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Monumental Angkor Wat and the misplaced ruins of Cambodia


Within the far north-west of Cambodia, past the waters of the Nice Lake, a line of blue mountains rises from the wealthy plains of ripe paddy fields that stretch up from the Mekong delta. At first, these hills climb sharply from the plush flatland; then, fairly immediately, they crest into a protracted, straight sandstone plateau that appears to drift mysteriously above the low clouds.

These are the heights of Phnom Kulen, the “Mountain of Lychees”. For Cambodians, it is a sacred area: the birthplace not simply of the good Angkorian Empire but additionally of the holy rivers that watered its plains and lapped round its most valuable temples.

Right here, in 802, the Khmer prince Jayavarman II carried out a ceremony initiating what would quickly develop into the richest and strongest state of its time. He had spent his teenagers as a hostage of the Buddhist rulers of Java, the place he could have seen the constructing of the good pyramid-temple of Borobudur, nonetheless the biggest Buddhist monument on this planet. However Prince Jayavarman was a passionate Hindu who seemed to Lord Shiva as his God. He escaped from Java aged round 20, and within the 790s returned to Cambodia, declaring himself impartial from international overlords.

One among his first actions was to discovered a brand new metropolis, Mahendraparvata, on the summit of Phnom Kulen, its title derived from the legendary Hindu peak of Mount Mahendra, the “Monarch amongst Mountains”. The nice ritual that occurred there in 802 had each theological and political significance: not solely did it make it “unattainable for Java to management holy Cambodia”, as an historical inscription places it, it additionally consecrated Jayavarman as King of All, and Lord Shiva’s consultant on earth. This was marked by the set up of a sacred state image, referred to as the devaraja lingam, which Jayavarman devoted to Shiva, Lord of the Mountains.

The towers of Angkor Wat, with a lotus pond in front
Constructed on an unlimited scale, the temple at Angkor Wat is a microcosm of the Hindu universe © Getty Photos

Jayavarman went on to struggle a sequence of battles and to forge a matrix of alliances that might unite disparate areas of south-east Asia into the state henceforth known as Kambujadesa or Cambodia. An inscription survives that provides the borders of Jayavarman II’s kingdom as “China, Champa [Vietnam], the ocean, and the land of cardamoms and mangoes” [Thailand]” .

At its peak within the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the urbanised area centred on Angkor, the Khmer capital, had a inhabitants of not less than 900,000 folks — way over the 20,000-30,000 then dwelling in London. The world throughout the moat of only one Khmer temple, Angkor Wat, is by itself virtually 4 occasions the dimensions of Vatican Metropolis. But the place of this nice state’s founding is now all however misplaced within the jungle.

Out of the large sandstone outcrop of Phnom Kulen, close to a spot known as Kbal Spean, rises one of many headwaters of the Siem Reap river, which in flip flows on to Angkor Wat. In contrast in Khmer inscriptions to the Ganges itself, these waters stay sacred to Cambodians, although the nation is predominantly Buddhist now. 

One morning, whereas strolling by Kbal Spean, I fell in with a lean, barefoot, shaven-headed monk in orange-brown robes. After I first noticed him, he seemed to be asleep on a hammock strung between two teak bushes — however listening to me go, he smiled and swung out of the hammock to greet me. He then pointed into the river.

A stone sculpture of a deity’s head on the bed of a river
A sculpture of a head carved into the riverbed at Kbal Spean © Footage from Historical past/Common/Getty Photos

At first I didn’t perceive what he was pointing to. Fish? Weeds? Pebbles? Actually it was none of those. On the mattress of the stream, at first partially obscured by the dashing present, lay the unmistakable form of a stone face. As my eyes adjusted, and targeted via the operating waters, I realised that the face was connected to a physique, and to a number of arms, every holding a weapon or a noose. Above the face was a tall, domed headdress, forming a Khmer crown.

What the monk was stating was actually the type of Shiva sculpted on the rock of the river-bed. Round and about it have been a whole bunch of yoni-lingam, sacred Hindu symbols, organized in squares and filling the whole area from financial institution to financial institution.

The extraordinary sculptures have been a legacy of Cambodia’s conversion to Hinduism, a course of that had been below manner for the reason that fifth century however accelerated alongside Jayavarman’s conquests. A bunch of ascetic followers of Shiva, referred to as the Pasupatas, arrived in Cambodia from India, spearheading a wave of Shiva worship, which for a time grew to become the dominant religion within the area.

Map of Siem Reap, Cambodia

The Pasupatas have been wandering Brahmins — or clergymen — who smeared their our bodies with ash from cremation grounds and slept on a mattress of ashes. By means of their austere, self-denying practices, they believed they may cross over to the world past, attaining union with the divine.

However additionally they acquired energy on this world too. Indian Brahmins had for hundreds of years been keen to help kings with rituals and astrological prophecies, in addition to with extra mundane expertise comparable to literacy and numeracy. The Pasupatas supplied extra: secret non secular information and yogic powers, comparable to the power to fly or to listen to distant conversations, and mantras that might allow a king to prevail over his enemies.

In Jayavarman’s service, the Pasupatas carried out rituals and oversaw the carving of sculptures that they believed would lengthen the Hindu holy land from India to Cambodia. The panorama was permeated with divinity, with temple reservoirs consecrated in Shiva’s title, lingams matching these in India, and, above all, temple pyramids modelled on his mountain residence.

The primary of those, the ziggurat-like sanctuary constructed by Jayavarman for the consecration of the devaraja lingam, was erected on Phnom Kulen. However regardless of its significance in Cambodia’s historical past, it has been largely forgotten right this moment, and lies far off the overwhelmed monitor in a jungle the place Khmer Rouge landmines are nonetheless a hazard.

There’s not even a highway: to get there, I needed to hitch a elevate on the again of a bike pushed by one of many monk’s mates, who bumped his manner alongside a dry water course, edged by cashew orchards and pepper vines. Finally, 10 miles from the closest tarmac highway, we discovered the good step pyramid. In the course of the topmost layer, deserted within the scrub-jungle, stood the plinth on high of which the unique devaraja lingam had as soon as rested, all that remained of the temple the place the Angkorian Empire was based.

In direction of the tip of his reign, Jayavarman went on to construct a second Khmer capital on the plains of Angkor at Hariharalaya close to modern-day Siem Reap, on the sting of the Nice Lake. It was right here he constructed the primary of the community of dams and reservoirs that might enable the Khmers to develop into one of many nice hydraulic civilisations of historical past, capable of domesticate the portions of rice that its burgeoning city inhabitants wanted. It’s also the most effective base right this moment for exploring the good legacies of that civilisation.

After I first noticed it, nonetheless, again within the Nineteen Eighties, not lengthy after the tip of Khmer Rouge rule, it was a tatty ex-French colonial city, trying again to the times earlier than the Maoist armies emptied the cities and created the notorious Killing Fields. I visited with my younger household and stayed within the king of Cambodia’s previous visitor home, which had simply been transformed into the trendy Amansara Lodge. Issues received off to an excellent begin when the lodge despatched King Sihanouk’s previous pre-war Mercedes limousine to fulfill us at Siem Reap airfield.

A hotel terrace with trees behind and chairs facing a pool
Siem Reap’s fashionable Amansara Lodge previously served as a visitor home for King Sihanouk

A black 1960s Mercedes limousine
The Amansara’s classic Mercedes limousine. . .
A view of an outdoor terrace with chairs and table facing rainforest
. . . and a verdant perspective from one of many lodge’s terraces

So light and peaceable have been the Cambodians we met — the smiling schoolchildren, the farmers in paddy hats, the village ladies on their strategy to market — that my youngsters refused to consider the tales I attempted to inform them of the times of the Khmer Rouge. Solely once we visited the Siem Reap crocodile farm did they actually start to consider the horrors that the nation had undergone. The regime had apparently used it as an execution floor; when my youngsters crossed the bridge over the pens from which (it was mentioned) captives had been thrown to the crocodiles, they have been greeted by a ricochet of hopeful snapping jaws.

Right now Siem Reap has been remodeled. The airfield is now a global airport, and whereas the Amansara continues to be a lot essentially the most luxurious lodge on the town, a whole bunch of bars, eating places and inns of all sizes have opened up.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities took benefit of the respite to enhance the city’s roads, and to replant the shady bushes minimize down when the Khmer Rouge have been in cost. It now seems to be as attractive because it ever did throughout essentially the most elegant section of colonial rule, however with many extra locations to remain, eat and drink.

The beautiful temple of Banteay Srei, simply exterior Siem Reap, might be my favorite within the nation — with out query one of many loveliest temples in south-east Asia. Commissioned within the Tenth century by Yajnavaraha, an adviser to the Khmer king, and certainly one of his fellow courtiers, it’s devoted to Shiva and swarms with magnificent stone carvings: of Durga, the mom goddess, dancing her strategy to victory over the buffalo god; of Pasupata ascetics with piled-up dreadlocks and rudraksha prayer beads; of Kamadeva, the god of affection, firing an arrow at Lord Shiva.

The worn stone carvings of the exterior of an ancient Cambodian temple
The Tenth-century temple at Banteay Srei, one of many loveliest temples in south-east Asia © Bridgeman Photos

Yajnavaraha, who was a Sanskrit scholar, appears to have deliberate the temple virtually as an indication of his broad studying, with two attractive pavilion-libraries and carved panels displaying familiarity with the work of the good Indian playwright Kalidasa. Extra stunning nonetheless is a panel depicting the great Tamil poet Karaikkal Ammaiyar, who is alleged to have renounced her nice magnificence as an act of devotion to Shiva, preferring to venerate him as an emaciated ascetic; she was rewarded with literary items that turned her into one of many biggest of all Tamil poets.

Whereas a lot liked in Tamil lands, in India’s far south, Karaikkal Ammaiyar doesn’t appear to be well-known even in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh; and but right here she is, sculpted in stone, sitting at Shiva’s dancing toes in distant Cambodia.

Removed from being on the periphery of the Indic literary world, Cambodia was a complicated centre of poetry, drama, epigraphy and civilisation — and by no means extra so than when its Khmer rulers constructed the largest and most luxurious Hindu temple in the world, at Angkor Wat.

Development of this huge 160-hectare advanced started in 1122, throughout the reign of the best of all south-east Asian rulers, Suryavarman II, who had fought his strategy to the throne in 1113. Although the central statue of Vishnu — a break with Suryavarman’s Shiva-favouring predecessors — was devoted throughout his lifetime, constructing was nonetheless happening on the time of his loss of life in 1150.

Detailed temple carvings of multiple figures and animals carved in brownish stone
The magnificent carvings in Banteay Srei. . .  © Bridgeman Photos
A temple carving, also in brown stone, of a female figure
. . . draw on a variety of Hindu literature . . . © Getty Photos/iStockphoto

A close-up of the wall carvings shows a deity with multiple arms
. . . and showcase the educational of the courtier who commissioned them © Getty Photos/iStockphoto

The moat alone took 5,000 males 10 years of digging, whereas the temple inside it comprises extra stone than the biggest Egyptian pyramid. No mortar was used — the stones have been fitted along with joints and tenons somewhat than cement — and virtually each inch was intricately carved, in situ, by stonemasons of nice ability and creativeness. But this stupendous mission was accomplished in simply 32 years, a fraction of the time it took to construct the a lot smaller cathedrals of medieval Europe.

There was nothing of this scale on the time, even in India, the centre of the Hindu world to which the Khmers seemed for literary and spiritual inspiration. Angkor Wat is roughly modern with the good south Indian Chola temples of Thanjavur, and the Khmers and Cholas — the 2 nice powers on the Indian Ocean — have been allies and in shut dialogue. However, though the biggest Chola temples are 5 occasions the dimensions of something that preceded them, the Khmer temples don’t simply dwarf their Indian contemporaries many occasions over, however are the biggest spiritual construction constructed wherever within the historical or medieval world.

Representing each a microcosm of the Hindu universe and a funerary monument for Suryavarman, it was constructed as a sequence of concentric courtyards surrounding a central pyramid. From this a quincunx of towers rises in a recreation of scriptural accounts of Mount Meru, the house of the Hindu gods.

As you strategy it right this moment, you see 5 mountains of masonry rising from the jungle in successive ranges — a fantastic tumbling scree of plinths and capitals, fluted pillars and delicate lotus jambs. Shingled roofs cowl intricate reliefs of semi-divine naga-snakes and holy males, of heavenly musicians and dancing women, every individualised and lots of with the vigorous humanity of portraits. Inside, the west gallery is embellished with essentially the most stunning of all Khmer reliefs, illustrating the Indian epics, from the demon-king Ravana shaking Mount Kailash, Shiva’s dwelling place, within the Ramayana to the fateful battles of the Mahabharata.

The pandemic has had many antagonistic results on journey, however for Angkor Wat it has had one important upside: customer numbers, which pre-pandemic have been flooding the monument, are dramatically down. Now is a wonderful second to see one of many very biggest spiritual monuments on this planet with out having to compete with busloads of vacationers making an attempt to do likewise. My recommendation: don’t hesitate.

William Dalrymple’s ‘The Firm Quartet’ is printed by Bloomsbury


William Dalrymple was a visitor of Wild Frontiers (, Singapore Airways ( and Amansara ( Wild Frontiers affords small group and personal excursions to Cambodia; its 14-day Cambodia Explorer tour, which covers most of the areas talked about, prices from £2,845 full-board and together with transport, guides and entrance charges, however not worldwide flights. Singapore Airways flies every day from Singapore to Siem Reap: returns from London through Singapore to Siem Reap value from £705, although a £606 promotion is on the market till September 15. Amansara has double rooms from $1,400 per night time half-board and together with a information for Angkor.

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