Photographs by Willard Van De Bogart
Click on all images for larger views
Left alone, and far away from any city, Beng Mealea has become the mother lode for antiquity dealers who have sent their representatives to select the best statuary to be found at Beng Mealea and remove it for the world markets. There are no more stone statues inside Beng Mealea. All you can hope to find are the remains of carvings still visible on temple walls, fallen stones and lintels which are completely covered with moss. The centuries of moisture, heat and rain, coupled with the lichens and trees has all but eradicated the artisans handiwork on this 10th century temple.
As mentioned in section 3, some statuary of Beng Mealea is being preserved at the Angkor Conservatoire in Siem Reap, however, even these pieces are badly damaged. The austere nature of Beng Mealea can only be understood if you mentally reconstruct the placement of all the divinities from this sivaite temple. Unfortunately with the sacking of Angkor Wat by Siam in 1443, and earlier by the invasion of the Chams in 1177 it is certain that significant damage had been wrought upon Beng Mealea. After King Suryavarman VII, Beng Mealea most likely did not have sufficient priests to look after what ever statuary remained. Most likely all the sacred records were destroyed by the previous invasions or hidden so well that they still may be buried in Cambodia. Most recently, on March 15, 2005, it was reported that over 154 miniature Buddhas coated with gold, silver and brass were unearthed from the ground in Stung Treng province. In August of 2004 two very large bells, over 2,000 years old, were found in Pursat province. There is no question these bells were used during the Khmer empire. As Cambodia begins to develop its rural infrastructure it is most likely other religious relics from the past will be uncovered. It can only be hoped that they will be properly researched and cataloged with the Ministry of Culture so more understanding can be gained about this once great empire and not enter the hands of the black market traders first.
The subterranean nature of Beng Mealea most likely turned the temple grounds into a despicable holding area for the captured temple officials, and in recent times, 1970 - 1985, a hideaway and staging area for the cadres of the Khmer Rouge. Beng Mealea was an excellent hiding place as it is nestled against the base of the Kulen mountains.
Empty, desolate, and ravaged Beng Mealea was left abandon with the exception of looters who slowly took away almost every artistic creation that adorned the galleries and temple grounds. Weakened by the removal of so many stones Beng Mealea slowly began to fall apart. From the late 14th century onwards and well into the 19th century Beng Mealea was forgotten as it was no longer the administrative center for the Khmer empire. Not until the year 2000 was Beng Mealea somewhat safe to visit. Because of the fort like atmosphere which the Khmer Rouge utilized for its genocidal campaign and the subsequent laying of mines around the perimeter of the temple to ward off intruders it took a very long time to demine the temple grounds.
But if you truly want to see frozen grandeur and a few remaining art works before nature eradicates them forever, then Beng Mealea still has a few unique and masterful expressions of the intention made by the Kings for keeping the empire functioning for a long time to come.
With a little patience it is possible to see visible signs of the once devotional culture that was testimony to the Devaraja cult at Beng Mealea. The gallery of photographs represents a few of the signs of the sivaic culture found at Beng Mealea. There are more but they are also more difficult to reach. If ever full restoration comes to Beng Mealea the world will finally see a temple 2nd only to Angkor Wat in its majesty. But one image in particular captures the glory of Beng Mealea and that is the "Glory Face" Makara.
The symbolism of this face encapsulates the cosmology of the Brahmin priests. Through the great cleft of the mouth of the Milky Way galaxy lies a world beyond human imagination. The seat of Brahma, the third eye of Buddha, and the passage of all souls through the center of the galaxy was the cosmology surrounding Shiva. And what knowledge was associated with the Churning of the Milky Ocean so prominent on all sivaite temples? When the Shiva linga was placed in the central tower at Beng Mealea the temple became the center of the universe. The priests knew how to focus on the center of the galaxy. At Beng Mealea all the astronomical records were kept so that special pilgrimages could be made to Wat Phu and Preah Vihear and honor the wedding of heaven and earth. The "Glory Face" of the makara with the god Shiva sitting high above was communicating and acknowledging the source of all energy and recognizing the doorway into the divine and rarified world of the gods directly through galactic center.
Something, however, is so very sinister to present day Cambodia. All eyes are on these temples by antiquity traders who believe that the best way to preserve the ancient artisians work is to remove it and place it in private homes and galleries around the world rather than ensconce the art work in a restored temple or an on-site museum, as at Wat Phu, so humanity can experience how Lord Shiva and Vishnu were respected and nurtured to instill in the visitor of today the motivation that was so apparent in building Beng Mealea.
It seems like time was ultimately not on the side of the Khmer Kings. After Suyavarman VII passed away invading armies from bordering countries slowly brought a halt to the expansion of the empire which is so evident from all the temples throughout the Mekong delta, plains of Thailand, and the mountains of southern Laos. The 21st century is now witness to the total exploitation of the Cambodian countryside. From its pristine forests in the north to its rich mineral deposits in the mountains of the east as well as its location between two rapacious consumer driven societies of Thailand and Vietnam bodes ill for a nation that is being sold by a few in power controlled by the ex Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen. King Norodom Sihamoni can only look on as a vague symbol of the once great ancient kings. Slowly the port at Sihanoukville is expanding and soon the super highways and trains will bring roaring eighteen wheel trucks and locomotives into the bucolic countryside that was once a serene environment for the Neak Ta to be worshiped and revered. If only the people of Cambodia knew how rapacious and greedy the capitalistic model really is and also knew that the quest for money is stripping away the lifestyle of hundreds of communities that are based on self sufficiency.
Already, Siem Reap has all but lost its idyllic charm and has been invaded by what seems like every hotel franchise on the planet with the new Meridian hotel boasting rooms starting at $600.00 per evening more than a Cambodian farmer can earn in two years. People will be endlessly walking over every square inch of Angkor Wat bringing a level of consumerism quite contrary to the original intention of the temple builders. Helen Jessup, founder of Friends of Khmer Culture, an American nongovernmental group, said not a single site at Angkor has not been in some way negatively affected by the influx of over one million tourist to Angkor Wat last year. I shutter to think what would happen if those one million tourists descended upon Beng Mealea.
In closing with my impressions of Beng Mealea I am reminded of how my pilgrimage brought me to the brink of my own existence and opened my eyes to see Beng Mealea as the one possible last image I would enjoy on earth. In that moment of unknowingness for my continued existence I saw Beng Mealea with a distant view into its glorious past. Herein are a few mental images of an age long gone.
Imagine an evening with moonlight shadows spread out over the temple court yards punctuated by a tigers growl and the incessant ringing of insects all in chorus, night after night, year after year, century after century and thousands of moons rising and falling as if some celestial clock were telling the time of eternity.
Imagine being born into this world and living a full life of 50 years. Fifty years to see and hear only the movement of monkeys running in the trees and elephants stomping on the ground announcing a royal procession and the swift rivers pounding on stone river beds, day in and day out, night after night, eternally and forever.
Imagine each sound filled with meaning, a message, a calling to listen to the arrival of the wind spirit or the stone spirits, or the spirits of grandfather or grandmother. All the spirits were living along side of you every day, talking to you, singing to you. These were the Neak Ta, the spirit world in the forests of Cambodia.
Imagine the air filled with the fragrance of thousands of flowers permeating every niche and room through out Beng Mealea. Beng Mealea was truly a redolent temple exuding sweet smells from exotic flowers greeting the kings when they arrived from distant pilgrimages. Where ever you look in Beng Mealea it is filled with floral motifs running profusely along cornices, colonettes and around all the lintels. Here was a display of the natural world joined with the heavenly world of the gods. Garlands of flowers decorated the shrines and the colors radiated into the court yards symbolic of the abode of the gods in heaven.
In this imaginary world of natural splendor there was only the glistening blue temple walls of Beng Mealea illuminated by the midnight sun with mountain streams flowing into the Tonal Sap lake and apsaras dancing to the music of flutes honoring the gods on mount Mahendra. All this took place at Beng Mealea, the crown jewel that protected the soul of the Khmer empire; a glory gone.
References to Part V:
Books, News, Journals and Research papers, Internet
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.