The Ancient City of Angkor – A Cautionary Tale

2nd in a series on Siem Reap

Previously in this series:

Of Back Roads and Red Dirt | A Primer to the Cambodian Countryside

Truth be told, I don’t know anything much about Cambodia before this trip. So are most of the people I talked to. Stories circulating online show others being so clueless they don’t know they are dressing inappropriately – some go shirtless, or worse, naked!

Ok, maybe it’s because of the heat, but still, it underscores the fact how little they know about the place and what these ancient structures mean to the local people. They think Siem Reap is just another exotic Southeast Asian beach town. Don’t get me wrong, Cambodia has beaches, but Siem Reap (where the concentration of the ancient temples are) is 280 miles from the nearest seashore. 

I surmise most Filipinos are introduced to Cambodian history some time during middle school. This is where we’ve probably heard of Angkor Wat the first time. However, as is true with most of the things we learn in school, we only remember them by rote (only because we need to pass the subject) but not really getting the import of what was taught (more often than not, I suppose). Not only until later in life and until it fits into one’s scheme of things, does one able to make sense of these things.

Cambodia, for a long time, isn’t really the kind of destination Filipinos are very familiar with. Except recently, it isn’t in the Filipino tourist’s radar. Not even in the OFW’s radar. I mean, I don’t hear OFW’s saying: “Oh, I work in Cambodia very often. In fact, nada.

I think the one time it made an impression on me as an exciting destination was when it came out in the first Tomb Raider movie. A very smart move to break into popular culture, I would say. It has effectively put Cambodia back on the map.

The image of giant trees growing on top of ancient temple walls, with huge roots exposed, left a strong impression. There’s an otherworldly feel to it. It’s become iconic now.

This is a departure from the bad image the country has suffered for years under the Pol Pot regime – one of gruesome violence and genocide. Almost every Cambodian alive today has some loved one or relative, who fell victim to the atrocities. Truly a dark chapter in this country’s history.

Some people may not be too keen on studying history, hence, must have felt on the fence regarding this trip. I get that. But just like anything else in life that is good for us, like a healthy diet and exercise, it’s something we should develop a liking for, for our own good. It takes discipline.

Also, because our modern global civilization is faced with a similar crisis the ancients did, the repercussions of which we haven’t fully realized. We need all the help we can get to overcome it. Any precedence in history that could be of any value would be a good start to even get a bit of a clue on what’s the best way to deal with this problem.

And so, although I don’t know much about Cambodia, I approached it with an open mind. I was an empty cup willing to learn, and boy, did I realize a lot of things. Just the magnificence of it all – the splendor, the scale, the engineering marvel, especially at a time when (complex) machinery was unheard of – took my breath away. Mind you, this vast area dotted with numerous temple sites was once a vibrant metropolis (or whatever the equivalent of it is in ancient times). This, in fact, was once the world’s largest city before the Industrial Age – a world heritage that merits our admiration and appreciation. A gift to humanity.

There are three temple sites we visited that are in relatively close proximity to each other (satellite view below).

First is Ta Prohm, where part of the Tomb Raider movie was filmed. I’m sure you’ve become familiar with this image by now, thanks to the movie.

“Founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahayana Buddhist monastery and university, it was built in the Bayon style largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries and originally called Rajavihara. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm is in much the same condition in which it was found – the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors” – Wikipedia

All this traveling back in time, at the same time being surrounded by magnificent ancient architecture, makes one feel like going on an adventure – Indiana Jones level 🙂 And to kick it off, we were given a group activity – a treasure hunt of sorts. We are to find a bas relief of an apsara head partially hidden behind some huge temple block ruins, overgrown with tree roots. We were just given a picture of how it looks like facing the image and then had to find the actual location for ourselves. Given the huge area we need to scour and the seemingly similar features of a lot of the places in the temple grounds, it seemed like an insurmountable task to accomplish. However, persistence and team work paid off and has won the day. Surely no task is so great with a clear vision and game plan, and a strong team spirit 🙂

Do you see in this photo where the apsara is hiding?

Apsaras seem to be the first ones to greet us upon entering our first temple – Ta Prohm. They serve as good introduction to Cambodian culture and history. In fact, they play a prominent part in the whole Angkorian culture and architectural theme of the day. Below are the apsaras stationed at the wall near the entrance.

Apsara (in Hindu mythology) is a celestial nymph, typically the consort of a gandharva or heavenly musician. In the Cambodian culture, Khmer female figures that are dancing or are poised to dance are considered apsaras; female figures, depicted individually or in groups, who are standing still and facing forward in the manner of temple guardians or custodians are called devatas.” – Wikipedia

Here are some of the other areas inside the temple grounds. As expected, it’s teeming with tourists 🙂

Next stop is the Bayon Temple, also known as Angkor Thom.

“Built in the late 12th or early 13th century as the state temple of the Mahayana Buddhist King Jayavarman VII, the Bayon stands at the centre of Jayavarman’s capital, Angkor Thom. Following Jayavarman’s death, it was modified and augmented by later Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance with their own religious preferences” – Wikipedia

It goes on to say that the JSA, the main conservatory body in charge of the conservation and preservation of the site, describes the temple as “the most striking expression of the baroque style” of Khmer architecture, as contrasted with the classical style of Angkor Wat.

This is where I got lost for a time, having been separated from the group. Was having a hard time finding my pass and so the group went ahead without me. By the time I was allowed to get in, the group is nowhere to be found. So I just made my way to the top and explored Bayon by myself.

Been exploring corridors and galleries on the lower levels and got few surprises here and there. Turned a corner and found “treasures” like this.

I wonder what it’s like being a Buddhist.

Made my way the to the top and found gigantic statues (towers) of Avalokiteshvara faces, a bodhisattva. This is actually a Bayon temple signature. Hence, its other title – ‘the face temple‘.

Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who are destined to become buddhas but postpone that final state in order to help humanity.

Another striking feature of Bayon is its adornment of 1.2 kms of extraordinary bas-reliefs incorporating more than 11,000 figures.

I wouldn’t be delving much into the details and stories behind these bas-reliefs but I highly suggest you search and read up on their background. It’s full of history and lots of interesting stories to tell. It’s like taking a peek into the soul of a proud kingdom – its glorious past, its people, its kings, its tales and legends; its everyday life; the mundane and the otherworldly; its idiosyncrasies and all.

Lonely Planet was on point when it said : “There is still much mystery associated with Bayon – such as its exact function and symbolism – and this seems only appropriate for a monument whose signature is an enigmatic smiling face”.

By this time, I was already able to catch up with the group.

Our final temple to visit is no other than the grandest and most majestic of them all – Angkor Wat. But before that, we first went to a restaurant outside the temple grounds as we all have been wanting to eat and take a break from all the walking and climbing, under a terribly hot weather.

Here are some of the food we devoured. I didn’t get the names of everything but some of them include: chicken with Khmer spice, deep-fried fish, fried egg, sauteed fried pork with eggplant, stir-fried veggies. I may not have gotten all the names correctly but you get the idea, right? No need to be all fussy about it 🙂

And so we enter the Angkor Wat temple grounds. ‘Massive’ is an understatement. We had to cross a body of water which seemed like some natural waterway, a river or something, but in reality is a gigantic man-made moat that surrounds the complex.

We notice monkeys roaming around freely. There are those who seem to be welcoming us on the other end of the pontoon bridge, seated on stairwells and on railings.

Angkor Wat is “one of the largest religious monuments in the world, on a site measuring 162.6 hectares. It was built by the Khmer King Suryavarman II in the early 12th century in Yaśodharapura (present-day Angkor), the capital of the Khmer Empire, as his state temple and eventual mausoleum” – Wikipedia

Angkor Wat was gradually transformed into a Buddhist temple towards the end of the 12th century. Coming from a predominantly Catholic country, this is a sight to behold. I feel like finding new religion 😀

Though damage is minimal, Angkor Wat has not been spared the effects of modern warfare. In fact, before entering, our guide showed us bullet holes left by a shoot-out between the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese forces in the late ’70’s. This photo, in particular, shows bullet still left inside one of the walls of this ancient structure.

Even more destructive than the war itself though, were the rampant looting of the archaeological finds, by art thieves working out of Thailand. One could not help but notice the numerous headless statues and figures, as a consequence of this looting.

“Breaking from the Shaiva tradition of previous kings, Angkor Wat was instead dedicated to Vishnu. As the best-preserved temple at the site, it is the only one to have remained a significant religious centre since its foundation” – Wikipedia

Statue of god Vishnu

Once again, monkeys roam careless and free 😀

Angkor Wat is at the top of the high classical style of Khmer architecture. It has become a symbol of Cambodia and is the country’s prime attraction for visitors.

Before entering the temple itself, we gathered in front of, what looks like a depression on the earth with a small lake-like structure at the bottom, to have our group and individual photos taken. This is a popular spot where people can take picture-perfect photos because of the reflection created by the water, for added drama.

The magnificence, the splendor, the scale of this ancient wonder. I was in awe.

Angkor Wat combines two basic plans of Khmer temple architecture: the temple-mountain and the later galleried temple. It is designed to represent Mount Meru, home of the devas in Hindu mythology.

The temple is admired for the grandeur and harmony of the architecture, its extensive bas-reliefs, and for the numerous devatas adorning its walls.

“The temple stands on a terrace raised higher than the city. It is made of three rectangular galleries rising to a central tower, each level higher than the last. Each gallery has a gopura at each of the points, and the two inner galleries each have towers at their corners, forming a quincunx with the central tower. Connecting the outer gallery to the second enclosure on the west side is a cruciform cloister called Preah Poan (the “Hall of a Thousand Gods”). The four small courtyards marked out by the cloister may originally have been filled with water. North and south of the cloister are libraries” – Wikipedia

The steep stairway symbolizes the difficulty of reaching heaven

“One of these temples, a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo, might take an honorable place beside our most beautiful buildings. It is grander than anything left to us by Greece or Rome…”

Henri Mouhot, 19th-century French naturalist and explorer

Yes, we romanticize how magnificent the structures are and how ingenious the engineering that was used to build them, but I don’t think people really understand the enormity and scale of this project even if I say it repeatedly and candidly. So, let’s put it in perspective, shall we?

The Khmer Empire ruled over a vast area of Southeast Asia, even larger than what modern Cambodia is today.

Its capital city is Angkor. At the time, before the advent of the Industrial Revolution, it was the world’s largest urban center. And in order to support such huge population, the Khmer built water management systems like huge reservoirs, canals, channels and dikes. They made good use of the resources that are available in season such as the monsoon. Water can be abundant in one season and scarce the next. This ingenious solution of efficiently utilizing a precious resource secured them a regular harvest.

For a long time, it has been a mystery how the society collapsed after about 200-300 years after its peak. There have been lots of theories, of course. Recently, however, a new one surfaced (and this is a real kicker). It states that environmental factors, otherwise known as ‘climate change‘ could have played a huge role in its demise. The ‘freaky’ weather patterns, like floods and droughts, overwhelmed those water management systems. And when I say freaky, I mean those that are not within the parameters of what is considered regular or normal. Basically, weather phenomenon that are off the charts.

We often hear about once in a 100-year type of flooding or drought, or heavy rainfall, right? They do happen as part of the natural cycles of the earth. What’s scary about our time though, is that our brand of climate change is self-inflicted. We create the causes for our own demise. And there’s no precedence of it anywhere in history. The CO2 levels and other pollutants we put in the air are staggering. Nowhere in recorded history has there been this much level of CO2 in the atmosphere. Scientists fear reaching a tipping point where we face the risk of a runaway weather, in which we wouldn’t have any control over nor could we predict with a much better certainty how the weather is going to behave.

Now who says history is not relevant to us today? We may have come a long way as a species but we surely have not learned from the errors of the past, or at least not have been as vigilant as we should have. The ancient ruins of Angkor are a poignant reminder of how even with the best technology and advancements, humans are no match to nature. We could very well suffer the same fate as the ancient Khmer people if we don’t change our ways.

So often we fail to value the natural world because of our greed. We treat it like a commodity, an unlimited resource. We need to realize that it is to our best interest to work with it and not against it.

Here’s to hoping things would work for the better. And soon.

Special thanks to Real World Adventure for arranging our tour of the temples.

To Vox for this video, where screen grabs of the maps of Southeast Asia were taken.

Find them on Facebook:
@realwordadvanture
@Vox
Advertisements

The “Flying Arts” of the Bangsamoro and Other Things Awesome

I’m capping off this series on the Bangsamoro by presenting this side of their cultural/artistic heritage that’s not very well known, I should say. Except for the sarimanok (pictured above), which has become an icon, thanks to its constant appearance on TV during the 90’s (it being the inspiration for this major TV network’s logo, in fact), most of the photos you’d be seeing here are pretty rare. I myself was pleasantly surprised to have found out about these.

We live in a world full of stereotypes and this couldn’t be more true in the case of the Bangsamoro people. The situation was only further exacerbated by the events of 9/11. After almost two decades, we are still reeling from the fallout of that event. Look only at what Marawi has become just recently – total devastation.

This series hopes to shatter some of the misconceptions and help us get a better understanding of our brothers and sisters in the South.

You can check previous articles of this series below:

Bangsamoro Art – Faith, Tradition & Place

Bangsamoro – Keeping the Faith

I saved these photos for last because I think these are the, sort of, “crown jewel” to their cultural and artistic heritage. If there’s anything worthy of shattering stereotypes, these would be it. I mean, who would have thought, for example, that the Bangsamoro peoples had something similar to a Pegasus they call burraq or borak – a hybrid animal of Islamic mythology that has a winged human head on a horse’s body.

According to the museum’s informational guide, the burraq/borak is “one of the common artistic elements that conveys a sense of flight. It is considered sacred in the Islamic world, as it was through flying the burraq that Prophet Muhammad journeyed and ascended to heaven, as told in the Isra’wal Mi’raj“.

It is interesting to note however, that while the concept of rising is part of the Islamic faith, focusing on spiritual lightness and the upward orientation towards unity with the Divine heavenly being, it is also a notion corresponding to the pre-Islamic indigenous concept of floating and flying as a means of connecting humans to the spiritual realm. Based on a study conducted by Abraham Sakili, this concept is widely-known throughout the Philippines and Southeast Asia.

Islam in the Philippines has been described as remarkably syncretic – a fusion of different influences both foreign and local. As mentioned in the previous article, some indigenous practices persisted. You would see many elements of the same in the different parts of the region. You’d be surprised how the iconic sarimanok has counterparts in other Southeast Asian countries and how the concept of birds as spiritual messengers are a common belief in these places too – the iban of Borneo and the garuda of Indonesia, for example. Learning about this fact makes me realize how, despite the seeming “differences”, there are a lot we share in common. Also, it’s interesting how something we don’t usually put much focus on suddenly had this new meaning upon second look. I mean, I’ve heard about the garuda from Garuda Indonesia, which is the flag carrier of Indonesia, but I have never really given much thought as to its symbolism and its connection to everything else. It’s just amazing like that, isn’t it? 

The iconic sarimanok

This chicken-like figure with a fish on its beak, the sarimanok, is a significant artistic element that conveys flying. According to the museum’s informational guide: “The Maranao considers the sarimanok to have evolved from its totem bird called itotoro. It is invoked in many rituals and included in their myths and epics.They are depicted as messengers of legendary heroes and royalty in the Maranao epic Darangen. The sarimanok is also considered as a medium to the spirit realm through its unseen twin spirit bird called inikadowa. Like the naga, the sarimanok appears in highly stylized forms in artistic works to adhere to Islamic beliefs. Other stylized bird-like figures are also used as designs,such as the manukmanuk of Sulu“.

Another element of floating or flying is the naga. It is “a Sanskrit term referring to a mythical dragon or serpent noted for its wisdom, agility, power and bravery”. The informational guide adds: “While the representation of nature – plants and animals – in art is counter to Islamic beliefs, the naga persisted in highly stylized forms that include the S-shaped and rope-like designs”. This design could be found in the panolong.

Flags also convey the idea of flying. The Maranao display ceremonial flags during special events such as weddings, coronations, and fluvial parades, among others. The display of flags was traditionally associated only with the ruling class, now these are used during various communal celebrations and events”, per the museum’s informational guide. Below is an example of a flag called Panji or Pandi.

Panji or Pandi

Are you ready to get your mind blown?

Presenting, the kokora 🙂

At first glance, this would’ve looked like some gigantic bug or winged lizard from the Jurassic period. One would have thought ‘what could our forebears have use for this?’

Well, the answer is actually more mundane and utilitarian than one could have possibly thought.

So, here’s the kicker. Notice the elongated tongue that kind of looked like an antenna above his head? 

Yes. It’s used to grate coconut. It couldn’t be more tropical and Filipino than that! 😀

The Bangsamoro culture is also replete with legends, the most famous of which is the Maranao Legend of Indarapatra.

Spectacular performances, displays of resplendent art, and lavish feasts thrive as they give visual expressions to the Islamic notion of the sacred power of sultans.

Feasts are an integral part of the Bangsamoro culture. According to the museum’s informational guide: “Immersing in activities that sharpen senses and experiences, such as tasting special dishes and joining in performances with heightened theatrical and dramatic elements, lead to captivating the festival participants’ attention. It is through these that feasts provide spaces for encounters markedly distinct from their ordinary and daily lives. Singing, dancing, music and recitation of oral literature are among the most common types of performances, providing entertainment and infusing amplified auditory and visual engagements to participants”.

Nothing could be more striking in this musical ensemble than the kulintang “an ancient instrumental form of music composed on a row of small, horizontally laid gongs that function melodically, accompanied by larger, suspended gongs and drums” (wikipedia)

They even have a bad-a** kulintang on display at the museum. The design is so intricate and lavish it could pass for a throne fit for royalty.

I cannot stress enough how important a role museums play in educating people. Especially in this time and age where information can easily be accessed with the touch of a button (or a swipe of a finger), people easily get caught up with the use of technology. We use it for practically anything nowadays, even for social connections. However, despite technology’s myriads of practical uses, this should not take away the joy of learning things the traditional way.

It was a pleasant revelation to me, for example, to learn about the Bangsamoro culture and heritage – something I think I wouldn’t have realized or appreciated as much, had I not experienced from this perspective.

It’s funny because I’m sure this subject has been discussed in school in one form or another; in history books, wholly or partially – some maybe in passing, others probably having volumes dedicated to it. But having seen the actual pieces and the materials up close, and learning the story behind each and every piece, gave the learning experience a whole new dimension. I definitely walked away bringing with me a newfound appreciation for these things. And that’s something no amount of technology can ever really replace.

A Day at the Museum | The Ayala Museum (Part 2)

Previously in this series:

A Day at the Museum | The Ayala Museum (Part 1)

As mentioned in the previous post, taking of photos are not allowed in all levels of the museum except second and first. Hence, the absence of pictures, save for some stolen shots of the short film at the Gold of Ancestors gallery.

The collection on the 4th floor are actually divided into three parts: The Art and Order of Nature in Indigenous Philippine Textiles, Gold of Ancestors and A Millennium of Contact.

The Art and Order of Nature in Indigenous Philippine Textiles

What struck me immediately about the indigenous textiles were the intricacies of the patterns. One could only imagine the hard work, the skill, the passion and the love that goes into the process of creating one. The collection consists of 111 textiles representing different indigenous communities in the Philippines – from the Cordilleras to the North, to the Muslim regions of Mindanao to the South, up to the Sulu archipelago. The patterns, interestingly, aren’t just for aesthetics. It reflects the universal order of nature. In one of the infographics I saw featuring a particular type of weave from a certain tribe, it shows the connection a human body has (particularly its symmetries) to the earth and to the cosmos. It’s in effect saying being one with nature and the divine. The weaves therefore, are as much a spiritual expression as they are utilitarian.

It is also amazing to think of the cultural diversity of our country. Every region has its unique cultural identity that were represented differently by these ethnic weaves. And just like the weaves themselves, interestingly, our country forms an intricate pattern that shows we are all interconnected, even as the notion of nationhood is foreign at the time. The semblance is undeniable. The metaphor couldn’t be more apt. Surely, we should be doing more to promote and appreciate this heritage. Also, this is telling us to shun divisiveness.

Gold of Ancestors

This collection boasts of more than a thousand archaeological gold objects unearthed from the country showcasing the sophisticated cultures that existed in the islands prior to the colonization of the West in the 16th century. It is interesting to note that even today, the Philippines has the 2nd largest gold deposit (per area) in the world[1], second only to South Africa[2].

The most extensive collection of archaeological gold in the country were those found in the Surigao/Butuan area. I would say the crowning jewel of the Surigao gold is the Kinnari, a winged-female divinity of the Hindu religion which originated from India. Aside from its excellent craftsmanship, this particular Kinnari is unique during its time in that it was made in three-dimensional form – maybe one of the firsts, if not the first, to be done in that manner. Experts say they have never seen anything like it in the region, not even in the Javanese or Indian art forms of the same period. The rendering of it can only be explained as uniquely Filipino.

This shows how, even in the seemingly challenging geography of our region (being archipelagic and all), nothing could stop the exchange of ideas, culture and trade from flourishing. Our country has always been a melting pot of cultures. Given our knack for creativity and ingenuity, we built on these new ideas, gave it our own unique spin and flair, and owned it.

img_20161231_062419
A short film about the “Gold of Ancestors” collection. Pictured here is part of the Sacred Thread piece.

My favorite among the collection however, is the Sacred Thread – a halter-like adornment weighing a heavy 4 kilos. Wearing it would give one some serious “royal” feels… and maybe some “royal” backache too because of its weight 😛

[1] http://asiasociety.org/new-york/exhibitions/philippine-gold-treasures-forgotten-kingdoms

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwNRf8Mlb1M

A Millennium of Contact

On display in this collection are 500 pieces of ceramics of all shapes and sizes, from China and other parts of Southeast Asia. Proof positive of a lively trade that occurred in the region in ancient times. This forging of social and commercial ties with China and surrounding neighbors, spans a thousand years, pre-dating the building of the Rice Terraces by about 150 years. This is just to emphasize how old our relations with China is. We seem to have always been in its sphere of influence.

Given our current political situation, this is giving a lot of room for retrospect as our country embarks on a renewed, albeit uneasy, alliance with our giant neighbor, what with the territorial spat still in the offing. A lot has changed since those early trading years. We have since become sophisticated societies and civilizations, with the idea of a sovereign state coming to form. Whenever tensions arise, we should refer back to this epoch and remember how a simple exchange in culture and trade could foster friendship and mutual respect. I hope that in these tension-filled days, everyone, especially our leaders – people who call the shots, be always reminded of this era so they could be more level-headed. This country does not need another war.


Visit the Ayala Museum at

Makati Avenue corner De La Rosa Street
Greenbelt Park, Makati City
1224 Philippines