Wednesday, August 26, 2015

MYSTERY OF THE FAMOUS FACE OF STONE

These many stone faces beg the question: what was he smiling about??
It's a warm morning here in the ancient jungle temple complex near Angkor Wat, and I've arrived at another iconic temple.   Looking up as I approach this old temple, I see one's man serious stone face, repeated over and over again as statues across the complex. One question dominates my thoughts.

Who is this guy?

This stone temple is known as Bayon and its dominated by one man's huge face everywhere I look. 

Rising above each smiling face are immense stone headresses. These reach far above, making each face not just a statue, but a tower. There are more towers than I can count, all made of his slightly smiling stone semblance. Singular towers have four faces on them, giving his face views in all directions. This gives the impression that he is all seeing, all knowing, and watching all corners of the Khmer kingdom.

Each tower has 4 faces, covering all directions. Is he watching over his former kingdom?
So who is he? Researchers over the years have disagreed as to who this smiling man really was. Many say that this was King Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Angkor kingdom more than 900 years ago. Others claim that this is really the god known as Avalokiteshvara. Still others claim that this face is actually a combination of both of them.

Although Angkor Wat’s central towers are the most well known symbol of the Angkor temple complex, the second most well known symbol has to be this enigmatic face. His heads are everywhere on this temple. Lining walls, looking out from lower towers, peering high above from the upper ones.

Rather than a smooth surface, each tower, and each face, is made up of fitted stone blocks. Each block is black, grey or white, and dotted with the discolorations of time. With these connecting gaps, it gives each face the appearance of a giant mosaic, or jigsaw puzzle.

Smoke is rising from the nearby jungle
This multi-story stone temple raises so many other questions. What was this place used for? Why was it built? And just what is this king or god smiling about?

Beyond the towers, are the tall trees of the jungle. Smoke rises from the jungle floor. It is probably just a brush fire, but the rising smoke between the stone faced towers gives the temple an eerie, fog-like look.

Bayon temple, grand as it may be, is only one of hundreds of temples in the area, of varying styles and sizes built over the centuries. I once knew an American Vietnam veteran who spent extended time in Cambodia, and he decided to visit every single ancient Khmer temple in the Siem Reap region. It took him six weeks to see them all!

Another amazing experience about the Angkor temples, is seeing the variety of conditions that they are in. Some, such as Bayon and Angkor Wat, have been reasonably well preserved or restored. Some are partly preserved. Others lie completely collapsed and ruined, piles of stone bricks, leaving you to guess at their original appearance. Still others have been completely overgrown with jungle growth. Many of these ancient temples, are a combination of all of the above.

These musicians are landmine survivors! Landmines are still buried in jungles not far from the temples.
Heading out to another temple, I walk along one of the many jungle paths. On the way, I hear the sound of an acoustic band. Walking up, I find a seated musical sextet, all Khmer men playing various traditional string instruments and drums. Propped up next to them are signs, in Khmer, Chinese, Korean, and finally in English. It says, “VICTIMS OF LANDMINES”. I hadn’t noticed before, but some of the musicians are missing a leg. Now I understand why they are seated.

The Angkor temple complex, was not spared the plague of landmines that spread throughout Cambodia during the long era of wars. Plenty of landmines were laid here too. There was a time back early in the war, when the Vietnamese Army were joined with the Khmer Rouge, fighting together against government forces in these jungles. At one point in the conflict, they agreed to stop shooting, and allow preservationists to cross the battle lines, so they could continue working on preserving the temples. That didn’t last. Later, the Vietnamese would fight here against their former Khmer Rouge allies. With all of this conflict around the temples, more and more landmines were being laid by all sides. Also, more and more temples were damaged, and more and more statues were looted, or defaced.

Many area temples are quiet and rarely visited by tourists, such as this secluded temple.
Later when tourists first started to return to Cambodia in the 1990’s, one of the first priorities for the Ministry of Tourism was to have all the landmines and unexploded ordinance (UXO) removed from around the temples. They desperately needed to make this area safe for tourists again. One of the deminers was killed doing this dangerous work. Many more Khmer civilians died or were maimed by these evil weapons, after they returned to the region.

There are still mines buried within the Angkor complex, but they have been cleared from all of the most popular temples. If you manage to venture out to the more remote temples, where there are few tourists and thicker jungle, sooner or later you will come across a little red warning sign. Keep your eyes open for these, for these signs are there to tell you that mines are still buried there. Take one step too far from a well beaten path, and it could be your last. If you survive a landmine blast, you'll be lucky if you lose only a foot.

I don't know it yet, but I will soon learn that one of my Cambodian friends had her life nearly ended by one of these hidden horrors.

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