Tuesday, November 07, 2006


This post continues from the last one, based on our trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. There’s lot more to see than Angkor Wat and the Angkor Thom complex in Siem Reap. The first day had been hectic and we had covered lots. We decided to slow things down a bit since we had bought a $40 pass good for three days at all the temple complexes spread all over the place. There are shorter tours that one can take and not see everything on offer, but that’s not us.

The second day’s tour was beyond the main complex, starting from the Bantey Srei temple, and a good 32 kilometers away from Siem Reap town. The roads were not in great shape and the journey takes a bit longer because of this plus we had torrential rain coming down literally in buckets. Bantey Srei is located at the foot of the Kulen Mountains. This site is rather small but contains many rich and intricate stone carvings representing various stories in Hinduism. This temple was constructed by a Brahmin priest called Yajnavaraha who later reportedly became the guru of King Jayavarman V. He must have indeed been an influential chap to have had the kind of resources that are required for a sculpture rich site such as this one.
Narasimha (half man half Lion) tearing open the demon Hiranyakashipu's chest at Bantey Srei
This was one of the best sites for me, to see intricate carvings, from stories that I knew from Indian mythology, stories that we grew up with. Some of you may recollect stories that were told to us or read in comic books of Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu, fight between Vali and Sugreeva that ends with Lord Rama vanquishing Vali and many other incidents, all stories carved out in pink sandstone.

Sea Faring chaps, these Angkoreans, from a relief in Bantey Samre'
We spent the rest of the day visiting Bantey Samre’, Preah Kahn and Neak Pean (pronounced Puan). Bantey Samre’ was constructed early 12th Century C.E. by King Jayavarman II and is a typical Angkor style with the gopura or towers representing Meru Mountain and so on. This temple has some unique representations in the carvings such as the sun and moon deities, very large carvings of stories from the Ramayana including building the bridge between India and Lanka, saving Lakshmana after he is injured and so on.

Pink Sandstone doorway carved with the Narasimha relief at Bantey Srei

For non Hindu readers, this may all sound completely confusing but bear with me, I will not go too deep into Hinduism or the philosophy connected with it. That’s too big a subject to handle in a blog, at least for me. It is sufficient to say that such detailed carvings of ancient Indian philosophy and mythology are almost never found anywhere in India. However, due to lack of awareness (I’d say) Indian tourists were absent. Our cabby told us that Indians were rare during any season. I’d also like to emphasize that one need not know about Hindu and Buddhist culture to appreciate the intricate carvings and architecture of the sites in Cambodia. All you need is a good eye for appreciating all things ancient and beautiful.

Bantey Samre' complex

Back to the subject of temples and Preah Kahn was next, built in the late 12th Century C.E. in the Bayon style by King Jayavarman VII and later additions by Jayavarman VIII. This is mainly Buddhist in nature and therefore you’d see a few Naga depictions common to Hindu and Buddhist sites and specifically stories centered on the life of the Buddha. This site was not just a temple but a Buddhist university with more than 1,000 teachers, according to the inscriptions found there. Later in the late 13th Century, this place reverted back to Hinduism and one can see giant 15 meter tall rock carvings of “Garuda” the mythical eagle that is known as the vehicle of Lord Vishnu. Garuda is seen clutching two serpents (his favorite food, of course!) and spreading his wings in delight. I saw a smirk on his beak, I swear it!

All Angkor temples and sites are surrounded by a moat and during the wet season, these are full

A two story structure at Preah Khan

A photo that got here by mistake-from Ta Phorm Temple mentioned in the previous blog post

The Garuda, mythical bird and vehicle of Lord Vishnu clutching two snakes, see the glee on his face! This was at the outer wall of Preah Khan complex, mentioned above.

The Horse in the pond at Neak Pean

Neak Pean is unusual and it has a central square pond surrounded by square ponds on four sides. The small temple is in the middle of the pond. This place apparently used hydraulics to create a fountain of sorts. It started out as a Hindu concept and structure but changed to add Buddhist ideas and motifs in the temple. One can see a large stone flying horse (unfinished) in the central pond and when observed closely, one can see people hanging on to the horse, even at its tail. This is based on a Buddhist story where a Bodhisattva took the form of the horse called Balaha and rescued sea faring merchants from an Island that was ruled by an Ogress!

After finishing visiting all the sites, we went back to Siem Reap and wandered around town mainly around an area known as “Pub Street” where all foreigners hang out to have a drink and eat. Some of these “pubs” have live performances of local dances based again on Hindu Mythology and it’s good to see them. Some of these places offer free performances so long as you stick around and drink something. The local dances are commonly known as “Apsara” dances, named after the beautiful Apsara women that are thought to inhabit heaven! Apsara carvings dominatemany of the Angkor sites, in various dance positions.

Another tree growing out of the temple at Ta Phrom complex mentioned in my last blog

There are lots more temples, complexes, photos and even mountains and rivers on this trip and they’ll be featured in my next piece and I’ll call that “Roluos and Kulen Mountains” because that’s where we went next. Those temples pre-date the Angkor period and is actually the origin of the empire. It’ll also have a bit more about Siem Reap and boating on the Ton Le Sap Lake as well.


ER Ramachandran said...

Great pictures and lovely description, captain! You are as good with photography as with aoroplane controls and with the pen too! Thanks a lot.

E.R. Ramachandran
23 Nov, 2006

Blog-Capt. Anup Murthy said...

You are welcome sir. Sorry about publishing your comment a day late, just returned from a trip. I'm going to work on the next episode on the cambodia trip and post it with more pictures this week (hopefully!). Thanks for your encouragement.