It was not exactly a chance reading. Having had the habit of reading a book before going to bed, but being a geographer’s husband, I would regularly read National Geographic as well, having drawn from the Officers’ Mess library. In my little household, reading was never a luxury. It was mandatory. My erudite wife who held a Doctorate in Geography would find time everyday to read newspaper and books. That habit has been passed on to our two children, who even in this age when no one reads anything, they still read. Besides the curricula books, there must be at least a thousand other books in our home which have been read, by them.
Then one day many years ago, I came across this article on the lost world of Angkor. Had read a great deal regards the Pyramids, Mayan remains and all the dreamy stuff of many lost worlds. But, these Angkor ones, never. It was an article by a French traveler who had very lucidly penned down his experiences, thoughts and findings including a picture of a green vine snake, the Oxybelis fulgidus all curled up on a tree branch. It stated that everything at Angkor was falling apart and human apathy as also cruelty was destroying this vital heritage. I was so overwhelmed by what I read, that I began to learn more and much more regards Angkor Wat. The more I read, more lack of knowledge I felt I possessed regards my own faith, my own religion, my own world. I was propelled towards going back to the very basics of my faith & philosophy. I began reading about Buddhism and other religions only to find that there are numerous correlations even though practice of religions may be overtly different.
Then came the day this December 2016, that I had checked into Bangkok airport. I knew there is this Large sculpture of Churning of the mythical ocean by the Gods and Demons. But the import of this sight this time round was entirely different. This is a sight straight from the mythical legends of Vishnu Purana. For those friends who might not be versed with the Indian holy scriptures, the Vishnu Purana details the account of Lord Vishnu’s (the Omni-Protector’s) life & times. The churning of the Holy sea or the Ksheer sagar together by the Gods and the Demons, is perhaps the most signifiant epic outside of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. What had come out of that epic churning were very highly notable jewels such as the Airavat (divine elephant), the Kamdhenu (the Holy Cow), Halahal (very pernicious venom), the Nectar of life (Amrut) and many more such jewels.
Besides, as always in any churning process, a slew of small droplets flew all around. Whereas these droplets took form of the divine Apsaras who adorned the entire space & spectrum, other jewels were divided amongst the participating teams. I had to buy a camera which I did at the Bangkok airport’s duty free shop. And the first picture of a live Apsara was taken by me, of course with her kind permission; that lovely lady at the camera shop.
Let’s move with the legend which has it that when Amrut came out of churning process, Lord Vishnu wanted the Gods to hurriedly drink the Amrut, lest demons got the wind of Amrut coming out and grabbed it to become immortal. Svarbhanu, a demon who had the powers to take any form saw this move and took the form of a God and sat down in their line between Sun and Moon to receive nectar of immortality. Just as Svarbhanu received the Nectar, Sun and Moon recognised him and indicated to Lord Vishnu who had taken the form of Mohini, the mesmerising danseuse for distributing Amrut. As Svarbhanu tried to quickly drink it, at that very moment, Lord Vishnu, even before Svarbhanu could down the Amrut totally into his belly, cut his neck with his Sudarshan Chakra (the Divine Discuss). But as a few drops had entered his body before Svarbhanu could drink more of it, Svarbhanu turned into two immortal parts namely Rahu, the head & neck part and Ketu, the torso part; both of them harmful beings to humans and Gods. Even to this day; and for ever.
These thoughts were churning my mind when the call for boarding of my Thai Smile flight to Siem Reap of my dreams was announced. Not only the perpetual smile on the faces of rather very young looking air hostesses invigorated one’s mind, their carefully crafted light saffron uniform added to that bright smile. No wonder, they call it Thai Smile; not only the Airline, but even the smile itself, perhaps. It was hardly airborne for a few moments that we landed at Siem Reap International. 30 US Dollars, a small form and you had the Cambodian Visa in 15 minutes flat. In Cambodia US Dollar rules the roost. As if not everywhere else!
I had, on Google Earth, seen the images of a mermaid and Lord Ganesha next to the pool at the Empress Angkor Hotel and had always wanted to stay there. I had made my online bookings and as I came out of the airport, I did not find the pick up for me from the hotel in spite of a promise through an email. I did not let my mood go awry with this lack of welcome and took a rather expensive taxi at US$ 10 for a meagre three kilometer ride. But the welcome at the Hotel itself was rather warm with apologies for the absence of the pick up. Khmer sweetness was omnipresent in as elaborate a manner as the woodwork in the Hotel lobby and everywhere else. Room No 426 was God sent since that is Lord Vishnu’s number (number 3). A glass of Angkor beer, chicken satay made in their own style, little rice accompanied by a small band ready to sing Hindi songs made my evening. I offered the band members a glass of wine each and I went to bed lost in thoughts for the next day; my big day. Or perhaps the biggest day, hither-to.
They say that one must be present at the Angkor Wat at 5:30 AM if one would really like to fathom the magnificence of Angkor temples, burnished in red, copper and orange hues of the rising sun. But I took the Tuk Tuk at 8:30 in the morning, and that’s how one should travel, especially in December in Siem Reap which is the best time to visit there. Mr Reth asked for 15 dollars for entire day. I had no problem. The roads are nice, unlike what I had been given to understand. Winding through the town, we reached the ticketing centre, a very clean building complex. 20 dollars for one day and 40 for three; expensive! Well, we must pay for what we get.
First brush with Divinity was at a bridge along the road to Angkor temples. Lord Sheshnag on both sides of the bridge. Yes, we were in the land of Lord Vishnu, the God unto whom the entire spirit of Angkor is dedicated. The road passes through thickets of forest on both sides all along, interspersed with houses, vehicle repair shops and tiny roadside eateries. Then suddenly as a day breaks from the dark of a night, I see numerous kiosks and tiny shops, Tuk Tuks parked all over and children selling everything from books to hats and from trinkets to picture postcards and items of clothing apparel and what not, just I get first glimpses of something I had waited since over three long decades.
There, then, I was, right at the threshold realisation of my dreams. 33 years’ long wait was worth it. Right there as I gazed at those Lions and Lord Sheshnag in ruins though, still most elegantly guarding the entrance to the Wat.
Thank you, my Lord, I said in my heart, for helping me reach here….