Temple Cruising Day Two
Trip Start Nov 15, 2011
47Trip End Ongoing
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We spent more time studying the carvings and attempting to interpret the stories behind them on this visit. Monica and I could not get over the bus loads of Chinese tourists who literally ran from one statue to another, the women often in high heels, clicking one picture after another, and than running off again, the sweat dripping off them in droves. Our tuk-tuk driver mentioned to us that they can be fanatical about sight-seeing, going from sun-up to sun-down without a break.
Our next stop was the temple of Preah Khan which was actually a Buddhist university that housed over a thousand teachers. Much like Ta Prohm, this site has been left in situ, so the strangler figs and silk cotton trees can still be found growing up through the broken blocks. It is these types of unrestored sites that fascinate me the most. There are references in the stone carvings to a 'lake of blood' which implies that Preah Khan was built on the site of a major battle in the recapture of Angkor from the Chams. And just as Ta Prohm was dedicated to the King's mother, so Preah Khan, built five years later in 1191, was dedicated to the King's father.
Next, we visited Neak Pean which is a small monument situated within an arrangement of ponds. There is a large, square central pond with four smaller square ponds located on the four sides of the larger pond. In the centre of the large pond is a circular island containing a sanctuary tower. At this time, the main pond has some water in it and the island is closed off to tourists. The smaller ponds are dried up but supposedly they fed another eight other ponds as well. The story goes that the pond was made as a representation of the great Himalayan lake of Anavatapta. This lake was famous for its fantastic healing properties and as the source of four great rivers issuing through the mouths of a lion, an elephant, a horse and an ox
Our last stop of the of the day was East Mebon and I found it a difficult temple to picture in my mind. It was much different than the others. This temple was actually an island surrounded by a large lake of water at the time that it was in use. Today the area is bone dry. Since the temple was encircled by water, there was no need for the customary succession of enclosures, walls, moats and approach causeways. The lake bed actually held 55 million cubic metres of water and averaged about 4m in depth. A canal had been built directing the water from the river Roluos. Today the temple appears high but at the time, with the height of the water taken into consideration, a good 5m has been added because we are standing now on the bottom of the lake.
I have to mention two things Monica and I noticed at all of these sites. One I have touched on and that is the enormous number of tourists flocking to these sites. I find myself studying them as much as I do the temples. They are of all ages and ethnic backgrounds. Some appear quite knowledgeable while others seem more concerned about filling a bucket list or getting some good self pics to send on to friends. More importantly, are the number of local children waiting at the gates to sell books, scarves, pick up loose cans etc
To help differentiate between our western churches and cathedrals and temples such as these, we must first understand that a Khmer temple was never constructed to be a meeting place for the faithful, (like a church), but rather to be a palace of a god who was enshrined there to allow him to bestow his beneficence. There was thus the need to build this god the finest possible residence although he was there only in the form of a statue. Because of this, there was little need for large space.
So a great temple would not be a vast palace for a single god but a grouping of multiple shrines with a main divinity at the centre. Preah Khan for example was originally designed to house more than 400 deities. The shrines could be linked or surrounded by galleries, but in no way were they intended to provide passage for great processions. Some are not even accessible on foot.
As the residence of a god, or gods, the sacred territory of which the temple is sited is an image of the universe, where the gods sit on Mount Meru, the centre of the world, surrounded by the primordial ocean
One final point concerning not only the main prasat or sanctuary tower or main statue but the whole philosophy of eastern religion vs western. In the west, sex has no part in religion to be brief and blunt. Jesus was born of a virgin mother, we have no idea how Adam and Eve appeared. Sex is simply taboo. In the east, it is a gift. Fertility is a gift from the gods and sex is a part of fertility. Buddha was tempted by lust but lust is simply a lack of self control.
Shiva is the supreme god in the Khmer world and he most often represented by the linga or phallus. Almost all the main statues or towers are linga shaped - inserted in its pedestal, the linga consists of three sections and is a symbol of the Brahman trinity. Only the top third is visible, pointing upward in an ovoid shape, representing Shiva. The middle, octagonal section represented Vishnu while the bottom third was square and represented Brahma. Both were hidden within the pedestal. The pedestal was surmounted by a square stone slab with central hole and a spout to allow the lustral water to run out and be collected by the faithful. This central feature is called a yoni or womb, which is a symbol of fertility and, by extension, of prosperity.
Hence, the phallic symbol connects to the womb which connects to fertility which connects to prosperity for all. I don't remember hearing anything like that in any of my Sunday school classes.