The Bas Reliefs of Angkor

There are a total of eight bas relief sections in Angkor. I started with ‘the Battle of Kuruksheta” (south wing), from the Mahabarata poem memorializing the battle between the dynastic Hindu kingdoms of Pandava and Kaurava (all related to one another). Next to this is the gallery of “Heaven and Hell”. Followed by the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. The most popular portion because of the many symbolism it is believed to represent. Then there’s the chilling depiction of  “Vishnu Conquering the Devils”. The last three are as follow: “Vishnu’s Victory over Bana”, “Battle of the Gods” and “Battle of Lanka”. This would have taken you around the outer wall of the temple. A total of 800m of art work of narrative scenes from the Hindu mythology. One thing to note is that the figures were meticulously carved individually. This explains the figures having distinct facial expressions. No two are alike — now, that’s attention to detail!

Now, back to Cambodia. I just finished a whole day trip to the Angkor Wat and the other ancient Khmer structural relics nearby. The heat was unbearable but I had to ensure I visit all places in my itinerary within the day. My pass is only valid for the day. I did not rush the trip but hardly rested. I reached the top of Angkor around noon time (and got a burnt skin for it!) I think this weather explains why Khmers have a slightly brownish complexion compared to their neighbors.

The day ended in the ruins of the old Khmer capital, Angkor Thom and Prasat Bayon, one of the many great temples that had been incorporated into the old city in the 12th century. Fascinating was how the ancient Khmer made the moats, both in Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. Up in a plane, these moats are visible. The bigger moat belongs to Angkor Thom, the smaller, to Angkor Wat. If it where not for these moats, especially in Angkor, the temples would have been completely destroyed by the forest. I would be least surprised if the ancient Khmers foresaw this and created the moats to ensure their legacy would be preserved forever.

My Khmer friend told me that crocodiles were once kept to guard the temple. A recent theory postulated by Japanese archaeologists suggest a possible route the Khmers took from Mt. Kulen going to the ancient sites — they used navigable waterways that was connected to the moat. How they carried tons of stones in rafts sounds crazy but they made it possible.

You see, here we are in the 21st century and we have yet to unlock the secrets of these venerable ancients. And these people walked this earth just a few centuries ago, we still have significant remnants of what they left behind, now imagine if we uncover a civilization 30000-50000 years old with only elfish pieces of their technology?

Imagine if the prehispanic Filipinos left behind something like the Angkor? Those historians who claim that we had a golden age of civilization no longer needs to debate those who go against them! All they have to do is point to where the megaliths and temples to prove their point. This photo is belongs to the ‘Battle of Kuruksheta’ gallery.

They say that Angkor was made to imitate heaven on earth — but I’m sure of one thing, the ancient Khmers created something that was designed to last until heaven comes to earth — these people understood that stones would be around forever. But the temple had been looted before — if there are any real threats to these ancient temples, it is the man who does not appreciate its history.

Pay attention to the paper thin line that runs across this bas relief. That is where the stone block had been joined. What kind of cutting tool the Khmers used to achieved such precision? Evidence shows that they had used very basic tool for carving but no evidence how they manage to slice these solid materials in laser  like precision. To this day no one has an answer.

There are a total of eight bas relief section in Angkor. I started with ‘the Battle of Kuruksheta”, from the Mahabarata poem memorializing the battle between dynastic kingdoms, whose heirs are all related. Next to this is the “Heaven and Hell”. This gallery is followed by the ‘Churning of the Ocean of Milk’. The most popular because of the many symbolism it is believed to represent. The there’s the chilling depiction of “Vishnu Conquering the Devils”. Then there are the “Vishnu’s Victory over Bana”, “Battle of the Gods” and “Battle of Lanka”.

The King has left the building! While I walked along the bas relief, I made sure that I would have a good look at it. It’s astonishing that you’d hardly find a face with a similar expression! The Khmer King, Suryavarman II, a Hindu,  was the guy who ordered the Angkor Wat to be built around the 12th century. Hindu traders reached Cambodia and taught them their religion. They have far more impressive Hindu temple (but Angkor Wat is now a Buddhist temple) than anything the Indians ever built. It’s amazing how Suryavarman II instructions led to something like the Angkor Wat. Throughout time, religion had played a big part in the building of civilizations and monuments. It is interesting how the converted usually becomes more religious than the people that converted them.

Riding the war elephant! The French, after discovering Angkor Wat, could not believe that their subjects ancestors built it. To their mind only the west could build such monuments. What they did not know at that time was that Angkor Wat was built around the time as their Cathedral of Notre Dame and that the two are almost equal in height! The Angkor was finished in under 40 years, the greatest European Cathedrals took a century to finish!

Angkor Wat according to Hancock was designed to make people look at the sky and contemplate the heavens. There’s this pond that reflects the temple, with its tower, as if it was put there to get people to look at it. The fact that they built everything using stone meant that they understood that what they’ve created would be around forever. This is their version of “Heaven and Earth”. How come every form of religion speaks of a heaven and earth? Either these religious leaders are copying from each other or they’ve been taught by tradition that has been handed down from one generation to another.

The Churning of the Ocean of Milk is a popular episode in the Puranic texts of Vedic Sanskrit literature. In the photo Vishnu accompanied by the turtle Avatar Kurma beneath him while the Asuras and Devas, both on the left and right side pull a serpent that acts as a rope. I remember seeing this from our ‘Humanities’ class back in college. But I never understood what it was about. It’s not easy to understand Hindu because we don’t study other great religions in school. From what I gather is that by alternately pulling the ‘naga’ serpent, the motion stirs up the ‘ocean milk’ and this in turn releases the fluids of immortality. Now, some believes that this episode is the representation of the actual cosmos. It’s interesting to note that the ‘Milky Way’ galaxy got its name from classical Greek but the Hindus had always referred to the existence of a ‘Milky’ heavens in their literature.

An unfinished carving of an Apsara dancer. One of the questions that baffled experts for years was how exactly did the ancient Khmer carved the bas relief. There are two suggestions: first, it was pre-carved before it was set in place, second, the Khmers carved it when the blocks were already positioned. I think, the second is more probable. The image above shows that they start working only after the walls had been put in place. And this is more challenging because these are massive blocks of stones quarried from a mountain before being transported to the site. Any mistakes would’ve been disastrous. Imagine a block of stone being removed because a sculptor messed up. This only proves that the men that worked on these stone temples are masters!

April 2013

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