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Jewel of the Jungle

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erin
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« on: June 24, 2007, 11:39:38 pm »

Jewel of the Jungle

Traveling through Cambodia, our writer details the history and archaeology of Angkor's ancient temples
 
By Cardiff de Alejo Garcia



Just before sunrise on a cloudy April morning in northern Cambodia, I joined hundreds of tourists crossing the wide moat to the outer wall of Angkor Wat, often said to be the largest religious structure in the world. Inside the rectangular courtyard, which covers more ground than 200 football fields, I waited near a small lake in front of the temple. Within minutes the sun appeared behind its five iconic towers, each shaped as a closed lotus bud, representing the five peaks of Mount Meru, home of the gods and the mythical Hindu center of the universe.

The temple's precise, symmetrical beauty was unmistakable. The other tourists all faced the sun, watching in stillness and whispering in foreign tongues, as hundreds more arrived behind them. Angkor Wat at sunrise is a wondrous spectacle, one that I would return to several times during my stay in Cambodia.

I had come to the temples of Angkor prepared, having read about their archaeology and history and learned of their immense size and intricate detail. The mystery of why an early Khmer civilization chose to abandon the temples in the mid-15th century, after building them during a period of more than 500 years, intrigued me. So too did the tales of travelers who "discovered" Angkor in the centuries that followed, some of whom thought they had stumbled across a lost city founded by Alexander the Great or the Roman Empire—until finally, in the 1860s, the French explorer Henri Mouhot reintroduced the temples to the world with his ink drawings and the postmortem publication of his journal, Travels in Siam, Cambodia, and Laos.

But on that first morning I realized that such knowledge was unnecessary to appreciate this remarkable achievement of architecture and human ambition. "There are few places in the world where one feels proud to be a member of the human race, and one of these is certainly Angkor," wrote the late Italian author Tiziano Terzani. "There is no need to know that for the builders every detail had a particular meaning. One does not need to be a Buddhist or a Hindu to understand. You need only let yourself go..."


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Although Angkor Wat is the largest and best known of these temples, it is but one of hundreds built by the kingdom of Angkor. Huge stone monuments scattered across hundreds of square miles of forest in northern Cambodia, the temples are the remains of a vast complex of deserted cities—which included manmade lakes, canals and bridges—that were astonishing in their size and artistic merit.

But piecing together information about the ancient Khmers who built them has not been easy for archaeologists and historians. The only written records that still exist are the inscriptions on the temple walls and the diary of a Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor in 1296. All administrative buildings and the homes of kings and commoners alike were made of wood; none have survived, leaving only the religious creations of brick and stone.

Direct ancestors of modern-day Cambodians, the Khmers are thought to have descended from the Funan peoples of the Mekong delta. Funan was a decentralized state of rival kings that thrived as a trading link connecting China and the West for the first few centuries A.D. In the late sixth century, Funan was superseded by the state of Chenla, based farther north into Cambodia's interior. Chenla lasted for about 250 years until the start of the Angkor period.

Meanwhile, Hindu and Buddhist influences, which originated in centuries-old contact with Indian traders, appeared in region. (Neither ever fully displaced the local animist religion, but rather assimilated into it.) Elite Khmer rulers commissioned the building of temples and gave themselves Sanskrit names to demonstrate their wealth and power. Their subjects made donations to the temples to curry favor—both with the gods and with the local ruler. Temples, as such, were not only religious but also commercial centers. In the time of Angkor many temples operated as small cities, and some of them as very large cities.

Around A.D. 800 a powerful regional king named Jayavarman II consolidated the rival chiefdoms in Cambodia and founded the kingdom of Angkor. It was Jayavarman II who instituted the cult of the Devaraja (literally "god-king" or "king of the gods"), symbolically linking Khmer royalty to the divine realm.

AdvertisementFor the next six centuries, Angkor's heartland was the area between the northern banks of the Tonle Sap lake and the Kulen hills to the north. Here the temples are most concentrated, though Angkorian constructions exist all throughout Southeast Asia.

Life in Angkor was busy, ritualistic, unstable. Wars against neighboring armies from Thailand and Champa (modern-day central Vietnam) were constant. A vaguely defined process for royal succession left the throne frequently exposed to ambitious usurpers. For the common rice-grower and peasant, the feverish pace of temple-building required labor, money in the form of taxes and the prospect of being drafted into war by the king.

http://www.smithsonianmagazine.com/issues/2007/july/angkor.php
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erin
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« Reply #1 on: June 24, 2007, 11:40:35 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousSaffron-robed monks enter the Bayon, which stands in the precise center of the King Jayavarman VII's temple city of Angkor
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« Reply #2 on: June 24, 2007, 11:41:49 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousA partially restored corner of Preah Ko, also part of the Roulos Group of temples.
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« Reply #3 on: June 24, 2007, 11:42:57 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousKbal Spean is sometimes called the "River of a Thousand Lingas" because of the many phallus symbols carved directly into the riverbed. This scene depicts the gods Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva. It is located northeast of the Angkor Archaeological park near a tributary of the Siem Reap River.
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« Reply #4 on: June 24, 2007, 11:44:04 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousA pink sandstone tower of Bante Srei, which means "Shrine of the Women."
   
 
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« Reply #5 on: June 24, 2007, 11:45:09 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousThousands of stones lie scattered outside the Baphuon temple. The temple had been dismantled by the French School of the Far East as part of a restoration plan. But the records needed to reassemble the stones were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge years, and experts had the difficult task of figuring out the precise location of hundreds of thousands of stones.
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« Reply #6 on: June 24, 2007, 11:46:20 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousTa Prohm has been mostly overrun by jungle, though enough has been restored to make it accessible to tourists.
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« Reply #7 on: June 24, 2007, 11:47:33 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousThis wall stands outside the Terrace of the Leper King, thought to be the royal crematorium.
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« Reply #8 on: June 24, 2007, 11:48:38 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousThe temple of Preah Khan was built by Jayavarman VII at the site of his victory over the occupying army of Champa in 1177.
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« Reply #9 on: June 24, 2007, 11:50:17 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousA column of angels guards the south gate of Angkor Thom. They are part of the mythical story of the Churning of the Sea of Milk, where a tug of war between angels and demons results in an immortal elixir.
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« Reply #10 on: June 24, 2007, 11:51:59 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousBuilt around the same time and with a similar shape as Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea is located about 25 miles from the Angkor Archaeological Park. Almost no restoration has been done to the temple; it has been swallowed by jungle, creating a quiet, gloomy atmosphere.
   
 
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« Reply #11 on: June 24, 2007, 11:53:17 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousAngkor Wat is the largest and most magnificent of all the Angkor temples. Its five iconic towers, each in the shape of a closed lotus bud, represent the five peaks of the mythical Mount Meru, the center of the universe. Designed to be a shrine to the god Vishnu, its construction began under King Suryavarman II, who reigned from 1112 to 1152.
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« Reply #12 on: June 24, 2007, 11:54:51 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousThese precipitous steps lead to the third level of Angkor Wat.
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« Reply #13 on: June 24, 2007, 11:56:36 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousAn enormous man-made reservoir that measures 5 miles long and more than a mile wide, the Western Baray, whose construction began in the 11th century, was once thought by scholars to have been part of a complicated irrigation system. But little evidence has been found supporting this theory, and it's possible the baray was built for symbolic reasons. It could have represented the oceans surrounding the mythical Mount Meru
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« Reply #14 on: June 24, 2007, 11:57:56 pm »



Cardiff de Alejo Garcia NextPreviousAccording to legend, the king of Angkor ascended the steps of the Phimeanakas every night to sleep with a powerful serpent that took the form of a woman. If he failed to copulate with her, it meant doom both for him and for the kingdom. Built in the 10th century but redecorated many times after, it is the only building still standing in what was once the royal enclosure, where the king lived.
   
 
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