The beauty of temples in and around Angkor wat cannot be summarized in one post. This was my excuse as I kept deferring writing about it. However, time plays vicious games with the mind. The snapshots will always remain etched, but it is the details I fear forgetting. So here we are, a more than a month past visiting Cambodia, and trust me- there will never be anything like it!
Cambodia is a poor country. Poor might be an understatement. The riel is so undervalued that only 1000, 2000 and above denominations are in circulation. 1000 riel equals 25 cents. Hence, all transactions are carried on in dollars. Tourism is the lifeline of Siem Reap, the city we visited- the city with the temples. Hotels would bend backwards to ensure you are happy in the establishment. It was heart wrenching to see a land so proud and mighty, so skilled and artistic, to have come to this.
The city has two hubs. When the sun is up, all the tourists flock to the temples. When the sun goes down, they flock to Pub Street. In the five days that we stayed in Siem Reap, fellow tourist faces became familiar, and we counted only two other Indian groups apart from us in the city over that period. The Market (where Pub Street is located) was where we gravitated to every evening- savoring local food, drinking cheap beer and gawking at the motley mix of people from so many different countries, speaking tongues I could not place. The country breeds beggars, speaking English tinged with assorted accents. ‘I will call the police’ worked for me every single time. But we spent an outrageous amount of cash on water during those five days. It sucks to pay sixty rupees for a tiny 0.5 L water bottle. All those days when we used to chase classmates emptying blessed drinking water on their heads came back to haunt me.
But we went to visit temples. Temples we shall speak about hence forth. However, there are more than a few major temples, so this post will only talk about Angkor Wat. The rest will follow- soon 🙂
Words cannot describe Angkor. The temple- complex was the capital of King Suryavarman II. He took 30 years to build it, and today, of the entire city, only the temple remains- because it was made out of stone. Palaces were wooden, and anything that was not stone has long perished. It is situated 5.5 kilometers from Siem Reap, the first sight that greets you is seemingly endless water. An artificial moat that is 200 meters wide, and has a perimeter of 5.5 kilometers. Riding alongside the moat takes one to the western entrance of the complex, which has a cement bridge over it. In ancient days, I believe, there was no bridge, and the only way to access the city was by rowing across the moat. Here, is the most common view point of the temple, with its ancient towers standing like they always stood, against the horizon.
Ofcourse, the cacophony takes away the glory. Guides thronging to you offering services, crowds of tourists clicking selfies..But if you manage to shut all that out, the beauty of Angkor will find its way to you.
The Vishnu that the central sanctum housed is now shunted away in a small enclosure on the right, as soon as you enter the complex. Nonetheless, the statue looks resplendent and for some reason, got the skin tingling. Of course, Vishnu here, aside his usual benign smile had slanted eyes, which was a first. Somewhere in between, the Vishnu temple was converted into a wat. A wat is a Buddhist shrine where monks resided, and where believers would leave their Buddha idols on fulfillment of prayers. There was a period spanning a few hundred years in which Angkor was forgotten by the world. When it was rediscovered by the French in mid 19th century, countless Buddha statues were plundered and smuggled, treasures lost forever.
Angkor is modeled after Mount Meru, the abode of Hindu Gods, situated at the center of the universe. Its five towers correspond to the peaks of Meru. The outer wall corresponds to the mountains at the edge of the world, and the surrounding moat- the oceans beyond. The walls are etched with intricate carvings of battle scenes from the Ramayana and the Mahabaratha- when each wall is over 200 meters long, the magnitude of the exercise can be appreciated.
There is repeated reference to the churning of the celestial ocean and the war for amrut. It was amusing to hear the guides rip the story apart whilst narrating it to beguiled tourists. What happens after it emerges? Who won the battle? What did Vishnu do to the demon who stole it? I made it a habit to eavesdrop, hoping fervently for some tourist to ask the guide some random question, eager to watch it flummox him. Our childhood tales, to be glorified such, in a land across the seas- that was awesome beyond words!
The complex has three enclosures, each smaller and higher than the one outside it. The central enclosure is considered the sanctum, and is still treated as a temple in all aspects. Women dressed in sleeveless clothes, or wearing skirts or shorts above the knee were not allowed into the central shrine. It is a steep climb- the stone steps are too dangerous, so there are makeshift wooden structures built over them. The beauty of the landscape can be appreciated from this altitude. Stone Buddhas dot the area, ones that have lost limbs or heads, and are not too tempting to be carried away. Photography is prohibited in this space, and the entire ambience is not unlike temples in India.
However, the moment one sees or rather, feels the devta of the shrine (in this case, a reclining Buddha, ofcourse) one is tempted to drop to one’s knees and touch the forehead to the floor. This sure did seemed alien to tourists from other countries, who cocked their heads and raised their eyebrows, but as my friend stated, this is how we have been taught to pray. And no matter what, a temple will always be a temple, when one feels the aura. Tourist place or not. And that was exactly how I felt at Angkor wat.
* All images from the Internet