanted as a story only to the life affirming Khmer culture.

The Forest Temple

After another delicious lunch with fresh fish, soup, vegetables and rice and after another midday break and short swim in the hotel swimming pool to refresh our overly stimulated senses, Sopheap and the driver picked us up to tour some more temples.

Sopheap: “We’ve seen Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom with its four headed Buddhas, the Mountain Temple, and the Rose Temple. This afternoon we are going to explore the Forest Temple. Each is unique from and yet similar to the others.”

After a longer drive deeper into the jungle, as evidenced by the denser vegetation, we arrived at the gate to Ta Prohm, nicknamed the Forest Temple. Not quite as tall or as impressive as the gateway to Angkor Thom with its long entrance lined with statues and its enormous gate, but we recognized the same four-headed Buddha on top of a crumbling structure. However vegetation and vines wound its way in and about the architecture.

After a short walk on an overgrown path

Miranda: “Look at those trees!”

Me: “Which ones?”

Miranda: “The ones growing out of the temple walls!”

Serena: “They’re enormous.”

Laurie: “Incredible!”

Me: “Whoa! Awesome.”

Sopheap: “Those are silk cotton trees (capon). It takes them centuries to reach that size. This temple has Theravada Buddhist overtones as witnessed by the meditating Buddhas. Many of the Buddhas were destroyed during a Hindu reaction during the late Khmer stage.”

The temple walls are very tall - over 15 feet, but the enormous cotton wood trees made them look small, especially when humans were placed in the scene for comparison.

While many of the guidebooks described this temple as ravaged or destroyed by vegetation, or as an example of ‘the violence of nature’ we didn’t view it that way. Instead we gloried that nature could restore itself. The dominance of the trees somehow indicated the superiority of nature over humankind. The green shrubbery, which is actually taking root and growing in the spires of the temple, adds a lot to the scene rather than detracting from it.

Further, despite nature’s supposed environmental destruction, the magnificent spirit of the artistic community that created these temples continues to shine through. Their elevated artistic vision combines with the vegetation to yield a more complex story of humanity.

Although the Khmer civilization with all of its inhabitants are long gone, the spirit of the Angkor civilization, although merged with the spirit of the vegetation, still sings to the human soul throughout the ages of time. Although the many waves of humanity, as epitomized by their transitory political empires, have come and gone, the uplifting spirit of a particular community of people still lives on. This vision from times past inspires and illuminates those who experience it. While ravaged by time, the monument with its peculiar blend of art and nature continues to evoke a deeper appreciation of existence.

 

Southeast Asia: “One wave of humanity after another crashes upon the beaches of Time. Most of the sand castles of your species are washed away - as trivial, self-centered, or without relevance. Yet one of your monuments survives. Although generated by the spiritual resonance of a community of souls long gone, their artistic spirit lives on. Their vision still has transformative power, despite being battered by the destructive power of the monsoon rains inside a tropical rain forest, where nothing survives. The integrated revelations of the Angkor complex continue to survive and thrive albeit transformed by the power of our planetary mother.”

 

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