Temples in the grip of Nature

Visit to Kuala Lumpur and Cambodia – 5

“From here we are proceeding to visit the ‘Father Temple’ and later ‘The Mother Temple’, and after lunch, the last one which the king built in honour of his teacher,” informed Chi who also assured that there will not be much of climbing steps as in Angkor Wat or Bayon which came as a relief to me in particular.

The ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’ temples are Preah Khan and Ta Prohm, built by Jayavarman VII and dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman, and the second temple to his mother.

Ta Prohm

Shrouded in dense jungle, the temple of Ta Prohm is very much different right from its approach which involves a long walk. We came across a group of landmine victims performing melodious music which was resonating in the air. They were selling CDs of the killing fields costing $ 10 each.


Approach to Ta Prohm Temple
Approach to Ta Prohm Temple

Ta Prohm is certainly a nature lover’s paradise! Centuries-old trees – fig, banyan and kapok – appear to be vying with the structures spreading their gigantic roots over stones, probing walls and terraces apart as their branches and leaves intertwine to form a roof over the structures.

nature coexists with structures
nature coexists with structures

Strangely these trees act both as protectors and agents of destruction be it buildings or monuments. The plant takes hold in a crevice somewhere in the super structure of a building, usually where a bird had deposited a seed and extends roots downwards to the soil. In doing so, the roots work their way between the masonry, so that as they grow thicker, they gradually wedge open the blocks eventually becoming a support for the building. But when the tree dies or becomes a victim of nature’s fury, the loosened blocks collapse.

We entered through Gopura 4 on the eastern side (the most important of this temple’s entrances) which has double rows of pillars inside. The interesting part here are the tall bas-reliefs, with scenes from the life of Buddha, on the outer and inner walls.
As you walk along you find Nature’s encroachment here too – the roots of an enormous silk cotton tree enveloping part of the wall, one of them running vertically right next to a Devata.

We didn’t spend too long over here as the heat was enervating, sapping our energy. Also, we wanted to make it to Preah Khan before lunch.

On our way back we were literally besieged by two young boys holding out a set of picture postcards saying, “One daahler” (one dollar). Though I had already purchased a set at Angkor Wat (having been duped by a young woman who charged $ 2 for the set) I gave in looking at their innocent faces.

Chi said these boys hand over the money to their fathers who mostly were farmers and they used the money to buy uniforms for their school-going children.

As we were leaving, a framed board outside caught my attention. It read ‘India –Cambodia co-operation project for conservation and restoration of Ta Prohm temple’.

Chi asked if I could read the script below. And I read out the Hindi script and told Chi it was a translation of what appeared above and found him smiling away.

Preah Khan

In Preah Khan temple too Nature coexisted with the archeological structure resulting in its protection and destruction as in Ta Prohm. The difference perhaps is here the worst destruction took place by humans as part of a determined effort to transform the Buddhist complex into a Hindu temple.

The walkway at the eastern entrance covers 200 metres to the gopura of the fourth enclosure, the first part is lined with boundary stones. The faces of their square sectioned pillars have a carving of a monster with a human torso and hands raised, the legs of a Garuda, and a lion-like face: this unusual combination was rather intriguing.

Niches in the caps of the boundary stones originally had the image of Buddha which was disfigured in the return to Hinduism in the second half of the 13th century. At the centre of the central sanctuary is a small stupa, originally a statue in the likeness of Jayavarman VII’s father stood there.

Three small rectangular temples surround the Buddha temple: the north is dedicated to Shiva, the south to the deceased kings and queens and the west to Vishnu.

The north temple’s west pediment shows Vishnu reclining and Lakshmi at his feet, a familiar scene in our temples, but I found their headdresses were different. The east has the Hindu trinity: Shiva flanked by Brahma and Vishnu.

Banteay Srei Temple

Post-lunch we headed to Banteay Srei temple which is a distance of 20 km. All along the way Chi continued referring to it as a small temple but with rich architecture.

Banteay Srei Temple
Banteay Srei Temple

Banteay Srei, which means the ‘Citadel of Women’ is indeed an exquisite miniature, its compactness and intactness presented a real contrast to the sprawling temples, (half in ruins) we had previously visited.

Described as a ‘precious gem’ and a ‘jewel in Khmer art’, it was built in the second half of the 10th century by a Brahmin of royal descent who was the spiritual teacher to king Jayavarman V.

The intricate pink sandstone carvings depicting the story of our epics, especially the Ramayana, are reminiscent of our own temples. There are three shrines arranged side by side in a north to south line standing on a common low platform and opening to the east.

The principal shrine contains a mounted Shiva Linga. Chi explained that the three levels represent Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. After a detailed tour of this deceptively small temple with lots and lots of magnificent carvings, (no single space appears without a theme or a story from our epics) you emerge with an “aesthetic” satisfaction and feel amply rewarded for the time spent.

Tonle Sap

The last day was a boat trip on the Tonle Sap, the largest permanent fresh water lake in South-East Asia.

floating village
floating village

We got to see ‘life on a lake’ – people permanently living in houseboats parked around and all their needs being taken care of. Supermarkets, schools, mechanic shops, restaurants, a mosque and a church, school for children, billiard table and what not, everything made available in the vicinity, not on land but on the lake.

During the rainy season the whole ‘village’ is towed to the mountains to return once summer sets in to continue life on the lake. We were attracted by the souvenir shop which had everything that was specific to this temple city — right from keychains with temple pictures to models of Tuk Tuks , rickshaws attached to a motorbike, a popular transport in the city. After purchasing one, I found it was an older version as the rick was attached to a cycle and not a bike!

My personal observations:

The Hindu and Buddhist temples we visited do have their sanctity because of the idols that were installed and worshipped by the reigning kings of the time. Though a few idols remain, some intact and others in different stages of destruction, no worship takes place. The temples are worth visiting as they provide not only a cultural and architectural feast but also show the extent of Indian influence the country and its people have had.

Though we do not find practitioners of Hindu religion as the majority are Buddhists, followed by Christians and Muslims, it is heartening to find the Hindu temples are preserved and maintained albeit for tourist interest (It was interesting to watch tourist guides explaining stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata to visitors from the US and other countries). Apart from the Government of India, the governments of China and France have also extended cooperation in the temples’ conservation and restoration.
Food: The only vegetarian food you get is perhaps rice and boiled vegetables (I had difficulty in making the waiter understand what we meant by vegetarian food) because Cambodians are predominantly non-vegetarians.
Chi spoke English fairly well but Ra, the driver, was conversant only in Cambodian, which was a mix of Sanskrit and Pali, said Chi.
N Meera Raghavendra Rao


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