History & Culture

Angkor Wat: A bridge to the past

Angkor Wat temple  

The devas and asuras still exist in the form of gigantic sculptures of the former Khmer Empire in Siem Reap province, Cambodia. They stand, enormous legs braced on the ground, as they pull the serpent Vasuki as a rope, and churn away at the Ocean of milk. They live in an eternal tug-of-war in the temples of Angkor Wat, Banteay Samre, Bayon , the causeway to Preah Khan...

At Angkor Wat the depiction of the combat goes back to a thousand years. It stretches on a wall 49 metres in length of this temple, the largest religious site in the world, and a famed example of cultural transfer.

From South India, according to legend, came the Brahmin, who defeated the ruling Naga princess and then married her. From the ninth to the 14th centuries, successive kings built splendid temples to Siva and Vishnu, adorned with sculptures of graceful apsaras and valorous gods, endearing faced Nagas and upright lions.

At the oft-visited site of Angkor Wat, the scale and magnificence of the structures take one’s breath away. Built by Suryavarman II in the 12th century, the temple is a grand expression of his faith: in the form of Mount Meru, the centre of the Universe, where the gods are believed to reside, and surrounded by a moat to represent the ocean, courtyards to represent the continents, and towers to represent the peaks. The huge image of the eight armed Vishnu — with the head replaced by that of the Buddha after the country became Buddhist — is still worshipped.

For us, as for many others, the piece de resistance at the Angkor Wat temple comprises the twin bas reliefs, hundreds of metres long, depicting sculpted scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. The chisel appears to have magically turned into a brush that painted simian movements representing all the fury and the excitement of the vanaras as they threw themselves into the great battle to help Rama. On another wall, we are taken straight into the Kurukshetra war.

Angkor Wat: A bridge to the past

The samudra manthana, the churning of the ocean, in a magnificent composition that is a highlight of Angkor Wat, enthrals on the east gallery of the temple.

On yet another wall, the blood curdling portrayal of Hell is tempered somewhat by the promised rewards of heaven. And everywhere in the temples are the hundreds of delicately carved apsaras — so varied in their headdresses, poses and expressions — and so Cambodian. The expression of art is pleasing and native.

The spatial dimensions and the architecture of the temple are awe-inspiring enough for one to imagine that it was built by the celestials. At the peak of the Angkor Wat temple built in tiers, is the sanctum sanctorum. But it is the steep climb, only for brave hearts.

Walled city

Angkor Thom was the capital and walled city built in the late 12th to early 13th century by Jayavarman VII, the greatest of the Khmer rulers. Within its boundaries are enclosed temples such as Bayon and Ta Prohm.

From the quite intact and vast environs of Angkor Wat to the tree coiled ruins of Ta Phrom is a simple journey in terms of miles. But a much more intense one in terms of atmosphere and mood. Huge trees have the late 12th century temple built by Jayavarman VII, who was a Mahayana Buddhist, in their octopus like grip. It is a combat once again here — between the gigantic roots and the crumbling stones. The ruins look eerie yet picturesque which is why they are the scenic locales for films. For Indians this temple with its many apsaras and branches torn-asunder walls, has a special significance: The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI)has helped restore the temple, and conserve it.

Angkor Wat: A bridge to the past

Jayavarman was an indefatigable builder and the Bayon temple built by him is grand and unique. More than 200 colossal heads, said to be of the Boddhisatva Avalokitesvara, the compassionate one, crown the towers on all sides making sure the temple is never forgotten by anyone who sets eyes on it. It is thought the heads were fashioned to resemble the ruler. Bayon’s sculpted walls portray scenes of war and daily life and serve as valuable records of the history of the empire.

It was from the Elephant Terrace outside Bayon that Jayavarman VII would watch his military parades; there are huge elephants carved on the walls and their trunks act as supporting pillars to the structure. A few metres’ walk bring us to the apparently simple looking Terrace of the Leper King. But once you enter the structure, it is like a maze with beautiful carvings of women, marine life, and the gods on the walls. The leper king is believed to be Yasovarman, who was afflicted by the disease. But some scholars think the moss eroded figure of Yama, the God of Death, has given rise to this belief.

The Preah Khan temple was built by King Jayavarman for his father but the trees have turned marauders here again. Across a stretch of water is the Neak Pean temple where the rivers of India have four ponds dedicated to them.

Angkor Wat: A bridge to the past

Banteay Srei, 20 km from Bayon is as lovely as a miniature painting and as intricately executed. It was built in the 10th century by Yagnavaraha, priest and counsellor to Rajendravarman II. The emaciated figure of Karaikal Ammaiyar in one of the panels shows its strong Tamil influence. Kala, who consumed his own body in an act of total devotion to Siva, is a prominent figure on the lintels. This is a temple that has withstood being trampled under the wheels of Time.

At Pre Rup and East Mebon, built by Rajendravarman II, the Mount Meru style of architecture is impressive. Siem Reap is an amazing treasure trove of heritage and history as temples are dotted throughout the countryside.

France, whose colony Cambodia was till 1953, has helped bring many of these ancient temples to light, rescuing them from the forest like wilderness. Numerous other countries have contributed to their restoration, among them India, China, Japan, Poland and Germany.

Seated outside many of the temples are musicians playing softly on their instruments. They are all disabled landmine victims, bringing home to us the harsh realities of the people who have survived war and a ruthless regime, the Khmer Rouge. This is a land that forges a special bond with us as it would with all Indians. For, as we stand by the pond at Ankor Wat temple and see its magnificence reflected in the water, we feel our own history, faith and beliefs are reflected in it.


Angkor Wat: A bridge to the past

Eminent archaeologist R. Nagaswamy has this to say about the cultural connections between Cambodia and India. To understand Indian culture completely, one must visit Angkor Wat. Our connection with South East Asia is documented from the third century BCE, the time of Emperor Ashoka. He sent his Buddhist emissaries to Thailand and also to Cambodia, which was then a great power. But there is reason to believe that there was contact from the 1st century BCE. Chinese annals say that when Chinese travellers came to Cambodia then, they found a significant colony of Brahmins there.

The contact between South India and Cambodia was mostly through the sea. From the mouth of the Cauvery and the Krishna, people travelled along the coast to the Gulf of Thailand and landed in the country. Merchants from India came to Cambodia — attested by potteries belonging to 1st century AD from India. They carried the Brahmi script from India to Thailand, Cambodia and other South East Asian countries.

The earliest inscriptions — 3rd and 4th century AD — are in Sanskrit in Pallava grantha. The earliest written inscriptions relate to a Cambodian queen, Kula Prabhavati, who established a temple to Vishnu in the kingdom. Another inscription pertains to a prince named Gunavarman, who established another temple to Vishnu where he consecrated Vishnu Pada as advised by Brahmanas.

The maximum number of Sanskrit inscriptions is to be seen in Cambodia rather than here. Siva linga pratishta is seen in almost every village. A 500-year old inscription shows how the same astronomical calculation practised in India was also practised in the Khmer empire (Cambodia). In Khmer, they consecrated the Ramayana and the Mahabharata — and the chapters were recited daily in the temples.

Some of the interesting inscriptions pertain to Kaundinya who went to Cambodia and married the ruling princess; their progeny became the rulers later. Whether it is history or legend we do not know. In Tamil Nadu, Kaundinya was known as “Chozhiyan” (from the Chola Nadu) during the Sangam period. Kaundinya belonged to a family of Vedic scholars and was a staunch Saivite. Saivism, Buddhism and Vaishnavism integrated in Cambodia and a composite culture came to be: Saiva-Vaishnavite-Buddhism.

An inscription (unfortunately damaged) in Cambodia, shows how the King of Kanchi sent a Brahmana to Cambodia.

In the literary sphere, the works of Kalidasa, Bhairavi, Patanjali, and the Natya Sastra all travelled to Cambodia. From the sixth century onwards, both Sanskrit and Tamil were used in government documents in Khmer. Bilingual inscriptions are seen in Khmer from the 6th century — in the regional language of Khmer and in Sanskrit. The regional language became classical because of contact with Sanskrit.

Regarding the building of temples, the earliest available structures resemble Gupta architecture. From the 8th century arose granite structures that look like South Indian temples. There is definite evidence of the South Indian style of architecture but it had its own expression. They specialised in the Meru system of temple construction. The form, dress and expressions of the deities and figures gave the temples a local flavour.

The architecture, sculpture, grammar, literature and lifestyles of Cambodia were controlled by the Dharmasastra (Manu dharma). The iconography too was influenced by our culture. The kings were called Rajendravarman, Jayavarman, Indravarman — Varman is traditionally Sanskrit.

Vastu Sastra and astronomy were followed in the Khmer kingdom. And just as in the Big Temple in Thanjavur, hundreds of dancers were dedicated to the temples in the Khmer empire.

After the 14th century, the land turned to Buddhism owing to the influence of Sri Lanka. Somewhere around the 13th to 14th century, some Brahmanas went from Rameswaram to Cambodia. They took the Thevaram, Divya Prabhandam and Pooja Vedas from here to Cambodia — some people say that they came from Chidambaram. In Cambodia there are still such priests.

Hanuman is regarded as a god in Cambodia and the Hanuman dance is spellbinding. There is so much evidence of our cultural impact in Cambodia that we need to study it in great detail

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