Monday, August 25, 2014

A Siem Reap Sojourn- Part I

Silk Air flight from Singapore to Siem Reap, lands slightly late, which itself is rather unusual, considering the reputation of the airline. The flight is jam packed with tourists from all corners of world. I can notice Caucasians, Chinese and Africans in the crowd. There are however very few Indians in the plane. The German couple sitting next to me is very friendly and wants to know about me and India. The airport is clean, nice and on one level. No climbing. I walk straight to the arrivals lounge. A huge white statue of a rider on a white elephant welcomes me. I presume that the statue is of Buddha because of the hair style of the rider. Much later, I realize that the rider could not be Buddha as no where else, he is shown sitting on an elephant. I had taken pains earlier to get an e-visa for me. Getting past immigration is done fairly fast as most of my co-travelers are still stuck at the Visa-on-arrival counters and there are no lines here. The whole attitude and approach of the airport security and immigration staff very much reminds me of India, because of their unfriendly, suspicious and authoritative air. The Air terminal architecture however is quite distinct and impressive and most importantly user friendly.
I come out of the terminal and is welcomed by Mr. Bunla, my trip coordinator. While I chat with him, I notice another big statue standing in the corner. The face and the head gear of the statue, appear rather strange. I however notice something very familiar. The statue has four hands and two of them hold a conch and a disc. I realize immediately that the statue is of the Hindu god Vishnu, the maintainer and preserver of the Universe and the humankind. The disc in his hand is the formidable ‘Sudarshan Chakra’, or the wheel that destructs all evil. My days with the Gods have just began.

I am driven to a hotel. The room appears neat, clean and decently comfortable. There is no extravagance here. I quickly have some grub and get ready for my first encounter with the abode of the Gods.
The city of Siem Reap is located in Central-Western part of Cambodia, not far away from Cambodia’s largest river, Tonley Sap. The name of the city ‘Siem Reap’ is itself rather strange. It means defeat of Siam (Thailand). Its like calling city of Amritsar, defeat of Pakistan or city of Peshawar, defeat of Afghanistan. In the vicinity of this city ‘Siem Reap’, ancient Cambodian or Khmer kings, had set up their courts here in the first millennium and had continued it till middle of the second millennium. After that period, continuous and grave threats from the Thai rulers cross the border in the west, forced the Khmer kings to shift the capital city to Phnom Penh, which is the capital of Cambodia even today.
Khmer culture and religion was always deeply connected with India. The kings took Sanskrit names and followed Hindu or Buddhist religions. They worshiped Hindu Gods and followed Hindu rituals.
90% of Cambodians even today are Theravada Buddhists. Another fact, which is worth noting is that Khmer kingdoms never faced any Islamic invasions in the history. This must have been perhaps the main reason for Khmer temples and idols surviving last eight or nine centuries.
In the Khmer language, Angkor means a ‘Nagari’ in Sanskrit or a city. I am on my way now to visit the greatest of the ancient Khmer cities, named as ‘Angkor Thomb’, which literally means a great city. My car stops and I get down. A magnificent spectacle stands right in front of me. A solid stone wall about 8 meters high is completely blocking my view at the end of my vision like a backdrop. This wall is separated from my present position by a 100 meter wide moat. The part of moat on my left is full of water with few water lilies. I also see a wide stone paved causeway bridging the water, right in front of me. At the other end of the causeway, I see a huge Gopura with 3 huge smiling rock faces carved in the stone. On both sides of the causeway stone railings, broken in few places stand supported by balusters. 

Causeway with Railings shaped like a snake and balusters shaped like human torsos. Left hand Torsos are of Gods and right hand torsos are of Demons

A Deva or a God’s head used as a baluster


An Asura or Demon’s head used as baluster

The entry gate Gopura with 4 benign faces of King Jayvarman VII


I start walking towards the causeway. I realize that the stone railing has been shaped like the body of a snake with scales. On the right side end, the stone snake has raised its great fan with five heads and on the left side end, its tail curves upwards. The balusters on the left side are large human torsos with faces that look somewhat serene and calm. The baluster torsos on the right side have faces that look cruel and mean. All the torsos hold the stone snake railing firmly in their hands. On either side there are 54 balusters. I suddenly realize that what is unfolding before me is the complete scene of churning of the cosmic sea from a story from Hindu mythology. The serene faces on the left are Devas or the gods and the mean faces on the right are the Asuras or the demons. The snake in their hands is the sea snake Vasuki , which is being used as a rope to churn the cosmic sea.
I am just amazed at the imagination of these Khmer builders and architects. I approach the causeway and have a look at the Gopura. This entry building has the entrance at the center. I can also locate the Hindu god Indra riding the, lotus flower plucking, Airawat , an elephant with three heads and who was supposed to have come out of the same sea churning process. Indra is holding his thunderbolt in his hand and seems to be guiding the churning process of the cosmic sea. There are two engraved sentries on either side of the gate and some Gandharvas seem to escort God Indra. What really attracts me to the Gopura are the four huge faces at the crest, carved in the stone. It is now believed that the faces are of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII or Avalokiteswara. While passing through the entrance, I look up. I do not see the normal archway. Perhaps arch and keystone construction skills might not have been developed in those times. An arch like opening has been created here, by placing forward, stones of successive layers (Corbel arch). I see that my car is waiting on the other side of the Gopura. I have now entered the the great city of Angkor Thom. I feel that for all visitors to this great city, the huge faces of the king are offering their blessings for a safe and happy journey. I sit in the car still wondering about this amazing 3D presentation of the mythological story of churning of the cosmic sea. My car is now proceeding to the famous temple of ‘Bayon’, which is located at the exact geometric center of this great city of Angkor Thom.
The layout of Angkor Thom city built by Khmer King Jayavarman VI as his capital, during his rein (1181-1220), is of exactly square shape, each side of this square being 3 Kilometers wide. It covers an area of 145.8 hectors or 360 acres. The entire city is enclosed within a solid stone wall and then further protected by a 100 meter wide moat. There are five gateways to the city each having an entry Gopura like the one through which I have just passed. Zhou Daguan, a chinese emissary to Khmer kingdom has chronicled how this city looked during its glory. He writes about the golden towers on Bayon temple and a Golder bridge with Gold lions on either side. There is a dense forest on either side of the road. It is rather difficult to imagine the magnificence of this ancient city as described by the Chinese emissary.

Magnificence of Bayon temple

The magnificent temple of Bayon is located exactly at the geometric center of square shaped Angkor Thom. From the south gate of the city, the temple comes into view after traveling about one and half kilometers. My car takes a sharp left turn and drops me right in front of the east entrance of the temple. My first view brings disbelief in my eyes. The temple looks huge, and unwieldy with a central tower towering above 54 other towers. I climb a stone paved platform and go near. My surprise is complete. Each of the 54 towers, bears four smiling faces of Kind Jayvarman VI, just like the entry gate, in all cardinal directions. It seems to me that the English writer George Orwell might have picked up his idea of ‘Big Brother is watching you’ from here. However the faces here are not watching any one or suspecting anyone. The faces here smile and are benign. They seem to bless everyone. Later I learn that the smile on their faces is known as ‘Smile of Angkor’.

Smile of Angkor

The Bayon temple is built on three levels. Two lower levels consist of galleries in all four directions. Second level galleries are interlocked and are enormously complicated with continuous ups and downs. I loose my way several times here. On the top of second level, the sanctum sanctorum rises along with the 54 towers with faces of the king in all directions.
The outer walls of the first and second level galleries have some of the best bass reliefs found in Angkor. I decide to take a stroll around the galleries. The bass reliefs picture scenes show a fantastic variety of subjects. There are warriors fighting wars on the land and on water, scenes from everyday life of the khmer people and certainly the Gods in their various Avatars. God Vishnu mounted on his eagle Garuda, fights the demons. God Shiva appears in his celestial palace. The pictures combine so well that in spite of being in a melee, there is no discordance. And to top it all, the ‘Apsaras’, those divine beauties from the heaven, are everywhere, right from the main entrance to the bass reliefs and the corners. 

Hand to Hand fight between Khmers and their enemy Chams

A favourite pass time, a cock fight

A SHIVA Lingam temple engraved on the rock


Hindu God SHIVA

 Hindu God VISHNU being worshipped

God Vishnu, riding an eagle or Garuda fights the Demons

I realize that I have been watching these bass reliefs for more than an hour. I must now move on. I leave the temple reluctantly and start walking. On the corner towards west entrance, I see part of an old moat filled with water. I stop to shoot some pictures of the temples with reflections in the water. A family of swans glide swiftly on the water. I just manage to catch them on my camera with the backdrop of the temple. 

Another short walk brings me in front of another giant temple. This one is called ‘Baphuon’. This was built by the Khmer king Udayadityavarman II sometime during 11th century. During its glory days, the central tower was covered with bronze. There is a long elevated passage that leads me to the temple. This is big temple and was dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva. Outer wall of the temple covers an area of 425 by 125 meters. Disappointment awaits me at the end of the causeway. The temple is being renovated with Japanese help and is closed for viewing. I only manage to get a picture of the temple.

Baphuon Temple

I walk further North. On my left I can now see a huge pedestal which is about 300 meters long. I have reached the Terrace of the Elephants. This was built by King Jayvarman VII again during 12th or 13th century. The entire facade of the platform is decorated with bass reliefs showing elephants, Garuda the eagle and some lions. Some of the elephants are with three heads. Some wooden structures were erected on this pedestal for the king. This pedestal was used by the king to review his army and celebrate joyous occasions with the people. 

Terrace of Elephants

Garuda the Eagle

Next pedestal on the north has a strange name it is called Terrace of the laper king. It is now believed that this actually was the Royal crematorium. The bass reliefs on the walls seem to confirm this theory, as all the faces shown on this wall are sad or serious looking. There was a statue erected on the platform(Now in Phnom Penh museum), which is now believed to be that of the Hindu God of Death ‘Yama’.

On my left I can see ruins of tower like structures called Kleangs built in 10th century and wear storehouses. 

A Good Bye to Angkor Thom

I see my car waiting in the parking lot. Its time to say good bye to Angkor Thom. Tomorrow morning I visit the greatest temple of them all. The world famous temple of Angkor Wat.
(To be continued) 

15 November 2010

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