Section 1: Pilgrimage - Getting There
This is a story about a personal pilgrimage to a mountain sanctuary dedicated to the god Shiva where the mysteries of the heavens join with the earth.
On a hot afternoon on May 29th, 2004 I was bowing before a Cambodian buddhist monk as he sprinkled holy water over my head and chanted ancient pali scriptures. The blessing took place in the Bhavalai (house of god), of the central sanctuary, inside the antechamber (mandapa) of the sacred Khmer site known as Preah Vihear or Sri Sikharesvara the "supreme being of the mountain" which is Shiva.
The Khmer King Yasovarman began construction of this abode to the gods in the late 9th century (893AD) on top of the Dangrek range of mountains in northern Cambodia also referred to as the Dangrek Escarpment (a high cliff overlooking Cambodia). A succession of KIngs of the Khmer Empire would continue to add to the monastery most noteably King Suryavarman I.
Preah Vihear is a very sacred site and the sanctuary's original name was Bhavalai (sacred ground).
After having decended the central tower at Angkor Wat on July 28, 2002 a new chapter began in my life whereupon I became somehow strangely affected by an overwhelming sense of having experienced another world that touched the infinite corners of our universe. So moved by those initial feelings I have let that moment of awe and sudden personal transformation become my guide in pursuing answers to questions about the history and origins of the ancient Khmer Empire and the consequent impressions of a Cambodia experienced in the early 21st century.
Having read many works on the Khmers most notably those of Lawrence Palmer Briggs and his exhaustive work titled " The Ancient Khmer Empire" published in 1947, as well as a complete study of Preah Vihear by Dhida Saraya from Thailand I have developed a more than passing fascination for the history of the Khmers. One of the most eloquent histories of the Khmers I have read was by Solange Thierry and her book "The Khmers" published in 1964. As the former curator of the Cambodia National Museum in Phnom Penh, Solange Thierry had an especially close relationship to the Khmer heritage and expressed it in a way which brought out the true majesty of the former Khmer Empire.
Coupled with these authors and many more I have come to the realization that many of the answers to my questions about the the history of the Khmers, especially concerning their cosmology, would originate from ancient India. It was the great Hindu philosopher Sankaracarya who restored orthodox Brahmanism to India, and it was the scholarly Brahmins of India who brought with them to Cambodia the knowledge of the planets and stars and cycles of time and how that knowledge could be incorporated into ritual and architecture. However the belief system of the very ancient Khmers was known to be of an indigenous animism based on a belief in the local spirits called "Neak Ta". The unusual feeling one encounters when visiting the ancient Khmer temples may very well be these "Neak Ta" or the spirits of nature and the ancestors surrounding the sacred grounds. The ultimate fusion of Indian cosmology and Khmer animism resulted in the Devaraja cult or the institution of Divine Kingship; a concept whereby the Khmer King was a God.
To comprehend the Khmer cosmology and the size of their empire is not an easy task. Astronomically you have to know how to associate the significance of the cycles of the sun, moon, planets and stars into architecture, and you must travel hundreds of miles throughout Thailand, Loas, Vietnam and Cambodia to even begin to acquire a sense of what this vast empire was like.
Most impressive is the fact that Angkot Wat can seen from outer space as shown by NASA's International Space Radar Laboratory, and also has the distinction of being the largest religious temple built on earth. These two facts alone are enough to indicate the ingenuity and scope of the Khmer builders.
Imagine that over 1,100 years ago King Yasovarman of the Khmer Empire along with his guru Vamasiva, hotars, purohitas (learned Brahman priests) and slaves traveled north from the Tonle Sap in Siem Reap through thick jungles filled with every imaginable creature of prey, especially mosquitos, while riding in his howdah on top of his elephant. The heat had to be unbearable, but inspired in the belief of the Devaraja (creating a divine empire) these Khmer Kings crafted out of the jungles of SE Asia the most magnificent temple complexes on earth. To quarry all the necessary stones and then transport them all the way to the top of Preah Vihear baffles the better part of the intellect. Even more baffling is trying to comprehend what rituals took place in the Bhavalai (house of God) under the infinite night sky still radiating heat from the intense sun which smothered the mountain during the day.
Stone guardians were placed everywhere, and the stairways were carved in stone so that the sacred pilgrimages could be made to the 4th level of the Bhavalai to pay respect to lord Shiva. Preah Vihear was the ultimate sacred temple for the Khmers and provided a seat of worship and respect for kings and scholars for over 300 years. Preah Vihear was more than a temple it was a special sanctuary for study and reflection on the close connection between the heavens and the earth as well as the divinity of Shiva.
Wherever you are on this earth in the 21st century making a journey to Preah Vihear is exceptionally easier than it was for King Yasovarman in the early 9th century. But in fact visiting Preah Vihear was not even possible in he latter part of the 20th century due to the political and military circumstances which overcame Cambodia with the Vietnam war and then the atrocities of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime. Moreover after the 14th century the temples were slowly abandoned and for the most part forgotten as the people quietly returned to the forests and were no longer in service to the Devaraja cult or to the kings. Lord Buddha took sway and a monastic and quiet existence became a way of life for the Cambodian farmer. The burden of quarrying stones had stopped but as the 20th century approached and conflicting politics developed a new burden would develop and millions of Cambodians would suffer a fate unimaginable.
Considering Cambodia's tragic social situation and its continuing political strife what fascination could there be to visit temple ruins in the northern mountain ranges which were filled with landmines left by the Khmer Rouge? That question passed my mind several times, and had it not been for my experiences at Angkor Wat I might of just stopped looking into the history of this great empire. I too had become inspired, but unlike King Yasovarman who journeyed to the Dangkrek mountains from within Cambodia that route seemed out of the question for me as a long journey would have to be organized from Siem Reap, the seat of the Angkorian empire, and the roads north to this part of the country were not in the best of condition. Coupled with the fact that my time was limited I came to learn that access to Preah Vihear could be made from Thailand by going to Si Saket province. The journey by elephant was replaced by an overnight train ride from Bangkok.
So it was that on the afternoon of May 28th I found myself sitting on the back of a motorbike taxi weaving through exhaust fumes and rear view mirrors sticking out from countless hundreds of cars all stuck in traffic in the heat of the Bangkok sun. My destination was the Hau Lamphong train station. The motorbike taxi driver defied all immovebable objects by finding openings between cars for what seemed to be his two wheeled magical machine while thoughts of the world and the ancient past consumed my attention. I felt like I was breaking loose from the impositions of the accumulated effects of a social order obsessed with material things. I was inspired and grateful knowing I was finally able to find a window in time to make a pilgrimage to this ancient mountain temple in northern Cambodia. Little did I know how rampant and pervasive the consumer mentality could creep even into this remote sanctuary of antiquity. I could not help but recall Robert Casey's thoughts from his book, "Four Faces of Siva" written in 1926 saying, "one day even little old ladies from Iowa would be able to visit the ancient temples in Cambodia". Surely modern transportation lessened the difficulty of travel, but a host of other obstacles came with modern civilization that needed attention. In an incresingly complex world where the unexpected prevails finding the time and/or finances to visit ancient sites on the planet requires above all determination to make a pilgrimage and the resourcefulness to get to them.
When 8 o'clock arrived I was sitting in the dining car on my way to Si Saket to see Preah Vihear. The dining car was very quiet so I ordered fried cashew nuts mixed with hot green chilli peppers, slices of cucumber and tomatos, diced onions with a side of salt. The small green chilli peppers announced their presence in my mouth which began to burn out of control. I immediately squelched the fire with my favorite Thai beer and tried to maintain my composure. I noticed that even the train platforms were quiet with no signs of backpackers or tourists. This obviously was not a popular evening for tourists traveling to Si Saket. It was very warm and the dining car fans were creating a comfortable breeze. Coincidentally the train was on track number nine, my sleeper car was number nine, my berth number in the sleeping car was number eighteen, and the train was leaving at nine o'clock. I wondered what significance there could be to having a series of nines prior to leaving for my pilgrimage.
The time arrived to finally relax and prepare for a ten hour over night train ride to Si Saket. It was friday night and as the train slowly pulled out of the station the Bangkok streets were sparkling with thousands of headlights darting back and forth destined for somewhere. As the train distanced itself from the city thoughts of Preah Vihear began to over take my mind. I tried to fathom how the kings over a thousand years ago made their journey through all the same grassy plains on top of their elephants; an astonishing accomplishment.
Morning arrived and it was a little after six o'clock and the Si Saket train station was completely still. I found another motorbike taxi and went to the Si Saket bus station where yet another two hour journey south to Kantharalak would leave me close to Preah Vihear but I would still be 36 kilometers from the Cambodian border. One final motorbike taxi and another half hour later I reached the end of the highway from Thailand and walked into Cambodia. Modern transportation got me to my destination in about thirteen hours from Bangkok which was not the way I wanted to reach Preah Vihear. An elephant journey however would of been out of the question.
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 - First 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 V - Stones in the Sky - Journey to Beng Mealea - October 2004.
Apsaras and Devatas - Photo documentation of female divinities at Angkor Wat.
Heritage Watch - Dr. Doug O'Reilly, Director
Center for Archaeoastronomy and ISAAC, the International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture.
History of Science, Vedic Studies, Astronomy - By Subhash Kak