Of the banal and sublime

Crumbling History

Of the banal and sublime

The Angkor Wat Temple in Cambodia. Photos by author

Standing in the middle of a clearing, with giant trees all around, blocks of stone thrown higgledy-piggledy, unevenly distributed on the ground, making us watch carefully lest we lose our balance. Our guide assured us that it was safe to go inside with him, and we took heart from the small group of tourists who were with us at the same time. We followed him in gingerly, caught in an agony of indecision — will I miss something if I see I where I’m placing my feet or will I break my ankle if I look wide-eyed around at this mysterious temple in Angkor, Cambodia?

He tells us that it was built in the late 12th or early 13th century in the Bayon style by King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, in honour of his mother who is the model for the main statue.

Silent yet powerful

It is constructed of lava rock surrounded by intricately carved sandstone. It is said that there is an amazing tomb of his mother inside the temple surrounded by some kind of bronze or copper with hundreds of rubies, emeralds and diamonds embedded (no reason to believe that the stones are still there!) He also tells us that the name of the temple, Ta Phrom, is the derivation from Ancestor Brahma or Old Brahma, which confuses me somewhat. Did the villagers around use that name since the statue looks like Brahma?
At the time it was built there were about 12,500 people milling around in the area of 6,50,000 sq mts enclosed by a high wall. This included 18 high priests and 615 dancers, who modelled themselves on the statues of the apsaras or celestial maidens carved into the walls on the temple.

 But after the fall of this glorious Khmer empire in the 15th century, the temple was abandoned to the tender mercies of the jungle around, the very jungle that had been cleared to construct it. For 500 years it lay in the dank tropical forest, sagging and crumbling, fighting a losing battle with the devastating forces of nature.

And when the effort to conserve the ruins of Angkor by the French began in the early 20th century, it was decided to leave Ta Phrom. We followed our guide through entrances overgrown with creepers, into courtyards where the jungle came creeping in, silently yet powerfully twisting itself into structures of stone, getting a foothold into every nook and cranny.

Through tumbled doors we could see fallen stone blocks and get glimpses of ruined statues — here a twisted creeper dividing a face, there a head separated from its torso lying on its side as if fallen under the onslaught of an unseen enemy.

As we approached some of these courtyards which were screened off for safety reasons, we could smell the sour stench of bat droppings and occasionally a bat would flutter out in an eerie imitation of a horror movie. As matter of fact, the Angelina Jolie movie, Tomb Raiders, was filmed here, in parts.

Our guide told us, as he carefully steered us through the ruins, that silk cotton trees and the banyan or strangler fig wrought much of the damage. Seeds would be deposited by birds in trees overhanging in the jungle on tops of the towers and the roots wind down, seeking and piercing, almost with a will of their own, forcing the stones apart when they swell with growth. They looked like tentacles gripping the seemingly implacable stone, a fight to the death. And over it all, the jungle held sway, dappling the place with light and shade.

Restoring architecture

Carvings at the temple. It was difficult to envisage a clear plan of its architecture and statuary as we approached it circuitously because of the temple’s collapsed state. The guide pointed out the libraries which would have held documents in the form of steles for study. We did not see as many bas reliefs as we would have wished to. According to our guide, most were destroyed by Hindu iconoclasts following the death of the king. But every now and then, it was delightful to catch a glimpse of the exquisite features of an apsara, devta or ascetic.

Restoration work goes son, and I am told that an Indian team is in charge
of some of the work. The villagers around have been utilised in the work, providing employment to many and we saw them cycling to work, their necks and faces covered to safeguard against the dust and flying debris.

Just as in the days of yore when the temple came into being, now too,
the villagers are mobilised. It is mindboggling to think of how the work would
proceed, given the decrepit and eroded state of the temple, but it is being pieced together, bit by bit, like the terracotta warriors of Xian.

As we left the temple, we saw a hen rooting around in the dust, followed by her chirping brood of chicks in the shadow of the great temple, a vestige of power and might, a juxtaposition of the banal and the sublime.

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