In Angkor Wat, Karthik Subramanian realises that the world was a small place long before Internet came

The October clouds cast a blanket over Angkor Wat as we waited for the sun to rise. The silhouette of the world's largest religious building lay in front of me, its magnificent towers rising out of an otherwise vacant plot, as if constructed with the sole purpose of holding those who see it the first time in a trance. I hear my wife say: “This is truly horripilating.”

I am just too awestruck to react, or for that matter even blink.

We do not get to see the sun because it is too cloudy. But as the morning light fills the air, the reflection of Angkor Wat is mirrored on the pond lying in front of us. And as the cameras start clicking, my mind wakes up and races back a decade and a half to my college in Enathur hamlet near Kanchipuram. That was where I first heard the word — horripilation. My Sanskrit professor was teaching us the Sanskrit epic Kumara Sambhava by Kalidasa. Parvathi was horripilated at the first sight of Siva, during the procession of the groom. I had always wondered if I would ever sense something like that first hand. Despite the atheist I am while arguing with friends, I could only think that this was a sight for the gods.

All vacations start with great expectations and excitement. But our trip to Siem Reap, the city nearest to the Angkor Archaeological Park, started with some trepidation.

A week before our scheduled departure, I received an email from my tour operator About Asia Travels that the region was flooded. Just three days before our date of arrival, nearly 200 tourists were airlifted to safety after being stranded at Bantaey Srei, a 10th century temple and a must-visit on any tourist itinerary to the region.

But the lure of Angkor was too strong to resist.

The Bangkok Airways flight to Siem Reap was short, comfortable and ridiculously expensive. At Rs. 35,000 for economy class round trip for two, the one-hour journey should rank among the costliest in the world.

After we landed in Siem Reap on September 30, our tour operator About Asia Travel's contact Sarah rang in the good and the bad news. “It has not rained in some time now and the last two days have been sunny. But a few temples are still off-limits because of the flooding of the Siem Reap river.”

You are never going to see enough in the region any way. It is after all, one of the most important archaeological sites in the world with some temples being discovered as early as last decade nearly after three centuries of being lost in the wilderness. You feel like you are in Indiana Jones territory, and missing one or two temples hardly matters.

Despite the recent rains and the floods, the tropical climate of the region makes me feel a lot closer to home in terms of heat and humidity. The afternoons are sweaty but the evenings usually bring in a shower or two.

The crown jewel

There are lots of temples in the region, some in graver state of ruins than the others. Angkor Wat though is the best maintained monument. Unlike other temples that were abandoned after the dramatic downfall of the Great Khmer Empire, Angkor Wat was always in use.

Built by King Suryavarman II between the years 1113 and 1150, Angkor in terms of sheer scale and grandeur is the finest example of Khmer artistry. Little wonder that it finds glowing references in the ancient travel accounts of ‘Kampuchea'.

Originally a Vaishnavite temple with Vishnu as the main deity, the temple's ancient name was ‘Brah Vishnulok' (the sacred abode of Vishnu). Suryavarman II was posthumously called ‘Paramavishnuloka'. The region itself was called Yashodapura. It was named 'Angkor Wat' (Wat is a reference to Buddhist monastry) It is widely believed that the temple is built as a mausoleum to the King because of some oddities - the temple faces the West, and the bas reliefs in the basement are arranged counter-clockwise.

The temple area encompasses close to two square kilometres but the stone edifices and annexes cover just a fraction of it. This gives the structure a truly larger than life appeal. As we walk along the 400 metre causeway leading to the temple, at every moment you can only be in awe of what is in front of you. The construction of the main temple is based on the motif of mythological Mount Meru, with its five towers representing the five mountains. It has a three-level pyramidal structure with the main tower rising as high as the Notre Dame Cathedral, also constructed during the same time.

Indian influence

As is the case with all temples of the Khmer region, it is influenced by Chola architecture as also the architecture of temples in Orissa. D.S.Sood, the project team leader from Archaeological Survey of India, who I ran into at the Ta Prohm temple, where the Indian Government has taken up some conservation work, informed me that a master craftsman from Orissa had trained the ancient Khmers in the art of temple construction. (The article on Ta Prohm and other temples will feature separately next week). All the structures are built using sandstone locally procured.

The true highlight of the temple is its bas reliefs in the lower-most of the three-level pyramidal structure. Running to more than a 100 metres, they narrate the themes from Hindu mythology: “The Battle of Kurukshetra,” “The Army Marching,” “The judgement of the dead,” “The churning of the ocean of the milk,” “Vishnu fighting the demons,” “Krishna combatting the Asura Bana,” “Combat between the gods and the demons” and “The battle of Lanka”.

After we see the bas reliefs, we climb up to the slightly less impressive second-level and then on to the third and upper-most tower. In the temple's heyday, this portion was accessible only to the priests and royalty. And we made our way past the steep stairs to the top tower, the words of my Cambodian guide Koeu Kheleur rang in my ears — “the stairway to heaven is not easy.” As you reach the top most point, it is only natural to just close your eyes to imagine just what a spectacular place it would have been in the 12th century.

The trip to Angkor Wat was much more than about admiring the architecture and the artistry of the Great Khmer Empire. It was also an enlightening experience to watch our Cambodian guide explain the motifs from Ramayana and Mahabharata. Just how far our culture had traveled and adapted itself to the surroundings. In the end, it is a bit funny to assume that it was Internet that shrunk the world. Places and people are a lot closer than we sometimes realise.

(To be continued)