Monday, February 9, 2009

The Grand Tour

February 5

The second day of temple hunting. I take the “grand tour” with R’Ong, after my usual breakfast of bread, cheese, banana, pineapple and coffee at the guesthouse. I meet an American woman of matronly proportion who sternly advises me on the importance of volunteering as a teaching in the English schools in Cambodia. She hasn’t done it yet but is looking forward to meeting a bunch of youth from various countries who are doing it now and apparently live in our guest house. I haven’t seen them either.

I forgot to write about the terrace of the Leper King which I saw yesterday at Angkor Thom. Misnamed, the terrace of the Leper King is not really dedicated to Jayavarmana I, who died of leprosy, but to Yama, the god of the underworld, is really the royal cremation site. Its terrace, walled so only one person can walk at a time, zig-zigs along the front of the sprawling compound. Light can only enter through the top, and in midday, when I walked through, is a tantalizing experience. The quality of light on the red sandstone gives an impression of a bleak desert cave, lit from the top, but its panels bristle with scenes from the wars of Mahabharata and other Hindu and Buddhist themes, carved on stone. Exquisitely crafted, they are complex; rows and rows of them along the wall in all their complexity and aloof beauty reminds me of what it must be like to see Petra, the dead city, though its resemblance to Petra is nonexistent.

But today on the grand tour, I go first to the temple of Ta Prohm, which is half engulfed by the seductive embrace of gigantic roots, which Lara Croft had graced once with her seductive escapades. In the temple I come across an old woman who tries to eke out a living by allowing worshipers to light an incense stick for a little change. I shoot her portraits instead of lighting incense; she is happy. She appears to be of an age that must have seen the French Indochine, Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s coronation as well as abdication to declare democracy in Cambodia, the rise of the rightist American stooge Lon Nol, whose complicity with the US led to Richard Nixon’s secret war—the carpet bombing of the Cambodian countryside to weed out the Viet Cong supply line, the coming of the Khmer Rouge and their genocidal madness of social engineering gone mad, the Vietnamese invasion of 1979, the civil war of the early nineties, followed by UN intervention and the rise of a teetering democracy. She is the first old person who I see in Cambdia face to face. I peer deeply into her eyes through my view finder, but these memories are veiled under an opacity that clouds her pupils.

The grand tour takes me to Phnom Bakheng, a magnificent 3-tiered pyramid where I huff and puff to the top and sit under a shade of the balustrade, through Preah Khan, a complex of temples where Buddhist themes intermingle with Hindu motifs in apparent confusion—distance from the origin appears to have melted the legends and philosophies into a single artistic expression that celebrates celestial dance more than remaining true to creed and scriptures, in the midday heat to the dry reservoir of Prasat (Prasad?) Neak Pean, a Buddhist shrine, then to the so-called Rolous group of temples that are some of the earliest of the Angkor temples. These latter temples are among the oldest, most of them built around 800AD to 1100AD, and these are distinctly different from the later temples of the Angkor complex that I had seen. Here the intricate carvings are more fluid and dynamic, the workmanship takes flight in sheer beauty, and the figurines are supremely dynamic. Most of these temples appear to be made from terracotta bricks, with the carvings molded into brick panels whereas the later Angkorean work is nearly exclusively carved on sandstone. The structures of these brick temples remind me of both the Stupa in Saranath as well as later terracotta brickworks of Bengal temples of the same time. Certainly Saranath predates the Rolous group by nearly 8 centuries. I am not sure if any of the Pallava architecture of the same time, made in terracotta bricks, has survived. The resemblance of Indian influence is so palpable that I feel certain that these Buddhist-Hindu temples represent more a direct adoption of Indian influence than an indirect one.

The day has been exhausting. The heat merciless. I stagger back to the guest house, take shower and eat a plain sour fish soup and crawl into bed.

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