Held hostage by twentieth-centruy strife, Cambodia's ancient wonders succumb to nature's relentless advance
This article was published by Natural History, January 1990.
Hidden beneath the subtropical jungle overgrowth of northwestern Cambodia lie the ruins of three great stone monuments erected by Jayavarman VII, who from 1181 to about 1219 ruled Kambuja, the former empire of the Khmer-speaking people. Built as temples and mausoleums for Jayavarman, his mother, and his fa-ther, the monuments joined others left by preceding rulers at the Khner capital of Angkor. An eyewitness record of the an-cient city survives in the commentaries of Chou Takuan, an envoy from the Chinese court who visited Angkor in 1296, several generations after the time of Jayavarman. Chou Takuan describes outlying moats, reservoirs, causeways, and monuments, as well as a central zone of towers and resi-dences surrounded by a stone wail twelve feet high and five miles in circumference. The population, which may have reached one million, included nobles, who lived in file-roofed houses, and commoners, whose homes were thatched.
The Khmer had developed an elaborate irrigation system of canals, dikes, moats, and large reservoirs. The water was drawn from the Tonle Sap, Cambodia's huge central lake, which floods 'every year dur-ing the rainy season. In the 1960s, the French archeologist Bernard-Philippe Groslier made a series of aerial photo-graphs of the district, revealing that the Khmer had harnessed the lake's flooding cycle, filling upland reservoirs to insure abundant rice crops each year. Agrono-mists rate this thousand-year-old irrigation system higher than any used by modern Cambodians.
Jayavarman reigned when the Khmer Empire was still at its height, embracing much of mainland Indochina and many of its peoples-Thais, the Chain of central Vietnam, and various Lao and Malay groups. After his rule the empire declined, and no more great monuments were erected. The kingdom was ultimately overrun by the Thais in the fifteenth cen-tury, Angkor was abandoned, and the Khmer capital was shifted some 130 miles to its present site, the city of Phnom Penh on the Mekong River.
In the sixteenth century a Portuguese traveler named Diego do Couto became the first of many Western chroniclers to visit Angkor and express amazement at its prodigious stone masterpieces, calling the city "one of the wonders of the world." But Diego's discovery was overlooked or forgotten until French naturalist Henri Mouhot's account nearly three hundred years later drew the attention of the West to Angkor. Mouhot's journal, published posthumously in 1864, inspired other French explorers to venture to Cambodia.
In 1866, a major expedition mounted by Capt. Doudart de Lagr6e made copies of some of the Sanskrit and Old Khmer inscriptions at Angkor. One of the mem-bers of the expedition was Louis Dela-porte, who led further surveys of the area and later published an account of his travels, lavishly illustrated with engravings that depicted the monuments overgrown with vegetation. In 1898, the Ecole Fran-caise d'Extreme orient was established, and French archeologists and epigraphists set about in earnest, cleaning away the jungle, restoring the monuments, and translating their inscriptions.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Angkor was a popular tourist attraction, but World War II, emergent nationalism, the war in Vietnam, and internal strife in-creasingly isolated Cambodia. In 1975 the infamous Khmer Rouge seized power, and a reign of terror descended upon the land. Concerned by Khmer Rouge activ-ity along their border, the Vietnamese sent their tanks rolling into Cambodia on December 22, 1978. The occupying forces drove the Khmer Rouge to guerrilla posi-tions in the hills, and a new government was created in Phnom Penh. The situation remained precarious, however, and when the Vietnamese elected to withdraw in September 1989, the Khmer Rouge launched a new offensive in western Cam-bodia. They threaten to prevail again, unless Hun Sen, the current Prime Minister, can devise a strong coafition government-or foreign powers intervene.
I was fortunate to visit Angkor last June, before the current crisis began to unfold. For the past three years, I have been working with John Olsen, of the Uni-versity of Arizona, and Vietnamese scien-tists at the Institute of Archeology in Ha-noi on the first Vietnamese-American scientific field expedition since the Viet-nam War. We are excavating a half million-year-old cave site in the karst hills near the Laotian border, about seventy-five miles southwest of Hanoi. I had al-ways longed to visit the monuments of Angkor, and when the Social Sciences Committee in Hanoi introduced me to Cambodian Embassy officials who were able to arrange for me to visit Angkor as a guest of the Cambodian foreign ministry, I seized the opportunity.
Accompanied by writer Jamie James, I flew from Hanoi to Phnom Penh and took a short flight from there to the town of Siem Reap. The archeological district of Angkor was just a five-minute drive to the north. I was immediately struck by its immense size: it extends fifteen miles east to west, and five miles north to south. The moat impressive of its structures is Angkor War; the largest atone monument in the world it was built by King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1113 to 1150, as his funerary monument. Angkor Wat is the only monument of the group that has been continuously used as a shrine and place of worship since it was built, and it has been kept in a better state of repair than any of the others. The Archaeological Survey of India is currently undertaking its com-plete restoration.
The less accessible jungle monuments built by Jayavarman VII--Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and the Bayon--were, for me, much more interesting to survey. I was able to spend nine days exploring these and other monuments, often escorted by Cambedian soldiers who were posted to keep the area secure. Khmer Rouge guerrillas were operating in the area, and they had set land mines in the precincts of the monuments. I was con-stantly reminded to follow in the steps of the soldiers ahead of me and never to venture from the stone walkways.
The three monuments are located within or near the walled city
area, Ang-kor Thom, from which Jayavarman ruled. Ta Probin, constructed in honor
of Jayavarman's mother, lies outside the walls to the east and is in the wildest
condi-tion. French conservators who worked there earlier this century had decided
not to clear away the jungle growth com-pletely,
Balustrade rails in the shpae of a multiheaded water diety greet visitors to Preah Khan, a monument buildt by the Khmer king Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181- 1219?) to honor his father. The ninetheenth-century engraving by Louis Delaporte, below, greatly exaggerates the size of the sculptures. The roots of a fig tree, belows, pry at sandstone blocks at the eastern entrance to the Bayon, which Jayavarman built as his own mausoleum.
Picture taken by Russell L. Ciochon
since in several places the roots of fig and silk-cotton trees were so intermeshed with the structure, that to do so would have required dismantling it.
We entered Ta Prohm through a sand-stone archway topped by four huge stone faces that smile in the cardinal directions. The four-faced tower represented Jayavannan as an incarnation of Buddha and probably also invoked Brahma, the su; preme being of Hinduism, who is conven-tionally depicted as having four faces. Jayavarman was the first of Angkor's kings to champion Buddhism, but images of the Khmer's former religion, Hindu-ism, are also encountered everywhere in his monuments. The people of Angkor did not draw absolute distinctions among the various religious systems available to them; a twelfth-century Khmer worshiper would have accepted Buddhist and Hindu concepts coexisting in a single image.
As we pushed through the tangled vines, the moss-covered ruins of the outer gallery of Ta Prohm appeared, eerily lit by the shifting, filtered light of the jungle. I could not pause to admire the view, how-ever, for if I stood in one place too long, fire ants would cover my feet and start climbing up my legs, biting as they went. (The insects would also cling to my sweat drenched shirt as I brushed against hanging vines, always seeming to make their way to the back of my neck.)
The first gallery we entered was littered with sandstone blocks that had fallen from the ceiling and walls. Disturbed by our footsteps, legions of lizards and millipedes scurried across the floor, and bats whisked silently by. Many of the cramped doorways were obstructed by debris, but we were able to pass through to a courtyard. From there, several doors led into a second gallery, on whose roof a silk-cotton tree had long ago taken root. The gnarled roots covered the outer walls and roof, buckling and rearranging the massive sandstone blocks. Through the roots, I could make out a sculptured lintel that depicted an apsara, one of the cosmic dancers of Hindu mythology. A large land snail slowly made its way across the
figure. Inscribed sandstone pillars, or steles, were installed at every monument of Ang-kor, setting forth each structure's purpose and invoking heavenly protection for it.
Although the dedicatory stele of Ta Prohm now lies shattered, the record of its inscription gives a glimpse of the former glory of the place: More than 5,000 peo-ple, including priests, officiates, and dancers, were devoted to the service of the sanctuary, to perpetuate the memory of Jayavarman's mother. The sanctuary's property included a large service of gold plate that weighed more than 1,000 pounds, another set in silver almost as large, 35 diamonds, 4,620 pearls, 4,540 other precious stones, 876 Chinese veils, 512 silk beds, 523 parasols, and 2,387 fine costumes for the statues.
Although abandoned for nearly twenty years, Preah Khan, the monument con-structed in honor of the king's father, is in a slightly better state of preservation be-cause French archeologists did a more thorough job of restoring it before they were expelled from Cambodia. Its pre-cinct covers nearly one-half square mile just north of Angkor Thom. Preah Khan had not been visited by anyone for several years, and our Cambodian hosts were par-ticularly anxious about our safety. An es-cort of about forty soldiers was mustered. They were armed with semiautomatic rifles, a bazooka (which had been captured from the Khmer Rouge), an antitank rocket launcher, and a Gattling-style machine gun. We were told that another forty infantry were posted around the perimeter of the monument.
The superintending archeologist at the Angkor War restoration project, B.S. Nayal, accompanied us on our excursion to Preah Khan. We approached it from the west, although worshipers in Jayavarman's day would have done so from the east. The causeway was framed by stone rails that were covered in undergrowth so thick that at first I did not even see them. Each rail was in the shape of the naga, the beloved water deity of the Khmer. The naga is depicted as a multiheaded snake (usually with five or seven heads). In Khmer architecture, rails modeled after this deity are typically found along the sides of causeways that cross moats. The fan-shaped head of the naga rears up to greet the entering visitor, while its thick body stretches behind, forming a balus: trade. The balusters supporting the left rail are sculptures that depict benign gods, while those on the right represent grotesque demons.
We paused outside the high walls surrounding Preah Khan while some local workmen we had employed cut a large swath of the brush to reveal a deeply sculptured relief of a garuda about twelve feet mil. The garuda is a bird-god of Hindu myth, the mount of the god Vishnu and the enemy of serpents. In this relief, the garuda held a naga captive in his beak. Then we moved on, into the shrine. The motifs we found there were the same combination of Buddhist and Hindu images found in Ta Prohm. Both within and without, the inner sanctuary of Preah Khan is quite plain, most unusual for one of Jayavarman's constructions. French archeologist Madeleine Giteau suggests that it must have originally been covered with polished copper or bronze plate. Chou Takuan writes in his chronicle of seeing "golden towers" at Angkor, which would support that view.
After we had passed all the way through Preah Khan, we emerged at the main entrance, where another causeway with naga-shaped rails crossed a moat. We paused for a rest, ever mindful of the ubiquitous fire ants, while our workmen cleared away the brush that had grown up over the eastern wall so we could photograph it. After a few minutes, we heard shouts: one of the workers had killed a small, green, poisonous snake with his phkok, the local version of the machete.
We retraced our path back through the monument. As we neared the western gate, our guide, My Huy (the only one of the former guides at Angkor who was not killed by the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot was in power), pointed out a "library" (the generic name of the two-story outbuild-ings found on the grounds of nearly all the major Angkor monuments). I couldn't see it beneath the vegetation until he led me by the sleeve to within a few yards of it. Preah Khan's library is an unusual building, with round pillars instead of the usual square ones, suggesting a possible Middle Eastern influence. There is no built-in ac-cess to the second story; that must have been provided by an external wooden stairway.
Preah Khan is also the name the Khmer gave to a sacred sword, the palladium of the kingdom, which at one time was housed somewhere in Angkor. After the capital was moved to Phnom Perth, the sword was exhibited in a place of honor at the royal palace, but its current where-abouts are unknown.
The Bayon, the third of Jayavarman's great jungle monuments, is a rambling pile of sculptured stone that lies in the exact center of Angkor Thom. Viewed from the air, the Bayon's towers and galleries can be seen to be arranged in the
shape of a mandala, a design of concentric forms symbolizing the universe. The monument is also a schematic representation of the sacred lotus blossom, on which Buddha is conventionally shown enthroned. The lotus is sacred in Hindu mythology as well, for the flower, which grows from the navel of Brahma, is a symbol of nirvana, or extinction of individual existence.
Jayavarman had come to power after he turned back an invasion
force .of the Chain, a powerful rival empire to the east of Angkor. Sculptural
relief's celebrating his victory cover many wails at the Bayon. But the Khmer
kings were more than secular rulers; they were worshiped as living gods by their
subjects. After a king died, the Khmer believed that he was inte-grated with
the deity with whom he had been associated in life. The remains of the ruler
were entombed in a stone monu-ment, a shrine afterward maintained by thousands
of workers dedicated to the cult of that particular monarch. Most of Jayavatman's
predecessors were considered to be the earthly representatives of the Hindu
god Siva, but Jayavarman in lift was considered to he the incarnation of Buddha,
and the Bayon has fifty-four massive tower, each ornately sculptured with four
huge representations of Jayavatman's Buddha-like face.
A gateway carved on four sides with the likeness of Jayavarman leads into Angkor Thom, the walled city area of the former Khmer capital.
We found that in places, the Bayon's huge towers and galleries are crammed so close together that we could not pass between them, and yet even some of those walls are covered with fine relief's. The effect is quite strange, to see ornate carv-ings positioned where no one can ade-quately view them. Also, there are some galleries that lead nowhere. The construction plan of the Bayon probably changed several times while the monument was being erected, creating these anomalies.
Apparently, as Jayavarman's concep-tion of his sanctuary grew ever more gran-diose, he piled structure upon structure. At the Bayon, as well as at Ta Prohm and Prcah Khan, one frequently encounters reliefs that have been sketched out in the sandstone but left unfinished. Archeologists and historians have conjectured that the civilization's vitality was sapped by Jayavarman's extravagant building pro-gram. In addition to the three enormous monuments at Angkor, Jayavarman also built 117 way stations for travelers and 102 hospitals throughout the empire.
Of the three jungle monuments, the Bayon is easiest of access. Yet the stone surfaces are heavily mottled with lichen and mold, and it takes a moment to see the enormous sculptured faces that decorate them. Travel writer Pierre Loti's turn-of-the-century prose captures the unsettling mood of the place:
I raise my eyes to look at the towers which overhang me, drowned in verdure, and I shudder suddenly with' an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile.; and then three, and then five, and then ten. They appear everywhere, and I realize that I have been overlooked from all sides by the faces of tie quadruple visaged towers.
Some, such as George Coedes, a noted French scholars of the first haft of this century, have argued that Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, and the Bayou symbolized the Buddhist trinity, which in earlier times had only been represented in small bas-relief sculptures. The evidence for this is found in the monuments' dedicatory stelea, which prominently display the names of the Buddhist trinity: Buddha; the bodhisattva Lokesvara, a perfect follower of Buddha who renounced nirvana in order to save others; and Prajnaparamita, the "Perfection of Wisdom." Prajnaparamita is identified with Jayavarman's mother at Ta ProInn, while at Preah Khan, French archeologists dis-covered an image of Jayavarman's father, the former king, incarnate as the bodhiattva Lokesvara. Since Jayavarman iden-tified himself with Buddha, Coedes argues that a huge statue of Buddha that was excavated from the center of the Bayon represents the third link in the trin-ity. Most likely, this image was erected over Jayavarman's remains.
Despite these important clues, even sea-soned archeologists have tended to write in a rather imaginative vein when describ-ing the Bayon. Henri Marchal, who lived and worked at Augkor for many years, wrote a guide to the district in 1928 that is for the meat part rather dry, but when he comes to describe the Bayon, he writes,
This is a confused and bizarre mass, seem-ing to be a mountain peak that has
been shaped and carved by human hands...The complication of the plan of the
Bayon makes it all the stranger.... At whatever hour one walks around it, and
particularly by moonlight on a clear evening, one feels as if one were visiting
a temple in another world, built by an alien people, whose con-ceptions are