I must admit I was not prepared for Angkor Vat. At all! All I knew it was an old Hindu temple in Cambodia. Only when I visited the place I realized there were three mistakes in my short presumption. To start with, the age of the temple. It is not old, but very, very old. I am sure that you will agree that something built in the 1000-1300 AD does indeed deserve to be called old. Only a few centuries younger to our very own Ajanta and Ellora. While Angkor Vat is indeed the name of one of the temples -one of the most glorious ones at that- the Angkor Vat complex houses hundreds of temples across a sprawling area of maybe a few hundred square kilometers. And the temples are not solely Hindu, they house Buddha statues as well. Some temples have alternated between Hindu and Buddhist over time depending upon the faith of the then king of the land.
Somewhere in the middle of the first millennium, Hinduism moved eastwards from India; probably due to the travels of traders. Cambodia was a place where it struck roots and flourished for centuries. It was occasionally overtaken by Buddhism which had also spread from India to the far corners of Eastern Asia; from Burma and Thailand to Japan, China and Korea. The Khmer kings of Cambodia were not all Hindus, some were devout Buddhists as well. Hinduism was the more dominant of the two till the 13th century when Buddhism, patronized by the then king became the state religion. All the kings had very Sanskritized names; Suryavarman, Jayavarman, Yashovarman. Point to remember here is that they were not Indians, but Khmer. Khmers who interacted and traded freely with the Indian kingdoms (Cholas etc) and zealously went about constructing magnificent temples across their empire. A large number of them are in the Angkor Vat region including the famous Angkor Vat temple. I had the opportunity to visit three of the temples on a trip to Cambodia last week.
Bayon temple, made sometime in the 1200’s, is a cluster of towers each with Buddha’s face carved on the four sides, sometimes with only on one or two faces. The temple is made entirely of rocks (Lateritic rocks, I am told, from the neighbouring mountains.). Not carved into hilly slopes the way the Ajanta caves are, nor fashioned out of one single rock like the temple in Ellora. But huge rectangular chunks of these rocks stacked one atop the other without any binder like cement or mortar to hold two of these rock pieces together. I wonder how this structure could hold and then I am told by our guide that it is the weight of the rocks which ensures stability! Some engineering creativity here!
The towers have this eerie, grey, weather-beaten look. It is something about the rocks I surmise. Let me describe a rock piece to you. Imagine a tower of polished black granite. Gleaming in the sun. And then a few years of acid-laced rains eats into the granite leaving blotches and pits all over the surface. Then someone with a giant sandpapering machine gets to work on this mottled surface making it even rougher. To complete the effect someone carries a large hose pipe and sprays tons of liters of a powerful bleach on these rocks.
The temple complex is, well, complex, and feels like a maze inside. You climb up into a narrow aisle and you climb down into an even narrower one. Look around diligently and you find gems of such carvings.
One should ideally devote at least 2-3 hours to take in all the details. Thirty minutes is all we could spare!
Ta Prohm also known as Raj Vihara (The Royal Monastery) was made in the late 12th century. It is a longish walk from the road via woods to the temple. When we reach the temple what grabs us immediately are the trees growing atop the temple and its walls. Yes, huge, full-grown trees on the walls. Take a look yourself:
It is the trees which give the defining look to this temple. Apparently, the chaps who were responsible for discovering and then repairing the Angkor Vat ruins decided to leave one temple in the “original” state to tell the visitors- and the world- what the real state of a temple was when it was discovered.
All this time, over the last hour, I have not seen a single Indian tourist, the tourists were nearly all Caucasians or from the Far East: Koreans, Japanese etc. Suddenly I notice a very Indian-looking gentleman walking very purposefully up and down a corridor. I sidle up to him and ask what was he doing here alone and where his family was. (Only an Indian can ask another Indian about the family, others discuss the weather or football!).
“I am not a tourist”, he explained, “I work with the Archaeological Society of India.”
“Oh, the ASI”
“Yes, the ASI”
“Ah the ASI!”
I decided to move on from my excited- and silly- ASI chants.
“My name is Ojha, Santosh Ojha, I am from Bangalore”, I offer him my business card.
He offers me his own, “I am Ganjoo, T.K. Ganjoo.”
I inspect his card with due reverence.
“T.K. Ganjoo“, Senior Conservation Assistant, Project: Conservation and Restoration of Ta Prohm Temple. A partnership Project of ASI and SPSARA Authority Conservation D’Angkor Siem Reap Cambodia”. On the top right of the card is the legend Government of India (Ministry of Culture). And on the top left the ASI logo.
“Kashmiri I am sure!” I showed off my knowledge about Indian names.
“Yes, a Kashmiri, now based in Jammu”
“How long have you been here?”
“Since 2008, Mr Sood, my boss has been here since 2004.”
“Great job you are doing!” I complement him.
“Aah!” He dismisses this. “We are not allowed to touch most of the temple here. Just a few crumbling walls which we plan to fix.”
Of course, Ta Prohm is intended to be kept on an as-is, what-is basis! And a ten year project to maintain Ta Prohm in its pristine glory! Now you know the complexity of the job at hand at the Angkor Vat Complex!
“I will return the day after to meet up with you. I hope you will be around”
“Of course I will be. I will tell my boss Mr Sood as well. Do come.”
Unfortuantely, I never did get round to revisiting Ta Prohm temple again.
As I exit the Ta Prohm complex I cannot help but mention three things.
The board displaying the association of ASI with the project:
The ensemble of musicians squatting on the floor at the exit playing some lovely music. And then I see the display board next to the music party, it comprised solely of men who were victims of land mines who lost their limbs in the civil war of the 70’s and 80’s. Cambodia has the highest per capita victims of land mines.
As we emerge out of Ta Prohm complex, we are accosted by little girls, some as little as 4 or 5 years. “One dollah, saah, one dollah, you mah friend.” One US dollar could fetch me one bottle of water, a pair of bracelets or even a folding fan to give me relief from the hot Cambodian weather!
Angkor Vat is the largest Hindu temple I have ever seen. I thought Meenakshi temple at Madurai was huge, but you must see Angkor Vat to see what huge means. I read later that this temple has a total area of 200 hectares, a rectangle of 1.5km by 1.3 km. A temple to beat all temples and that too built some 800 years ago.
The structure of the temple is supposed to represent Mount Meru, the center of the Universe for Hindus. Originally built to have nine towers, only five survive the ravages of time. The outer four having disappeared altogether though they have left their marks on the temple periphery. The outer eight towers representing the mountains surrounding Mount Meru, the home of Gods.
This is not a temple to be visited in an hour- the amount of time I could afford to spend there. You could go on for days and still not tire of it. And at the end of your visit you would have (re)visited the entire Hindu mythology. The battle of Kurukshetra, the Samudra Manthan, Hanuman identifying Himself to Sita at Ashok Vatika, Lanka Kand, Sita’s Agni Pariksha. Well, I could go on and on. Except that I did not have the time to see all this, what I mentioned above have been gleaned from reference books!
The look and feel of this temple is similar to the previous two temples. Similarly hewn stones, erected in a similar manner; one rock slab stacked over the other. It is just the dimension of the temple complex overpowers you. As I walk through the galleries, I spy upon a row of Buddha statues which had one thing in common; they were all decapitated! Not the Taliban effect, but the work of local vandals who have looted artifacts over the centuries. And yes, Buddha was there all over the place even in this overtly Hindu temple!