Visit to Kuala Lumpur and Cambodia – 4
We set out early the next morning as Chi had chalked out a whole day itinerary for us which was visiting Angkor Thom, Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Srei temples.
On the way, Chi explained to us that Angkor Thom, which means “a great city”, built by Jayavarman VII during the end of the 12th century and beginning of the 13th century, was the last capital and it served as the religious and administrative centre of the vast and powerful Khmer Empire.
The five gates, which are similar, have a triple tower and are carved with four faces that closely resemble the statues of Jayavarman VII. (I found their expression unfathomable).
Churning the Ocean of Milk
We approached the city through the south gate after crossing the moat. The wide and long path is lined with an avenue of statues. On the left and on the right, two rows of figures each carry the body of a giant serpent – a seven-headed Naga in the shape of a fan which extends from the beginning of the cause way.
Just a glance at the figures shows the contrast – the almond-shaped eyes with their placid faces are the Devas while the ones with a fierce grimace and disgruntled expressions are the Asuras. The parallels with the churning of the Ocean of Milk particularly as sculpted on the gallery of Angkor Wat are complete with their headdresses. The Devas wear a conical headdress and the Asuras wear a military headdress.
The first impression when you set eyes on Bayon, situated at the centre of Angkor Thom, is its uniqueness. The architecture and grandeur of the temple reflects the dynamism and expansiveness of the king’s reign, (at the mention of Jayavarman VII Chi’s face lights up and he starts reeling out all the good things he did for his people — building temples, schools and hospitals).
Once inside, we were overawed by this architectural marvel and its symmetry which competes with Angkor Wat with its extensive religious and mythical bas-reliefs. It has two sets of bas-reliefs on the first two levels. The inner gallery is decorated with mythical scenes constituting Hindu mythology. The bas-reliefs on the outer gallery are a marked departure containing scenes of every day life — markets with motley crowds, fishing activity, festivals with cock fights, etc., and jugglers and so on and historical scenes with battles and processions, which made me wonder at their juxtaposition.
I stood transfixed at the workmanship of the reliefs in the eastern gallery which are divided into three panels and depict a military procession with banners and a background of tropical trees.
On the top tier, warriors with their short hair, heads unprotected are armed with javelins and shields, while those on the lower tier have goatee beards and wear exotic headdresses, which suggest they are Chinese. Musicians are seen accompanying the warriors. Horsemen riding bareback flank the musicians.
The commanders of the troops, including Jayavarman VII, identified by parasols with tiers and insignias, are mounted on elephants and are preceded by women of the palace who follow the king. Towards the end of the procession, covered wooden carts carry provisions of food for the military. A woman is seen crouching blowing fire for the food in the pot to cook.
The procession continues, the reliefs follow on with genre scenes of everyday life and include a coconut tree with monkeys perched on it. A tiered wooden building appears like a store. The headdresses, clothing and objects hanging from the ceiling suggest the inmates are Chinese.
The third level comes as an architectural climax with the central sanctuary and the faces of Avalokiteshvara. The central mass is circular, something uncommon in Khmer art. The expressions on the faces on four sides of the eight towers marking the cardinal directions are rather intriguing. However, the iconography of the four faces has been widely debated by scholars and, although some think they represent the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, in keeping with the Buddhist character of the temple, it is generally accepted that the four faces on each of the towers are images of King Jayavarman VII and signify the omnipresence of the king.
Even as we were emerging out of Bayon admiring what we had just seen, Chi reminded us that we had to see the rest of the sights in Angkor Thom – The Royal Palace, Terrace of Elephants and The Leper King.
The Royal Palace
Expecting to see at least some portions of the Royal Palace with traces of royalty preserved, I was thoroughly disappointed to find the recognisable remains which start from the main road with two foundations, now known as The Terrace of Elephants and Terrace of the Leper King. They are only projections with steps evenly spaced along the terraces which lead to an open area that was a Royal Plaza used by Jayavarman VII for reviewing troops, processions, hosting festivals and ceremonies.
The Terrace of the Elephants (not exactly a terrace because you don’t have to climb steps to see it) extends over 300 metres in length from the Baphuon to the Terrace of the Leper King. The main attraction of this terrace is the façade decorated with elephants and their riders depicted in profile. Examine closely and you find all the pachyderms, whose size makes them look very much lifelike. They are using their trunks to hunt and fight while tigers claw at them.
Terrace of the Leper King
The sight of the statue (a copy, the original one is in the courtyard of the National Museum in Phnom Penh) in a sitting position on a platform, with his right arm placed on his raised right knee,
left arm placed on his left folded leg and a yellow silk cloth running across his left shoulder arouses your curiosity about the subject.
Mystery and uncertainty surround the origin as to the name. When you notice the missing left foot and fingers on the right hand , you understand the reason for the missing body parts (Chi’s explanation: When the King killed a snake, its venom splashed on his body and some of it went into his mouth and he died a year later.) I wondered at the purpose of the locked box that was placed in front of the statue. Burnt incense sticks were seen on either side.
N Meera Raghavendra Rao