I am on my way to visit the Angkor temple called ‘Banteay Srei’. This temple is not a part of the Angkor Archeological Park and is located at least 25 KM to the north of Siem Reap. For anyone who wants to visit a temple in Siem Reap, the person must first pass through a check post, set up by the Apsara Authority, the organization which looks after the safety, security and maintenance of the temples. My car had to travel by this check post today, even when I was going to a place bit far away. At the check-post, I present my 3 day pass for visiting the temples and only then could proceed onwards. I am told that if a vehicle is found to have bypassed the check-post, it would surely be stopped further on the way. A fine of 200 Dollars per person and 100 Dollars for the driver is collected from the errant vehicles. To avoid payment of such huge fine, everyone seems to follow the rules. On way, I see a large lake and decide to stop here on my way back. The landscape on this road to Banteay Srei, reminds me of south India, with paddy fields stretching on both sides to the limit of my vision. This area, in which I am traveling, is known as ‘East Baray’. This name comes from the name of a huge water reservoir built by Khmer kings, which had existed on this very land few centuries ago. Because of this, the soil is very rich here. This fact however does not reflect in the rice crop yields, as the farmers are dependent only on monsoon rains and there is a general shortage of fertilizers. In the days of Khmer Kings, farmers in this area, grew 3 rice crops every year, with the abundant water supply from East Baray. Farmers today, can just grow at the most, one crop in an year. The villages along the road however, look fairly affluent. I learn that the affluence has come because of the flow of tourists along this road. My car now takes a sharp left turn and comes to a halt in a nicely developed parking area. This is the entry area for the temple of ‘Banteay Srei’. It is clear that someone has taken lots of pains to plan and develop this area with well arranged basic tourist facilities. The time is 10 ‘O’ clock in the morning but the Sun is already scorching. It is important that any visitor to Angkor, must carry with him a good quality Sunscreen cream.
I start walking towards the temple.Banteay Srei means a Citadel of the woman. This was not the original name of this temple. The temple was known earlier as ‘ Tribhuvanamaheshwara’ (Shiva, the God of three worlds) or ‘Ishwarapura’ ( Abode of God). This temple was built during the reign of king Rajendravarman (944-968) and Jayavarman V (968-1001) and was dedicated to Hindu God Shiva. This temple surprisingly, was not built under authority of any of the Khmer kings and was built by Yajnyavaraha, a Brahmin adviser to the King, who also was of Royal descent. The present name was adopted much later. Why this temple is called a Citadel of the Women, could be anybody’s guess. I read that the name came from presence of some of the dainty and feminine carvings on the temple.
The first view of this temple could be a sort of an anticlimax, if one visits this place after visiting a temple like Angkor Wat. Compared to the bombastic dimensions of Angkor Wat, this place is a miniature or even could be called tiny. This might have been necessary to highlight or emphasize the fact that the temple is not built under King’s authority. As I walk towards the temple, I compare it to the temples in India that I have seen and I rate this one as just one amongst those. Nothing very special. I walk through a gate. This must have been a Gopura in the past but now only a door frame exists. There is a sort of passageway and I proceed on that. On both sides, I see ruins of several buildings. There are sign-boards here, that the ruins are worth a visit. I however continue towards the entry tower or Gopura. This Gopura, is part of a red enclosure wall which completely encloses the temple complex. I look upwards. I see a triangular shaped Fronton on top of the door frame. The Fronton is completely filled with incredible kind of engraved figures of Gods, animals, flowers and many other shapes. I realize as to why this temple of Banteay Srei, is called the most beautiful temple in Angkor. I enter through the Gopura into the inner courtyard and cross a pedestal, on which a broken sculpture of Nandi the bull is seen. Only legs and part of the body exists. I look ahead and see a sea of pink and red in front. Each and every building in this complex has been constructed from a special pink sand stone, which gives a special aura to the whole complex. They say that the sandstone even smells like the Sandle lwood from India. Inner complex has several annex buildings all along the perimeter. These have been mostly destroyed and only the walls stand erect. At the center, there is another enclosure with an entry gate. This entry gate is blocked. However as the enclosure wall is of only few feet height, I can clearly see all the details of the buildings inside this central enclosure. As I go round the enclosure and see the walls and particularly the lintels on the door frames, my mind is filled in wonder. I had never seen before such exquisite and dainty carvings on stone. The bass reliefs at other places are carved in such way that a picture materializes in your front. In Angkor Wat, some of the bass reliefs have three or even four depth levels to make carvings appear more realistic. But the carvings here, are three dimensional. A flower or a sea shell kind of shape, appears as if the real thing has been pasted on the stone. This is just unimaginable.
There are three sanctuaries at the rear with the middle one having an elongated shape. In the front there are two side buildings called libraries(I do not know why?) . Most of the structures have only one entry door. However on all sides of the structure, dummy and engraved door panels are seen. There are few idols of monkey faced humans sitting next to the sanctuary doors. I understand that these are not originals but copies. The originals have been moved to museums for safe keeping.Attempts have been made to steal even the replicas. The lintels on the doors and the windows each tell a story from Hindu mythological scriptures. Since I have read most of the stories in the past, its fun for me to see the carvings in details. I can see Demon king Ravana shaking the Himalayan abode of God Shiva, while Shiva’s wife Parvati is terrified. In another panel, Krishna fights his uncle Kounsa in his palace. There is a beautiful fronton depicting God Indra blessing the animals, birds, trees and humans with celestial rain . One of the best frontons depicts the story of the God of Love Kamdeva, shooting his flowery arrows at Shiva so that he would get enmoured with the beauty of Parvati. Shiva gets angry instead, opens his third eye and burns Kamdeva. Later, Shiva marries Parvati and brings Kamdeva back to life.
Besides the detailed carved lintels and frontons, flower designs and the Apsaras appear on each and every temple carved exquisitely. Its time now for me to move on.
I go around the temple and manage to get some good shots of the temple reflections in the waters of the mote. While returning, in one of the side buildings, a fronton showing Vishnu’s Man-Lion incarnation, is kept on the ground. This is another exquisite example of the art at Banteay Srei.
Because of its beauty and the small size, this temple has been looted the most. Even the celebrated french author Andre Malraux, tried to steal four Devata statues from this place. Most of the original statues have been now moved to museums with dummy replicas kept here. But such is the beauty of these sculptures that attempts were made, to steal even the dummy replicas.
Reluctantly, I move out of Banteay Srei and start my return journey. I stop on my way, to see one more temple ruin. The temple of Preah Rup was built by Khmer King Rajendravarman II (944- 968). I included this temple in my itinerary because this temple was built some 175 years before Angkor Wat. This temple sanctuaries are built with bricks, which were glued together with a vegetable glue.
The temple construction appears similar to Angkor Wat, with three levels. I find the climb rather steep. My efforts are rewarded however, when I reach the top. I see some beautiful carved panels showing Indra riding a three headed elephant and an Apsara in much simpler attire.
On the road, I cross again the big lake. The shoreline is dotted with many fine Khmer food restaurants. I decide to break my journey here and enjoy some Khmer dishes for my lunch.
The lake in front is known Sra Srang (Royal Bath) and is called many times as the largest swimming pool in the world. It was built specially for King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) to allow him to bathe in Royal grandeur and also meditate. An island was built in the middle of the pool with a wooden hut for that purpose. I linger for few moments on the Bathing platforms and imagine how the things must have been hear one millennium ago.
After lunch, I am on my way to see perhaps the last temple on my itinerary, the temple of Ta Prohm. This temple was again built by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220) dedicated to his mother. Some say it is a Buddha temple. There is view also that this temple was originally for Brahma, the ancestor of all Hindu Gods.
Ta Prohm is a classic example of the encroachment of the Jungle on structures left unattended for a long period. There is so much vegetative growth here that even in the blazing sun, the temple area , always shaded because of the huge trees, is very cool and relaxing.
The car drops me at the east entrance. At the entrance I see a big signboard announcing that the Government of India and Cambodian Government are co-operating to renovate this temple. I really feel happy that Indian Government is making some effort to restore this precious heritage of the mankind, particularly when it bears such direct relationship with ancient Indian culture and traditions.
I walk along well shaded pathway which leads me to the temple. In front of me, I see a most weird and crazy scene. There is a stone platform. On top of the platform a dilapidated stone building stands with a huge tree growing out of it. The view is fit to be in a Indiana Jones type Hollywood potboiler. In fact several movies have been shot at Ta Prohm. The latest one being Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider . I pass the building and see how this huge tree has spread its roots on the building,holding it in a vice like grip. Many years ago, I had seen a film called “20000 Leagues under the Sea”. In this film a huge squid or an octopus was shown with long tentacles. Trees of Ta Prohm remind me of that creature.
It is not possible to walk straight through Ta Prohm on a per-determined route. The trees have grown in such haphazard and crazy fashion that you have to go round avoiding them. I loose all sense of orientation and just follow the guided path. On my way, I see a big crane and few experts working on the roof of one of the Galleries, which was damaged recently, when a giant tree s fell on it during a thunderstorm. In spite of the unwieldy and unearthly growth of the trees, collapsed walls and heaps of stones lying everywhere, I see some beautiful carvings and Apsaras, hidden in nooks and corners. At one place I find a Unique Lintel decoration with the Trinity of Hinduism, Bramha-Vishnu -Mahesh. Unfortunately the central Shiva is missing from the decoration, perhaps stolen. Further down the path, I see even more number of trees growing on top, sides and along the temple balconies and galleries. The stone walls cracked because of this onslaught, have turned green with moss as moisture leaks through. In some dark alleys of the temple, I get a very eerie kind of feeling. But then, just on the next corner, a beautiful carving appears suddenly.
Ta Prohm was one of the largest monastic complex during Khmer days. An inscription on stone in Sanskrit found here tells us its story. Ta Prohm owned 3140 villages. 79365 people lived in these villages and maintained this temple, which included 18 high priests, 2740 officials,2202 assistants and 615 dancers. Among the property of the temple, there was a set of gold dishes weighing more than 500 Kg, 35 Diamonds,40620 pearls, 4540 precious stones, 876 veils of silk, 512 silk beds and 523 parasols. I do not know whether the figures given in the inscription are true or not. One thing is certain. The temple was extremely wealthy. A Tirupati temple of sorts in those times perhaps.
I walk out through the western Gopura. The Gopura has, by now familiar to me, quad faces of the King. As my car leaves the temple, I look back. I can still see the smiling faces of the King perhaps beckoning to me to come back again.
As my car is speeding towards Siem Reap, I have a strange feeling that even though I have seen for last three days, many temples of the Khmer era, I am unable or incapable to complete the whole picture of Angkor in my mind. In other words, there is no closure. Something is missing and I can clearly see th missing link. The temples I saw were all empty shells. There was no idol seen in any of the temples. The central sanctuaries, were just vacant waiting for someone to take the place of honour. . I know that I would have to look for this missing link, otherwise my trip to Siem Reap just would not be complete.
I decide to go to the Angkor National Museum for the missing link. The name of the museum is somewhat misleading. It is actually a commercial enterprise launched by Vilailuck International Holdings, a private trust from Thailand. They have invested money in the buildings and infrastructure. The exhibits however, are all genuine and are on loan from National Museum in Knom Penh and ‘ ‘Ecole Française d’Extrème Orient (French School of Asian Studies)’, originally a french institute, now run by Cambodians. The museum even though much smaller than National Museum at Knom Penh, covers only Angkor era and would suffice my purpose.
The museum has eight halls. The first hall has thousand Buddha idols. This does not interest me much because many places boast similar kind of Buddha exhibits. However next 7 halls have the exhibits, I am looking for. There are statues of Khmer kings, their history, wars and achievements. There are idols or at least the replicas of the idols of the Gods that adorned the temple sanctuaries once. Vishnu in his full glory, Shiva in human form and also in Linga form. The next hall exhibits the stone inscriptions that were found in the temples. Some are in Khmer language and some in Sanskrit as their legend plates suggest. However the Sanskrit inscriptions are not written in the Devnagari script as done in India. My efforts to read these are futile. Here the Sanskrit inscriptions are written only in Khmer script. There are more halls depicting other objects like pots and utensils. The final hall has many statues of Apsaras, some beheaded, some without legs or hands. Still the beauty of the original work of art quite in place. Some more details about jewelery, ornaments and the costumes of men and women of those times. I come out of the museum, totally satisfied. I realize that I have spent about 2 hours here.
There is no feeling now of any uncertainty. No dissatisfaction of having only watched a shell. I feel sort of complete with a feeling that I have seen the temples of Angkor completely and fully.
As I think about these temples, Khmer kings and people, I feel saddened by the fact that Indians know so little about this place and its people. Here are the people who still claim that their ancestor was an Indian, they still follow a religion born in India, picked up Indian culture a millennium and a half ago, made it their own and raised the glory of that culture to unprecedented grandeur and have left these glorious monuments behind for all the world to see. Yet, Indians, know so little about them, have done almost nothing, as these people suffered in horrible civil wars and are still struggling to become a nation. Not many tourists from India come here. There are no direct flights to Siem Reap from India.
I have mentioned before a quote from famous English author Somerset Maugham. He says that “ No one should die before seeing Angkor Wat” I would prefer a little modification to this quote. I would like to say that No Indian should even think of dying before seeing Angkor.
23 November 2010