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Impressions of Siem Reap and Angkor Art

CAMBODIA | Wednesday, 19 February 2014 | Views [484]

Impressions of Siem Reap and Angkor Art

 Siem Reap is the town closest to the Angkor World Heritage site; it is bustling with tourists from across the globe.  In the restaurants, on the streets and in the markets one can hear twenty different languages in an hour.  The world descends on this region for one main purpose: to see the glory of Khmer art and architecture in the temples of Angkor, the former capital of the Khmer Kingdom. And they are truly amazing.

Angkor was on and off the capital from the 9th to the 15th C, but most of the architecture that one can still see is from the 10th- 13th, which is more or less during the height of Khmer power.  Ayutthaya conquered Angkor in the mid 1300s, which lead to the slow decline of the site.  Over time it was completely abandoned and left for the jungle to take over, which it did with gusto. The temples with their thick often heavily carved towers reaching to the sky change from revering Vishnu, and sometimes Shiva, to those worshipping Buddha in about the late 12th C.  It does not appear that there was a clear delineation of the faiths however, as some of the earlier Hindu temples had their frieze images changed from Hindu to Buddhist, and sometimes back again.  The 12th C saw rulers who were Hindu and those who were Buddhist. There were also Mahayana Buddhist rulers but by the mid-13th C Theravadan Buddhism appears to have asserted itself and this remains the main religion in the country.

 The Angkor complex is huge; there are said to be over 1,000 temples in the region.  Clearly, we could not investigate more than a very few.  We started with the Angkor Thom complex, which houses earlier temples, such as the Baphuon as well as many of those built by Jayavarmin VIIth in the 12th C, who is considered to be one of the most influential of all the Khmer rulers.  He not only built temples, but also over a hundred hospitals and schools. He was a Mahayanist and is reputed to have dedicated his reign to compassionately helping his people. His face as well as those of his wives, (after the first died he married her older sister who carried on the Buddhist missionary work), look down from 56 towers on the most elaborate of the structures in this complex, the Bayon.  The artistry is incredible, but unfortunately on the day we were there the site was overrun with bus tour groups making it almost impossible to move around. This was a problem at all the popular temples and was only resolved at the most distant, in Koh Ker.   From the Bayon, we walked up the recently renovated Baphoun.  At first I didn’t recognize the site and thought we were at the palace, given the leveled terraces and fortifications on them, but was later corrected.  It seems that many the photos of the site in the books were before the renovations. After them it looks dramatically different; the pictures indicate a large mound of broken rubble and yet we were walking on terraces, in archways and up staircases.  From the Baphoun, we did go over to the Palace, which doesn’t look or feel like a royal residence, but rather more like any of the temples.  We ended the Angkor Thom section with a quick look at the Elephant Terrace, with nicely carved images of elephants all along the lengthy wall and of Airavata, the three headed elephant associated with Indra, the King of the Gods, near the entranceway.  Across from the section with Airavata, is the Terrace of the Leper King.  While there we learned the legend of the Leper King. 

The King lived at the top level of the palace that is near a pool where a Naga girl lived. The Naga changed into a young woman when she saw the King. The King fell in love with her and asked her to marry him. She agreed on the condition that he never lie to her nor betray her with another.  He gladly agreed to the conditions and they were married.  They lived together in wedded bliss for a number of years, until the King needed to leave to attend to stately duties.  While away he met another young woman and had an affair with her.  When he returned his Naga wife knew something was amiss and asked him about it. He lied and said that nothing had happened.  She knew that he had betrayed her, which changed her back into her original serpent form.  That night she slid into his bedchamber to kill him, but he was aware of what he’d done and the fate he inflicted upon himself, so he had his sword ready when she came. He stabbed her, but didn’t quite escape as a drop of her Naga blood fell on his arm. The drop infected him with leprosy and he became the Leper King. Bottom line, don’t tick off the serpents!

We left the complex through a gate the is lined on one side with devas, the celestial beings and the other with Asuras, the demons, both holding a large Naga’s body. The Asuras bringing  it inside, while the Devas carry it out. 

 The Ta Keo is a 10th very early 11th C temple on five levels and was left unfinished.  There are a few theories about why it wasn’t completed so close to it’s final phase; one of them is that lightning struck the central tower, which was an indication that the gods were not pleased with either the site or the King.  The central tower and upper platform is reached by the old staircase (which means high and uneven steps with no railings) and has four towers on the rim with the central tower in the middle.  All the towers have space for a Shiva Linga.  The site itself is supposed to model Mt. Meru, the center of the universe. This site may have provided the impetus for the 12 C Angkor Wat, which Suryavarmin II dedicated to Vishnu.

 Angkor Wat is the main reason everyone flocks to this region.  The temple complex is the largest religious monument in the world.  Like Ta Keo, it is supposed to model Mt. Meru.  The second floor has four pools, to represent the four oceans, and the top level has five towers, four at the corners and a central axis.  Buddhas now stand in many of the places where Vishnu used to reside. Around the entire complex is a very large moat.  It looks much more like a river or lake than a barrier for the temple.  It was dregged by hand and is 6 m deep; as the outer wall is over 2 miles around, the moat is even longer. No one knows for sure what some of the symbolism in the design of the site means; there are theories about it being a funerary temple as it points west or being so constructed to show a new imperial order different and more glorious than those in the past.  Whatever the reasons, the architectural design is perfectly aligned and the carvings are magnificent.  The view from the top gives a sense of being at the top of the world as the treetops are far below.

Today, Angkor Wat is a tourist attraction, but it is also used as a temple by locals.  There was a man who was reading Buddhist scripture oracles near the upper central tower and this time I decided to have mine read.  He took the scroll, handed it to me to place near my heart as I asked my question then put the wooden peg inside the scroll.  He then read the page and our guide interpreted it for me.  When Paul did it, the oracle reader had him put the scroll on the top of his head rather than his heart.  I do not know for sure, but it seems that there is a difference in placement based on gender.  Hmmm.

 The temples of Angkor showcase the height of Khmer artistry.  The figures of the Apsaras (celestial dancers) on the temples inform Cambodian ballet and other traditional art forms.  They have been heavily renovated and recaptured from the jungle, although some like Ta Prohm, famous from the Tomb Raider movies, still preserve a sense of the intertwining of human and natural efforts. At the most famous temples of Angkor one does not have a sense of discovery the way one can in some places in Central America at the Mayan ruins, but the intricate design work and perfect alignment of symbol to monument make these sites fascinating studies.

 Something I noticed in the Angkor Museum that I would not have paid any attention to had I not just been in Bagan, was the shape the fingers on the Buddhas in the differing eras. In Bagan, starting in the 12th C the Buddhas have straight same length fingers.  This form appeared in the 16th C in Angkor; that is well after the height of the artistic movement here.  After the 16th, however, the Buddha’s fingers are all the same length; the convention was set.  I cannot explain why this started in Bagan when it did, but find it fascinating that it took close to four centuries to become ingrained in the artistic tradition in the Khmer region. 

 It was good to have a guide show us the paths through the various sites and to learn a bit about her history.  She shared that her father is of Chinese heritage and had long believed that he was cursed with three daughters and no sons.  To have a son is to have the ability to maintain the lineage and girls just go off and get married.  Nana decided to prove him wrong.  She attended university, much to her father’s dismay, and is now in an MBA program.  She lives at home and contributes to the family through her earnings as a tour guide and has decided to stay in the region rather than go to Phnom Penh or anywhere else.  She helps her younger sisters and is trying to get them to go on to university as well.  Since her graduation, her father has had a change of heart and realized that educating girls might not be a bad thing after all, as they may stick around to care for their elderly parents while sons may leave for the big city, leaving the parents with little support.  Old attitudes do take awhile to change and Nana showed courage in sticking to her goal despite parental pressure to the contrary.

 After touring temples during the day, Siem Reap offers all forms of entertainment.  Full body Khmer massages start at $5 an hour and a pedicure goes for $4.  One of the streets is lined with alternating restaurants, souvenir shops, and massage spas.  Some of the massage spas have a fish tank in front with lots of little fishes who eat the dead skin off people’s feet.  There was one shop where I could try this for $1 for fifteen minutes of fish pedicure. The fish come from the local rivers and look bizarre with their glassy eyes and gapping mouths.  When I put my feet in the tank they swarmed around my ankles and feet.  At first it was a very strange and slightly disconcerting sensation, but gradually it became more like a persistent tickle. So, in addition to people massage, in Siem Reap one can get a fish massage.  Who would have thought….:)


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