The causeway conducts one smack into the centre of the whole architectural composition. It could not be otherwise, since all considera¬tions had to be subordinated to that of symbolism; and to have built the formal approach from any angle but this would have been to risk throwing the universe, or at least the kingdom, out of balance, by sympathetic magic. Angkor Vat, however, is best viewed from across the water from one of the corners of the moat. Immediately the tyranny of the matched-pair is broken. The towers, many-tiered like the head-dress of an Indian dancer, are re-grouped in majestic nonchalance. The Vat gathers itself from the lake, raised on a long, low-lying portico. Above that the unbroken lines of the roofs rise one above the other, to be capped by the towers, which are somehow jaunty in spite of the sad harmony of the old, disintegrated colours. A lotus-broken reflection is carried on the mildewed waters of the lake.
And all the monuments of ancient Greece could be enclosed in this one building.
Within the Vat miles of goddesses and heavenly dancing girls, dehuman¬ised and amiable, posture in bas-relief round the gallery walls. They are all exacdy of the same height and physique, hands and arms frozen in one of the dozen or so correct gestures. Since Khmer art is never erotic – and one remembers de la Rochefoucauld’s ‘where ambition has entered love rarely returns’ – they do not exhibit the development of breast and hip which is so characteristic of similar figures in Indian art.
The triumphant existence is portrayed in a series of set poses. The king or god out hunting adopts the wooden pose of a dancer to shoot a deer – in itself depicted with admirable realism. Victorious princes and warriors parade for the ascent to heaven (success being identified with virtue), heads overlapping in three-quarters profile, left hands on breasts and right on hips. Nothing, however, could be more realistic than the treatment of the defeated and the damned, who are naturally consigned to hell. The postures of these bodies being trodden underfoot by horse¬men and torn by wild beasts have been observed and carefully copied from the life. Only the devils are permitted a hieratic stance.
But it is when the artist is left to his own devices in his treatment of the ordinary citizen, and his everyday life, that he shows us what he can do. Gone is the processional dignity and the frigid smile of power. The peasants and fisher-folk are shown as thick-limbed and grotesque, with coarse, clownish faces. With gleeful licence the artist depicts their buf¬foonery as they haggle over tripes in the market, slaughter their pigs, smirkingly watch a cockfight or visit a palmist. These are the trollish faces that medieval church-sculptors carved on almost invisible bosses as a relief from the insipidity of righteousness. The vulgar of Angkor are shown taking their pleasure on the Tonle Sap – capering on the deck of a becalmed junk like day-trippers on the river boat to Southend; or hunched over a game of chess. With lower-class respectability most of them have put on short jackets for the occasion. Meanwhile a boatload of the better people passes, all seated with decorum, fashionable in their semi-nudity, facing one way, and smiling with the refined beatitude induced by the knowledge that sooner or later they will appear in the honours list as minor gods.
Cormorants and herons are shown competing with the fishermen for their catches while crocodiles menace them from the water. The Khmers made much decorative use of flora and fauna. The anarchic quality of trees is subdued and subjected to a Byzantine stylisation, but the animals that lurk among them are seen in a lively naturalism comparable to palaeolithic cave-art. And the intention that animated cave-art is roughly identical with that which produced these miles of bas-reliefs. Their object was magical and their decorative effect quite incidental. Angkor Vat was the funerary temple of Suryavaranam II divinised under the aspect of Vishnu, and this world in sculpture replaced the great funeral holocausts of earlier days. That aesthetic pleasure had no bearing upon the question is proved by the fact that many scenes have been sculpted with scrupulous care in places where they are quite invisible, or even – as in the case of the Bayon – on the building’s subterranean foundations.
Ta Prohm, which Jayavarman VII built to house his mother’s cult, and which occupied the working lives of 79,000 of his subjects, was scheduled to detain the thirty tourists from Siam for one hour.
The temple was built on flat land and offers none of the spectacular vistas of Angkor Vat, nor the architectural surprises of Bayon. It has therefore been maintained as a kind of reserve where the prodigious conflict between the ruins and the jungle is permitted to continue under control. The spectacle of this monstrous vegetable aggression is a favourite with most visitors to the ruins.
Released from the hotel bus, the thirty tourists plunged forward at a semi trot into the caverns of this rectangular labyrinth. For a few moments their pattering footsteps echoed down the flagstoned passages and then they were absorbed in the silence of those dim, shattered vastnesses, and I saw none of them again until it was time to return.
Ta Prohm is an arrested cataclysm. In its invasion, the forest has not broken through it, but poured over the top, and the many courtyards have become cavities and holes in the forest’s false bottom. In places the cloisters are quite dark, where the windows have been covered with subsidences of earth, humus and trees. Otherwise they are illuminated with an aquarium light, filtered through screens of roots and green lianas.