Sandip Hor discovers an opulent past, but senses an impoverished present as well while going through the vestiges of a lost civilisation.
“It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome,” commented French botanist Henry Mouhot in 1860 after by chance coming across a series of towering structures cloaked in the dense jungle of Cambodia, while searching for rare orchids.
He spotted the 1,000-year-old Angkor Wat Temple that had remained veiled by Mother Nature for centuries. Mesmerised Mouhot illustrated his discovery by writing in his travel diary, “A rival to that of Solomon and erected by some ancient Michelangelo — might take an honourable place beside our most beautiful buildings.” Since then anyone who has been to this marvel, unanimously agrees with the French botanist’s annotations.
South Asian Cambodia today is the successor state of the mighty Khmer Empire which between the eighth and 13 centuries, ruled much of the present Vietnam, Laos and Thailand from Angkor region presently located few kilometres away from Siem Reap in the northwest of the nation.
Trade introduced Khmers to Indian art and culture and concurrently to Hinduism and Buddhism which triggered the golden era of Indianised Khmer civilisation that witnessed creation of over a thousand temples reflecting features and myths that directly emerged from India. Central to all of them is the 12th century built Angkor Wat, meaning the City Temple, which in recent years has drawn over two million visitors from around the globe, I being one of them.
My first glimpse of the wondrous icon from the car park can be best described as dramatic.
Though I had seen countless images before, the distant view of the soaring structure, crowned with beehive-like towers and surrounded by walls and moats, standing most provokingly in the middle of a huge complex instantly conquers my eager mind. Its setting demands appreciation, it colours under the sun create sensations, while its scale makes you understand why it is revered as the largest religious site in the world.
Joined by thousands I enter the complex through the same gate and the causeway that was earlier used by the royals, noting saluting Khmer guards of the past replaced by hordes of vendors and guides.
The main monument is structured like a pyramid ,in three levels each enclosed by rectangular galleries built around open courtyards in diminishing size ultimately rising to the summit crowned with five towers in a quincunx.
It may be noted that most Khmer temples were instituted not as a place of public meeting and worship, rather as an arty palace for gods, enshrined there to bestow blessings, in particular to the king who endeavoured the construction. Accordingly Angkor Wat was built as a home for Lord Vishnu whose huge statue ornamented the summit till replaced by impressive images of Lord Buddha when Buddhism at a later date became the state religion. The original Vishnu figure now showcased near the main entrance testifies to the legend.
Going around Angkor Wat, no doubt, is an artistic expedition and the first set of rewards are bestowed at the lower level which feature almost 600 metres of stunning bas reliefs, inscriptions and carvings along the walls. Revered as one of the most famous contributions of Khmer civilisation, the frescos on stone portray scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Hindu mythology. Carvings of apsaras, the celestial dancers, in almost every corner of the compound are another creative feature that draws attention.
During a short stay it’s not possible to surf all the vestiges from the Khmer civilisation, ranging in scale from nondescript piles of brick rubble to the bravura monuments. While exploring the opulence of the past, it can be distressing to see the nation’s impoverished present that is still healing the wounds from years of warfare and genocide. Signs of poverty and paucity are explicit in every corner. People who have lost their arms and legs in land mine explosions sing in front of tourist sites.
They don’t beg; they are too proud to do so as inheritors of many wealthy foundations, but their anxious faces show need for external help. Angkor Tourism is slowly making the difference — new businesses, more jobs, revitalised art and craft industries are all contributing for a better living standard.
A waitress at Siem Reap’s Red Piano Bar, which became famous after Angelina Jolie stepped in there for a drink, while serving me dinner tells that many Cambodians, including children, even today live on plain rice porridge twice a day without any vegetables, not to speak of fish or meat. Her innocent admission unfortunately takes away my joy of cherishing extraordinary art throughout the day.