Photographs by Willard Van De Bogart
Click on all images for larger views
Prince Norodom Ranairddh, October 17, 2004 - click on image for larger view.
After you cross the small bridge at the entrance of Beng Mealea a dirt roads leads into the denser part of the forest. On this particular day dozens of small Cambodian children were either being escorted or carried by their mothers while countless other children were running and dancing ecstatically into the temple grounds. It is not at all obvious from the entrance of the small bridge leading into Beng Mealea what you would expect to find further down the dirt road. Along the way, however, you can see that all the Naga heads on the balustrades have been badly damaged, lion statuary has been smashed, and the stone sections to the balustrade railings are scattered everywhere. But, even with these sad reminders of human pillaging you can still sense the power emanating from the temple grounds.
The presence of the forest and the solitude it exudes makes up for the ruined entrance. Water buffalo can be seen half submerged in the remnants of the temple moats eating their swamp grass and being oblivious to anything around them. You get the distinct feeling that you have passed into a forgotten world completely removed from the advancements of the 21st century. Each step into the heart of the Cambodian forest brings even more mythical imagery. Iridescent lime colored pools dotted with radiating pink lotus blossoms are beautifully sequestered under the branches of the ancient trees. You become captured by some sort of time anomaly and feel as if you have left your own world only to be transported to another. It is truly like walking in some exotic dream.
The more I walked along the dirt road the more I saw the small children running and dancing head long into the forest. Assuming the children were just playing I paid little attention to their frolicing. But then in an instant a wave of excitement spread throughout the jungle and children from everywhere began running toward a man with grey hair and who I could barely see in the distance. Then I saw a police car and immediately sensed this was a very important personage. A member of the royal family of Cambodia had come to pay respects to the Buddhist monks around the temple. When the grey haired man got up from bowing and turned around it was none other than Prince Norodom Rannairdh returning a beaming smile while dozens of children were standing waving and transfixed by his presence as if a God-King had truly arrived.
I ran toward the children and saw the Prince slowly walking past me. He looked at me as I tried to raise my camera to take his picture. Everything around me froze in time and my camera became extremely heavy as I tried to capture the dynastic heritage of the Khmer Empire. In that instance all of the past glories of the ancient Khmer Empire became available to me with the Prince’s serene peaceful gaze. The Prince's eyes were a direct window into the ancient past of the Khmers. The Prince saw me with my camera as I tried desperately to bring him into focus. It was like focusing on a royal procession from some unknown time during the history of the God-Kings of Cambodia. Prince Norodom Rinariddh stood there until the click of the motor drive on my camera was the signal that broke the spell and immediately the Prince was whisked away into his car by his entourage. However, his generosity was felt as he took the time to pause so that I could compose a picture of his presence at Beng Mealea. Once the Prince was in his car he vanished behind a cloud of red dust and the children looked in awe as the royal visitor disappeared down the small dirt road leading outside the temple grounds.
Cambodian children standing in front of Beng Mealea - click on image for larger view.
After the Prince was gone the forest became very still and I found myself in front of dozens of small children standing in front of a stone wall with a make shift wooden ramp scaling the side of a temple wall. It became obvious that this must be the entrance to Beng Mealea. Once I climbed to the top of the ramp I gazed upon a massive temple quite beyond anything I would of expected. A young Cambodian man quietly stood beside me telling me to take a picture as he saw me carrying my camera. At first I was somewhat startled, but then he asked me to follow him away from the wooden platform, down the side of the temple wall, and over a group of fallen temple stones. His name was Ke, and he instantly became my guide as I entered a long shadowy corridor covered with vines. At first I did not want to be bothered with a self imposed guide, but when I looked around it was only the two of us, and before me was what looked like an insurmountable mountain of fallen stones, trees growing out of temple edifices and an enormous sea of forest greenery. I acquiesced to having Ke as my guide as I knew right then that there would be no way I could ever find my way through the labyrinth of Beng Mealea.
Drawing by D'apres L. de Beylie - 1907 - click on image for larger view.
I brought a map with me of Beng Mealea drawn by D'après L. de Beyliè in 1907. Pany, the architectural planner for the Angkor Conservatorie in Seam Reap, gave it to me the day before. L. de Beyliè's map showed the over all design of Beng Mealea, and had more details than Louis Delaporte's drawing, but neither map prepared me for what I was about to witness. With Ke as my guide I carefully walked down the inside of the temple wall and alongside the ledge of an inner gallery. After a short walk along this subterranean tree covered ledge Ke ducked his head and told me to duck mine head as well as we both climbed through a window with several broken colonettes whereupon I found myself in a wonderland of unspeakable beauty combined with the breathtaking scale of Beng Mealea's construction.
Beng Mealea is sound asleep and nobody has woke the temple up for over 800 years. The trees have slowly taken up residency inside the temple grounds along with every conceivable variation of foliage, with colorful wild flowers popping up in what looks like ocean waves as vine after vine has followed the contours of all the corners and walls of the temple. The scene is as magical as any fantasy story I had ever seen with the mixture of hundreds of while butterflies dancing profusely over the wild flowers.
Ke beckoned me to walk down more fallen stones, and I found myself in a long corridor with the sun pouring through the colennets with the wild birds resounding off the stones walls as I was dropped into the depths of some eerily unknown world full of centuries of changing seasons that never interrupted the growth of such a profusion of greenery. I was buried in the very heart of Beng Mealea. There was nobody anywhere to be seen as Ke had gone ahead of me and I had no way of knowing where I was exactly within the temple. I was submerged and smothered under a carpet of vines that seemed to go in every direction. By this time my map was wet with perspiration and no longer of any use. Beng Mealea was beyond recognition accept for an occasional wall that was still free from the jungle growth.
I managed to climb out of the corridor through a stone window onto a pile of fallen stones and began scaling up stone after stone only to find myself on the top of the gallery and once again see the oceans of vines spread out over the temple grounds like huge rolling storm clouds on the horizon of some wind swept prairie. I thought it would be impossible for such a sight to ever be seen in this day and age. But as one of the administrators of the Angkor Conservatorie had indicated, Beng Mealea would be left forgotten and alone until a budget could be found to help restore the temple grounds.
As I pondered my newly found wonderland of greenery I had to realize that next to Angkor Wat, Beng Mealea was the 2nd largest temple built in Cambodia. However, making size comparisons at this point is not necessary suffice it to say that being the 2nd largest temple must of held some major significance above and beyond just being another temple in the Khmer empire.
One very distinct observation I made was noticing how large the libraries were (Photo at Top of page). The galleries inside the temple are also very long and extremely wide. Only by climbing over countless temple stones can images of Shiva, Vishnu and a few apsaras be found . Beneath all the vines, foliage and stones there must be records that can more clearly explain why Beng Mealea was constructed. Looters have been able to remove a goodly amount of stone carvings as a result of Beng Mealea having been abandoned for so many centuries. But as humanity enters the 21st century it is impossible to remove the massive identity which Beng Mealea still exudes.
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Such architectual mass can only mean that for whatever reason Beng Mealea was built it was built because there was something more valuable to be retained and used by this Angkoren empire. If I were to venture a guess I would say that Beng Mealea was the main administrative and scholarly hub of all records, rituals of cosmological significance and a main communicative center for all other temples in Cambodia. Beng Mealea was a command and control center to govern, administer and educate the Khmer culture about how it would grow into the future. In this regard, Beng Mealea was a central information and religious center, where important decesions were made regarding all further develpments of the empire.
The presence that can be felt by looking over the vast temple grounds dictates that Beng Mealea was a very busy place full of hndreds of people providing assistance for the Kings before they went back to Angkor Wat or journeyed to Koh Ker, Preah Vihear, Wat Phu and Prah Khan of Kampong Savi. The key to understanding Beng Mealea is that it was at a junction point between Angkor Wat and Prah Khan of Kampong Savi. From Beng Mealea you could go North to several temples by well developed highways and bridges. Beng Mealea was an important terminal and certainly played an important roll in the re-conquering of Champa by King Jayavarman VII. King Jayavarman VII was Cambodia's last great builder King and most likely added to Beng Meala as evidenced by newly found Dharmasalas (hospitals) near the temple grounds and which also leads some historians to conclude Beng Mealea was build after Angkor Wat.
The golden years of Kampuchea were from 1180-1350AD a period of almost 150 to 200 years and perhaps much longer. Finally the Tai armies sacked Angkor Wat in 1463AD. The Khmer empire slowly disintegrated from this time onwards. Beng Mealea became silent and no longer planned those great pilgrimages that made the Khmer empire one of the greatest on earth.
Other stories related to the Khmer Empire.
Part I- Stones in the Sky - Before the Journey to Angkor Wat
Part II - Stones in the Sky - Journey to Angkor Wat - July 2002.
Part III - Stones in the Sky - Section I - Journey to Angkor Wat - March 2003.
Part III - Stones in the Sky - Section II - Journey to Angkor Wat - March 2003.
Part IV - Stones in the Sky - Journey to Preah Vihear - May 2004.
Apsaras and Devatas - Photo documentation of female divinities at Angkor Wat.