Angkor 3

Savants of the late nineteenth century have argued with compelling logic that Angkor Vat took three hundred years to build, although the figure generally accepted at the present time is nearer thirty. Divergences of opinion regarding the completion dates of other monuments ranged over several centuries, and there was a similarly fierce conflict of theory over the purposes of the buildings and the identity of the statuary. The arguments have been slowly resolved and many a dogma demolished by the periodical discovery of steles, on which the monarchs of those days have left a record not only of their achievements but of their motives. Thus Udayadityavarman II informs posterity that he built the Baphuon, which was then the centre of a city which predated Angkor Thom, ‘because he had remembered that the centre of the universe is marked by the mountain of Meru and it was appropriate that his capital should have a Meru in its centre’.
This statement presents one with a key to the whole situation. All Khmer building was governed by an extravagant symbolism. The first Khmer king, who, returning from Java, had thrown off the suzerainty of that kingdom and unified Cambodia under his rule, had promptly declared himself a god. Under the aspect of Siva he took the title of‘Lord of the Universe’. He was obliged, therefore, to order his kingdom, or at least his capital, along the lines of an established precedent – provided in this case by Buddhist mythology. The Buddhist universe included a central mountain of Meru, which supported the heavens and was sur¬rounded by an ocean, and finally a high wall of rocks which formed the barrier and enclosure of space. There was a lot more in it than this, but these were the reasonable limits to which the king’s symbolism could be pushed. He built his artificial hill, the wide moat round his city, and the wall. This probably helped to convince him that he really was a god. It was wishful thinking on a cosmic scale.
Yet there was a curious sense of dependence shown by these self- created divinities upon the observance of their cult by their successors and their subjects. It was a grotesque magnification of the belief under¬lying so many Eastern religions that the fate of the dead is in some way linked to the living, who must provide them with regular offerings if they are to remain prosperous and contented in the land of souls. This idea, lodged in the ruthlessly energetic mind of a Khmer king, was translated into action on a huge scale. The king erected temples and consecrated statues to his divinised parents while leaving behind him inscriptions which positively implore his successors to follow his example. His immortality, King Yacovarman admits on one of his steles, depends upon the maintenance of the cult. Seen in this light these deities were not comparable to the unassailable gods of the ancient Mediterranean world. For a neglected and forgotten god-king passed into oblivion. He became no more than one of the great multitude of nameless and forgotten spirits for which the pious erect those tiny shrines outside their homes.
So the king came in time to devote the whole of his efforts to the preservation of this shaky immortality. The royal megalomania reached its height with Jayavarman VII. Ta Prohm, built to house the image and the divine essence of the Queen mother and 260 attendant and lesser deities, required for its service 79,365 persons of whom about 5000 were priests. The gold plate used in this temple weighed five tons and the temple establishment lived upon the revenues of 3140 villages. The king’s obligations to his father gave rise five years later to the erection of Prah Khan. This time, according to the stele discovered in 1939, there were 430 minor divinities included with the old king – nobles who as a kind of promotion for meritorious services had been either granted apotheosis or raised posthumously to the divine status. The responsibility for the upkeep of this establishment fell upon 5324 villages, the total number of persons involved being 97,840. Among the dependencies of Prah Khan was the little sanctuary of Neak Pan, built upon one of those sharply rectangular artificial lakes the Khmers were so fond of digging out. This symbolised a lake situated, according to a Hindu legend, somewhere in the Himalayas, which was supposed to possess extraordinary purifica¬tory powers. Its construction was no mere poetic conceit, but followed a formula by which it became, in essence, the original lake. In this way the Khmer king saved himself the kind of gigantic wild-goose chase some¬times undertaken by the Chinese Emperors in their searches for similar legendary sites.
These are the games of children, who by a slight imaginative effort can even transform inanimate objects into living ones; a broom into a horse. But the children’s games played by the Kings of Cambodia were backed by monstrous and freakish power. Neak Pan, of course, was a trifle for those days, probably not occupying more than 10,000 men for a mere three or four years.
But the king was not, and never could be satisfied. Hounded on by furious compulsions he reconstructed his capital in such a way that the Baphuon – microcosm of Meru – was no longer in the town’s geometri¬cal centre. This called for another sacred mountain, a great extension of the moat and entirely new walls. After only ten years of his reign there were already 13,500 villages comprising 306,372 men at work on these projects. The new sacred mountain was the Bayon, the most singular of all the Angkor monuments. It was Jayavarman’s last work begun in about 1190, and it marked the height of the Khmer power and foreshadowed its end. From its towers sixty-four colossal faces of the king, now repre¬sented as one with the Buddha, smiled, with rather savage satisfaction, it seems, towards the four quarters of the kingdom. Even Pierre Loti, who knew nothing of the Bayon’s histoiy, found it very sinister.

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