Thursday, August 30, 2012

Visions of Angkor

The Height of the Khmer Empire 1200 AD

 Having left Southeast Asia over seven months ago, I spend a lot of time thinking about the differences between there and the rest of the western world. The presence of spirituality is so prevalent there, now a primarily Buddhist area. The countries of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have an ancient understanding of the importance of religion and honoring one's history. The Khmer, the people that spanned this area, have left their impression on modern day culture and life in SE Asia. Their most impressive legacy, the temples of Angkor in north eastern Cambodia, is a reminder of the ancient wisdom that through spiritual and cultural evolution is the basis for life in this part of the world today.  If I close my eyes I can still see the ruins emerging from the encasing jungle, the sunlight filtering through the trees casts light and shadows onto ancient stone, some carved and shaped over ten centuries earlier. The intricate carvings and labyrinths of passage ways, shrines, and galleries spark feelings of mystery and divinity.

Panoramic photo By Cozette Hansen : View from the top of Bakong temple

 I'm lost in thought wondering what it must have been like to walk these steps at the height of the Angkorian civilization. The temples that remain represent only a fraction of the buildings that once existed here. Temples, to the Khmer, were not places of mass procession or worship, rather they were the house of the gods, a dwelling to hold the divine, and therefore they were built as exquisitely and elaborately as possible. These temples were at the center of cities of trade and growth. The cities themselves, built from primarily wood, no longer exist. But, what we are left with are the stories and histories of the rise and fall of a civilization carved into the walls of the temples. And, conveniently, the temples represent the most important aspect of Khmer civilization, the driving force of existence, religion. 

During the 500 years of civilization the Angkorian kingdom saw the rule of twenty-six different kings, most of which built or renovated the temples that still stand in ruins to this day. The oldest and first temples I visited were constructed in the 9th century. The Roluos Group, as their known, marks the beginning of Angkor's history as we know it. Although buildings and civilization did exist before these temples, these were the first structures built from materials that withstood the erosion of time. The Roluos Group temples were constructed under the rules of king Jayavaramon II and Indravaraman I, the second and third recognized kings of Angkor. These first temples were built when Jayavaramon II established the first capitol here, east of modern day Seim Riep, around the year 835 AD.
The carvings on these walls, and on the walls of most of the temples, stems directly from India as trade brought the influence of Hinduism to the area. The Indians, with their Hindu Gods, were prosperous with a booming civilization and good economic standing. Recognizing this, soon Hinduism was adopted as the religion of the Khmers.

Carved Elephant, one of eight,  at East Mebon
I'm amazed at the precision and intricacy in the design and building of the architecture. The temple East Mebon, built in the middle of the tenth century, was an island surrounded by a now dried out lake. The detail and skill in carving something like an elephant, one of eight sentinels guarding the corners of the temple, is baffling even with today's technology. Could you hand carve a giant elephant, or eight?
The temple, Ta Keo, built in the 10th and 11th centuries is a symbolic representation of the universe. This "temple mountain" represents Mount Meru, which in the Hindu religion, stands at the center of the universe and is surrounded by the primordial ocean. This temple, like all of the others, was considered the residence of the gods and was respected as such. When this temple was gifted to Yogisavara Pandita in 1010 AD he occupied only the lower levels, considering himself unworthy to dwell on the upper terrace. 


   Above: "Temple Mountain", Ta Keo.    Right:  On the upper Terrace of Ta Keo, view of one of the shrines
                  As Angkor was coming to its peak, Suryavarman II took the throne in 1113 AD and started the largest and most infamous construction to date. Creating the symbol on the modern day Cambodian flag and the most renowned temple of the Khmer empire, Angkor Wat. It was, and still is, a grand spectacle.
Angkor Wat, The World's largest religious monument.
A Buddhist Monk stands observing Angkor Wat.

The name Angkor Wat means just what it has become, "The city which became a pagoda". With the temple placed in the center, a vast capitol surrounded it to all four cardinal directions. The city itself was fortified by a massive moat with bridges on the east and west sides. With Angkor Wat, still the world's largest religious monument, and its surrounding city, the Khmer were boldly marking their place. Imagine coming to trade from distant lands and walking the causeway over the moat, through the gates, and into the busy city. You would observe daily life and people all around you. Then, if somehow you hadn't seen it from miles away, you would behold this massive temple, larger than any other in the world, literally the center of life, overseeing all. What an intimidating site this must have been, and a desirable one to scheming invaders. This was the height of Angkor, the strong hold of southeast Asia and the Khmer people. It would soon be overrun by revolting factions from the provinces, but not before some other smaller scale temples were constructed. The temples of Thommanon and Chao Say Tevoda were built in similar architectural style to that of Angkor Wat, with intricate carvings and detail.

                                                                                            Chao Say Tevoda
Carvings at Thommanon
In 1177 AD the city of Angkor was captured by a group who mounted a surprise naval attack from the Great Lake, to the south. In 1181 AD a prince returned to Angkor and drove out the rebels for which he became King Jayavarman VII, "The Last Great King of Angkor". Unlike his Hindu predecessors, he was a practicing Buddhist. Many of his temples have likenesses of The Buddha, not found in the earlier constructions. During his thirty year reign he oversaw a larger building program than any of those before him. Perhaps trying to out do the others, he cast off Angkor Wat and decided to build his own, larger capitol city, Angkor Thom.

Massive city gate, the entrance to Angkor Thom from the East
Surrounded on four sides by a stone wall and moat, Angkor Thom is considerably larger than Angkor Wat. At the center of Angkor Thom stands one of my favorite temples, The Bayon. With its innumerable giant smiling faces, there is speculation whether Jayavarman VII planned these faces to be likenesses of himself or that of The Buddha. In any case, The Bayon is one of the more complex and intricately designed temples.

Enigmatic visages of The Bayon
Apsara Dancers preforming the dance of the universe

 Within the walls of Angkor Thom JayavarmanVII also constructed numerous smaller, less significant, temples, as well as a royal palace made from non withstanding materials. Outside of Angkor Thom he  built some remarkable, jungle reclaimed temples. 
Ta Prohm and Preah Khan temples are my other favorites. Built in the Bayon style of architecture, unlike the temple mountains that came before, you can get lost in their elaborate mazes of connecting hallways and passages. Courtyards, open to sunlight, have fostered the jungle allowing it to take back what was theirs. Huge vines and trees climb and split through the stone walls, rising toward the sky. It's not hard to imagine yourself as an Indiana Jones character while exploring a sanctuary like this. It's no surprise that the blockbuster film "Tomb Raider" was filmed here. The complexity and sheer number of carvings in these later constructions is some of the best I’ve seen.

Indravarman II, who succeeded Jayavarman VII in 1220 AD, was the last to oversee any new constructions at Angkor, although Jayavarman VIII, who took throne after Indravarman II in 1243 AD destroyed much of the Buddhist imagery and improved some of the withstanding Hindu structures.
Banteay Kdei can be seen as one of the final constructions of the late Angkor.

The downfall of Angkor is debated. Vast cities are represented only by the structures that were built out of materials that could withstand the destruction of time. Some think that in trying to support the construction and growth of these cities, the area's resources were consumed and the civilization was forced to disperse. Others speculate that Angkor simply wasn't in a prime location for trade; Phnom Phen, on the Mekong river, would have been a better capitol. Regardless, it's a pleasure to take a walk through Ancient Angkor and imagine what life was like in the 10th or 11th centuries. And, how appropriate, that the backbone of Khmer civilization, the driving force of everyday life, the presence of God, is still preserved for us to contemplate with wonder and awe.


Freeman, M, Jacques, C 2000, Ancient Angkor, illustrated revised, Weatherhill

Coe, DM 2003, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization, illustrated, Thames & Hudson