Photographs by Willard Van De Bogart
Click on all images for larger views
The deeper I penetrated Beng Mealea the more I was on the look out for as many indications of the once great glory that was resident in this magnificent temple. It was extremely difficult, however,to locate any of the artisans work because most of the ornamentation was badly eroded, damaged or removed. But to my utter astonishment a seven naga head hood appeared before me when I took another path around the temple grounds. I stood transfixed and looked more closely and from what I could discern the stone carving was in perfect condition. There were no chips on the stone, no broken serpent faces, and nothing had changed except the erosion from hundreds of years of weathering and the lichen growing over the entire naga hood.
In all due respects to the new Guimet Museum in Paris, which houses the largest collection of Khmer artwork outside the National Art Gallery in Phnom Penh, it could never capture the feeling that this naga-head displayed in the middle of the Cambodian forest. I can only hope it will never be carried off by the rapacious antiquity dealers. Gazing upon this sacred work of art was a story unto itself just to see such a magnificent and graceful example of the artisians work at Beng Mealea. Acccording to Thierry Zephir, professor at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, the naga first appeared in statuary during the final years of the 10th century and reached a high point with Jayavarman VII. Water was symbolized by a snake, naga, a mythical creature from India linked with prosperity and was the bridge linking the secular to the divine world. Briggs states..."the nagas in the balustrade, spit by a makara-dragon, with lotus flower ornamenting the stomach seem to have been found first at Beng Mealea". Moreover, Briggs continues..."the contours of the aureoles (radiant aura) are more freely redented and the heads are united forming a poly-lobed aureole while the body rests on shelfs supported by blocks".
Pany, the Architectural planner at the Angkor Conservatorie, gave me a tour of the rescued statuary from the temples and showed me the lion statuary which was retrieved from Beng Mealea. Although badly damaged the sophisticated workmanship was clearly evident.
Many of the statues of Shiva had also been removed from Beng Mealea by the conservatorie, and were lying dormant and deathly still next to the lions with only one small stone showing the lips of either Shiva or Vishnu.
Beng Mealea has been forgotten, looted, ruined and covered by the jungle. However, Beng Mealea is still a mammoth reminder of the greatness of this once stately temple. The devotion to scholarship, I believe, was the most significant aspect of Beng Mealea's place in the Khmer empire. It takes over two hours of carefully navigating over stones, climbing through windows, and entering long dark corridors to see that what remains of Beng Mealea is a faint image of one of the biggest temples yet to be fully appreciated. But of all the fallen stones which lie around Beng Mealea you have to walk very slowly and look around in every direction to get a full perspective of the temple.Click on image for larger view.
Trying to imagine what the temple used to look like in its pristine state is very difficult if not impossible. Louis Delaporte's sketch, which he drew in 1860, is one of the only reconstructions left to fathom Beng Mealea's former grandeur.
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.