As Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister mulled over a plan to build a giant statue of Ram, I was lucky enough to visit Siem Reap, home to one of the world’s most beautiful images of the Hindu god. The town of Siem Reap was named after a river in Cambodia and is built around the Angkor Wat, a temple complex which is the most stunning ode to the Hindu god Vishnu.

Siem Reap chooses not to remember the genocide under the dictator Pol Pot but to concentrate on an earlier, more glorious phase in its history – that of King Suryavarman the second (1113 CE-1150 CE), a devout follower of Vishnu.

Suryavarman was one of history’s great builders, preceding and perhaps surpassing Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor who commissioned some of the greatest architectural edifices. The present-day care and importance given to the restoration of Hindu temples in Cambodia, a country where no practicing Hindus remains, is evidence of the powerful appeal the religion once exercised over South East Asia, when its popularity was the result of pluralism and tolerance.

Ashtbhuja Vishnu at Angkor Wat. Photo credit: Selina Sen
Ashtbhuja Vishnu at Angkor Wat. Photo credit: Selina Sen

It’s not all about size

Hinduism travelled to Cambodia around a millennium ago, not through violent conversions imposed by force, but through traders from South India. It was introduced just before Buddhism and shared many customs with it. In fact, the temples in Siem Riep had inscribed Sanskrit carvings (Khmer script resembles Tamil). Columns surrounding the courtyards were ornamented with 1,800 statues of graceful apsaras, with elaborate jewellery and hair ornaments. I recorded 37 hairstyles.

The temple complex represents the peaks of Mount Meru, a sacred cosmological mountain with five peaks, that is revered in Hindu, Jain and Buddhist religions as the centre of the physical, spiritual and metaphysical worlds. The complex is surrounded by a wide moat that represents the cosmic oceans – when I visited, it was full of dark pink water lilies.

Inside the temple, in intricately carved bas relief panels, are both Ram and Krishna – celebrated avatars of Lord Vishnu. The most impressive depiction is of the Samudra Manthan, at the nearby Angkor Thom.

Apsaras with elaborate hairstyles, at Angkor Wat. Photo credit: Selina Sen
Apsaras with elaborate hairstyles, at Angkor Wat. Photo credit: Selina Sen

Building towering statues was not the only preoccupation in the 12th century. Great attention has been lavished on the exquisite composition, balance and elegance of the reliefs.

The site is certainly monumental, as it claims to be the world’s largest Hindu shrine. The reliefs, carved in sandstone, and wrapped around the innermost sanctum, are two metres in height and have a combined area of one square kilometre. Their detail and delicacy makes it appear as though skilled artists used the stone’s surface with the delicate touch one would employ to transform a canvas.

Tourists and devotees

It was my first visit to Cambodia, and right from the hotel pick-up at the airport (where a smiling driver named Pierre waited with a placard with my name on his tuk-tuk), the French colonial influence was apparent. Boutique hotels had chic facades like Chanel perfume bottles.

On the morning I visited, the vast temple-mausoleum complex teemed with tourists: Japanese groups listened to their guide with grave attention, a middle-aged couple from South India recited a Sanskrit shloka from ancient texts, Chinese students posed for selfies, and Australians clumsily tried to replicate the graceful namaste of a dancer dressed as Sita. Hanuman is more popular than Ram in popular culture, and souvenir shops sold pierced leather puppets with hinged joints (similar to the ones sold in Andhra Pradesh) of the monkey god.

Leather puppet souvenir of Hanuman. Photo credit: Selina Sen
Leather puppet souvenir of Hanuman. Photo credit: Selina Sen

Archaeologists are fond of using the word enigma to describe the vast network of temples scattered through the tropical jungles – Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, Bayon and my favourite, Ta Prohm. The last is better known as the temple that featured in the film Tomb Raider, and has been restored aesthetically by the Archaeological Society of India and IIT Madras. Hearteningly, the giant roots of silk cotton trees that embraced the temple’s ruins have been retained instead of being cut away, as they surely would have in India. The entire complex feels like an atmospheric cinema set.

Angkor Wat was the heart of the capital city of Cambodia from the 9th century to the 15th century. Chinese scholars visiting in the 13th century have recorded its size and it must have rivalled London in expanse. It was supposed to be fed by a delicate grid of waterways linked to the great lake Tonle Sap. It is conjectured that the city was abandoned around the 15th century because of marauding Thai warlords who attacked it, and because the waterworks silted up and ceased to function.

Angkor Wat-Nag balustrades. Photo credit: Smita Dutta Makhija
Angkor Wat-Nag balustrades. Photo credit: Smita Dutta Makhija

Soon after, the jungle overtook it. It was lost to sight and swallowed by the vegetation that consumed it. Forgotten for centuries, the temple was found in a chance discovery by French naturalist Henri Mouhot, who was scything his way through leafy branches in search of exotic insects. Astonished, he stumbled upon Angkor Wat, which was looked after by a handful of Buddhist monks. Even today, Japanese Buddhists light incense at Vishnu’s feet (after all, the Buddha is believed by many to be an avatar of Vishnu).

Thus began a frenzy of visits and camps by archaeologists, historians, artists and photographers. Slowly, the jungle began to be stripped away. Strict rules for the conservation of the monuments were implemented by the French, who were the rulers of Cambodia at the time. Today, no building in Siem Reap can be higher than the Angkor Wat, and a controlled layer of protective jungle must create a green barrier between the temple and the city’s present-day inhabitants.

Bas relief showing a battle scene from Mahabharata. Photo credit: Smita Dutta Makhija
Bas relief showing a battle scene from Mahabharata. Photo credit: Smita Dutta Makhija

Grandeur over aesthetics

Compare this with the gigantic, bright orange Hanuman on Jakhu Hill, Shimla, built in 2010. Centuries old Deodar trees were cut down for its installation, ruining the Gothic ambience of the erstwhile summer capital.

Present-day Indian rulers hating on India’s monumental homage to love, the Taj Mahal, could learn something from Cambodia. In street lore, it is whispered that all the leaders who come to power in Uttar Pradesh develop a secret Shah Jahan complex, and begin wanting to create monumental odes to themselves, so they may be remembered centuries later. Most forget that Emperor Shah Jahan had exquisite taste.

Photo credit: Rvbalaiyer/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]
Photo credit: Rvbalaiyer/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC BY 4.0]

Selina Sen is the author of Zoon, A Mirror Greens in Spring and Gardening in Urban India.