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A Hush seeps into your very soul as you enter into the great city of Angkor Thom. Dense jungle growth, sultry heat and stone statuary the likes only Indiana Jones might've encountered engage your senses at every turn. Indeed, over nine ornately beautiful temples stand here and beckon with mystery within the ancient borders of Angkor Thom.
"Godliness in the majesty and the size; mystery in the expression" ~de Beerski 1920
The sun painted in shadows as it moved across the sky, highlighting the features of these massive faces. Their expressions as they gazed down at us were serene and seemingly all- knowing: Sentinel, Witness, Other-worldly Recorders...were some the words that came to mind.
What a frail creature is man, but what astounds is what man can do...
Angkor city was built to symbolize the Universe. Divided into four parts, Bayon (where the big faces are) with its wondrous dimensional architecture and fantastic bas relief carvings stands at the center. Its builders meant it to be the conduit between heaven and earth. The moat, surrounding, symbolizes the cosmic ocean (the ocean of immortality. ) From here, the Apsaras (earth's celestial dancers -- man's guardian angels?) spring forth.
Zhou Daguan, an Chinese emissary provided the only first-hand account of the magnificence of Angkor Thom as seen in its 'hey-day'. He recorded the following:
"At the center of the Kingdom rises a Golden tower Bayon flanked by more than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers. On the eastern side is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers. North of the Golden Tower of Bronze [Baphuon], higher even than the Golden tower. A truly astonishing spectacle. With more than ten chambers at its base. A quarter of a mile further north is the residence of the King rising above his private apartments is another tower of gold, These are the monuments which have caused merchants from overseas to speak so often of "Cambodia the rich and noble "
"The faces with slightly curving lips, eyes placed in shadow by lower lids utter not a word and yet force you
Words cannot adequately express the delicious feeling of 'stepping into the surreal' while held in the gaze of these calm and reassuring faces. Over 200 of them adorn the three levels of the Buddhist temple. Some scholars say the faces are that of the Bodhisattva (a being that compassionately keeps herself from entering heaven in order to save others.) And some claim they are that of King Jayavarman VII who was a benevolent ruler and good to his subjects. They are most likely a combination of the two. Regardless, one can't help but wonder how they actually appeared, back in the day in all their pristine glory. It is a testament though, to the beauty and infinite mystery surrounding Bayon that these 'Smiles of Angkor' have never once faltered.
It was early in the morning and the vibrant colors of blue and pink, spreading over Angkor Wat as the sun rose, were breathtaking. Silhouetted against the sky bathed in a purple hue stood the largest and most renowned religious monument in the world. ( I think I can speak for my husband whose landmark birthday it was that day-- the big 5-0, and exclaim it was nothing short of an experience of a lifetime.)
Man and his building of holy temples to stand upon the Earth’s face is as seemingly as old as the horizon itself. The world is blessed as a result: Temples are sacred places constructed to worship the most high God in. When we worship we are aligning with the divine, which produces within us a higher standard of living. With ritual comes effectiveness and one hopes that a nobler offering of good can be perpetuated; toward ourselves, toward one another, and for the world.
Sacred treasure: Angkor Wat
There is considerable debate amongst scholars as to whether Angkor Wat is a glorious temple or a tremendously spectacular tomb. Regardless of the on-going discussion, it is an architectural masterpiece. The balance, beauty, proportions, and its wonderfully detailed sculptures (bas-reliefs) speak to its majesty. As the largest monument of the Angkor group, Angkor Wat is another replica of the Universe and represents an earthly model of the cosmic world.
"One can never look upon the ensemble of the Wat (temple) without a thrill, a pause, a feeling of being caught up into the heavens..."
DATE: first half of the 12th Century
KING: Suryavarman II
If Angkor Wat is the earthly model of the Kingdom of Heaven then the Apsaras are its stars. Hindu mythology tells the story of the churning of the Cosmic Ocean of milk (the Milky Way?) in order to obtain Amrita - the nectar of immortality. A incredibly beautiful detailed bas-relief at Angkor Wat depicts devas (gods) and asuras (demons) working together to stir up the Ocean of Milk in an attempt to release the elixir of eternal life. Apsaras were born from the churning of the Ocean of Milk. Depicted singularly and in groups they are said to be ethereal inhabitants of the heavens. Or basically, what we would think of as angels.
The Apsaras are plentiful, carved in the inner gallery inside the Angkor Wat temple with such artistry --evident even in this day, that your eyes ache.. Every one is different in posture but the enchanting expressions they possess are the same. Pang, a Cambodian poet in a tribute to the Khmer ideal of female beauty wrote of the Apsaras. :
"These gracious figures, filling you with such emotion that the eye is never wearied, the soul is renewed, and the heart never sated! They were never carved by the hands of men-- They were created by the Gods--living lovely, breathing women!"
Angkor Wat: 'The City That is a Temple'
The word 'wat' which means temple was most likely added to Angkor when it was a Theravada Buddhist monument in the 16th century. After the capital moved to Phnom Phen, Buddhist monks maintained Angkor Wat. It's interesting to note that if you were to measure the temple from its highest plinth, Angkor Wat would be as tall as Notre Dame.
There are five central towers. To climb to the the upper or third level of Angkor Wat, women must have their shoulders and their knees covered. (I actually like that this temple has a dress code! )
A highlight of visiting Angkor Wat was entering into the Hall of Echoes. A sweet and elderly Cambodian man was all too eager to show me its unusual acoustics. With a grin as big as the stone ones at Bayon, he pushed me against the wall (!) and then thumped me on the upper chest with the flat of his hand. That I was startled was an understatement. But as the thump echoed throughout the hall, I was caught up in the fun of the phenomena and also in the old man's excitement over sharing the experience. (He was so cute!)