Friday, June 28, 2013

Angkor Wat without photographs

Ornate gopurams rising into the sky and thousand-year-old lintels with dancing girls on them are not new to an Indian. Especially not if your school insisted on annual cultural excursions across the length and breadth of South India. I thought of the pretty staggering monuments of India and wondered uneasily whether I’d have to spent the rest of my life lying about how awesome I found Angkor.

I started with the Bayon Temple, and was not disappointed. I automatically went clockwise, in a ritual I have not participated in for at least 15 years, and questioned the faith of even as a child. I also hesitated instinctively when walking through what clearly used to be inner sanctums, though the deities are long gone. I walked up and down many flights of stairs, gave myself vertigo on rooftops. And then walked around the rest of Angkor Thom with growing interest, the laterite damp from humidity, grounds crunchy with fallen baby coconuts, the sun hot as hell.

The sheer scale of it registered slowly, as I explored with much delight many temples with trees growing out of them. Then I set off in the dark pre-dawn for Angkor Wat. Take the feeling of wonder when you first saw the famous Dravidian temples. The delicate, intricate beauty of Belur and Halebid, the awe with which you looked up at Sravanabelagola, the vastness of Hampi, the fastness of Chitradurga, the gloriousness of Tanjore and Madurai, the murals of Mahabalipuram, that tangible feeling of immortality in the dark corridors of many, many coastal temples – and multiply it all by several thousands. That's Angkor Wat. It’s huge.

I discovered along the way that my irreligiousness is fairly well-informed. Apparently, Hinduism is like cricket in India - you pick up the rules and lore anyway, whether you’re a fan or not. I see a random scene in a frame and I know which part of the Mahabharatha it refers to. I overhear a guide talk about the churning of the ocean, and remember my paternal grandmother telling it to me while walking to the ancestral temple through grounds very like these. I've forgotten how the story ended and what happened after the great nectar double-cross. The guide didn't know either, nor did the bas-reliefs. The stone-carvers were having too much fun sculpting crocodiles and sealions to bother with the end of the story. It was a good call. They also gave every elephant, monkey and horse in the battle of Lanka an individual character. Walking along that 600-meter mural is fascinating. The apsaras are Cambodian, but the rishis are Indian. In fact, there's a whole row of them with a distinct resemblance to Guru Nanak.

When you call Angkor Wat awesome, the word has a separate meaning all to itself. There are hundreds of thousands of photos of it - I took many of those myself - but nothing conveys the feeling of seeing it, being there. Stepping in the early morning light into the inner quadrangle of Angkor Wat, I completely forgot about work for the first time in at least three months. I had no chatter in my head.

As for the rest of Siem Reap, well, everything is always dimmed a little when you come from Vietnam, especially the food. The poverty here is abject, defeated, as if the shadow of all the ancient grandeur is too large to step out from under. But the children smile as they sell flutes in woven palm cylinders, and bracelets made of painted seeds. So do their parents, selling juice. Buddhism here is the cynical photo booth that Hinduism is in the historical temples of India: A blessing in an incense stick for a dollar, or the curse of a stranger's god if you choose not to.

But also, like Vietnam, something in the place reaches out and takes your hand. When I left, I wrote this in my notes. It was a Facebook status update that I decided not to post: “Goodbye Cambodia, I really don't want to leave, with my hat, my pirated Harry Potter (that freely mingles two books, the pirates checking page numbers not content), and the largest painting in the world.”

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