A passage to Angkor: from present to past and back
The Meriden hotel in Siem Reap was erected on the site of an old cemetery. ‘Nobody here is afraid of ghosts. Not anymore‘, says our tour guide (let us call him ‘John’), while we drive past the hotel on our way to the temples. It is not difficult to understand why, if we think of the tragic history of Cambodia.
There was a time of splendor though, when Angkor alone was inhabited by one million people (during the Khmer Rouge regime, the whole population of Cambodia was reduced to 6 millions) and a widespread system of irrigation canals ensured abundant rice harvests all year long. The beauty of the elaborate temple structures built by various kings at Angkor, starting from the IX century -and which witnessed more than once a shift in religion from Buddhism to Hinduism and vice versa, depending on the ruler- are a testimony of the magnificence of the Khmer empire (Kambuja). At its best, it spread from Cambodia over parts of Thailand, Myanmar, Malaysia, Vietnam and Laos. A serious decline started in the 14th century, when the Thais began to invade Cambodia, drove out the Khmer and established a new capital.
The long and almost never-ending struggle between good and evil – ever so present in the history of this country – the dichotomy of life, the possibility of redemption and balance, find their expression in one of the most impressive bas-relief of the Angkor Wat temple, the biggest structure of all the temples in Angkor and once the world’s largest religious complex. This bas-relief occupies the east gallery wall and symbolizes a well-known episode in Hindu mythology: ‘Samudra Manthan‘, ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’.
On it, the Gods Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma are respectively represented to the left, center and right of a long five-headed snake, naga, the king of serpents. When the world was created, gods and demons were engaged in a battle to secure ‘amrita’, an elixir that would render them immortal and incorruptible. Vishnu ordered them to work together by churning the Ocean of Milk, using Mount Mandara as the pivot and the serpent as the rope. As the mountain, once placed in the ocean, began to sink, Vishnu incarnated in one of his avatar, the tortoise Kurma, and supported the mountain on his back. But the spinning of Mount Mandara created such a violent whirlpool that all creatures around it were torn to pieces. The Ocean of Milk was churned another thousand years before producing the much-desired elixir, and in the process it also released some treasures, amongst which are the goddess Lakshmi (the spouse of Vishnu), a whishing tree and the apsaras, flying up from the foam.
The apsaras are heavenly creatures, divine nymphs, and the ultimate balancing force of this struggle between good and evil. They virtually appear in every Angkorian temple and undoubtedly captivate our attention. They pose in different ways, gently smiling (there is one named ‘Mona Lisa of Angkor’, and another one showing her teeth), floating, flying, standing or moving. The apsaras were the in past times the temple dancers, and probably the king’s concubines. Therefore, even if we do not know if their exquisite carved faces were based on real women, it might well be. The virginal innocence of these spiritual characters starkly contrasts with their almost naked body. Feminine beauty does not only represent fertility in Angkor temples, but it manifests the universal rhythm. Therefore, the outer structure of the temples often displays them as the female force, while the center of it contains a ‘lingam’, the phallic symbol of Shiva. In this way, the temple is the balance of the male and female, of the opposing forces. The apsaras did not only have a decorative role in the temples: their dances were offerings to the ancestral spirits, able to influence the cosmic interaction. Apsara dance is still the most traditional form of dance in Cambodia, dating back to the Angkorean era, and re-established after the tragic parenthesis of the Khmer Rouge regime.
The temple of Angkor Wat was partly built by King Suryavarman II, designed by 5,000 architects and astronomers and erected by 50,000 workers. It is for sure the apotheosis of Khmer art. But in travelling around the area, many more fascinating structures catch our eye, each of them with their own beauty. The Bayon, in the ancient city of Angkor Thom, was conceptualized by what our tour guide called ‘J7’ (King Jayavarman VII). It contrasts with Angkor Wat as it is a Buddhist temple, and it stands out due to its 54 face towers (each tower with 4 or 8 faces), images probably not of the Buddha, but of the king himself. Banteay Srei is quite a unique temple, as it was built with pinkish sandstone and it displays the most intricate carvings of all. Beng Mealea, located 40 km from Angkor, had never been restored, and its structure has been utterly submerged by the jungle. Only in recent times, has some foliage been cut back. Standing surrounded by majestic trees on one of the many huge stone blocks, all scattered around the area, one could easily imagine what Angkor temples looked like before – in the late XIX century- the French archeologists set to work and restored the crumbling buildings. I close my eyes for a while, breathing in the zest of ancient times, before being catapulted back into modern Cambodia.
John is quite critical about how Cambodia is run nowadays, and he eagerly and openly expresses it. He talks about deforestation, landmines along the Thai-Cambodian border (threatening the survival of the Cambodian tigers as well, he says), the emigration of Cambodians looking for better opportunities in Thailand or elsewhere, the harvesting of rice that could be done all year round, if only better irrigation systems allowed. He would like to see better infrastructures and a more cautious investment of the money, paid by the tourists as entry fee to the temples, for temple renovation work (Chinese, Japanese, American, European teams, just to name a few – even an Italian one- have been constantly supporting restoration works at different temples).
John used to be a teacher, and works now as an expert tour guide. He is studying at night and has been attending part-time courses at the university for the last four years, in order to earn a degree in English Language. Despite his anger for the recent painful past and his disillusionment for the current political system, he can still constantly smile and think positive. He firmly believes in the ultimate harmony of the universe, brought by beautiful apsaras, graciously swaying around the ancient temple halls.