Virtual meanderings

Discovering Angkor

“Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.”
― Italo Calvino, “Invisible Cities

    You have been told that there exists a huge temple in the jungle, the biggest anyone has ever seen. But what do Khmer people know about big? Have they ever been to Europe to marvel at the magnificent French cathedrals? Of course not…

     You are on your way to that temple. Your Khmer guide stops and points his finger forward – and then you see it for the very first time – half immersed into the jungle. How old is it? Why is it almost abandoned? What happened? When? Why?

    You are a French guy called Henri Mouhot, and it is the mid 19-th century. You move closer and here is what you see-

Henri Mouhot's drawing of Angkor

Henri Mouhot's drawing of Angkor

You enter the compounds. Cambodia is a place where Theravada Buddhism has ruled for centuries, but you immediately take notice of the hundreds of statues of beautiful half-naked women. You are not sure how come they abound here. Then you reach the central building – a temple of sorts for the few locals living in the area. You spend the day marvelling at its hundreds of meters of bas-reliefs – whose scenes inexplicably resemble episodes from the Indian epic Mahabharata. Then you remember those strange creatures above some of the entrances – don’t they look like the garudas you’ve seen elsewhere? And the half-naked female dancers – could they be apsaras?

You leave your hypotheses for later, and you set out to create a sketch of Ankgor Wat’s architectural plan. Here is what you come up with:

Angkor Wat architectural blueprint

Angkor Wat architectural blueprint

Just as the mighty cathedrals in your home France were built in the shape of a cross, you start to wonder whether Angkor “the Wat” was built with some symbolism in mind. All the clues suggest but one answer to the professional – this is the Mount_Meru.

   But, Henri, you would be less suprised with your findings if you knew of the account of a Portugese predecessor of yours whose visit predated yours by three centuries. Here is what he – Antonio da Magdalena – wrote in in 1586, long before you ‘discovered’ Angkor – “It is of such extraordinary construction that it is not possible to describe it with a pen, particularly since it is like no other building in the world. It has towers and decoration and all the refinements which the human genius can conceive of.”

Sadly, Henri, our 21-st century public never heard of Antonio, nor of yourself for that matter. The public only heard about Angkor’s existence when it was used as the movie set for the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie.  

“It is frequently said that Angkor ‘was discovered by the Europeans’ but this is patently nonsense and simply reflects a Eurocentric view. The Khmersnever forgot the existance of their monuments, and even if they neglected the majority of their temples, Angkor Wat always remained occupied and a place of worship.” Claude Jacques, “Ancient Angkor

Henri Mouhot, our character of choice, meticulously began to uncover the secrets of Angkor, other researchers soon followed. They gathered evidence, dug out old records, made their comparative studies and did their cross references. It took years of work and speculations to build up the story – one piece at a time – but eventually it was complete. Now you know that Angkor was built in the 12th century as the new capital for King Suryavarman II.

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Let us put these events into a wider perspective. Angkor – the capital city – was completed a mere decade before the great Genghis Khan was born. Angkor Thom – its younger, and much bigger brother – built by King Jayavarman VII  was complete at the time of the Great Khan’s death around 1230 AD.

Asia 1200 AD

Asia 1200 AD - Golden age of the Khmer Empire

    And then Henri, in 1861 you died. In case you wondered, here is how the story went on afterwords – a mere two years after your death – in 1863, your fellow countrymen the French scored yet another major victory by getting King Norodom I to sign a treaty making Cambodia a French ‘protectorate’. At that time his destitute country was under joint Vietnamese (Annamese) and Thai (Siamese) rule. The two powers had partitioned Cambodia between them, but the royal family was related to the Siamese and resided in the Siamese zone.

    Of course, that was just the beginning of the French headway into South-East Asia. In 1867 the Thai king signed a treaty with France, renouncing suzerainty over Cambodia in exchange for the control of Battambang and Siem Reap provinces. Yes, Henri – that same provice where Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom were was now officially a part of Thailand. I wonder how Siem Reap (Siam Defeated) was called during that period – Khmer Reap, perhaps?

   Those were the glorious days of the Second French Empire headed by Napoleon III (a nephew of the original Napoleon Bonaparte). It was a defining time for Europe and Napoleon III himself was a telling figure of the age – being the last emperor as well as the first president of France. During that very same year – 1867 – Marx published Das Kapital. The Paris Commune was a mere four years away.

     But the Europeans did not stop. The two provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap were ceded back to “Cambodia” by a border treaty between France and Thailand in 1906. “Cambodia” itself being a part of French Indochina. The golden age from the times of Angkor – long gone, the land – not even a shadow of its original might. History knows no ‘if’, yet it is an interesting question whether Cambodia as a state would have made it to the present days had it not been colonized… Its neighbors seemed content keeping it as a buffer state between themselves and little else. Then there was Japanese control, fight for independence, Khmer Rouge… a never-ending story.

   Now you, the Angkor Wat visitor, finally realize what has been before your eyes all along – Angor Wat is the living memory of Cambodia throughout the centuries. It almost disappeared forever…. but in times of glory it was a proud capital…, in times of decline it was overrun by the jungle…, in times of non-statehood it survived as a spiritual temple…, in times of civil war and unrest it was sometimes shot at or vandalized…, in times of anarchy it was robbed and statues heads were hacked…, in times of opening to the world it is a symbol of pride and a cash cow.

in times of decline it was devoured by the jungle...

in times of decline it was overrun by the jungle...

Courtesy: Domini1k @ flickr

in times of civil war and unrest it was sometimes shot at... times of civil war and unrest it was sometimes shot at...

... or vandalized...

... or vandalized... times of anarchy it was robbed and statues heads were hacked… times of anarchy it was robbed and statues heads were hacked…


In times of glory it was a proud capital...

In times of glory it was a proud capital...

Cortesy: wikipedia

“The ultimate meaning to which all stories refer has two faces: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death.”, Italo Calvino

See some of my other Angkor photos here.


2 responses to “Discovering Angkor

  1. Pingback: Ho-Lao-Graphic Image « mastercopycat

  2. Pingback: Hanoi | Master(s) of Puppets « mastercopycat

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