Open wounds…. What Devastated Angkor?

As I stand before these magnificent abodes of Gods or shall I say – Divinity, a concerned mind is stirred; stirred & churned constantly by something that it desires to learn regards – just what brought Angkor to the current state? Is it the man himself who built these magnificent temples? Or something more, much more intriguing. Had those who undertook this gigantic responsibility, genuinely faltered somewhere; something even beyond their understanding??

After all, the magnificent, and many temples  at Kanchi, Rameswaram and Madurai in India with art & architecture as intricate if not more elaborate, built around similar era as Angkor, are still in fine fettle. No doubt that these were built by similarly blessed people – the Architect-Priests or the Acharyas who were steeped in the same traditions and apparently followed similar tenets of building Temples as Angkor. Structures; art, architecture, sculptures and culture, all intact. People throng those holy places in as large numbers as Angkor is. But, then Angkor? What led to their downfall?

Cannot remain at peace with myself until that is attempted. I will have to go back a little in order that I could move forwards.

In Hindu philosophy, as in all faiths of the world, what physically appears may just be a ‘means’. The ‘end’ in itself may never be known, let alone be seen, unless you are earnest enough in your quest; pure in your thoughts, pure in your deeds. That is what explains the fact that by merely sculpting a soulless piece of stone one does not turn it into God. It is that faith which ensures that He, who in His human form surveys all that happens around Him, is indeed  Him. One has to  feel, how He feels. When that happens, you are one with Him. That is in all faiths, not only Hinduism. That was, perhaps, one reason why temples were built close to water – lakes, rivers, seas. Water, the all-purifying element, where Gods have their abode and where through inner realisation, a mortal being can cross over to the other shore of life’s passage and meet Him.

Do I see that all pervasive element around Angkor?

The faith itself is not very stringent. It provides for logical alternatives, an escape route by ‘creating an artificial water body’ if a natural one does not exist at the site selected for a temple. However, that perhaps was to be the last resort. Did they go just that much wrong while planning Angkor at the current site? Moreover, because Angkors have lasted these nearly a thousand years, one could surmise that all other tenets this present site must have fulfilled. If not, who knows the case would have been even worse for us, who would have remained bereft of such especial knowledge had these vanished long ago. Who knows?

In all architecture, more particularly in the realms of Temple architecture greatest significance has been attached to the site, the Vastu – the mother of all micro & macrocosms – the mother earth that is considered a living being. Human and the Divinity, the terrestrial & those extra-terrestrial, are all one. So is the earth, the Vaastu, an equal intellectual plane all around. As such, the earth has been considered as the field of operations of the Vaastu-Purusha; the earth personified. This is called ‘The vaastu-purusha-mandala’ which represents the manifest form of the Cosmic Being; upon which the temple is built and within whom the soul of the temple rests. “The temple is situated in Him, comes from Him, and is a manifestation of Him. The vaastu-purusha-mandala is both the body of the Cosmic Being and a bodily device by which those who have the requisite knowledge attain the best results in temple building.” (Stella Kramrisch – The Hindu Temple, Vol I).

This wisdom is imbibed by erudite men & women through blessed souls who of immense dedication following a faith have had vast reservoirs of data-base and wisdom passed on in a typical Guru-Shishya tradition following strict regimens of learning. Such dedication helps them develop purity of minds and powers & authority because they have no inherent selfish motives; just complete dedication unto the God and His creation. Over time, they develop almost an intellectually intuitive feeling, a telepathy with divinity and an innate ability to even experiment within themselves in order to fuse them into the requirement of the Whole. For, after all, situations and places are different. Nevertheless, their main aim is goodness of the society from where they sprang. They help develop a society that is in complete sync with nature around. It is certain, though without any written proof, that such scared souls of such great wisdom must have guided the very conceptualization and eventual construction of everything Angkor, including the site  & material selection and all things connected with the project.

Now, nearly a thousand years later we find this devastation at Angkor. Therefore the fundamental question. Had those men & women of such great wisdom, gone wrong in their estimation of the site itself that it got devastated? Whereas at Kanchi, Rameswaram and at Madurai, temples of similar or even of earlier era, exist in fine shape. Did those seers of great wisdom went somewhere wrong in their understanding or was it that poor choice of materials led to this state? Temple Architecture has been practiced since millennia in India and temple construction is not just another set of buildings erected at the whim & fancy of a businessman developer. These are very carefully done works for the good of humanity, for posterity, not a few decades. Stella Kramrisch has tried to, most studiously, unravel these nuances in her books “The Hindu Temples Part 1 & 2”.

For normal understanding, in absence of any long-term records of construction proper and eventual dstruction, a rather simplified version has been extended – that of Khmer rouge doing the damage as did the Siamese plunderers over centuries. In addition, those following Buddhism taking over from Vaishnavs did replace idols of Lord Vishnu with those of Lord Buddha. But, come to think of it – Lord Buddha is the Ninth Reincarnation of the Lord Himself.

My view is that plundering must have happened for it has tales, omnipresent – severed torsos of idols et el. But the very lack of upkeep is seen & experienced all around, sadly, though. In finality, perhaps, whereas some damage was inflicted by those involved in the civil wars and also by those not given to Vaishnavi thought processes. But that cannot justify withering facades, trees growing over the structures strangulating them for decades, differential settlement of walls and the stone joints opening up inviting an empathetic philanthropist to come and do some immediate surgery to heal their open wounds. Open wounds….

I had also read somewhere that during civil wars, people must have chipped away sculpted walls and uprooted heads of idols etc. Some of that might once again be true. But I am not convinced that people, unless armed with very sharp & most modern tools, could chip away sculpted walls of stones. This is not plastered surfaces we are talking about. We are seeing sculpted walls with bass-relief or at places haute-relief works that have been damaged. As a practicing civil engineer with over four decades, one understands the behavior of materials, very well. Lord alone knows best – my refrain. Nevertheless, I am not throwing the towel in a hurry.

Yes, there has been deliberate desecration, mutilation & obliteration of faces of human sculptures at the entrance of Ta Prohm, a Temple Complex around 3 km NE of the Main Angkor Complex, where they are shown pulling the Vasuki. Sadly, some of them have been restored as well. But the restored ones appear absolutely incongruent. Better to leave them as they are. They appear much better and in complete sync, that way. But right there, at the gate the Lord Buddha faces have tell tales of hundreds of years of lack of care and any maintenance effort, whatsoever. We all know well enough – that a house or a building is as good as its maintenance & upkeep effort. There haven’t been facilities managers there. There still appear none. Of course, UNESCO is there. But are they a facilities people? I haven’t known them to be.

But that hasn’t yet helped answer my basic query. My quest is still incomplete. Let us go back a little, further.

It is pitiably stated again & again by various scholars that Angkor was “discovered” by Frenchman Henri Mouhot in the year 1862; his readings leading him to claim that Angkor was a lost civilization. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for Angkor was never discovered by any one. It has always been there, as it is, for centuries. Just that, adequate attention wasn’t paid and that itself perhaps, led to the damage. I have been using word perhaps alliteratively. That’s because nothing regards Angkor is certain unlike death & taxes. All estimation by enthusiasts and theories by a few Dendrochronologists, notwithstanding. We know well enough that what the doctors say, may be right. Well, may be, right. It may not as well be. However, just to share a personal thought with you, my dear reader – doesn’t the whole Angkor thing appear very very providential, the way it is, now? For, we have always known it to be as it is, now. May be it was built this way only. Never complete, except for the damage by humans and the mother herself furthering the complexities..

Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan, the other name which often comes up related to the discovery of Angkor visited there around 1296 AD. Zhou’s one year spent visiting the Khmer capital during the reign of King Indravarman III is significant, because he penned a still-surviving account, The Customs of Cambodia, of approximately 40 pages detailing his observations of Khmer society. Together with the inscriptions that have been found on Angkorian temples and other monuments, Zhou’s account is the most important source of information about everyday life at Angkor. But it does not describe the magnificence of the Angkorian Temples or did he not notice any damage over the past century since that is the time that had elapsed from the completion of Angkor till Zhou reached there.

Of interest is yet another feature out of Zhou’s account. Besides the power and riches of the mighty king, he relates to the calendar of an year. It is exactly the same as Indian calendar beginning with the Kartika month and ending with Kwar. But no mention of any damage to the temples of Angkor over those nearly 150 years since these were constructed or the state of the same obtaining in 1296 AD.

Other scholars attempting to account for the rapid decline and abandonment of Angkor have hypothesized natural disasters such as disease (Bubonic Plague), earthquakes, inundations, or drastic climate changes as the relevant agents of destruction.

Incidentally, around Angkor there are massive jungles with trees as tall as may be 50-60 meters and tree trunks up to about 4-5 meters in girth. A huge 8th century boat Carved out of a tree trunk has recently been found near Angkor Wat by a farmer while desilting a river. It is the oldest boat found in Cambodia. Its discovery could shed some light on modes of transportation used for ferrying construction materials to Angkor sites. That is what my Guide Tanny also mentioned to me.

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