18 April 2003 - Siem Reap
The temples of Angkor

OK, this is a biggie. This is one of the main things I was looking forward to in this trip, and I wasn't disappointed by it.

For those of you who like to know exactly what things are before I enthuse about them, here's a brief summary: The Khmer empire blossomed between the 9th and 14th centuries, resulting in a 400-year civilization that matched anything in the world at that time. Influenced by Indian religions, and later, buddhism, they built a vast number of temples, some of them mega-projects that took many, many years to complete. Now, they are all that remain as a legacy of stone, for anything else (including most of their writing) was eaten up by the jungle.

Firstly, let's just get the scope of this into perspective. Around Siem Reap (meaning "within 30 km or so"), there lies about 300 temples. Temple-building was a big deal. It pretty much guaranteed a legacy that would last for quite some time - in the case of the temples of Angkor, nearly a thousand years.

And size did matter. The bigger the temple, the better the impression you made. The kings described themselves as "God-Kings", and God-Kings need to do God-like work.

Between 1108 and 1153, Angkor Wat was built. It eventually became the largest and most famous of the temples in the Angkor area. It was built to impress.

The temple is surrounded by a square moat about 1.5km long on each side. On motorcycle, it takes about ten minutes to ride around it.

As you walk in through the Western entrance, you begin to get a glimpse of the famous towers, and it's a pretty long walk, designed to keep you mindful of the grandeur. The path is wide enough to cater for elephants (which they did) and in its heyday, a whole city sprung up within the walls of the temple.

Intricate carvings cover so much of the temple. A carving half a meter high by half a meter wide could take up to a month to complete, and almost every wall has at least one of these. A long bas-relief mural stretches around the central towers, depicting hindu mythology and celebrating the king who built the temple. Asparas (the king's maidens) smile at you from every alcove. False windows adorn the thick stone walls, designed to keep out the oppressive heat.

All this is just window-dressing for the temple within the main towers, and you have to work quite hard to make your way up there. The steps become extremely steep, and very narrow, and it is a harrowing experience for some. By the time you reach the top, there really isn't much space left, and the actual place of worship is pretty ordinary compared to the rest of it. But, you stand up there at the top, surveying the vista that surrounds you, and you feel as if you've done something worthwhile. Which is the whole point of it, I guess.

This is only one temple. It takes about three hours to go through it properly with a guide, explaining all there is, and probably another hour for you to go on your own.

There are 299 left to talk about.

Well, I exagerate. There are probably about 10-20 temples in the Angkor area that are awe-inspiring. The rest are best seen in the context of the others, sort of like 'practice'efforts for the main show. But the workmanship of the decorations in almost all that I saw was incredible.

And they're not all the same. These temples were built over a period of four hundred years, and there was a game of one-upmanship being practiced by the kings.

The archetectural styles are different, the motifs are different, there is enough variety to make you think, "well, I haven't seen this before".

The other big thing for kings to build were resevoirs, as a good resevoir ensures water during the dry season.

All this ties up nicely with temple-building. Temples generally wre built to symbolise lands surrounded by oceans, so moats and reservoirs were pretty common. Sometimes the moats were also functional defensive structures, but mostly I guess it was done because it looked so good.


posted on Saturday, April 19, 2003 - permalink
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