Angkor Wat at sunrise

Angkor Wat – sunrise view

All my life I have had this strange fascination with Angkor Wat. There had been an unexplained desperation to see it. The moment we had reached Siem Reap, I had rushed to visit this place. On the third day of our trip, and we were visiting Angkor Wat again to see it at the time of sun rise. My excitement knew no bounds. We got up very early and came down in our hotel lobby at around 4.30 AM. Our guide Syden and tuk tuk driver were already there waiting for us.

We were about to get out when the boy at the reception came running and handed us our packed breakfast. It was such a pleasant gesture. The evening before, I had causally mentioned about our plan to leave early. Their hospitality touched me to the core as they had gone beyond my expectations. With a lot of warmth in our hearts and a big smile on our faces, we set out for The Angkor Wat. It was still a little dark outside.

By the time we reached there, the morning light had just started to fill the clear sky. Our tuk tuk left us outside the western gate. We crossed the long bridge on the out side moat to reach the entrance. There it was standing, the most beautiful, magical, romantic, grand, a majestic piece of art, amidst its huge green lush lawns, the world famous Angkor Wat. Rightly considered one of the seven wonders by many. A lot of tourists were already camped around its two large pools to get pictures in its morning glory. In spite of the number of people, the usual hustle and bustle was missing and the atmosphere was very calm and peaceful. Every one was waiting for the sunrise, sitting in a meditative pose, listening to the sounds of birds and insects.

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At last the sun came out and threw its golden rays on the wat. The cameras came into action all at once. There was a feverish rush to take as many pictures as possible to capture that surreal moment. After taking few pictures, we decided to sit in a quiet corner to absorb the atmosphere, because we knew that even the best of cameras won’t be able to do justice to that magical place.

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Built roughly between A.D. 1113 and 1150 by King Suryavarman II, It was dedicated to Lord Vishnu. Many of the bas-reliefs (Sculptures/Carvings) in the temple depict scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Hindu sacred texts that recount the adventures of two major incarnations of Vishnu. It took almost 30 years to construct it. Encompassing an area of about 500 acres, Angkor Wat is one of the largest religious monuments ever constructed. Its name means “temple city”.

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The Angkor Wat appears on the Cambodian national flag, which is a very rare instance of a flag incorporating an image of a building.

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It is said that the Angkor Wat, in its beauty and state of preservation, is unrivaled. Its mightiness and magnificence bespeak a pomp and a luxury surpassing that of a Pharaoh or a Shah Jahan, an impressiveness greater than that of the Pyramids, an artistic distinctiveness as fine as that of the Taj Mahal. Its perfection in composition, balance, proportions, relief’s and sculpture make it one of the finest monuments in the world.

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THE BAYON – Siem Reap

THE BAYON

Syden, our guide, was very keen to show us The Bayon, another very famous temple of Siem Reap, built by the famous king Jayavardhan VII.

The time was afternoon, and the weather was very hot and muggy. I was feeling very lethargic. The rundown temple standing in front of me was not very inviting. Going several stairs up and down, looked like a tall order. All of a sudden a freak cloud came from nowhere and drenched us in its cool showers. It worked like a magic and infused me with a new energy.

View of the Bayon from outside

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As we entered that queer looking building, it felt, as if we have been transported to a different world. The scene ahead of us was totally mesmerizing. Wherever I looked, huge faces of Buddha were smiling down at me from every nook and corner. There were faces and faces every where.

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I was surprised, when Syden told me, that there was a big debate going on regarding the identity of these faces. Some scholars think that these faces belong to king Jayavarman VII not Buddha, as the similarity of these faces to the king’s other statues is striking. While the others believe that the faces belong to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.

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Built around 1190 AD, The Bayon is a Buddhist temple with some elements of Hindu cosmology. This temple is located in the center of King Jayavarman’s VII capital Angkor Thom. Out of the original 216 faces on 54 towers only 37 towers are left. These smiling images have been dubbed by some as the “Mona Lisa of Southeast Asia” others say they reflect the famous “Khmer Smile”

 

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The temple is also popular for two impressive sets of bas-reliefs (Sculptures / carvings), which present an unusual combination of mythological, historical, and mundane scenes of daily life.

very interesting work of sculpturing and carving on the lower walls

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Jayavarman VII’s new capital, where the Bayon was built, was named “Angkor Thom” (May be it was “Angkor Dham” as he was a great follower of Buddhism). It was surrounded by a moat and had four city gates, Each entrance had a tower in the middle with a Bayon type face, and a causeway with naga holding giant figures of devas on the left and Asuras on the right, representing Churning of the sea of milk from the Hindu mythology. I found it very intriguing.

Devas and Asuras holding Naga Vasuki.      Entrance to the city

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TA PROHM – Tomb Raiders Temple

TA PROHM – Tomb Raiders Temple

Our next stop was Ta Prohm, a temple made famous by the movie Tomb Raiders. Shrouded in dense jungle it is also known as The Jungle Temple.

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Intriguing, mysterious, and magical, were the words that came to my mind when I first saw it. The old ruins covered by the overgrown trees and shrubs, the entangled web of roots clutching the whole structure in their  iron like grip, sunlight filtering through the leaves, everything was casting a magical spell over the whole scene.  It is a sight that needs to be seen to be believed. It was an unforgettable and enchanting other-world experience.

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Ta Prohm is one of the major temples constructed by King Jayavarman VII. Its Construction began in 1186 AD. Originally known as Rajavihara (Monastery of the King), Ta Prohm was a Buddhist temple dedicated to king’s mother.

A Sanskrit inscription on a stone, still in place, give details of the temple. It records that Ta Prohm was home to more than 12,500 people (including 615 dancers). 3140 villages were dedicated to the monasteries maintenance and subsistence of its inhabitants. Over all it was a very rich temple.

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My heart swelled with pride when I read the notice that this temple was being restored by the Archaeological Survey of India. They have done a great job in restoring most parts of this temple complex.

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Below is a very interesting picture by the Archaeological Survey of India showing previous and restored pictures of some of the areas of Ta Prohm. Second picture is one of the restored paths.

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I was intrigued by the name Ta Prohm and asked our guide Syden aka Tiger its meaning. He said it means ancestor or old. Back in my hotel room when I researched further, I found out that it means “Old Brahma” or “Ancestor Brahma”. All of a sudden it dawned on me that the words Prohm and Braham were quiet similar. I am still trying to find the ‘Brahma’ connection to  this temple if any.

Sadly, Ta Prohm was looted extensively in recent years due to its relative isolation and many of its ancient  statues, stones, and inscriptions have been lost.

To be continued…..

Banteay Srei

Day two in Siem Reap

Next day when we got down to our hotel lobby, we were greeted by the warm smile of our guide Syden, who looked like Tiger Woods and liked to be called Tiger. Together we went out to meet our tuk tuk driver.

My daughter wanted to see Banteay Srei, a beautiful, out of the way, Hindu temple complex, she had heard about from her Cambodian friends. Tiger happily decided to start the day with that temple as it was 23 miles north of Angkor Wat and not a usual tourist destination.

The enchanting temple of Banteay Srei is nearly everyone’s favorite site. The special charm of this temple lies in its remarkable state of preservation, small size and excellence of decoration.

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Banteay Srei means “Citadel of Women,” or perhaps “Citadel of Beauty”  because the reliefs on this temple are so delicate that they could only have been carved by the hand of a woman. The well-preserved relief carvings on the central buildings depict scenes from ancient Hindu tales.

Completed in 967, Banteay Srei was the only major temple at Angkor not build for the king; instead it was constructed by one of king Rajendravarman’s counsellors, Yajnyavahara, who was also the guru of the future king Jayavarman V. The temple was primarily dedicated to Shiva but the northern part of the building is dedicated to Vishnu. It was originally called Isvarapura, according to inscriptions.

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The unanimous opinion amongst French archaeologists who worked at Angkor is that Banteay Srei is a ‘precious gem’ and a ‘jewel in Khmer art’.  Some describe it as being closer in architecture and decoration to Indian models than any other temple at Angkor. A special feature of the exquisite decoration was the use of a hard pink sandstone, where they enabled the ‘technique of sandalwood carving with even an Indian scent to it’.

I asked Tiger the name of first Hindu king of Cambodia , He told us a strange story. He said long time ago there was a Naga Princess. One day an Indian Prince came. First they both fought with each other but later on fell in love and got married. He couldn’t tell us the name of the king though.  Again I was curious about this Naga connection but couldn’t find any satisfying answers to my questions.

The ride to the temple and back was very beautiful. There was a  lots of greenery around. The clean air was intoxicating. As we were passing through the small villages, Tiger told us about the day today life of the Cambodians. He pointed to the small little “Spirit houses” placed out side each home. He explained that the ashes of dead family members were kept there and prayers were offered everyday.

On being asked, he also told us his own life story.  Besides being a guide, he was  doing masters in cultural affairs and art and dreamed of becoming a university professor some day. He also volunteered as a teacher in an orphanage. During the dark years of Khmer Rouge, his father, a teacher, was executed and mother was taken to the rice fields for hard labor. He was 14 years old, when he was drafted into the army, from where he ran away and stayed in a Buddhist monastery with the monks. It took him 12 years to re-unite with his family. This is the usual story of most of the Cambodians.

To be continued………

SIEM REAP – Angkor Wat

I stayed in Phnom Penh for a couple of days. On the third day I along with my daughter started our journey on a tourist bus, towards a town named Siem Reap to visit famous Angkor Wat. I was very excited as I was going to visit a place of my dreams. After eight hours journey through beautiful Cambodian country side, we reached our destination and checked into a hotel. I knew it was late in the afternoon but my excitement knew no bounds. I couldn’t just sit and relax and had to go out to get a glimpse of Angkor Wat. Reception people told us that we had very little time as the Wat would be closing at 5 PM. That didn’t deter us and we both came out and hired a tuk tuk for the rest of the day.
Angkor Wat didn’t disappoint me. There it was standing in all its majestic glory. We didn’t have much time, so we just went up to the front part of the Wat and rushed back.

Angkor Wat, in all its evening glory….

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Our tuk tuk driver had told us about a place named Phnom Bakheng for the sunset view of the Angkor Wat. He asked us to come back around 4.30 PM so that we might be there before the tourist rush . Phnom Bakheng is a Hindu and Buddhist temple, dedicated to Lord Shiva when it was built at the end of the 9th century, during the reign of King Yasovarman. Located atop a hill, it is nowadays a popular tourist spot. After a lot of running and hiking we made it to the top in a good time.

Phnom Bakheng is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, home of the Hindu gods, a status emphasized by the temple’s location atop a steep hill 65 m above the surrounding plain. The temple is built in a pyramid form of seven levels, representing the seven heavens. It is now in ruins but restoration work is going on. View of the Angkor Wat from the top was breathtaking.

View of Angkor Wat from the top.

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While on the top of the hill at Phnom Bakheng, I over heard a guide relating the story of a king who constructed a big lake, a replica of Khshir Sagar (the ocean of creation) with a huge image of Vishnu in the center. I don’t know if it made any sense to his Chinese tourists but it definitely excited me a lot. I immediately remembered a huge bronze head of Vishnu I had seen in the National Museum Phnom Penh, which was excavated from a lake bed in Siem Reap.

Bronze head of Vishnu…

Vishnu

I mentally saluted the king for his fertile imagination and decided to visit that place in the coming days.

View of the Lake from the top

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To be continued……..

 

My search for Indo-Cambodian connection……

On my recent visit to Cambodia, the first thing I noticed when I came out of the Phnom Penh airport was, that it looked so much like India. People looked like Indians, the written language looked familiar and the buildings looked the same. I felt, as if I was visiting some part of South India.

Next day, I started my tour with a visit to the National Museum of Cambodia. There I saw statues of many Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva, Uma, Vishnu, Saraswati, Brahma, Indra, Ganesha, Murugan, and Parsurama etc, along with Buddha and Bodhisattva, Buddhism being the main religion of Cambodia. I was pleasantly surprised to see so much of Hindu influence.

My next visit was to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek, located at the distance of 15 km from Phnom Penh. It is one of the many sites in Cambodia where in the name of ethnic cleansing more than a million people were tortured, killed , and buried in mass graves by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. It was a heart wrenching experience. Like all other tourists I too was quietly listening to the audio tape of horror stories. I was jolted out of my musings when the guide on the audio tape brought my attention to a Stupa like memorial building where bones of all the people from mass graves are kept. While giving the other details about the building he brought our attention to the snake and “garuda” carvings on the top of the building. He mentioned that those are there because many Cambodians belong to Naga race.(An Indo-Dravidian race of Nagas or Snakes worshipers)
On coming back to my hotel room I google searched about the possible migration of the people of Nagaland. I was very curious to find this Naga connection, unfortunately all my searches led me no where. Anyway, I went along with my  traveling schedule with a strong resolve to investigate further.

To be continued……..

Hello Friends!

My name is Kiran Dhaliwal. History is my favorite subject and  I am totally passionate about it. I have always been reading books related to this subject. Invention of Internet and the new search engines was probably the best thing that has happened in my life. It  has given wings to my flights of fancy. The period where history meets mythology is my favorite topic.

I can’t pin point when it happened, but all of a sudden my friends started pointing out that my way of looking at things was different. My daughter started pestering me to do PhD. and write a book, which for me was a tall order. I enjoy my life as a free bird. I don’t want to be bound by one topic, so on some well wishers and friends advise I am choosing this option of starting a blog instead.

My recent visit to Cambodia and a chance remark by a guide that they belonged to the Naga race took me to another completely different side of history.  This is going to be my first topic.

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