Some of the topics Zhou Daguan addressed in his account are those of religion, justice, kingship, agriculture, slavery, birds, vegetables, bathing, clothing, tools, draft animals, and commerce. In one passage, he described a royal procession consisting of soldiers, numerous servant women and concubines, ministers and princes, and finally, “the sovereign, standing on an elephant, holding his sacred sword in his hand.” Together with the inscriptions that have been found on stelae Angkorian stelae, temples and other monuments, and with bas-relief at Bayon and the Angkor Wat, Zhou’s journal is the most important source of information about everyday life at Angkor. Filled with vivid anecdotes and sometimes
incredulous observations of a civilization that struck Zhou as colorful and exotic, it is an entertaining travel memoir as well. Nevertheless, that was over 150 years after the Temples were built. However, come to think of it, that is a long long time, even geologically.
During the year 2000 AD, some scenes for the movie Tomb Raider (Angelina Jolie figured as the virtual Lara Croft) were filmed at Angkor Wat. Angkor was already very famous by then; for me, it had been 17 years since I had read of Angkor first. Tourism was already on the up. Film sets were built around Angkor Wat amidst the din of a “fallen society” reverberations; an interpretation given by French colonisers. Though it was in 1862 that it was “discovered”, Angkor has remained intact even nearly 150 years later. So much for the fallen-society.
It appears UNESCO after taking Angkor under its wings, began some restoration efforts. Indians too chipped in. Now the Germans are at it. But these efforts look very out of place, very shallow and
entirely out of sync with the surroundings. Contrast the restoration effort of Angkor Wat with Ta Prohm which has been left largely untouched, being conserved as a partial ruin. This has been intentional, to preserve the atmospheric experience so that visitors, the more discerning ones though, may imagine themselves, as early explorers might have. Even Preah Khan, has also been conserved as a partial ruin. The World Monument Fund has even charted out a proper route for you to get the most out of your visit. Some tourists would like to have a feel of the jungled ruins of Angkor that Lara Croft did in the Movie. If you really want that feel, please visit in August-September. But kindly be ready for flash floods and a few pythons swimming along.
However, even that does not satiate the hunger for an answer to be question of primacy – what devastated Angkor? On one hand you have these huge Cotton Silk Trees, Ceiba pentandra mercilessly strangulating buildings at will, which is nothing but apathy of untold proportions – such trees taking decades to grow to their present shape & size. Whilst lesser mortals exult in taking selfies next to such marauding trees, at least some of us should think; should have begun to think in the nineteenth century itself. After all, these trees grow very slowly from tiny seeds and could have been nipped in the veritable bud itself. The temple buildings could have been spared of life threatening noose our as also the future generations would have had better sites to behold. Alas, we did not.
Extensive studies by Dendrochronologists from Columbia University and other such highly respected educational institutions, as late as 2004-07 AD, suggest that there had been severe droughts and excessively heavy monsoons that might not only have created conditions of differential settlement of walls and floors of buildings but might, in all likelihood, have contributed most significantly towards damage to the Angkor complexes. Such vagaries sustained over centuries may have prompted the then rulers to shift the mighty capital from Siem Reap to Phnom Penh.
As one thinks ever more deeply, what emerges as the key issue is not what happened? It is why & where did they, who would have been great scholars in the relevant study of Temple art, architecture and construction, went wrong. Or just that they had no idea of the immeasurable damage to the environment by future generations; something not fathomable by them nearly a thousand years ago. Come to think of it that they might have been bereft of any recorded history of natural disasters that might have occurred in their past.
Brendan Buckley of Columbia University, finds that “Angkor droughts were of a duration and severity that would have impacted the sprawling city’s water supply and agricultural productivity, while high-magnitude monsoon years damaged its water control infrastructure.” And add to that the devastating effects of El Nino and La Nina conditions in the Pacific Ocean, as the northern hemisphere. One too many challenges to face by too few people. Interrelated infrastructural, economic, and geopolitical stresses had made Angkor vulnerable to climate change and limited its capacity to adapt to changing circumstances.”
Dendrochronologists have been able to reconstruct about 760 years of past climate in the region surrounding Angkor by studying the annual growth rings of a cypress tree, Fokienia hodginsii, growing in the highlands of Vietnam’s Bidoup Nui Ba National Park, about 700 kilometers away. By hiking high into the mountain cloud forests, the researchers were able to find rare specimens over 1,000 years old that had not been touched by loggers. After extracting tiny cores of wood showing the trees’ annual growth rings, researchers reconstructed year-to-year moisture levels in this part of Southeast Asia from 1250 to 2008. The tree rings revealed evidence of a mega-drought lasting three decades from the 1330s to 1360s followed by a more severe but shorter drought from the 1400s to 1420s. Available written records corroborate the latter drought, which may have been felt as far away as Sri Lanka and central China.
The droughts may have been devastating for a civilization dependent on farming and an irrigation system of reservoirs, canals and embankments sprawling across more than a thousand square kilometers. The droughts could have led to crop failure and a rise in infectious disease, and both problems would have been exacerbated by the density of the population, Buckley says.
The study also finds that the droughts were punctuated by several extraordinarily intense rainy seasons that may have damaged Angkor’s hydraulic system. During a normal monsoon season, Angkor’s hydraulic network could have handled heavy downpours, but after extended droughts, the system may have become vulnerable to massive siltation and clogging, the study suggests. Layers of coarse debris and other sediments found blocking some canals appear to have been laid down suddenly. In other spots, apparently sudden erosion cut canals as much as 08 meters below the surrounding landscape, potentially destabilizing the hydraulic system. Archeologists have found additional evidence that canals were rebuilt and rerouted to cope with water shortages.
These and many more studies appear reassuring or at least there is some plausible answer that these proffer as to what vagaries of nature those men & women must have endured. What vagaries Angkor must have endured alongside those men & women, one wonders. Armed with these facts, if one discovers, Angkor, the very spirit of that discovery would be much more authentic, I believe.
Whoever or whatever the cause, the appearance of these beautiful temples has been changed for worse, for ever; beyond any correction.