Angkor Wat and the Great Khmer Temples:  When sandstone soars

The Enterprise — Michael Nardacci

The classic view of the ethereal central temple of Angkor Wat is reflected in the surrounding moat.  The temple’s walls and towers show scars of the chaos under the Khmer Rouge.

The classic view of the central temple of Angkor Wat is from the bank of the surrounding moat. When a gentle breeze stirs the water into tiny wavelets, the reflection of the temple’s five towers against scattered clouds in the mild Cambodian sky looks like a pointillist painting, with splashes of white and blue and gray and brown producing an image that might have come from the palette of Georges Seurat; when the surface of the water is mirror-smooth, usually at dawn or dusk, low sunlight softly illuminates the looming lotus-shaped towers or silhouettes them against the multi-colored western sky, creating a scene out of an ancient Khmer epic and its perfect inverted image.

But Angkor Wat is only one of hundreds of beautiful structures built by the kings of the ancient Khmer Empire. With the nightmare of the rule of the murdering Khmer Rouge over, archeologists and artisans are today back at work, restoring many of the structures and retrieving dozens more from the choking jungles — which, ironically, have in many cases saved the temples from collapse.

Unlike the great buildings of many other ancient civilizations — the granite and quartzite monuments of ancient Egypt; the marble beauties of the Parthenon and other structures on the Acropolis in Athens; the astounding achievements in concrete and brick of the ancient Romans — Angkor Wat and the many other temples and royal pavilions were constructed from one of the humblest of sedimentary rocks: sandstone.

The term “sandstone” is generic because technically any type of rock can be reduced to sand-grain-sized particles and then cemented together to form rock.  But the term usually refers to rock composed of silica sand — the sand found on many of the beaches and in many of the dunes of the Earth.  In some places, the silica is mixed with shell fragments of many sizes, producing “calcareous sandstone,” which weathers in natural acids just as limestone, marble, and gypsum will.



But the sandstone of Cambodia’s Kulen Mountains from which the Angor temples are constructed is essentially pure silica, which does not easily weather chemically, and, given the often extremely humid climate conditions of Cambodia, is undoubtedly the reason that the Angkor temples have survived relatively intact for so many centuries. Had they been built from limestone or marble, the natural acids of the environment and the entangling vines would almost certainly have erased the many delicate architectural and sculptural features of the temples, leaving behind only sad, stubby remnants protruding from the lush jungle floor.

The earliest of the temples were constructed in the 10th Century by the first kings of what would eventually emerge as the ancient Hindu Khmer Empire, men with melodious names such as Jayavarman, Harshavarman, and Suryavarman.  Unlike the great temples of many Western civilizations, these Hindu religious structures were not intended as gathering places for worship by the faithful but as residences for the gods of the Hindu pantheon.

In this function, they exhibit some similarities to many ancient Egyptian temples. Only the attending priests entered a temple’s inner sanctum and worshippers would gather outside the building’s walls for prayers and rituals.  Thus, the temples’ architects did not have to solve the challenges of constructing and covering immense gathering spaces such as are found in Christian basilicas, Islamic mosques, and Jewish synagogues.

As a result, the temples’ interiors are dimly-lighted and maze-like, with long corridors, steep ascending and descending staircases, and small, often diminutive chapels in which statues of Hindu gods and goddesses — and somewhat more recent depictions of the Buddha — reside in the incensed gloom. Both interior and exterior walls are covered with thousands of square feet of beautifully detailed carved figures from the Hindu pantheon and with the enchanting “apsaras,” the winsome dancing maidens with smiles as enigmatic as that of the Mona Lisa.

A few miles from the main temple at Angkor stands a small temple known as Banteay Srei, and though unlike Angkor Wat it does not seek to overwhelm the visitor with vastness and mass, it leaves its impression though the astounding delicacy and intricacy of its carvings. It is familiarly known as “the Citadel of Women” because of its numerous carvings of Hindu goddesses and the ubiquitous “apsaras.”

Perhaps because nowhere do its many chapels stand more than 30 feet in height and the fact that until fairly recently the temple was protected by the vines and tree trunks of the enfolding jungle, the intricate, filigree-like carvings that seem to cover every square foot of the exterior and interior of the structures are preserved in stunning detail.  Here the hard Kulen Mountains sandstone has retained much of its original cinnamon-red color.

To wander through its open-air maze-like layout is to enter a fantastic world of goddesses and other figures out of the Hindu pantheon, alluring or sometimes frightening fantastical animal-headed humanoids, juxtaposed with delicately-depicted trees and flowers.





The Bayon

Closer to the central area of Angkor Wat is the great temple known as The Bayon, which the French archeologist and restorer Bernard Phillippe Groslier has called “the most amazing piece of architecture in existence.”  It was constructed by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th Century A.D. at which time the Khmer kings had briefly converted to Buddhism, and The Bayon shows the influence of both religions, though the Buddhist images dominate.

It is not as well preserved as some of the other Khmer temples; it seems to have been somewhat hastily constructed.  Consequently it has not weathered the centuries so well.  Nonetheless, even in its mildly dilapidated state, it captures the imagination as perhaps no other building on Earth.

The Bayon rises out of the jungle on a series of stone platforms in what a tourist guide describes as “a stone mountain of ascending peaks” capped by 37 towers, though archeologists speculate there may have once been as many as 20 more.  The looming towers are built of layer upon layer of gigantic stone blocks, and each exposed side of the blocks features a carving of the face of the Buddha — or, perhaps, the face is that of Jayavarman VII himself, depicted with his eyes closed in meditation and with the Buddha’s mystical smile.

The visitor tries in vain to count the dozens — then, hundreds — of faces of various sizes and states of preservation, aimed at the four major points of the compass. The fact that some of the faces are only partially preserved — a disembodied smile here, an ear or eyes on an eroded face there — makes the scene all the more mysterious and alluring.

The temple has the same darkened interior maze of corridors, staircases, chapels, and dungeons of many of the other Angkor temples. But the mysteriously smiling faces never suggest danger, even when one is ascending or descending one of the dizzyingly steep flights of stairs or is momentarily disoriented in one of the decorated corridors.

Rather, the general impression is one of peace and connection with the infinite among the smiling visages on the towers reaching toward the sky. As in Angor Wat, everywhere is the odor of incense, and at any turn a visitor may come unexpectedly upon a statue of the Buddha draped in a saffron-colored robe, bedecked with brightly-colored flowers and fruits.  From an unseen source may come the tinkle of copper bells or the chanting of monks: the effect is of a Buddhist mantra become tangible.

Ta Prohm

Besides Angkor Wat itself, the temple known as Ta Prohm is perhaps the most familiar to Western eyes as its setting irresistibly evokes the romantic spirit of the Indiana Jones epics. Situated a few miles from Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm retains — by deliberate design of the archeologists — much of the appearance of the entire vast temple complex when it first came to the attention of Western explorers in the late 1800s.  Its extensive staircases, courtyards, chapels, and hallways have been left to a large extent wrapped in the huge above-ground roots of immense Silk Cotton trees and the smaller vines of the strangler fig.  And therein lies a paradox.

While the process known as “root-wedging” is one of the most efficient methods of breaking down rock — many of us have seen our sidewalks and driveways damaged or even destroyed by the roots of trees that get under or between concrete surfaces — the giant roots of the engulfing tropical trees at Ta Prohm and scores of the other ancient Khmer temples have held its immense carved sandstone blocks in place.

As many of the other temples were restored, the huge encasing roots were removed and any stones that had been displaced were returned to their original positions and secured with mortar. But at Ta Prohm, the visitor gets a sense of what it was that the first explorers saw when they trudged through the steamy jungle and laid eyes on the spectacular remnants of the ancient Khmer kingdoms.

The serpentine appearance of the huge roots and vines adds immeasurably to the haunting lure of the mazes of the temple’s interior and, where they hang suspended or wrap around the statue of a Hindu deity or a frieze of dancing “apsaras,” they evoke awareness of the passage of eons and hint at the glories of lost civilizations.

One wall carving that is not obscured by the huge trees presents a mystery that has provoked controversy from the day of its discovery, but it is well known to the local guides — some of whom are children who have played hooky from school and scurry about the temple, hoping to pick up tips from tourists for showing them what the kids call the “dee-no-soo”:  a stunningly accurate depiction of the dinosaur known as a Stegosaurus, triangular back-plates and all.

Given the fact that the critter has been extinct for at least 66 million years, is this carving simply an amazing coincidence — depicting some hitherto unknown figure out of Hindu mythology?  Or is it conceivable that some ancient Khmer sculptor had seen an almost-intact fossil of the beast or heard accounts of it from someone who had?

Needless to say — the accuracy of the carving and its mystical location have produced all kinds of so-called “non-mainstream” theories about its origin of the kind presented all too frequently on cable TV. It represents one more of the conundrums that the Angkor temples present.

Reign of terror

Sadly, visitors to the temples also learn of history that is much more recent than the annals of the Khmer kingdoms.  On the walls of many of the temples — and very obvious at Angkor Wat itself — are ugly, shallow holes: the scars of bullets that bespeak the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge, the Marxist thugs who took control of Cambodia while the Vietnam War raged to the country’s east.

At first welcomed by the United States and its allies as a buffer against the Viet Cong, the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot set up a dictatorship that even by the standards of 20th-Century atrocities is remarkable for its truly demonic savagery.  Horrifying evidence of the brutality is provided by the many beggars who haunt the ruins, often missing limbs or eyes.

At first, the Khmer Rouge forced its utopian plans for a pure Marxist state in Cambodia on the country’s peasants and intellectuals and former rulers, but the revolution soon turned inward as so many revolutions do and began killing its own members whose dedication was not regarded as “pure” enough.  Two million Cambodians died in the resulting slaughter, and though both the Khmer Rouge and the intruding Viet Cong called themselves Communist, their struggles for power were sometimes fought right within the Angor temples as control of the great buildings was held to be symbolic of political power.

Statues were beheaded and carvings were torn from walls and the beautiful artworks of the ancient Khmer were sold on the black market to raise money for Pol Pot’s draconian schemes. Miraculously, many have since been recovered and some have already been replaced — but the scars left upon the temples fade slowly as do the memories of the gentle people of Cambodia who lived through the Khmer Rouge nightmare.

The temples today rise like dreams from the misty jungle, their restored beauty and grace testament, perhaps, to the vitality and resilience of the human spirit.  But the scars of conflict that pepper the delicate towers and the intricate carvings also offer validation to the fact that, throughout human history, attempts to use force to bring about a worldly paradise have usually resulted instead in the creation of hell on Earth.