This was a big day in my trip. I am finally going to visit the magnificent temple of Angkor Wat that brought me to Cambodia in the first place. I woke up around 3.50 am, took a shower. Prepared my backpack for the day. After Ria and I were ready we went down stairs and met with Ang, our tuktuk driver, to start the day with sunrise in Angkor Wat. It was about 20 minute ride. It was still dark and I couldn’t see the surrounding area very clearly. Ang dropped us off at the entrance to the temple and I asked him to take us to all the temples that we are visiting that day to not make the same mistake as yesterday.
We walked through the path with thousands of other tourists to get to the prime spot to see the sunrise. The sky was very clear I was able to spot many constellations such as the crux and big dipper. We waited for a while for the sunrise in the middle of sea of cameras. Slowly it lit up and we could see the Bakan (Central tower) and four surrounding towers. As the sun came through the corner of the Angkor Wat, we were able to see the marvelous structure built by Khmer emperor Suriyvarman II for god Vishnu. It is one of the magnificent scenery that I have ever seen!
It was around 7 am when it was bright and sunny outside. Since we didn’t eat much for the breakfast, we went to one of the restaurants inside the temple complex. It was great that they have these restaurants inside, otherwise we would have starved. We went and had our breakfast. Since I am a Hindu, I avoided eating any non-vegetarian food before going to the temples.
After breakfast we walked through the stone paved path with the balustrade to the temple. It was a surreal moment for me, this would have been the same path that great kings of Khmer empire and people of that empire would have taken to visit the temple and worship god Vishnu. As we entered the temple, we were able to see the wall covered with carvings of Ramayana stories and apsaras. The temple was humongous, there is no word to describe the size of the temple, on top of that it was very elaborate not a pile of stone put together. There were inscriptions on the pillars of the temples. Usually these inscriptions elaborate what the kings donated to the temple and how they were the vanguards of culture and religion. When we walked around the temples we saw many statutes with missing heads or limbs or some other parts. It is sad that vandals, looters, colonist and invaders had no heart to leave them as they are even after seeing the beauty of Angkor Wat. I also saw two tall vishnu statues in both of them the head and multiple arms were gone. We saw several Buddha statues inside the temple.
Then we decide to go to the Bakan, the central tower. According to hindu architecture it will be considered the sanctum sanctorum. You have to climb about fifty stairs to go up to the Bakan. Original stairs were much more steep and they gave the illusion that the Bakan is much taller than it actually is. According to one of the tour guides they are built that way to generate the feeling that you are going up to the heaven when you climb up the Bakan. But to make the lives of the tourists easier wooden stairs are built that are easy to climb. From the top of the bakan you can see the vast extent of Angkor Wat and the forest that is covering the ancient Khmer capital city. It was an amazing experience walking up the Bakan and seeing one of the world’s best architecture.
Then we came down to see the gorgeous sculptures around the outer wall of Angko Wat. The outer wall is covered with sculptures from hindu mythology such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, and grand army of Khmer empire. First set of bas-relief sculpture that we saw were battle of Lanka between Vanaras and Asuras from Ramayana. When we walked down the path to see the bas-relief sculpture we could see the expanse of Angkor Wat and it is hard to imagine anyone can build a structure like this at present with western technologies! Then we came across sculptures from the hindu legend Mahabaratha such as the suyamvara of Draupadi. Then we came to the section which depicted the war between devas and asuras. I was able to identify many hindu gods such as lord Vishnu standing on top of Garuda, lord Murugan sitting on top of a pea-cock and Agni seated on top of a rhinoceros. The war scene depicted cavalries, elephantries and infantries. Although they are depicted as mythological scenes I believe the sculptors got their inspiration from the formidable Khmer military.
As I though I have seen all the sculptures and turned, there was another section full of gorgeous bas-relief sculptures. That section depicted the real Khmer army going for a war against their perennial enemy the Champa Kingdom. Then I came across the magnificent sculpture depicting the churning of the ocean of milk. It is a hindu mythological story but I think it has more significance in south asian countries than in India or Sri Lank. This bas-relief sculpture is 31 m long. It shows Asuras (Demons) and Devas (Angels) churning the ocean of milk with Vasuki the snake and in the middle it is Maha Vishnu on top Mantra mountain and Vishnu also holds the Mantra mountain from the bottom as a turtle to prevent the mountain from slipping. It was an amazing art work by all means. You can see the faces of asuras are hidious and faces of devas are complacent and peaceful and it seem the sculptors were very scrupulous in making the sculpture. Next panel of sculpture showed the punishments given in the hell and Yama the god for the good and bad karma. I enjoyed every single minute looking at these sculptures.
Around 1 pm we came outside of the main temple. There were some side temples where I saw the sculptures of Vishnu that I really wanted to visit in Angkor Wat. There were a few small sculptures and there was one that was about eight to nine feet tall. Vishnu had eight arms a radiant face and I was glad except for the things that are usually in the hands of Vishnu everything else was intact. Right next to Vishnu there was a statue of goddess Lakshmi, unfortunately this sculpture was headless. However both sculptures were decorated very well. These sculptures used to be in the sanctum sanctorum of the temple until buddhist monk took over the temple. It was a remarkable experience for me seeing the largest religious monument built for lord Vishnu. This is something that I will never forget in my life!
After we came outside the temple we had lunch at the same place we had our breakfast. Then we met with our tuktuk driver Ang. Then we went to Preah Khan. This was a buddhist temple built by Jayavarman VII in memory of his father. It had a unique structure compared to other temples in Siem Reap. Entrance to the temple is decorated with the sculpture of Devas and Asuras churning the ocean of milk. Inside the temple I saw an intact Shivalingam for the first time. There was also traditional theravada style buddhist stupa in the middle of the temple. I have to note that king Jayavarman VII was a Mahayana buddhist and there was not much difference between architecture of Hindu and Buddhist temples in
Siem Reap. However at present most people in Cambodia follow Theravada buddhism. So the stupa could have been built later on. As all the temple Preah Khan was also covered with sculpture everywhere. Similar to Ta Prom this temple also had many overgrown trees. The unique structure in this building was that it had a separate two storey building and the purpose of the building is not well known. There were also small temple like structures outside of the main temple.
Although we planned to pay a visit to Neak Pean, Ta Keo and Prasat Kravan we were really tired since we started the day before five in the morning. So we headed back to the hostel. It was a tiresome but excellent day. After coming to the hostel I rested for a while and then took a shower. Around 8 p.m. Ria and I went to the pub street a well known place for tourists. Pub street has many restaurants, bars and stores where you can buy souvenirs. We went to eat in a pizza place where they had Cambodian style pizza so we had tuna pizza there. Then we went to the night market to buy some souvenirs. They sell paintings, clothing, statues and all other kinds of stuff. One thing that I noticed is that souvenirs are actually cheaper inside the temple than in downtown Siem Reap. Then we came back to the hostel. The following day will be our last day visiting the temples since we bought a 3 day pass.
I would like to finish this post with a stanza from Thiruppavai, a holy song in Tamil which tells the glories of lord Vishnu. Especially this one mentions about how devotees of Vishnu wake up early in the day during the holy Danur Masam (December – January period) to worship Lord Vishnu. I think I did exactly the same on this day!
சிற்றம் சிறுகாலே வந்துன்னைச் சேவித்துன்
பொற்றா மரையடியே போற்றும் பொருள் கேளாய்;
பெற்றம் மேய்த்துண்ணும் குலத்திற் பிறந்து நீ
குற்றேவல் எங்களைக் கொள்ளாமல் போகாது;
இற்றைப் பறைகொள்வான் அன்று காண் கோவிந்தா!
எற்றைக்கும் ஏழேழ் பிறவிக்கும் உன்தன்னோடு
உற்றோமே ஆவோம்; உனக்கே நா மாட்செய்வோம்;
மற்றைநம் காமங்கள் மாற்றேலோ ரெம்பாவாய்.
(to be continued …)