Monday, April 6, 2009

Talking Heads - The Temples of Bayon

And so here my journey begins - here being one of the great wonders of the planet. The Angkorian complex of cities and temples is easily one of the world’s most significant contributions to architecture and religion. Continually built between the 9th and 13th centuries, these ruins are nothing short of a marvelous tribute to art, the human desire to create and the powerful expression of spiritual devotion; and also serve as an enduring legacy of the Khmer empire.

More than a thousand years later, the hypnotic and timeless allure of Angkor continues to be an tremendous source of national pride for Cambodians and the Khmer people. Angkor not only defines what it means to be Cambodian but also serves as the spiritual core of what has historically been an oft maligned and beleaguered nation; a nation that has also proven, time and time again, to be nothing short of resilient. It’s not hard to imagine that the source of this immeasurable resilience flows right from this very spot, and hopefully for eternity.

Within the vast complex of ancient cities, built and rebuilt, this morning we visit the temples of Bayon in the ancient city of Angkor Thom. By end of the week, it would prove to be my favorite. There are no words to describe what it's like to come face to face with these enormous figures. Everything you thought you knew about the human potential to create is brought into question. How was this possible in the 12th century?

I love the enduring mystery of geography of places like Angkor; places, that if you arrived blindfolded and had to hazard a guess of your location based on the art and architecture, tend to illicit impossible but exacting guesses to other notable spots in the world - as if the creative, artistic movement here was a also felt simultaneously at other similar but disparate places around the world; and also suggesting that the muses of divine creativity work longitudinally. Standing here, one does not have to stretch the imagination far to envision Tikal in Guatemala or the monolithic stone statues of Rapa Nui. There are moments when it seems implausible that one did not inspire the other.

Look at this smiling face, coming into focus down a an elaborate and lengthy corridor, and tell me it was not the inspiration for DaVinci's Mona Lisa. Imagine 216 of these smiling Mona Lisa monoliths and you can begin to conceive the magic of Bayon.

And these temples rise, without hurry, from thick, seemingly untouched, tropical forests, adding an endless assortment of birds, butterflies and lizards to the magic and mystery of Bayon. I am bewitched, but likewise wishing I could twinkle my nose and make the hordes of tourists disappear. A selfish wish; this is a poor nation, the tourism is largely sustainable and a vast amount of lives have been enormously bettered from the proceeds garnered from the people passing through here.

The Khmer temple of Bayon was built as the offical state temple by Angkor's greatest Mahayana Buddhist king, Jayavarman VII in the 12th century. Bayon was also the last state temple to be built at Angkor. Bayon stands in the exact center of the capital and features 216 massive stone faces to watch over it. These serene but compelling faces are said to belong to Avalokitesvara, the bodhisatva of compasson (more commonly known as Guanyin in China). Parts of the temple were later augmented by Hindu and Theravada Buddhist kings in accordance to their own religious practices.

To visit here is to go back in time.

And there are moments you'll swear these faces are watching you, whispering; murmurative voices bounce off these ancient walls.

1200 meters of extraordinary bas-relief wall recant an ancient history with vivid scenes of 12th century Khmer life.

Beautiful Aspara dancers can still be found in modern Cambodia.

These abandoned temples seem very much alive

and these smiles - 216 of them

One of my favorite travel writers, Paul Theroux, passed through Bayon not too long ago on one of his infamous cross-continental train trips. Right away he observed that the smiles on the these gargantuan figures are the same smiles still worn by Cambodian people. He writes, "the Khmer smile is not a mere expressionn of happiness but a representation of an assortment of moods as well as a sort of unreadable rebuttal." Over the ensuing weeks of my travels here - I would encounter this unreadable smile of rebuttal time and time again.

all photos in this post©TR Ryan 2009
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