Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Angkor part II - Angkor Wat

Ankgor Wat. The crowning accomplishment of Khmer culture. The archetype for all religious architecture in Indochina. The pride and national symbol of Cambodia. The 8th Wonder of the World.  Angelina Jolie's first destination in the Tomb Raider movie.

It's that important.

Angkor Wat was a fantastic conclusion to our exploration of the Khmer monuments. It is a massive temple. From the main west entrance, one first crosses a naga-lined causeway over the moat, passes through an extensive entrance portico, and continues on a long raised platform between pools and libraries before entering the temple itself.  Four concentric squares of galleries, each higher and airier than the last, lead up to the central sanctuary, towering 55 meters above the ground. The effect of this approach and procession are impressive. And unlike all the other Khmer temples, this one has been continually used since it was built - first as a Khmer Hindu site, then as a Buddhist temple into the modern era. It never had to be reclaimed from the jungle or reassembled from collapsed stones. Because of this, its interior carvings are sharply detailed and its columns bear inscriptions and dedications from nine centuries of use. The first gallery is famous for its virtuosic bas-reliefs, which show stories of Khmer military triumph and tales from the Ramayana.

We were able to be there while the crowds dispersed for lunch - it's a poor time for photographs but essentially the only way to not be surrounded by loud tour groups. We were able to lurk around the highest levels in near solitude, gazing over the ancient carvings and wondering how these elaborate spaces would be used in the temple's heyday. While I was sketching in the courtyard on the second level, one of the Apsara guides sat down on the ledge beside me and began to play the troh, a traditional stringed instrument of Cambodia, sending his simple haunting melodies to echo off the towers above. It was a beautiful and incredibly relaxing experience, and my favorite of our time in the mightiest of Wats.

Khmer architecture is all about hierarchy - the center is always the tallest and grandest, with every other part of the composition focused on it; doors were marked by elaborate cornices with tall carved central pediments, roofs were constructed of multiple levels that all stepped up to the center, and the towers of a temple always led to the mightiest and most sacred place at the very center - the metaphorical holy mountain. Cambodian and Thai traditional architecture still follows these rules.

Seeing Angkor Wat also drove home the fact that everything weathers over time. All the temples made use of canonical tower forms, door pediments, carvings, and the like. All of these were clearly discernable and exquisitely done at the fist temple we visited - Banteay Srei - but had worn down to near indiscernability at Angkor itself. The scale and exposure of the large temple subjected its sandstone ornamentation to the full brunt of the weather. Its famous towers now look more like stalactites or giant mushrooms up close, and its elaborately textured roof stones have been reduced to near Modernist geometric simplicity.

Hammad and I both noticed that many of the ancient stone temple buildings we saw looked uncannily like Victorian train stations. Part of this was due to their weather-worn simplicity, but more of it had to do with the common cultural heritage behind almost all of the great civilizations of the Old World. The incredibly familiar column and molding shapes used in Khmer temples show a direct lineage from those of the ancient Greeks, probably carried via India from the time of Alexander the Great. The train station deja vu probably went the other way, as the British adapted the richly ornamented and evocative material cultures they encountered throughout the Empire into their own distinctive look during the Victorian periods.

(Post by Josh)

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