Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is eleventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
Siem Riep, Cambodia has grown exponentially with hotels, restaurants and markets to host some two million people a year who visit Angkor, one of the iconic World Heritage Sites and wonders of the world. On the positive side, the scale and quality of Angkor has attracted worldwide support for its preservation. UNESCO, the Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and others run one or another project to restore and conserve this special place. More challenging are the tourists themselves who touch the ruins and trod upon them—learning of Cambodia’s heritage to be sure, but also jeopardizing the site’s future survival.
People usually think of Angkor Wat as the whole of the ancient city, but actually, the wat or particular temple complex built in the 12th century is one part of a much larger series of cities. Indeed, the term “Angkor” is thought to be linguistically derived from the Sanskrit term negara, or city. This ancient urban site and capital for the Khmer, or Cambodian, people, grew and declined from the 9th to the 16th centuries, comprised an area equivalent to that of Los Angeles, and hosted about a million people.
This was far larger than any city or capital in Europe or Asia for its time. This was possible because of hydraulics—the management of the city’s water. Ancient Cambodians figured out how to move the water from surrounding rivers through rice paddy fields and the city itself. Reservoirs, canals, moats, and pools provided for irrigation, drinking water, plumbing, and sewage. Considering the size of the place and the huge annual rainfall, this was no easy task—especially with building materials of wood and stone.
But managing water was more than a matter of public works. It was part of a constructed sacred geography for the forms of Hinduism and Buddhism prevalent during the period. The temples and other precincts of Angkor were laid out in elaborate, symbolic ways. They formed mandalas, or sacred representations of existence. Visiting temples, climbing stone staircases, moving along colonnades, and circumambulating towers were all parts of spiritual journeys.
At Angkor Wat, the main tower represents Mount Meru, thought to form the central axis of this world, uniting earthly and heavenly domains. Other towers at the cardinal points represent the four corners of the world. The moat becomes the underlying ocean upon which the world rests. Many temples have bas-relief carvings—scenes from the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as well as those of local history—such as Khmer battles with the Chinese and with the Cham, or Muslim community, of Vietnam. Here one reads the wall carvings as historical text.
A favored motif is the churning of the cosmic ocean. Scores of sandstone sculpted deities and demons square off in a competition, playing a mythic tug of war with Visaki, the snake or naga as the rope. Both pull in opposite directions turning a churn presided over by the god Vishnu. This perpetual and fairly evenly matched battle of good and evil churns up the sea, producing the sacred and valuable nectar of the gods.
Our group climbs through this stone-sculpted cosmological text, our guides interpreting the reliefs, we finding simple later-day shrines of Buddha. It’s awesome!
With nightfall we have a special treat. The Governor of Siem Riep will host us for dinner at Angkor Wat. The ancient temple is lit up as we tread along the rock causeway, over the moat and into the temple gateway. Scores of dancers—women dressed as heavenly apsaras and replicating those carved in stone, greet us.
Others, dressed as warriors prepare for a performance, as do scores bearing royal parasols, standards and flags. We are joined by representatives of the prime minister, the head of the national museum, officials from the ministry of culture and several scholars who have worked with the Smithsonian on a variety of projects.
Treated to this special courtly performance, our group is wowed by the costumes, dances, songs and demonstrations of martial arts and of course the fabulously lit setting of the temple towers. After speeches and dinner we join the cast for photos and expressions of thanks; it’s a memorable moment of immense appreciation of Cambodia’s cultural treasures.
This post is eleventh in a series. To see the other posts, click here.
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