The Angkor Archaeological Park offers enough for the child as well as the adult in you. The thrill of discovering a lost empire is matched by the realisation of the vagaries of human nature
Over twenty full-grown tropical forest trees stand over the Ta Prohm temple in the Angkor Archaeological Park. It appears like a war has broken out between the tropical jungle and the magnificent temples of the Great Khmer Empire. For now, the forests seem to have the upper hand, looking like giant wrestlers just moments away from crushing their foe with bare hands.
The sights at the temple, more popularly known as the ‘Tomb Raider' temple because of its popularity after the Angelina Jolie-starrer “Lara Croft: Cradle of Life” was shot here, in many ways explain both the splendour and the tragedy of the region.
It begs the question how could such magnificent temples built by one of the greatest empires in the region, one that flourished between the 9th and the 13th centuries, fell to utter ruins. How could such a magnificent city, once inhabited by over a million people, be abandoned for more than three centuries?
The trip to the Angkor Archaeological Park in Cambodia is not just only about the appreciation of the temples there, but also serves as a discovery of the vagaries of human nature. It is not only about great kings who built temples and cities but also about leaders blinded by their own beliefs, bringing to dust the humanity around them and with it all things connected.
The first thing that strikes you about some of the lesser known but equally impressive temples of the region is the tones and the colours. At Preah Khan, an extensive Buddhist complex, full of carvings and photo opportunities, the tone is one of decay. The stones are covered with lichens and it is hard to say where nature has not made its presence felt. The village was once known as ‘Nagarajayshri' (city blessed with victory) but today it is anything but. It is almost like walking straight into a Sepia-toned photograph of the temples as the French found it in the mid-19th century.
Our Cambodian guide Koeu Kheuler points at a bas relief at Preah Khan featuring the statues of meditating Hindu saints. While the statues of the Hindu saints, differentiated by their cross-legged squatting posture, remain intact, the statues of the boddhisatvas (Buddhist monks) the once decorate the panel opposite are missing. “The successor to King Jayavaraman VII, who built this temple, turned to be a Hindu fanatic and chopped off the statues. Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist himself but his brother Jayavarman VIII banished Buddhism from the region. This led to civil unrest and the neighbouring Kingdom of Siam (present day Thailand) attacked at the opportune moment. That was the beginning of the end of the Great Khmer Empire.”
The downfall of the Khmer Empire meant almost all the temples were continually ransacked both by the invaders from Thailand and their neighbouring long-time foes the Chams (region of North Vietnam). The temples were continuously pillaged for precious stones and statues.
In the years that followed, the Khmer people founded another capital for themselves near the present day Phnom Penh. The tropical climate of the region and the fertility of the soil, influenced by various factors such as the freshwater Tonle Sap Lake nearby, allowed natured to completely take over the region. This is no more obvious than at the Ta Phrom temple, where the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is undertaking a joint conservation project with the Apsara Authority of the Cambodian Government that handles the Park.
Members of the Archaeological Team explained to me that the fertile grounds of the region, once its strength during the golden era of the Khmer Empire, also became its curse when the region was abandoned. There was nothing to stop the trees from completely taking over giant complexes of buildings. And since they were built with sandstone, and not granite, like in India, they succumbed faster to the growth of trees.
The eastern gallery in Ta Prohm ('Temple of Brahma') was reduced to rubble, but thanks to the efforts of ASI today it stands a lot closer to its ancient glory. “As many as 20 full grown trees stand on top of the temple here. The conservation work is very tough,” says D.S.Sood, who heads the ASI team at Ta Phrom now.
The other magnificent yet crumbling temple one should not miss is the Bayon Temple or the State temple of King Jayavarman VII. With over 200 giant faces of Buddha staring at you from every corner, it was perhaps the last architectural masterstroke from the great craftsmen of the region.
The Angkor region near Siem Reap in Cambodia has not just survived the downfall of the Khmer Empire but also one of humanity worst genocides in the 20th century under the Communist regime of the person people refer to as ‘Pol Pot' (his real name was Saloth Sar). He ruled Cambodia for less than four years or “three years four months and 12 days” as our Cambodian guide recalled several times during our visit. “But he destroyed it more than any one else”.
He wiped out nearly 20 percent of the country's population and mired it in civil war until the late 1990s. Though Angkor region is today safe, there are still parts of Cambodia that have landmines. Visitors to the temples in the Angkor Park will often find physically disabled musicians playing traditional Cambodian instruments. They are victims of landmine trying to earn a living with some dignity.
Pol Pot tried to recreate the magic of the Great Khmer Empire. And yet all he succeeded was catch the madness of the last of the rulers who ruined that Empire.
The article has been corrected for spelling errors.