Angkor Wat viewed from the inner courtyard
Angkor Wat viewed from the inner courtyard

Uday K Chakraborty walks in amazement amidst many attractions of Angkor Wat Archaeological Complex

 Everyone come Cambodia to see Angkor Wat, largest and most wonderful religious monument in the world. Angkor Wat, literally means “City of Temple”. Is a legacy of the mighty Khmer empire during the Angkorian era (9th to 14th century AD). What one must also know is actually Angkor National Archaeological Park is a sprawling forested complex of containing hundreds of other temples and fascinating archeological as well. Out of bound almost up to end of last century, only in recent years the complex is accessible to foreign tourists.

Construction on various temples Angkor Wat began in the 19th century and took around three hundred years to complete. Angkor, which had a population of over a million in its brightest era, was the country’s capital until it was occupied by foreign invaders in 1431, after a century long war. Then Angkor settled into four hundred years of solitude. Within this time, the forest expanded to cover the ancient town entirely.

Mysterious Ta Prohm
Mysterious Ta Prohm

After its rediscovery in 1860, sporadic restoration efforts followed. In 1998, UNESCO had declared it as its first ever World Heritage Site. Then on Cambodian request, the Archaeological Survey of India took up a heroic eight-year long restoration effort that stabilized the ancient ruin.  Today, the lost city presents the most valuable examples of Indo-Chinese art and architecture in one place.

Enchantingly, the complex is located amidst a deep and relentless rain forest. When we visited during the onset of monsoon in June, the cloudy skies, morning rains and smell of the wet earth made the surrounding forests flourish in a kind of natural freshness. And, as the sun started appearing behind the cloud, the complex was full of colourful butterflies, floating around and perching on the visitors, as if in  fleeting rendezvous.

As I approached the temple site across the moat at the outer boundary, the myth and mystery of Angkor Wat, the magnet that draws people to Cambodia, had an instant effect on me. Angkor is the largest religious building in the world – a rectangular base of 1.5 km by 1.3 km.

The temple complex is made up of stairs rising skywards, columns, courtyards lying one within the others, giant statues, splendid friezes on the walls. There are three levels rising to a central core topped by five distinctive towering temple top shaped like lotus flower.  Buff-coloured façade of each level is punctuated by towers at the corners and pavilions in the centre.

Evocative Bayan Temple
Evocative Bayan Temple

The sculptures and reliefs on stone walls at AngkorWat are easily among the greatest sculpture creations in the world. The walls, with its uninterrupted frieze of reliefs over six feet high, comprises in all, over one and half kilometer of sculpted figures.

The Vishnu legend predominates including The Churning of The Ocean episode, battle of Kurukshetra, tales from Ramayana and Mahabharata as well as one whole panel devoted to the last judgment with graphic scenes of hell and heaven. Also, on the walls there are 2000 apsaras, with enigmatic smiles, elaborate head-dresses and jewels, and none of these figures are exactly identical.

From Angkor it was a short Tuk-tuk ride to Angkor Thom (meaning ‘big city’), the core of the ancient city, at the centre of which stands the Bayon. This awe inspiring temple is an imposing stone pile of 54 towers; each studded with hauntingly carved four huge enigmatic faces of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara- the Buddha of Compassion.  Although much smaller than Angkor Wat, the Bayon was, I felt, rather more evocative in its originality.

Butterflies, nature and ancient ruins
Butterflies, nature and ancient ruins

When we walked into Ta Prohm, it literally took our breath away. Its mysterious outlook was indeed apt location for the Temple of Doom in Angelina Jolie starred film Tomb Raider. Huge blocks of stone had crushed all over like a collapsed house of cards and wall carvings of Devtas were covered by a greenish patina of algae and lichen. Octopus roots of the ancient trees gripping the stone walls and crumbling terraces were truly mindboggling and the temple ruins made me feel as if I was transported back to the Angkorian era.

Yet among these jumbled ruins, where only shafts of light can penetrate to dapple the fallen leaves, it takes considerable effort to imagine once was a vibrant, monastery-city built by Jayavarman VII to the memory of his mother. According to inscription on its stones, It was buzzing with 18 high priests, 5000 officiates and attendants and 615 bejeweled female dancers and hoards of visitors.

Banteay Srei, meaning ‘Citadel of Women’, around twenty-five kilometers from the main Angkor complex, is relatively smaller than the other temples. Built using pink limestone, the construction of the temple is dated to the 10th century. Dedicated to Siva, this stunning temple has one of the finest carvings on earth. It astonishes all who see it with its ornate walls, statues and stone carvings on the walls, and the striking grace of its other details and decorations. The intricate carvings of delicate women in traditional skirts, and scenes from Ramayana looked almost alive in three dimensions.

Today, while history rolls, the messages of time seem to emanate out of these magnificent heritage architecture created by extraordinary men.

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How to reach: Regular flights from Bangkok or Phnom Penh to SIem Reap airports offer best connectivity.

Local Transport: Motorcycle connected Tongas are most interesting mode but hired cars are available.

Stay: Hotels in nearby Siem Reap are preferred for family.

Food: Western, Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese and a few Indian restaurants (not necessarily run by Indian).

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