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.