Discovering the Ancient Temples of Cambodia
By Barbara Rizza Mellin
Protruding from blocks of huge crumbling walls, tree roots seem to ooze through solid surfaces. A tall tree grows atop a temple roof as its long, silvery trunk engulfs the sides of the structure like grasping tentacles of an ancient omnipotent force. This scene is much like the one that greeted French naturalists who first rediscovered the temples of Siem Reap, Cambodia, in 1860.
Ta Prohm, one of several temples from the Khmer empire (9th-15th century), has purposefully been left untouched, not only to allow visitors to experience that initial sense of wonder at seeing the jungle site, but also to preserve the structures that are so inextricably intertwined. The natural and manmade have a symbiotic relationship. Yet, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, fallen pieces are being repositioned when possible. Ta Phrom Temple gained celebrity status as the setting of the 2001 movie, Tomb Raiders, starring Angelina Jolie.
On the other side of an impressive man-made river lies Angkor Thom (Great City), built by King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. Almost two miles long on each side, this symmetrical city is surrounded by a 26-foot high wall and 328-foot wide moat. At the height of the Khmer Empire, the walled city of Angkor Thom was home to more than one million people. The temple’s five entry towers (each 75 feet tall) greet visitors with huge smiling stone faces. A long causeway linking the towers is guarded by 108 mythical stone figures of demons and gods.
Within the city walls are temples and terraces, including Banyon temple, an amazing structure featuring beautifully preserved bas reliefs and more than 172 giant faces. This complex also contains large open spaces once used for sporting events, such as elephant polo.
Perhaps the most visited Khmer temple, however, is Angkor Wat. (Angkor means city; Wat means temple). Although now considered a Buddhist temple, it was originally built in the 12th century to honor the Hindu god, Vishnu. Thus, it follows Indian architectural design, modified for Buddhist practices. Measuring one mile on each side, and also surrounded by a wall and moat, it is considered the largest religious monument in the world. The basic plan is that of an Indian mandala, or diagram of the cosmic realm. The main temple building rises in three steps. The first level is wrapped with the longest continuous bas relief in the world – 12, 917 square feet. Among the sandstone figures are warriors and more than 3,000 Apsaras dancers—part female, part celestial nymph—each wearing individually designed headgear.
The costumes and dance moves of these ancient apsaras are preserved today by young performers who keep the Khmer traditions alive. The second level, entered for meditation, is mostly devoid of distracting ornamentation. Reached by a steep staircase, the third level, 699-feet tall, offers panoramic views of the temple complex.
These monuments of Angkor Archaeological Park, covering 500 acres, have been declared a UNESCO world heritage site, voted Lonely Planet’s #1 World Sight, and understandably designated by some as one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Today, Siem Reap is a busy city with a bustling night life and a growing tourist industry that brings two million visitors each year to its modern hotels and restaurants and to these ancient temples.
Barbara Rizza Mellin is an award-winning artist and author. Find more information at www.BarbaraRizzaMellin.com
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