Angkor, Part III: Ramayana and Apsara

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Before leaving the United States nine months ago, I helped my friend Russ with his shadow puppet shows. In shadow puppet shows, a screen is lit from behind. Sets and characters are cut using thick posterboard and razors. The posterboard cut-outs create the shadows of the puppet show. Colored tracing paper is used to color the scenes and characters, making stained-glass images come to life. Add a script and a hip soundtrack from dj di and find a few puppeteers to move the characters, change sets, and create voices to animate the characters as well as someone to work the lights and sound system and you have a show, in short. Whether a story of animated Halloween lobsters in Ichabod Cranium or a humorous portrayal of love in New Orleans, the puppet shows were always fun to watch or to perform.

In Cambodia, I went to see a shadow puppet show at The Bayon, a restaurant not the temple; in Cambodia, shadow puppetry is a primal method of telling folk tales and mythology. Maybe someday shadow puppets will be just as popular in the United States, but I doubt it, as it's hard to compete with today's special effect movies. Shadow puppets leave much to the imagination, however.

Like shadow puppetry, Apsara dancing is also a Khmer tradition, so much so that it is part of the Khmer creation myth--the Khmer people began when the primordial Apsara, or female divinity, married Kamvu, an ascetic.

Many of the myths told by the Apsara dancers and the shadow puppets were carved into the walls of the Angkor temples. First and foremost among these is the Ramayana, an ancient Indian Hindu myth over 2,000 years old.

The Ramayan epic is the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Orient, with over 25,000 verses, 700 chapters, and seven books. It is a tale of love and war, good and evil, humans, ogres, and monkeys. Peter Jackson should make a movie or two or three based on the Ramayana.

In the Ramayana, a man named Ravana undertook 20,000 years of penance in order to become invulnerable to the gods. With his powers, he became a demon and began to take control of the earth from his ogre kingdom on the island of Langka.

The only way to curb this evil was for a god to become human, so Vishnu and Lakshmi became the avatars Rama and Sita, who are married.

Today you can have your own avatar on the World Wide Web. On Yahoo, you can dress your avatar in a wide variety of clothing or spike your avatar's hair. Popular avatars seem to be Japanese anime characters like Spike Siegel from Cowboy Bebop or Rurouni Kenshin. Still, the world's most famous avatar is Rama.

In the jungle, Ravana abducted Sita, bringing him to Langka. To free Sita, Rama sought the aid of Hanuman, a monkey king, whose army joined Rama to fight the ogres on the island of Langka. The monkeys built a causeway of rocks to reach the island, and the battle began. The monkeys defeated the ogres and Rama slayed Ravana. Sita and Rama were once again reunited; evil was defeated.

Anyone who likes reading on a rainy day could easily curl up with Ramayana for a year's worth of storms. Or, if you aren't into reading you could watch apsara dancing and shadow puppet shows in Cambodia. Combined with looking at the bas-relief carvings on the Angkor temples, you could soak in the stories of the Ramayana and feel the culture of Cambodia and its Indian influences of myth, Hinduism, and Buddhism.
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