Angkor Wat’s pinecone-tower contours are already etched onto my mind when Iain and I cycle towards them in the crisp dawn air. You can’t avoid images of the temple in Siem Reap, where t-shirts, bags, hats, photographs, paintings, ink drawings and sculptures, all emblazoned with Angkor Wat, are sold virtually everywhere in the ruins’ nearest town. I stop my bicycle, chain it to Iain’s, and try to set the image in my head aside, to see this architectural representation of the Hindu universe through the cosmic lens that its Khmer designers intended. In the distance, the five pinecone towers become Mount Meru’s craggy peaks, silhouetted against the lilac morning sky. The sun is slowly rising over this universe, the primordial ocean is still calm, and a few visitors – mere specks – are moving toward the sacred mountain’s summit. I cross the ocean, represented by a moat, and stand at the bottom of a long causeway where stone naga serpents are stretched out on either side. Passing the nagas, I symbolically leave the realm of men and enter the world of the gods.
We make our way down the causeway toward the temple’s tallest tower: Mount Meru’s summit, the centre of this world, and home to the gods. Stone steps lead down to hectares of empty land where I can see outlines of original streets through the grass, laid out in a grid, but only the city’s temples, shrines and terraces, all made of stone, remain. Across the Khmer Empire, which at its peak encompassed modern-day Cambodia, much of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, virtually all traces of wooden homes, monasteries and palaces have been absorbed by the earth.
The sun glows pale yellow behind the dark contours of the temple ahead, its outer walls stretching along a north-south axis ahead of me. This is the world’s largest religious monument, built during the height of the empire at its capital, Angkor, the largest preindustrial city in history. Speckled with stone remnants today, it remains dauntingly vast.
I walk through the entrance gopura and turn right into the outermost of three concentric galleries: the symbolic mountains encircling Mount Meru. I’ve entered an extensive gallery enclosure which contains more than half a kilometre of sandstone bas-reliefs. Iain and I find ourselves being slowly carried along by the stories in the stone, moving through each of the square’s four sides, zooming in on the finer details of the ancient capital’s architectural centrepiece.
A battle has begun between sandstone men in horse-drawn chariots and on elephant-back: the Kaurava clan marching toward their rivals, the Pandavas. The fighting is fiercest at the centre, where hundreds of loin cloth-wearing soldiers are tangled up in each other’s spears. It is the Battle of Kurukshetra, the climax of the Mahabharata, the Hindu epic of which the better-known Bhagavad Gita is a part. When Suryavarman II built the temple and its surrounding city in the early 12th century, he was the successor of several Hindu rulers before him, after Jayavarman II first established a united Khmer Empire in 802CE, declared himself “king of the world” and institutionalised a royal linga-worshipping cult, based on Hindu beliefs.
Hinduism began to trickle through the region in the first century, along trade routes that linked the Mediterranean to China. The Khmers were exposed to a variety of cultural influences, but it was Indian culture that took hold, possibly because the Indians’ prosperity was ascribed to divine protection. The influence of Indian religion, law, science and writing would spread over the centuries, with the linga-cult remaining central to the culture at Angkor.
We turn into a corner pavilion and see the multi-headed demon Ravana, whose connection to Gokarna inspired Iain to write an epic of his own. An Indian couple appears beside us, looking up at the same carving, in which Ravana shakes Mount Kailash with his many arms. They chatter away and, between the rolled rs and endearing Hindi lilts, we hear the words “Shiva… Sita… Kailasa”. The infant Krishna is crawling in a stone panel nearby, and a few steps away we see a bearded Shiva meditating. Coming across members of Hinduism’s colourful pantheon in a faraway place almost feels like bumping into old friends and, with the sounds of Hindi ringing through my ears again, I feel a pang of peculiar homesickness that only India can stir.
Iain and I enter a gallery where the bas reliefs are badly worn in places, and match our strides with clues in a guide to ancient Angkor, searching lengths of grey stone for familiar Hindu characters. The washed out panels, once vibrantly painted, show Krishna riding the mythical bird-man, Garuda, during a victorious battle with a demon. Krishna is a reincarnation of the god Vishnu, to whom Angkor Wat was dedicated. Several Khmer kings were considered to be reincarnations of Vishnu too, as is Thailand’s king today.
Krishna progresses through the story, facing a wall of flames thrown up by a rhinoceros-riding God of Fire. He charges through a throng of spear-wielding warriors on his sidekick Garuda until, in a panel near the end, he meets the demon Bana, the archvillain of this comic book carved from stone. Bana rides in a chariot pulled by lions, but with a single flick of his discus, the eight-armed Krishna lobs off all but four of the demon’s one thousand hands. A final scene shows Shiva sitting on Mount Kailash with a long beard and his trident in hand, still faintly red on the near-white stone. Krishna kneels before him, two of his arms clasped together in a gesture of respect, the other six holding a flute, a sword and other paraphernalia associated with the god. Shiva’s elephant-headed son, Ganesha, is sitting cross-legged at his feet; his face and trunk still bear traces of red too. Below, deep within Mount Kailash, hermits pray in caves and celestial nymphs draped in jewellery – apsaras – perform a mesmerising dance.
Like other kings before him, Suryavarman II marked the beginning of his rule by building a new palace and a state temple, Angkor Wat, but he was not the first to make his capital in the area. The very first kings of the Angkorian era ruled from Roluos, where they built temples and a large reservoir around a town some 15 kilometres away. The capital was moved in 893CE by Yasovarman I, after the Royal Palace at Roluos was burned to the ground following a confrontation with his brother over the throne. New rulers added to the profusion of temples that remain all over the countryside around Siem Reap, each surrounded by separate settlements, but the seat of the Khmer Empire remained within the area around Angkor until 1432 when it was moved to Phnom Penh after being sacked and looted by invaders from Ayutthaya.
I cycle down a tree-lined avenue towards Angkor Thom, literally “Great City”, built less than a century after Angkor Wat. Two naga serpents flank the approach to the south entrance, sculpted stone headdresses crowning their seven heads. A row of waist-high figures on either side is holding onto the serpents as if in a tug-of-war: grumpy looking demons on the right, gods on the left. Scholars have pointed out parallels with an Indian creation myth, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, which is similarly represented in a bas-relief at Angkor Wat.
It’s a popular Hindu legend in which gods and demons churn a cosmic sea, producing the elixir of immortality. Under Vishnu’s guidance, the gods and demons take turns pulling on the body of a giant naga serpent coiled around Mount Mandara until, 1000 years later, the elixir is formed. I follow the legendary naga over a moat, once again leaving the mortal world behind me, and cycle through Angkor Thom’s eight storey high gates into the fortified city, an elaborate text that must read and re-read. The Bayon stands tall at the precise centre of the city, a mythical mountain around which a coiled naga has wrapped itself, churning the city’s moat.
Iain and I chain our bicycles together and make our way along a stone terrace towards the Bayon, where clusters of “face towers” arranged as ascending peaks have encouraged speculation of their own. Who is the man on the 180 or so towers, facing each of the cardinal points? My first instinct was Brahma, the Hindu god who is also portrayed across the region with his four heads looking outward, but the king in power during the Bayon’s construction, Jayavarman VII, was a Buddhist.
Buddhism came to the Khmer Empire as early as Hinduism, but only became the capital’s dominant religion when Jayavarman VII came to power in the late 12th century. Many ordinary Khmers still worshipped a variety of deities: gods of the land, Hindu gods, Buddhist gods, guardian spirits and ancestors – alone and in combination – while Angkor’s kings altered monuments and statues according to individual whim. Jayavarman VII built Angkor Thom to be so well fortified that his Hindu successor adopted the city as his capital, removing or defacing its Buddhist iconography, and even transforming Buddha images into Hindu linga: sacred, phallic representations of Shiva. The city became a historical text written and rewritten by each of its rulers, their legacies still overlapping in stone.
The man whose face adorns the Bayon’s endless towers, presiding over every inch of the temple’s upper terrace, is not Brahma, but more likely Jayavarman VII himself, or possibly the Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokitesvara. Its mystery is one reason the temple complex draws almost as many visitors as Angkor Wat, and today is no different. Tourists wander between the towers posing for photographs that show them kissing the sculpted men. But there is far more than stone faces to the Bayon. Its bas-reliefs were the only occasion on which Angkor’s stone carvers depicted daily life rather than mythological or historical themes and – together with the account of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese emissary who spent a year in Angkor in 1296 – they are the only details that remain of ordinary Khmer society.
In his Notes on the Customs of Cambodia, Zhou Daguan describes some of the same minutiae that are portrayed in bas-relief on the Bayon’s outer enclosure. Two figures grill beautifully sculpted meat skewers over a fire; a group in a wooden building beside them raises scooped hands to their mouths to eat. Zhou described “a bowl of tin or earthenware filled with water” that Khmers used for rinsing their hands after eating. “Only their fingers are used in eating rice, which is sticky and could not be got rid of without this water.”
While people go about their daily lives, a battle is in full force on the river behind them. The Khmers are at war with the Chams, the inhabitants of a neighbouring kingdom in what is central Vietnam today. Not all of these bas-reliefs correspond with historical record, but the representations here are probably of a naval battle on the Tonle Sap in 1177, during which the Chams gained control of Angkor, or a series of attacks launched by Jayavarman VII four years later, when he succeeded in driving the Chams out and was declared king. The stone panels show thickset, grim-faced Chams wearing short-sleeved tunics and helmets resembling open flowers. They are vastly outnumbered by Khmer warriors, who have cropped hair and wear loin cloths with ropes tied around their chests, which they throw around the prows of enemy boats. Victorious, they watch the Chams become food for the river’s crocodiles.
Alone with the bas-reliefs at the perimeter of the temple complex, Iain and I wander past several more stone crocodiles. Below them, a river bank is dotted with beautifully carved vignettes of village life. A cockfight is about to begin: a man with the topknot, beard and patterned tunic of all Chinese men presents his bird while spectators place bets. Although numerous Chinese passed through Southeast Asia’s trading hub, Zhou Daguan’s is the only known account of life among the Khmer. “Generally speaking, the women, like the men, wear only a strip of cloth, bound round the waist, showing bare breasts of milky whiteness,” wrote Zhou, no doubt referring to Khmer women for whom labouring in the fields was not required.
We spend the better part of an hour poring over the bas-reliefs, spotting a chess game here, an acrobat there, and a troop of monkeys swinging from the branches of a tree overhead. There is something pleasing about the universality of these images: the tigers and hermits and gladiators are long gone, but women weighing vegetables in rudimentary handheld scales and buffalo-drawn carts are still ubiquitous in Cambodia’s countryside. In addition to rural life, Zhou described elaborate royal processions where princes, wives and concubines travelled in a convoy of palanquins, elephants and horse-drawn carts made of gold, red parasols hovering above them like halos. Behind them, the king rode an elephant with its tusks encased in gold, and as the procession moved through the city, flags, banners and musicians followed, far into the distance.
Zhou was witness to a vibrant civilisation just past its peak. By the time Europeans reached Angkor in the 16th century, it was an empire in decline. Visitors doubted Khmer ingenuity and dated the overgrown ruins to a long-forgotten past. When he journeyed to Angkor in 1860, the French explorer Henri Mouhot linked Khmer architecture to Egypt’s pyramids. Locals told him they had been built by gods or giants, and it wasn’t until 1907 that the long process of restoration began. Academics are still piecing together the epic of ancient Angkor, carried along, too, by the stories left in stone.
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