Angkor, Cambodia: Chapter 1, The Stone Seductress

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Angkor, Cambodia: Chapter 1, The Stone Seductress

1. Desire

I desire you

more than food

and drink

 

My body

my senses

my mind

hunger for your taste

 

I can sense your presence

in my heart

although you belong

to all the world

 

I wait

with silent passion

for one gesture

one glance

from you

 

That’s Jalaluddin Rumi’s poem ‘Desire’. It’s the potency of Angkor.

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Dawn over Angkor, from the platform at Phnom Bakheng. Pic: JC 2017

2. Seduction

Angkor is a seductress so powerful evasion is useless. You’re ineluctably swept into her embrace kilometers from the entrance; you can feel the critical mass of her beauty pressing in upon you from all sides though wholly obscured by jungle. Your fascination will be lifelong and when in years subsequent to your visit you think of her, your memories will be tinted with the roseate hues of amorous nostalgia. The Portuguese have a word for this kind of deep, unknowable longing: saudade.

Approaching the enormous, shimmering moat (which alone could swallow the whole Gizeh complex) you’re enveloped as surely as the stones are in the famed Ta Phrom temple, gripped inescapably by the roots of huge strangler fig trees.

You have arrived at the largest religious complex in the world, covering an area greater than that of present-day Paris. By some way the biggest pre-industrial city, with perhaps a million inhabitants. No one really knows for sure. We know, however, its enormity. And you have arrived and are now in love.

The back-breaking work involved in digging huge barays and canals, in cutting and transporting and carving the stone is all buried and forgotten. What is left is a phenomenon of such overwhelming beauty that tears well up like the precious spring stream that rises at Kbal Spean and which a thousand years ago watered the largest city population on Earth.

Angkor’s dominion is such that a few hours of exploration in the high green jungle humidity exhausts you with its profusion of beauty. That abundance is a flowering so ubiquitous you do not know where to turn for relief from the sensations. You’ll return to your hotel clutching your three-day pass (the best-value $62 in the world) and within an hour long to go back. Being away from the complex in those three days feels like a parting from a new-found lover: the one you’ve been waiting for all your life. You’ll ache to drink her with your eyes once more.

 

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Detail from the southern section of the West relief, Angkor Wat. The scene depicts the Battle of Kuruksetra between the Kauravas and the Pandavas. These, advancing from the south, are the Pandavas. The story is told in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata. The ‘razor’ joints can clearly be seen in this shot, which celebrates the incredible depth and perspective, not to mention detail, that the sculptors achieved on this panel. Chaotic scenes are rendered with such artistry that layer upon layer of activity seems to penetrate the stone to its very core. At top left is a slightly bronzed section, created by visitors’ caressing hands, the hue brought out by centuries of loving touch. Indeed, such is the allure of the elephants that their heads (of which there are many) are all polished to a shine. Much of the relief was painted, while important elements such as the portrait of Suryavarman II were gilded. The effect, stunning now after almost a millennium, must have been overwhelming. PIC: JC, 2017.

3. Stone

Angkor is another country, a bourn from which no traveler returns without having been utterly seduced. It’s a country of ripe-bellied apsaras sinewing sensuously to delicate stringed refrains. Thousands upon thousands of them. It was also a site of learning and devotion. Ta Phrom temple, for example, was in fact more a college, really, with up to 15,000 devotees serviced by the workers and traders of the surrounding city.

At that time (the late 12th century), Angkor Wat itself was in the process of swapping out deities: Hinduism out, Buddhism in. The central temple mount of Angkor Wat itself, which is the masterpiece of the reign of Suryavarman II (ruled 1113 – c. 1150), is based on the five-peaked Mount Meru, the home of the Hindu devas. Surrounded by perhaps the most beautiful bas-reliefs ever rendered into stone by human hand, it’s a huge gallery of stunning art. 1200 square meters of beauty, 800 meters long. Almost a kilometer. Bayeux? A piffling 70 meters.

Angkor Wat’s central structure is itself embraced by eight full panels of sandstone bas reliefs (two for each cardinal point). The archaeologist Charles Higham called this sequence of reliefs, which depict scenes from the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as scenes lionizing Suryavarman himself, ‘The greatest known linear arrangement of stone carving.’ No one argues with his assessment.

How did these twelfth-century magicians of the petrologic arts create such a masterpiece? The sandstone blocks they worked on are carved to a depth of just a few centimeters, yet the observer has the impression of peering into the chasm of history.

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Detail from the depiction of the 32 Hells. Eastern section of the South gallery, Angkor Wat. The depth and perspective is created by the highly controlled use of foregrounding. Prominent figures, such as the woman at left with her arm outstretched in supplication, are subtly enhanced by extra depth (around her right thigh and left arm), while perspective is generated by the use of neutral bands (the pale strip just above the woman’s left forearm). The background vegetation is beautifully suggested in just millimeters of depth. There is movement everywhere one looks, with terrified heads agog at every angle. PIC: JC 2017.

4. Effusion

Meanwhile, almost twenty-five kilometers away, the temple at Banteay Srei is early (10th century) and dedicated to the Hindu god Siva. Consecrated on April 22, 967 A.D. it originally carried the name Tribhuvanamaheśvara (Great Lord of the Threefold World; what an awesome name). This moniker referenced the Shaivite linga that served as its central religious image. The profusion of its red sandstone carving is such that imagery seems to be straining to eject itself from the stone, to leap from it and fly free. This hard red sandstone allowed for such depth and intricacy that Banteay Srei rivals the reliefs at Angkor itself as the jewel of Khmer art.[i]

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A kala breaking out of the hard red sandstone on an east-facing pediment at Banteay Srei, Angkor. The hardness of this stone allowed for carving more akin to that of wood with a fineness of detail only matched three centuries later in Gothic style on the West portal of Strasbourg Cathedral. The kala was a creature of Hindu myth, a representation of the god Siva, and of time. The detail here is so astonishing the admirer feels almost assaulted; their fate uncertain in the face of such motive power. It’s popping. PIC: JC 2017.

 

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The author photographing detail on the northern carved fascia at the east end of Phimeanakas, Angkor’s royal palace. The figures are on the fascia of the magnificent Terrace of the Elephants. It’s 13th-century builder, Jayavarman VII, had no hesitation in making the association between his power and that of the elephant. The majestic animals would have populated the site under construction, hauling stones and maneuvering them into position. PIC: Bengal Tigress 2017.

 

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Unfinished symphony: a rough-carved figure on the frontage of the Terrace of the Elephants has been waiting for a finishing hand for ten centuries. Like a prisoner of some Asian Michelangelo, she retains the self-possession granted her by the initial cut. Note the directionality of the grooving by the rough carver, following the contours of the figure’s breast and brow. The ridges above her hair line would have been finally rendered as a jeweled headdress. This was a highly efficient operation: aside from the headdress, the finisher here had little to do but smoothing, with the form so clearly defined already. PIC: JC 2017.

 

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See picture above. I just put this one in because I loved it. PIC: JC 2017.

 

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Recognize this baby? A corner caryatid that looks suspiciously like a hintha bird…. Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor. PIC: JC 2017.

5. Love

This is Angkor for me:

‘Woman is a ray of God. She is not that earthly beloved: she is creative, not created.’

Yup. Rumi again. Who else? Angkor is woman. She is a life-giver, a creator, a generator. She trades in love.

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Resistance is futile: rock-wrangling strangler fig tree roots exert their crushing grip on the stones of Ta Phrom, Angkor. The skeins look so physiological you can almost see them pulsing. PIC: JC 2017.

[i] The red sandstone used at Banteay Srei has a high silica content in the upper 80 percentile range. This compares to the grey sandstones used at Angkor Wat itself for the bas reliefs, whose silica content is in the low 70s per cent. The red sandstone is also composed of grains averaging about 0.3 mm in diameter. These factors mean that the stone at Banteay Srei, which came from a series of small quarries at the foot of Mount Kulen, 35 km northwest of the Angkor site, was much more capable of being worked at depth. The stone was transported by canal on barges, perhaps towed by elephants. The deposits of red sandstone used at Banteay Srei were relatively thin on the ground, which limited the rock’s usage at Angkor. Much more abundant were the grey and grey-green sandstones used throughout the main Angkor temples. I am greatly indebted to La Corse for her assistance in locating the work of Jean Delvert, Etsuo Uchida, and Ichita Shimoda. Salut!

John Clamp

John Clamp

John Clamp has lived, worked, and scuba dived in Asia for ten years. An incorrigible traveler, he knows Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, China, and South America. His favorite places are Rio de Janeiro, Borneo, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Phnom Penh, and the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea.

2 Comments

  • Erika
    Erika

    Your pictures really capture the sheer artistry of Angkor. I don’t think I paid that much attention to the detail on the reliefs when I visited during college. I really missed out….travel is wasted on the young *sigh*

    August 14, 2017 at 9:31 pm
  • Bill L.

    Wonderful article, John! Makes me want to drop everything just to go check it out!

    August 15, 2017 at 4:19 pm
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