Thursday, November 7, 2013

Angkor Wat

Fig.1: The Who Temple of Angkor Wat, located 
behind the Why Garden and the I Don't Know 
We've all seen the Abbott and Costello bit where Abbott visits the Angkor region of Cambodia, and Costello inquires about the specifics of his vacation:

Costello: Which temple did you see in Angkor?
Abbott: Angkor Wat.
Costello: That's what I'm asking you.
Abbott: I'm telling you: Angkor Wat.
Costello: Yes, Angkor what?
Abbott: That's right.

And then it goes downhill from there. Well lost in the hilarity is the fact that Angkor Wat, the object of confusion, is considered the largest religious monument in the world: at over 20 million square feet, it is 12 times larger than the Temple Mount in Israel, can fit about 800 Christ the Redeemer statues from Brazil within its walls, and is approximately 3.8 billion times holier than that Celtic symbol you got tattooed on your lower backside. On top of that, it is the largest tourist attraction in Cambodia, as well as its national symbol, making it akin to the Eiffel Tower in France, the Taj Mahal in India, and practically any old marble piece of crap in Greece.  It is still considered a holy place of worship by Cambodian monks to this day, which I'm sure the million visitors per year does absolutely nothing to diminish.

Fig.2: Vishnu gives the best 
back massages.
Construction of Angkor Wat began in the early 1100s during the reign of Suyavarman II and his wife, Suyavarwoman II. Suyavarman ruled over the Khmer Empire, which at the time was the dominant power in Southeast Asia (to which the Mongols said, "Just give us some time..."). It was designed to be a multi-purpose building: a Hindu temple, a capitol building, a royal funerary site, a library, a family eatery, a petting zoo, and a discount warehouse for porcelain lawn gnomes, all in one convenient location! Plus, it had a moat, which is the most awesome edition anyone can bring to their abode (and I'm not just saying that because I'm a part-time moat salesman when I'm not composing histories). Interestingly, the Hindu temple was dedicated to the god Vishnu (fig.2), as opposed to Shiva, for whom every other Khmer temple had been built to that point. Maybe it was to make Vishnu feel better about himself, or maybe Suyavarman thought Vishnu would reward him with extra hands so he could take care of his kingly paperwork while never having to stop playing Call of Duty. Unfortunately Angkor Wat was unable to carry out its function as a burial site, as Suyavarman died in battle around 1150, and his body failed to make it out of baggage claim.

Angkor Wat continued to serve as a Hindu temple, even when Khmer kings decided they didn't fancy the place anymore and moved the capital further north (their loss, as their new capital didn't include the luxury of a moat). Then in the late 13th century, Buddhism began to overtake Hinduism as the preferred religion of the empire, thanks to their trade links with South Indian and Sri Lankan merchants who started every transaction with, "Excuse me, sir. Do you have a moment to talk about our lord and savior, Siddhartha Gautama?" Eventually Angkor Wat made the switch as well from a Hindu to Buddhist site, which prompted Vishnu to give the Khmers multiple rude hand gestures. It remains a Buddhist place of worship to this day, although meditating monks need to be roped off in order to prevent tourists from constantly asking them where the gift shop is.

Fig.3: Order your moat in the next ten minutes, and we'll throw in the 
crocodiles and shrieking eels at no extra charge! Just pay shipping and handling!
Alas, the Khmer Empire did not last forever, as it was unfortunate enough to be sandwiched between two rising prospects in the Siamese (present-day Thailand) and the Champa (present-day Vietnam). By the 15th century, the Cambodian people were too busy fighting to protect their political institutions, way of life, and own rules to Monopoly to make the preservation of the Angkor temples a top priority. Thus, most of the temples in the region has succumbed to looting as well as the surrounding jungle...except for Angkor Wat, mostly thanks to the protection of that moat. (It truly is the best investment you can possibly make for the long-term well-being of your residence.) It was still in relatively good shape when those dastardly Europeans started to arrive and colonize the area in the 19th century. One Frenchman stated the temple is "a rival to that of Solomon, and erected by some ancient Michelangelo," and many Europeans absolutely refused to believe those barbaric Cambodians were the ones who built the structure. Which is only slightly racist, but what do you expect from people who go around the world conquering others just because they don't use underwear?

Fig.4: Yeah, Cambodia is pretty 
aware that Angkor Wat is about 
all they have going for them.
When France established Cambodia as its colony in 1863, the ruins of Angkor were actually under the control of the Kingdom of Siam, but they were too busy whistling happy tunes and getting to know each other to care. So the French actually went out of their way to conquer the region just for Angkor Wat to be under their jurisdiction (and ipso facto, receive all the credit for it). It was then stuck on everything related to Cambodia, from its flag (fig.4) and national emblems, to postcards and those little snow globes with the glitter inside. Whether they liked it or not, Angkor Wat became etched into the Cambodian national consciousness; when the nation achieved independence in 1953, what more could they do other than to fix the place up and charge people out the wazoo to come and see it?

Which is kinda a problem for the 900-year-old building. From the eroding sandstone steps, to the fading bas-reliefs, to the toaster oven that should really have been cleaned out years ago, tourism is taking its toll on the grand structure. Not only that, but the Siem Reap province that the Angkor temples call home isn't exactly the Coruscant of Southeast Asia. The constant industrialization to keep up with the region's popularity is destroying the character and general hominess of the area; plus, the widespread usage of the ground water supply is compromising the integrity of the land, and could feasibly bring Angkor Wat crashing several feet below the Earth (which would, of course, bring in even more tourists, cause who doesn't want to see an underground Medieval Buddhist temple?). Several solutions for his issue have been proposed, the most extreme being a complete reconstruction of the temple in India (with it actually being a little taller, just to give Nelson Muntz "Haha!" to the real Angkor Wat) so people can experience the grandeur of the site without the fear of defacing the building or getting the yummy typhoid that Cambodia is renowned for.

Despite its struggles, Angkor Wat stands as a testimony to Khmer ingenuity, Hindu and Buddhist devotion, and the inherent practicality of installing a moat within your property. Suyavarman II intended his temple/capitol/mausoleum/photo-booth to be a national monument, and nearly a millennium later, it still retains that status. Hopefully the grand structure can continue to amaze and astound worldly tourists for centuries to come, even while they use it to belittle other families' humble vacations to Ocean City.

Fig.5: "Oh, you played in the sand? That's nice. Well, I contributed to the slow decay of a 
historical landmark! No big deal."

No comments:

Post a Comment