Sunday, March 02, 2008

Selling the largest Hindu temple in the world

Tourists in watching the sunset in Phnom Bakheng

2 Mar 2008
Vinay Sitapati
The Times of India

Angkor Wat is celebrated, the world over, as a temple of steroid-induced proportions, buried for centuries in the forests of northern Cambodia before being rediscovered by modernity. Visitors such as I, expect to ‘stumble upon’ a giant temple rising about 700 feet in the air amidst the isolation of an intrusive forest.

In today’s global tourism industry, Angkor Wat is portrayed as that rarity, the last chance to truly discover.

There is some truth to this image. Before it was ‘discovered’ in 1840 by a French adventurer, it had not yet entered European imagination. During much of the late twentieth century, when global tourism really took off, Angkor Wat (means city temple) remained inaccessible due to a catastrophic civil war in Cambodia.

Besides, Angkor Wat is probably the largest Hindu temple in the world.

Built by King Surya Varman in the early 12th century, it is dedicated to lord Vishnu. Even the Creator of the Universe would have gasped at the scale of this creation—one square kilometer in size, and built on multiple levels. The artistry of each panel is intricate.

I spot a horde of Hindu tourists, aggressively explaining to their befuddled Cambodian guide that this is actually ‘their’ culture.

The truth is Hinduism in Cambodia dates back to the first century AD, brought by Indian traders from the kingdoms of Magadha (East Bihar) and Tamil Nadu. By the time of the Angkor era, this influence had flowered into a distinct culture of which Angkor Wat is the most enduring example.

So much for the product. Now the packaging.

Even at the time of its so called discovery, Angkor Wat was being administered by some one thousand Buddhist monks. Today, chattering groups of pliant tourists arrive in chartered planes to the nearby airport, Siem Reap. The scatter of shops around the temple sites—some mom and pop, some more enticing—sell every possible packaged memory. The entire area seems like a giant well run hotel.

This gilt-edged wrapping paper, however, is torn at places, revealing contradictions. In sharp contrast to the booming Asian Tigers that surround it, the Cambodian countryside is stark, famished and numbingly poor. Entirely different is Siem Reap, an artificial city, meant to service the many rich western and Japanese tourists who come to visit the Angkor temples. There are super markets everywhere, and the architecture is Baroque-meets-Surya Varman.

The obvious poverty of Cambodia seems to give way to a bubble of smooth highways and air-conditioned modernity. The economy seems as fissured: I could pay in Riel (the Cambodian currency), Baht or in US dollars.

Even the culture that was peddled as Khmer (the majority ethnic group in Cambodia) seemed hybrid. Like in neighbouring Thailand, the Angkor massages on offer in Siem Reap reflected the specific tastes of our globalised times. Eastern European women offer their white skin for the post-colonial Asian, and Nigerians peddle their bodies, rumoured to be well endowed, to Japanese women.

It may seem petulant to emphasise this lack of ‘authentic’ history here. After all every country packages its attractions in bubble wrap for outside tourists. But Angkor Wat’s history has been repackaged for its own people. For Cambodia has had to wrestle with notions of history like few others.

From 1974 to 1979, a far left Maoist regime controlled Cambodia. Until it was overthrown, the Khmer Rouge had succeeded in killing a tenth of Cambodia, forced the entire urban population to the countryside, and sought to radically reshape Cambodian society. Worse (if at all possible) was to follow.

During their fourteen years of exile and guerrilla warfare from the northern jungles, it laid ten million landmines across north Cambodia—one for each Cambodian.

Today, Cambodia enjoys a tenuous peace, and seeks to put behind its immediate past. The Angkor temples are now packaged for Cambodians, as a symbol of national unification.

Even the current Cambodian national flag carries an etching of Angkor Wat. But the phantoms of a grisly past cannot be wished away. Some temples in the Angkor area are still inaccessible due to landmines, and I saw many amputees hobbling across the temple stones.

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