The kingdom that time forgot

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At the moat outside Angkor Wat

The rain betrayed no signs of easing up. It continued to trickle down, much as it had over the course of the night — my first in the Cambodian province of Siem Reap. The tired rented car I was in continued to push forward, egged on by my guide Kong Kea. His name meant ‘big water’, I was told. Rather apt, given the weather he was probably used to.

Moving swiftly past tall trees — and the occasional, dim, flash of light reflecting off small ponds — I wondered about Henri Mouhot. A nineteenth-century French explorer, Mouhot is the man erroneously credited with finding the lost temples of Angkor Wat. They were never lost, apparently. The Khmer people had always been aware of the astonishing, silent sentinels hidden in the forest. Several Westerners had also visited the ruins in the sixteenth century.

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Angkor Wat is Khmer for ‘Capital Temple’

Still, thanks to enthusiastic supporters at the Royal Geographical and Zoological Societies, Mouhot’s ‘discovery’ had slowly gained credence. ‘At Ongcor [sic],’ he wrote in one of his journals, ‘there are ruins of such grandeur that, at the first view, one is filled with profound admiration, and cannot but ask what has become of this powerful race, so civilized, so enlightened, the authors of these gigantic works…’ How would he react, I wondered, to the millions now following in his footsteps, year after year?

And then, abruptly, the subject of Mouhot’s writing came into view through the rain. All I could see at first were its instantly recognisable towers, standing tall above the green forest cover and large moat surrounding it. The car then rolled to a stop before the concrete pathway spanning the moat, and Angkor Wat stood grey and dark in its splendour, before me.

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Khmer lion guardians around the temple

Separated by a body of water, it was easier to understand why the complex had been built the way it had. According to my guide, Angkor was to represent, in accordance with Hindu mythology, the home of the gods — Mount Meru. Held within the moat and outer wall were three galleries, each raised a little above the next. At the centre stood the temple, whose iconic spires now appeared on everything from the country’s national flag to cans of local beer.

The Hindu influence fit in with what the textbooks proclaimed. The Khmers were followers of Hinduism at the time Angkor was built for King Suryavarman II in the twelfth century. Although they later turned to Buddhism two centuries later (and are Buddhist to this day), the devtas or demi-gods adorning the temple walls still bore allegiance to classic Hindu myth. Dedicated to lord Vishnu, Angkor was to be the state temple and capital city. Interestingly, its original name is still unknown. Historians believe it may have been called Vrah Vishnulok. By the sixteenth century though, the name Angkor Wat — vernacular for ‘city temple’ — was widely in use.

Keeping history aside for the moment though, I plunged into the ruins. Patches of green lay on either side, the colour broken by massive columns and remnants of stone structures. It was as if I had walked into a construction site recently abandoned by workers who were off to lunch. What surprised me most, as I stepped into the temple galleries, was the strong influence of Hinduism everywhere — something I identified with instantly, coming as I did from the land of Hindustan. The inner walls of the temple’s outer gallery bore massive bas-relief friezes depicting scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Here was the battle of Lanka; there, the battle of Kurukshetra. In a land far from home, I was suddenly moved by the thought of a thousand hands pounding away at unyielding stone.

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Ta Prohm at Siem Reap

Apart from the stunning architecture, what gives Angkor much of its character is its mysterious past. When King Suryavarman died, work on the temple stopped abruptly. Angkor was then sacked by enemies of the Khmer people, the Chams, and restored by a new king, Jayavarman VII. The temple was neglected again by the sixteenth century, but survived the relentless onslaught of the forest by virtue of being protected by its 190-metre wide moat.

After the nineteenth century came to a close — bringing with it French explorers devoted to restoring Angkor’s lost grandeur — the twentieth century saw the rise of the infamous Khmer Rouge. There was little damage to temple structures during that bloody reign, but a large number of statues were stolen or destroyed. The passage of time still refused to guarantee peace. Riots erupted in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh in 2003, after a false rumour spread, of a Thai soap star claiming Angkor belonged to Thailand.

I spent my remaining days at the Angkor Archaeological Park, exploring some of the many fabulous sites it offered the patient tourist. Considering it stretched over 400 square kilometres, there was much I had to pick and choose from. I restricted my exploration to the ancient capital of Angkor Thom (right next to Angkor Wat); the temple of Bayon, famous for its 216 giant stone faces on 54 towers; the gorgeous Elephant Terrace; the pretty, red-coloured intricate temple of Banteay Srei, 25 kilometres from Angkor Wat; and, of course, the stunning ruins of Ta Prohm.

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Silk cotton trees hold the temples together

It is images of the latter that stayed with me most. For one, I had seen them before — portions of the mediocre Angelina Jolie-starring film Tomb Raider were shot at Ta Prohm. I was told the temple was once maintained by no less than 79,000 people — including 18 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 royal dancers! Today, that slowly-fading dignity was held in place by strangler fig trees, the wood and stone creating picture-postcard moments while tenuously preventing Ta Prohm from slipping into oblivion.

Camera and map in hand, I moved from site to site, dodging ever-increasing groups of tourists as October gave way to November. Soon, I was informed, French tourists would overrun the ruins as the year came to a close. They felt an affinity with the place, I suppose, considering their nation controlled Cambodia from 1863 until as late as 1953. For now, I was free to wander, stepping over blocks of stone numbered with white chalk, massive jigsaw puzzles waiting to be put in place by archaeologists from around the world.

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Inside Angkor Wat

By the time I left Cambodia, I had new respect for the mysterious Khmer empire that had faded away all those centuries ago, leaving behind nothing but stone. Jayavarman VII had, apparently, spoken of his intentions in erecting some of the temples. He wanted ‘to bestow on men the ambrosia of remedies to win them immortality… By virtue of these good works would that I might rescue all those who are struggling in the ocean of existence [sic]’

These days, when the rain pours over Mumbai, I sometimes think of Angkor. As I push through my city’s chaotic streets, I think of temples that refuse to reveal their mysteries. The demi-gods guarding those walls then come to mind. Could they have liked having me, and others like me, wander down passages once reserved for kings?

The rain — there, as here — betrays nothing.

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