The scene was set. The table had been cleared of all distractions. I had showered and eaten. A steaming cup of tea and the strong suggestive glow of the lamp await. Nothing is going to stop me from seriously writing about Ageing in Ants and the experiments I have been conducting.
HOW WRONG I WAS. Because such moments are rife with promise of procrastination. This time in the form of inspiration for a poem. So, Instead of the results section of my paper, I wrote a poem about my passion for my study specimen. An unlikely ode at an inconvenient time but like most words…..it needs to get out so here goes.
ANTS ARE THE BEE’S KNEES
I’ve scoured the expansive ground;
I’ve scanned the tallest of trees;
there are some astounding creatures around,
but the ants are the bee’s knees.
Dolphins always cause a great furore
Monkeys inevitably manage to please
and there’s no sloth I could ever abhor
but the ants are the bee’s knees.
No need to pout, for I also love the roaches
and appreciate the tenacity of the fleas.
But there’s a corner of my heart no one else encroaches,
for the ants are the bee’s knees.
Their scuttering makes my brain aflutter,
the wiry legs puts my skin at ease;
my phrasing may be wrong and my life a clutter,
but the ants are the bee’s knees.
It started with the phrase bee’s knees. I could not get it out of my head. And how it’s funny to call things “bee’s knees”. And though we know that ‘bee’s knees’ is used to compliment something, I never had the opportunity to check its origins. Many of you probably have not either so let me make it easier for you. And give me the satisfaction that I wrote something with an introduction, body and even references much like what my manuscript should be, although less poetry and more facts will probably be appreciated in the academic literature circles I normally run in.
I spent some time last week with my niece and nephew in Kerala and whenever they were able to get away from the evil clutches of Dora (the explorer) I observed them playing. It is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with TV when wanting to interact with children. And socially awkward aunt who is also unsurprisingly great with kids (read sarcasm) acknowledges this as a herculean task. The colourful rings of a child-friendly Tower of Hanoi lie forlorn as some informative lady sings ABC on the ‘idiot box’. Yet somehow my 2 year old niece is still being amused by the Malayalam version of peek-a-boo called “Oliche-kande” in the vernacular translating to Hid-found. It requires only two things 1) something to obstruct her view of your face and 2) your face. And as I watched her giggle at what seems like the universal way to amuse most children through time, I was reminded of the ‘What the fluff’ compilations that were doing the rounds on social media recently. It involved pet owners standing in front of their pet, throwing a towel over themselves or their pet and the pet watches in confusion as their master vanishes, probably having rushed and hidden behind a door or a bed. Hilarity is supposed to ensue as we see the pet searching for the owner. The more frantic the search, the better. Our affection for animals doing literally anything in videos circulating on the internet is phenomenon unto itself and will take a longer time to unpack but animal perception and related abilities are crucial to understanding cognition (And makes for a great dinnertime conversation if Dora the explorer is not going on).
What we see here is animals displaying Object Permanence. It is the ability to know that objects exist even if they have disappeared from view. That is why the pets are confused and searching. The owner was just there and ought to be around. Object permanence was first described as a sensorimotor developmental stage in human children starting at 8-12 months, by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget. But the progression of the ability is such: at first when an object is first in one place and then in another, the child will search for it in the first location. Next phase, they can look for the object and trace its location if the location changes have happened in plain view but not otherwise [Although processing time for any information is a factor. Most adults are dumbfounded by the roadside tricks and may have lost time and money on shell games which depends on tracking the motion of cups and a sleight of hand]. Last stage is where they search for objects sequentially in multiple locations.
Many animals including cats, dogs, dolphins, goats, birds of the crow family, monkeys and non-human apes have been tested on their ability to track objects when they are displaced although their ability to trace something when it changes location many times in a short time interval is variable according to species, individual and context. They would require object permanence to know where they stash food, where predators or prey might be if they have detected them among others. Animals may also be able to use their sense of smell or echolocation or social cues to figure out where the object went and prior experience with the location or the set-up may all be confounding factors, or sometimes animals just don’t want to do something, or do something they wouldn’t normally do because of the incentive they receive. All these could lead to a biased result.
However, over various controlled studies, all slight variations of Piagetian experiments have led to the insights we have about our furry or feathery friends at home and our wild cousins with regards to object permanence. Our common pets, dogs have been domesticated for a while now and are particularly attuned to human non-verbal cues and may use them to follow instruction but thanks to domestication, their dependence on us is higher and they may be less self-sufficient in finding food and keeping track of where things are, making use of their nose and our help for their daily tasks. In fact most pets like toddlers suffer separation anxiety because they have object permanence.
In wild animals, species is important as is context. Where are they from? Are they solitary or social? What are their immediate pressures (food, prey/predator, shelter, mate) that could lead them to develop different types of strategy which may require specific skillsets. Most species have survived in the wild because somehow the strategy they use has been developed and naturally selected for. It is best suited to them in this time and space where they are. They will perish unless they change with changing context. Similar species living in vey different habitats thus can fare differently on such tests and animals that aren’t as closely related for eg- elephants, corvids and apes do similarly well. We cannot really compare different animals on a common, generic scale to conclude on their “intelligence”. [Because that requires defining “intelligence” which is subjective and contextual depending on the species, though we like being anthropocentric and using ourselves as the apex with which to compare everything with, intelligence in humans too is complicated and subjective] We can however use them to learn how such skills evolved and whether things like brain to body size have anything to do with it.
This also raises interesting questions like how animals might perceive sudden versus slow death of a known individual. Are we ignoring similar phenomena in the animals that aren’t considered stereotypically ‘cute’ because their responses are not as obvious as the raised eyebrows and crazy neck movements that remind us of ourselves?
Our brain is a beautiful organ but a lot of our actions are based on sensory cues, prior experience and context, processing all of which might take longer than necessary to win against those deceiving us, including our own brain. So watching our precious pets not throw in the towel after we have disappeared behind one is heartening and enlightening at the same time.
Knowing full well that we were going to overshoot our budget, but weighing it against the fact that we wouldn’t come here again we decided to book a tour of the floating village Kampong Pleuk on the river Tonle sap. And by “on” the river I don’t mean on the banks of the largest lake in S.E Asia, I mean during the rains….the shanty houses, precariously balanced 10m above the ground using wood-scaffolding look like they are floating ON the river. Since we visited in the dry(drier) season, we could actually see the clayey bank and plough our boat through the really murky water. We passed through the Kampong (village) along tiny channels of water, with houses on both sides. Some with many levels, fishing traps and nets hung underneath. The people here, around 900 families (5000 people) have lived here for 5 generations living off fishing and related activities, fighting for survival with the rest of the 1.2 million people dependent on the Tonle Sap’s 300 species of fish.
1. Child scaling the heights
2. Multiple generations build extensions to one single house
3. The river is a constant companion
After the slow and difficult navigation through the murky and shallow water of the channels, we came out into a wider channel witnessing mangroves, floating restaurants, more ingenious fish traps and small scale fish farms. We learnt that basic amenities like electricity and drinking water only reached this village 5 years ago despite being barely an hour and a half from Siem Reap. The motorboat has been a boon because before that people would go on fishing expeditions and stay out on the lake in boats, coming back home only once in a while. We returned via another narrow turbid channel and narrowly missed a barely visible fisherman sunk low in the water-fishing with his bare hands. He displayed his catch, grinning wildly- whether about the skill displayed at fishing or avoiding death I couldn’t say. The fish I would presume….was NOT GRINNING.
As part of the tour we walked inside the village and saw that during the dry season, mini schools teaching English to the local kids would spring up. We visited one such little schoolroom with young ones getting people to practice their English on and the tutor getting a chance to collect donations for basic school supplies that a lady standing conveniently close by, had in her satchel. Each house had its own kiln/oven made of clay with stacks of fish being smoked or dried.
2. Banteay Srei
That Banteay Srei is different, is obvious from the get go. We had to pass through the Angkor complex checkpoint, getting our passes punched for the last time allowed. Banteay Srei, around 22 Km away from Angkor is a small non-royal temple built in the latter part of the 10th century by the counsellor Yajnavaraha in the court of Rajendravarman. The current name Banteay Srei litearally means citadel of beauty/women but as in other places, there aren’t many women/Apsaras featured here, which means the name is a result of some bastardization or weird translation that happened through time.
We can no longer walk amongst most of these citadels containing the carvings because the carvings are delicate and tourists are touchy-feely bulls in a China shop. The main deity is Shiva represented by a linga which is not as exciting as the carvings and other embellishments. It is unfortunate that the sun was being a pain in our ‘place where the sun don’t shine’ leading to terrible pictures but there was a moment when it was obscured by a cloud and everyone went trigger-happy. It gave me a chance to notice the red appearance of the sandstone structure disappeared and the tarnished greys, black and mouldy greens stood out. We walked around the parched moat with the occasional muddy pools, lotuses abloom wondering why all powerful gods needed Dvarpalas, guards and sentries outside their chambers.
We got back, had a quick shower, made sure everything was packed (read stuffed), had a hasty dinner and got to the bus station to board a ‘Luxury bus’ to Phnom Penh. I was obviously fascinated with the luxury bus, air conditioned sleeper buses that had single/double beds affording you privacy and down-time. Ismail of course informed me that he had travelled on the Indian Airbuses, superior in quality, comfort, entertainment systems and ability to rock you to sleep. This did the job just fine for me.
I awoke to the sounds of “Phnom Penh” repeated multiple times. After some confusion, our groggy asses realized that we had reached a drenched and rainy Phnom Penh an hour earlier than we were supposed to- at around 4:30 am. Luckily our hotel was nearby and we were able to catch a tuk-tuk and make an early check-in, giving us time to catch some zzzss before being up again in the next 4 hours.
Author’s Note: First post covering Angkor Wat is here.
21st March 2018
AFTER a late night gab session yesterday, we woke up late to a drizzly morning, glad we hadn’t gone to the extreme of rising early (and crabby) to catch the sunrise at Angkor Wat. Yesterday’s climbing had left its mark on our muscles but these things would barely register as a nuisance in our plan for today. We negotiated a customised tuk-tuk tour taking us to places that I researched about properly last night. And after a hurried breakfast we were on our way.
1. Banteay Kdei and Srah Sang:
The Khmer empire lasted from 802 to 1431 CE with two religions from India, Hinduism and Buddhism creating enough impact to have given rise to the large temple complexes at Angkor. And a temple complex meant most of the areas were small cities built around a temple enshrining one particualr deity and/or many small ones. (And we know there’s a lot of them.)
Banteay Kdei’s entrance immidiately screamed ‘Bayon style’ of architecture. And yes I had started to consider myself quite an Angkor architecture expert after just one day of touring yesterday.
Built during the reign of serial-builder Jayavarman VII sometime in the late 12th century, this Buddhist monastic complex is probably built upon a site already used and devloped by his predecessor fom two centuries ago called Rajendravarman. It’s similarity to Ta Prohm is obvious thanks to a hall with standing pillars…the supported roofs long gone. These ‘mandapa’ structures seen in many old temples used to just be spaces for dance performances or gatherings and must have functioned the same way. The rain seemed to have cleaned these dilapidated laterite structures and probably faciliated some more moss growth on the bas-relief featured outside the doors and on windows and everywhere else. And I saw repeated again a feature I had noticed in many places yesterday. Apsaras holding their bellies. After conjecturing on the unusual choice of depicting people holding their lower abdomens awkwardly, we continued to walk along and into more of the unintentionally uncovered ‘mandapas’ or halls, the pillars of some were carved with Apsaras and some with Buddhas.
Upon exiting Banteay Kdei, we crossed the road to gaze upon a beautiful “baray” or reservoir called Srah Sang- the pool of ablutions, pool here means huge-ass water body of course. Though used as a royal pool exclusively for the use of Jayavarman VII and his wives though another source I read later told me that the pool was just used as a reservoir for anyone except elephants “the dyke-breakers”.
2. Ta Som:
A small temple, surrounded by a dried up old moat on all three sides, I must admit was on my list because I was under the impression that this was dedicated to Jayavarman VII’s father after he had dedicated Ta Prohm to his mother.
Alas I was wrong but no temple here is not beautiful (it’s novel and the weather isn’t too bad which are probably contributing factors). ‘Small’ is by and lage a relative term here because Ta Som still housed around 22 deities albeit it’s simplicity and size was a bit of an irregularity considering it was also built during Jayavarman VII’s time…..what wasn’t?? Much like Ta Prohm, fig trees have taken hold of most solid structures, displacing rocks leaving structures stifled under overgrown roots and beautifully ‘ruined’, providing great photo-ops for all present. Lichen grows such that it becomes difficult to discern who is featured in a carving; the cracks in them now housing ants, spiders and skinks. The uncrumbled structures are propped up using scaffolding made from wood and other feasible strong material.
We had just decided to break for lunch when the downpour began. Both Ismail and I have done serious fieldwork in some RAINY places so are not averse to getting soaked. But right then we were tourists who were glad to have completed the circuit of this temple to take shelter under a 12th Century Gopuram though not as glad to realise 12th Century Gopurams have a lot of leaks and seepages. And the water was gushing down into the temple situated on lower ground. As soon as the rain slowed we decided to make a run for it and take respite in a good bowl of hot fried rice while trying some local beer.
3. Preah Khan:
The rain stopped and we made our way to the ACTUAL temple made for Jayavarman’s father Dharanindravarman. It is a large area and from the stele they found inside, archaeologists figured out that it was probably built over an area that used to earlier be the palaces of predecessors Yasovarman II and Tribhuvanadityavarman (say them out loud and fast for perfect tongue twisters at your next soiree). This temple and Buddhist university housed the main image of deity Avlokitesvara in the image of aforemnetion father of Jayavarman VII….a deity I tried very hard to find before realising it was destroyed. The area also housed shrines for 430 other deities each of whom would have their fair share of food, clothing and other offerings of jewels, crowns, dancers, servants and ascetics. We approached over the former moat containing my favourite features- a causway with the naga ballustrade depicting the Sagarmanthan and the Garuda very different from what I’ve seen in India. One subculture and religious wave influenced and subsequently melted into another and many temples here as in India bear witness to that fact though we have more proponents trying to buy into one narrative or claiming forceful usurpation of one subculture over another while ignoring the nuances leading to the current culture flavoured with local lore and history that can never disappear completely. While most temples had an obvious mix of Hindu and Buddhist deities or designs and architecture inspired by the different religious waves, woven seamlessly- thanks to our basic understanding of Hindu myths we could point out both aspects of a certain relief or pediment at most temples we visited.
The site itself once you enter is spread out and we walked through many Gopurams (decorated tower-like gates) and mandapams (halls/corridors) overgrown with sinewy roots and invoking a mixed feeling of despair, wonder and awe. Huge headless Dwarapalas (watchmen or doormen) guarded halls which contained reliefs of Buddha defaced by the ardent Hindu successor and zealot Jayavarman VIII when he came to power in the latter part of the 13th Century (or the narrative was changed such that Buddhas depicted became Hindu.
Many of the areas are interconnected but most doorways are blocked by collapsed temple parts. Sometimes you can’t help but step all over history while you revere it. After walking and taking some pictures of a now open air hall of dancers featuring many an Apsara we continued back in and quite accidently stumbled upon the Stupa very similar to what we had seen in Nepal recently as Ismail quickly pointed out…..a feature…an improvisation on the classic plain stupa design they call Chaitya. After failed attempts at a selfie in front of it we decided to get back to the entrance and to our last stop in Angkor for the day- Prasat Kravan.
4. Prasat Kravan :
Unlike temples we had visited today, this one was laid out differently. Five reddish towers side by side on a raised platform and that’s it. The towers look plain on the outside and I was afraid I had again committed a blunder in my quick research to choose sites to visit last night (In our post-truth society….what is fake news and what isn’t anymore?). Ismail’s look as soon as we reached read “Is this it…seriously”? But there’s more to this unassuming brick building set than meets the eye.
Built by high-officials in the court of either Harhavarman I or Insanavarman II sometime in the 10th century. And the brick work inside the towers hold all the magic. Cemented together using a vegetable based mortar, the bricks form bas-reliefs in the shrine dedicated to a Vishnu atop his Garuda or a standing 8-armed Vishnu surrounded by a multitude of miniature devotees on a pedestal featuring reptiles like crocodiles and lizards to signify the Vishnuite sect the work is specific to.
Lakshmi too is featured here, being Vishnu’s consort and a deity demanding some manner of respect and devotion. Especially as she holds in one depiction, Shiva’s trident and Vishnu’s discus probably signifying that she transcends the triviality of the Shiva-Vishnu feud.
Glad that we had ended our day, witnessing the redness of the towers that stand out when the sun goes down, we made our way back to the tuk-tuk and out of Angkor. We ended the day like the day before…strolling through the Siem Reap’s famous Pub Street, delighting in some Durian-flavoured rolled ice-cream
P.S: It turns out both Ta som and Preah Khan were built to honour Jayavarman’s father. I guess you get multiple monuments in your honour if your son goes into a building frenzy.
The tuk-tuk ride to Bayon meant some much needed air and cushioning. And how can one’s heart not be happy passing underneath a green canopy. Bayon is the centre of Angor Thom (meaning Great City) established by Jayavarman VII in the 12th Century. Angkor Thom was modelled, renovated and still important to his successors till the 17th Century. So here we were approaching Angkor Thom. It stood out because the bridge leading up to it, laid across the moat is a line of gods or ‘devas’ on one side and ‘asuras’ or demons each in beautiful detail, pulling multi-headed serpents ‘nagas’ possibly alluding to the cosmic tug-of-war called the ‘sagar-manthan’ or “The churning of the sea-of milk” we had witnessed at Angkor Wat already. Everywhere in Angkor and in dances in Cambodia, this imagery is often invoked. This churning is also what apparently gave rise to the beautiful celestial dancers- the Apsaras. And this bridge-style is the case for all 5 entrance gates of Angkor Thom though the South Gate is the best preserved. After an obvious photograph or two, we passed underneath the arch or ‘gopuram’ (towering gate) with four faces looking in 4 cardinal directions.
Unlike the builder of Angkor Wat, Jayavarman VII was a devout Buddhist and made sure everyone knew it as we were soon to find out. This idea of tapering towers with a Buddha-like stoic and calm faces (or Easter island heads-that’s what I was reminded of initially) on all 4 sides is stereotypical of the “Bayon”-style of architecture and we saw it repeated many a time after we saw the temple that give the architectural style its name.
It rose suddenly out of the wilderness as we drew near and the difference from Angkor Wat was immediately apparent. These face-filled towers laid out, so many of them all made up of bricks and may have more than 4 on one. So many of these had lost to time and were just strewn about in apparent dereliction. From the outside, is when the religious symbolism and architectural beauty is most apparent. These 54 face-filled towers (there are 37 standing), thanks to being of different heights, seem akin to a mountain as a whole. This, like Angkor Wat was to symobolise Mt. Meru.
Talk about creating a first impression
Time and tide…
We were amused to see bas-reliefs from two different periods. One was historical, showing the Khmer victory of the Chams and another set was based on Hindu-Mythology from a period later on when Jayavarman VIII the devout Hindu decided to destroy or remodel all Buddhist structures to fit his Hindu ideology.
Some of the bas-relief
I’m not sure but I think this guy wanted a leg-up in the war
Both Ismail and I agreed that we somehow enjoyed Bayon more than Angkor Wat, probably because Angor Wat is too vast and too crowded while Bayon is much smaller and we were not famished and had gotten used to the heat. It dawned on us that we were pressed for time so we rushed ourselves a bit to get to place three- Ta Keo. Not before we had watched some long-tailed macaques obtain coconuts from fawning tourists of course (The two of us do work with their relatives- the bonnet macaque after all).
Stop 3: Ta Keo
After the majesty of Angkor Wat and beauty of Bayon, Ta Keo seemed anti-climactic. Like most temples belonging to the Angkorian period, it was to be a representation of the abode of the Gods..Mount Meru with 5 sanctuary towers, each with the stereotypical Khmer architecture (the towers taper as they reach the top) in a quincunx arranged on a 5-tier pyramid with terraces that was obviously not a pleasure to climb with the sun beating down with a vengeance. Jayavarman V had become King officially at 10 but when he took the reigns from his guardians at 17 in 968 CE, I guess he wanted to make his mark. So he began with Ta Keo. A large part of the temple is sandstone, the first monument to do so using material sourced from the nearby Kulen mountains. Climbing all the way to the top isn’t as exhilarating when the towers themselves cannot be accessed. The towers are bare, no decoration, no reliefs and no wonder. The temple was incomplete, some inscriptions suggesting a bad-omen in the form of a lightning strike that spelled doom or perhaps the death of Jayavarman V.
Stop 4:Ta Prohm
Ta Prohm (‘Ancestor Brahma’) is the second most popular temple after Angkor Wat. It was built by the chronic builder of things himself- Jayavarman VII in the late 12th and Early 13th century dedicated to his mother. The temple’s main image was Prajnaparamita-the personification of wisdom in Mahayana Buddhism although it reminded me of Tara’s role in Nepal’s Buddhism as I remembered from our recent trip, or even Saraswati’s in Indian Hinduism. If my first impression on approaching Bayon was that it rose out of the wilderness, Ta Prohm has been swallowed by it, though that adds to its as most would attest. Trees like Ceiba pentandra (the smooth barked- silk-cotton tree) and Tetrameles nudiflora are abound, penetrating into the structures, mostly held up now with scaffolding. The strangler figs Ficus gibbosa after strangling their host plants have made their way into the walls tearing them apart over time and now are one with the temple.
The effect is pleasing and we spent a good hour just witnessing nature take-over this marvel of architecture. And for once, unlike the “Temple mountain” with their “stairways to heaven”, this is a ‘flat temple’ which means less stairs and I was down for that after the climb at other places. Of course I had let my guard down too soon because we were yet to witness Pre Rup
Stop 5: Pre Rup
The unrelenting sun was about to set in a while and our tuk-tuk driver rushed us to Pre Rup so we could catch a seat to watch the sun set. It was 4:45 when we reached and we saw why he had rushed us. Made of red brick and laterite in 962 CE or so during Rajendravarman’s time as a Shaivite temple. Well, we were back to the dreaded Mt. Meru symbolism again which meant a hell of a climb. The steps are steep and quite far apart from each other so it is easiest to use both hands and legs to climb. We were almost at the top when Ismail’s camera’s cap fell. It tumbled down, rolling down almost all the way and I heard a collective groan from all our fellow climbers. Empathy is strong in such situations. Ismail went down to retrieve his precious camera cap and I made my way to the final tier with the quincunx of towers similar to Ta Keo. Only this time, unlike Ta Keo…this terrace was thronged by the masses gathered to watch the sky turn golden, red, purple and melt into orange, bathing the structures around in its glorious light. That’s what everyone was expecting but the sun was hidden by massive clouds and Ismail and I were whining about the fact that we missed other temples from our day-tour. But we decided to enjoy the slightly gloomy view and bear with the crowd right now. Acceptance is key and every cloud does have a silver lining and as I thought that I saw the golden lining…the clouds were dispersing and since we didn’t have the best seats in the house, I saw the large orange orb behind a huge tree and it might have been the exhaustion and the end of the day excitement all mixed together but my mind went blank and all I could do was think about my view. It was amazing. I must admit I’ve seen better sunsets but each sunset is precious and I was adamant I wouldn’t judge this one too harshly. As we climbed down, I looked back at Pre Rup under the sky quickly turning purple-as if it was a healing bruise (That is a weird analogy…yes). I couldn’t wait to see what tomorrow brought.