Day 2 Angkor:Rain on the ruins

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.

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Decorated  gate containing the signature of Bayon-style: the brickwork making up faces on all sides. 

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.

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Urinary infections, hernia and other maladies being depicted? PC: Mohammed Ismail

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”.

 

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The motifs and symbolism of the lions and the Naga-balustrade is repeated everywhere. 

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.

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Not vain! Just standing for scale so everyone appreciates the majesty of the tree. PC: Mohammed Ismail

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.

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All that’s missing is a beak, some awesome talons and a pedestal of snakes. PC: Mohammed Ismail

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.

A possible theory for the decline of Angkor: The story of religion and politics

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.

 

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Wanting to ascend to get closer to a maker (who is always above)- seems to be a human condition reflected in many a structure: the Pyramids or this Stupa/Chaitya 

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.

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This was it. 5 small structures set up in a row. And with the power to confuse everyone with it’s layout. 

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.

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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.

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Cambodia Chronicles (Part 2)

Author’s Note: We are still on day 1 of Angkor Wat. Previous post covering Angkor Wat is here.

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Stop 2: Bayon

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.

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Image : Entering Angkor Thom. You have a moat, a bridge of Nagas as balluustrades with Asuras pulling on one side, devas on the other and a cool gopuram in the background

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.

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.

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).

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Long-tail troop chillin’ with some tender coconut

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.

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Dusk over the ruins of Pre Rup’s lowest level

Cambodia Chronicles (Part 1)

Prologue, 18th March 2018: THE RAINY SUNDAY

You know how people prescribe a holiday to counter stress. And it is almost never stress-free, especially getting TO the destination. Of course, travel is much easier now, which is why inspired but lazy people like me are actually able to GO places (Plus I’m finally blowing through my own savings). Step 1: Uber to The Trivandrum Central Station to meet up with my former colleage, now friend and travel companion Ismail. Step 2: Caught the Kerala Express and some zzzs and fed my travel-tummy (the extra stomach I grow while travelling; into which I can and need to put snacks away at an astonishing rate to remain civil). Reached Aluva almost an hour late to a thunderstorm and accompanying rain Thor would approve of. Step 3: After grabbing a very very late lunch at a restaurant aptly named “Ifthar”, we got another cab to take us to the Kochi International airport. En-route I remembered that I had forgotten to carry a book to chronicle a possibly epic trip. Our driver obliged in his typical sing-songy Aluva tone and despite it being a Sunday, we were able to find a roadside eatery that just also happened to sell notebooks. And so the adventure began.

Step 4:After our 4.5 hour flight to KL, 4 hour layover in uncomfortable seats in KL, and flight to Phnom Penh we were greeted by intense drying heat. And we had to wait, first till we got our On-Arrival Visas and sim-card (relatively hassle-free), and then because Ismail’s travel card didn’t seem to work. Of course, It wasn’t too big a deal, both of us had our respective ATM cards. But we were hoping the travel card would work. Step 5: We took a cab to our next destination, the bus stop for the private vans which would take us to Siem Reap. On the way, Ismail called up his dad and his bank to suss out what was going on and I nodded off. The traffic and the heat plus the travel jitters had added up. Step 6: With the knowledge that the card-issue had been sorted, we got into our pretty clean van and started for Siem Reap. After the terrible choc-a-bloc traffic in Phnom Penh, the road to Siem Reap was clean, uncluttered and smooth. Step 8:We reached much earlier than expected and rode a tuk-tuk to complete the 18- hour travel to our first destination.

DAY 1, 20th March: AMAZED BY ANGKOR

Our amazing backpackers’ was 8 km from Angkor. This area- made a UNESCO heritage site in 1992 is spread over a vast area and is one of the most eminent archaeological sites in South East Asia representing the architectural jewels of the Khmer Empire (9th-15th Century). Most hotels and hostels cater to different types of tours with different levels of luxury you may require based on your interest and budget. Ismail and I had recently done the beautiful Hampi in a day owing to a small budget and a time-crunch but we wanted to spend on the three day pass in Angkor though it is quite steep (62USD per person, most transactions here happen in USD). We aren’t averse to walking but most temples are quite far from each other and we were able to hire a tuk-tuk for the day to do the small circuit which covered 5 temples and we could add a temple from which to view the setting sun. This costs 16USD even if…as it turned out-you can’t go to all the temples on that day. The ticket office is a huge structure and very far from the actual Angkor. Once you are in, taking the well-maintained, broad roads with the woods on the sides, lianas hanging and enough space for people to picnic and hang hammocks to snooze in, you pass by a big water body with steps to go down. This is just before you approach the highlight of this area, the building that is so famous it’s on the Cambodian flag……The ANGKOR WAT

Stop 1: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is so large that its famous tapering towers (prasat) with the finger-like spires (prang) hit your eye even before you approach it by crossing the beautiful bridge with balustrade in the shape of Nagas. (snake, the Khmers are children of the Nagas and 7 headed snakes represent the 7 races within the Naga society).

Welcoming Vista
For illustration purposes only. Unfiltered phone image

And the popularity of this place is evident by the constant hustle-bustle which can be a little annoying. And the immense heat wasn’t being kind either. But who can be annoyed for long looking at the sight we beheld. We entered ready to be wowed and we weren’t disappointed. Suryavarman II built this as the capital and the State Temple,dedicated to Vishnu ,in the 12th Century while most other Hindu temples were dedicated to Shiva. Though the traces of any palace-like building has disappeared (they used to build them in lighter materials), what remains is breathtaking and although I must admit that we found the exterior architecture and bas-reliefs interesting at first, over time and area-they are repeated. For the sake of symmetry I guess and ease of designing. But that means you can pick and choose areas you want to cover and you are likely to witness most of the variety of designs, reliefs, lintels and architectural structures

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Figure: Carvings and bas-relief on pillars (top left), underside or doorways or lintels (top right) and on the outside of lintels/structure that joins two pillars (bottom)

What sticks with most tourists is of course the walls filled with the celestial dancers- Apsaras (and there are around 2000 of them around here). We went into one of the halls now seating a line of Buddha statues, most of them headless- a result of time, pillaging or fanatic Hinduism or the Khmer Rouge. After walking inside we got out the other side and witnessed some more famous art on the wall. The interesting thing of course their artists’ interpretation of common Hindu mythology and its representation. Also, the common motif of the churning of the sea “Sagar manthan” covering such a large area is commendable.

UntitledImage: One of the 2000 Apsaras in Angkor Wat. The differences among them are sometimes non-existent, sometimes subtle and sometimes stark.

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Images: A panoramic view of the wall of bas-reliefs depicting war and the famous churning of the sea or ‘Sagar Manthan’. And below is Ismail’s face (candid) awe-struck at this feat of artistry

The idea of the construction as a whole; this being a Sanctum of god, was: As you climbed higher up the access became more exclusive and by the time we decided to join the queue to scale the ‘summit’ which is the central sanctuary, the signs that only 15 people at a time were permitted; pregnant women, people with heart problems etc were not and the weird shrieks of people climbing down was giving me the heebie-jeebies. I was tired and my acrophobia was triggered looking at the steepness of the stairs (the access steps used by tourists now is the less steep one, built for the king and queen. The other three on the three other sides are steeper…this was at a 60 degree incline). I took a deep breath and got to the start of the queue and began the ascent…into what was supposed to be the pinnacle of the mountain, Mt Meru– the abode of the Hindu Gods this whole structure of Angkor Wat is supposed to emulate. And boy was I glad Ismail convinced me to not chicken out.

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Image: One of the many views afforded by the height of the central sanctum. Angkor Wat means “Temple City” Angkor was probably a bastardization of the Sanskrit word for City- Nagara and Wat from the Pali word for temple grounds vatta.

The view was beautiful. We could see the temple complex, the lower layers and the vastness of this place, the painstaking planning and beautiful art and history all around us. I can see why Suryavarman II would want the Angkor Wat to be his final resting place.

It’s a good thing we had started with Angkor Wat. It’s breathtaking but also takes the wind out of you a bit after all that walking and climbing old-timey steep steps that are sure to make you hallucinate heaven…be it Mt. Meru or your personal utopia. We were famished after spending close to three hours and decided to lunch near Bayon before going in and felt fortunate for each temple site now has a bustling mini-business area with restaurants, souvenir and clothes stalls and good, clean toilets.

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Author’s Note: This is just the beginning of day 1. Writing and editing takes time considering I haven’t blogged for more than a year now. Stay tuned for part 2 of Cambodia Chronicles

Change of plans/ Why my to-do-list keeps changing

NOTE: I wrote this on the 2nd of March while I was in Malaysia working with the Macaca Nemestrina Project (I wrote about it-incessantly). It got lost somewhere in all my scribbled diary entries about my adventures with the Pig-tailed macaques but is luckily apt at all times and for most people.

 

There were these plans I made

and promised myself I wouldn’t trade;

For anything or anyone.

 

I drew them out and circled so I wouldn’t forget

but somehow I’m again in this position filled with regret;

Unable to answer myself.

 

I guess I could say I was watching the stars

scanning the sky, hoping there was sentient life on Mars;

And those should be good reasons.

 

I heard the birds flitter and tweet

and contemplated why cows could moo but couldn’t bleat;

And those are valid thoughts

 

But I guess I am doomed to consider once or twice

my brilliant plans, and recognise distraction as my vice;

And make better plans I intend to see through.

 

Maybe I will soon realise that all my plans

are probably a distraction from some other plans;

So I embrace diversions and digress with gusto.

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