Chapter 11. Tuesday: The Mountain, Rose, and Forest Temples


Let us return to our trip to experience some more of the wondrous Art of the Khmer. The next day we still had more temples to see. Leaving again at the civilized time of 9AM we drove a further distance this time, perhaps a half hour drive. Again the temperature was about 80˚ with high humidity. Although we were perspiring, it wasn’t uncomfortable as we were shielded by the tall trees of the rain-forest. We spent the first part of the morning exploring the Mountain Temple. This was built earlier than Angkor, as evidenced by the roughness of the construction. The entire temple was built around a small uprising of earth. It was intended to represent Mount Meru and the king’s association with the spirits of the mountain. Compared to what we had seen or were to see, it was almost primitive. It was a nice contrast which enabled us to truly appreciative the creative inspiration behind the later temples.

After viewing this earlier example of temple art, we drove to Banteay Srei or the Rose Temple. 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, which makes sense because it was constructed by a powerful Brahmin priest.

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.

With a little more of the Herb, 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 historico-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, altho Krishna is an incarnation of Vishnu, and so has to be considered 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 and the Mountain top 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. 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 themselves were very tall - over 15 feet tall, but the enormous cotton wood trees made them look small, especially when humans were placed in the scene for comparison.

While many of the guide books described this temple as ravaged or destroyed by the 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.

Nature: “Quite right. The violence of nature, indeed. Instead the violence of man is balanced by my inherent harmony. I personally think that my 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.

When your human authors talk about me ravaging their temples, it betrays their bias. It shows how limited their vision is. Personally I think of them ravaging my vegetation. But let’s get beyond assigning blame. I actually like the Khmer temples. I just thought they needed something to complete their picture. They were a bit full of themselves and their cultural accomplishments. With my paintbrush of vegetation I added some humility to the art. I felt that the crumbling temple mixed well with my huge towering giants. My more holistic rendition is a fitting testament to the main tenet of Indian philosophy as it manifested in both Buddhism and Hinduism. With my brush strokes I exhibited that all of life, no matter how grand, is transitory and fleeting. Given enough time my natural elements grind all things down eventually.

However this is only part of my artistic vision. Despite all of what you humans call my environmental destruction, still the magnificent spirit of the artistic community who created these temples shines through - combining with my 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 community, although merged with the spirit of my vegetation, still sings to the human soul throughout the ages of time. Although the many waves of humanity, as epitomized by their petty political empires, have come and gone, the uplifting spirit of a particular community of people still lives on, inspiring and illuminating all who experience it, or perhaps are even told about it, to a greater harmony and deeper understanding and appreciation of existence. While ravaged by time, the monument continues to emanate its peculiar blend of the human species and nature - illustrating that humans can live in harmony with me and themselves - if they can only yield to my grandeur.”

One wave of humanity after another crashing upon the beaches of Time - most of the sand castles of our species washed away - as trivial or self centered, without relevance - and yet one of our monuments survives - generated by the spiritual resonance of a community of souls long gone - replaced by their artistic spirit which still resonates with Life - despite being battered by the destructive power of the monsoon rains inside a tropical rain forest, where nothing survives, this integrated vision continues to survive and thrive albeit transformed by the power of our planetary mother.


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