Fabienne Luco [*]
A fragile thread of continuity connects life around the ancient capital of the kingdom of Cambodia to the distant past
It is a phantasmagoric world. When European travelers discovered Angkor in the 19th century, they were astounded by the grandeur and the mystery of the temples, covered with sculptures of "airy figures stifled and crushed by the forest," in the words of the French writer Guy de Pourtales. "I have before me," he wrote, "not only an empty capital but 700 years of unrecorded history. And death's most dreaded prodigy: silence." The silence that enveloped Angkor when it was abandoned in the 15th century seemed immutable, but appearances can be deceptive.
A fabulous archaeological site, this great stone skeleton is also a living place, at once the realm of divinities and a city of mortals, where everyday business is steeped in customs from a prestigious past.
Tales of a nine-headed serpent
Between the 9th and the 14th centuries, Angkor, the capital of the kingdom of Cambodia, grew up between the Kulen hills and Tonle Sap, the Great Lake. At the height of its power, the kingdom included parts of present-day Thailand, Laos and Viet Nam. Over the centuries, kings who practiced religions that came from India, Hinduism and Buddhism, erected monumental stone temples where they honoured their gods. They also built an elaborate hydraulic system comprising huge reservoirs (baray) linked to a network of canals, dikes and moats.
Only one contemporary description of Angkor's former splendour has survived. It was written by a member of a Chinese diplomatic mission, Chou Ta-Kuan, who arrived in August, 1296. His vivid account includes anecdotes about the daily life and customs of Angkor's inhabitants. He wrote that every night in a golden tower, the king had to mate with a nine-headed serpent that took on the appearance of a woman. In the palace, bare-breasted women "as white as jade" wore their hair in a bun. At the other end of the spectrum, the commoners were described as "rude, black and very ugly". The nobles were carried about in gold palanquins and dressed in precious fabrics whose patterns were an indication of rank. They lived in houses with lead and tile roofs, while those of "the common people were covered only with thatch". Farmers tilled their fields on the banks of the great lake. In the dry season, when the waters receded from the flooded forest around the lake, the farmers came down from the hills and grew rice.
When the Siamese conquered and plundered Angkor in 1432, the king and his court left the devastated city. The forest overran the ruins. Wooden buildings and writings on latania leaves and scraped hides disappeared, victims of the damp climate and insects.
In the late 19th century, archaeologists began deciphering the inscriptions and scenes depicted in the bas-reliefs carved in the stonework of the temples, which contributed precious information to their understanding of historical timelines and myths, battles and aspects of everyday life, including hunting, fishing, marketing and habitat.
Today, life in nearby villages is much the same as when it was captured in those ancient sculptures. The wooden wheel-barrow that squeaks as it is pushed round a corner is identical to one on a bas-relief. The vendor dozing in front of her stall at the market in Siem Reap, the provincial capital (population 75,000) seven kilometres from Angkor, is resting in the same position as her distant ancestor depicted by a sculptor. On the basin of Srah Srang, located in the heart of the site and bordered by two villages, the fisherman casting his net makes the same gesture as his counterpart of seven centuries ago.
More than an outdoor museum, Angkor is home to religious and rural life revolving around the temples. Inside collapsed sanctuaries and more recently-built Buddhist pagodas, smoke from incense threads its way heavenward before statues of ancient gods and the Buddha. …