Angkor: Myth and Mystery

There are layers here, interwoven with mystery and symbolism, in this ancient capital of the Khmer Empire.  Set in the dense jungles of northwestern Cambodia, the Archaeological Park stretches over some 400 square kilometers across hot and torpid plains.   Wandering through the labyrinthine sites, where rampant vegetation threatens to devour the masonry, one can’t help but be cast under a spell.  The added effect of the dark, storm clouds gathering through the heat of the day,  made it feel quite atmospheric.

Historical stories are revealed through bas reliefs carved into wall panels and over pediments.  Hindu legends based on the Ramayama and the Mahabharata portray fabulous scenes: epic battles, cosmic myths, of sentinels and guardians who protect portals and the primordial conflict between gods and demons.   There’s celebration too, dancing nymphs and triumphant processions in the gathering of amrita, the ambrosial nectar that guaranteed immortality.

There are revered animal avatars too.  The king of the monkeys, Lord Hanuman, who was the son of the god of wind and who could thus fly, was sent on missions of reconnaissance; and the monkey soldiers went out to support good deeds. As did the elephant deities, Ganesha and the three-headed elephant Airavata.  They appear represented in stone carvings on pedestals and at victory gates, so tall and proud.   Depicted in a principal scene, carved into a 300 meter long terrace, elephants are hunting under the guidance of the mahouts charging through the foliage using their trunks to fight off tigers. Elsewhere they can be seen holding a cow or holding a man upside down.  Another scene shows them decked out for a Royal procession led by the King and attended by his royal court.   The three headed elephant – Airavata, flanks the stairway, representing rain and prosperity.

An immense green backdrop of trees rise like giants on the landscape.  Stunning silk cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra) grow to heights of 30-40 meters and tower above with magnificent spreading crowns.   Strangler figs (Ficus gibbosa), ensnare the temples in terrific coiling root systems, looking more like enormous reptiles than plants.  The Chheuteal trees (Dipterocarpus alatus), colloquially known as Resin trees, dominate the Angkor forests.  They grow up to 50 meters tall, a true species of tropical evergreen forests.  They also often occur gregariously along river banks.

Against this evocative backdrop, other characters appear, shape shifting into view – the monkeys scaling temple stones, posing like gods.  An elephant carrying sightseers, a shadow passing by as his long gone ancestors would have done crossing the parade ground in front of the elephant terrace.  Avatars moving in temporal shifts.

14 thoughts on “Angkor: Myth and Mystery

    1. Yes, wasn’t the foresight in the design and layout visionary. Also from a practical point, the engineering works of a extensive water hydraulic system laid out in grids was phenomenal. Labour intensive stuff and the stone was quarried some miles away, which entailed hauling through the jungle. There are illustrations of elephant rigged up with pulling ropes, and the blocks have drilled holes where ‘pincers’ and pulleys were set up. It must have been so laborious. And then all those stone masons chiselling away at the bas reliefs. Must have been incredible. A population was estimated to be nearly 1 million inhabiting the area at the height of the era.

    1. We went alone, but under recommendations from friends who’d previously visited. Once there we hired locals – there is an informal industry of tuk-tuk drivers and government trained guides at each of the sites, who are very knowledgeable. There is so much to see, and we’re glad we opted for a week’s pass instead of the usual 2/3 days which most tourists go for. We planned a leisurely pace – the heat was exhausting and being in the monsoon season we had to take time out from rain showers. Managed to avoid the crowds, which apparently during the dry season are are unnerving.

  1. This place is so magical, as is your description and photos. I’d like to go back and see it with new eyes. I was trying to understand it when I was there but of course never could.
    Alison

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