22 March 2012

In Nature's relentless embrace

The heat and humidity of the Cambodian jungle are, in their way, relentless, but our visit to Ta Prohm -- a temple complex in eastern Angkor -- taught us about the living jungle's relentless ability to overtake monuments.  Ta Prohm is perhaps most famous today for the massive tree that dominates the first gopura or gateway into the temple enclosure, as shown in this iconic image.

Photo Creative Commons License Brian Jeffery Beggerly

Unlike the majority of Angkor temples, Ta Prohm has been largely left to the clutches of the jungle. Why?

In 1177 and 1178, invasions of the Angkor region by the Cham had left the the Khmer capital in near ruins. Jayavarman VII decided to move his capital to Phnom Penh. While a few monks remained at Angkor Wat, the temples quickly succumbed to nature.  Seeds germinated in the stonework, weakening walls and roofs and causing collapse. In time, the temples were nearly lost to the jungle.  As French explorers came to Cambodia, they were guided by the local Khmer to their long abadoned temples.  In particular, the 1863 reports of French naturalist Henri Mahout published in Paris inspired Western interest. Everyone wanted to see the temple monuments he had described.

drawing of Angkor Wat by Henri Mahout

In time, adventurers were replaced by archeologists. The Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient, founded in 1899, took responsibility for conservation of the monuments. Thousands of cubic metres of soil were excavated was temples were reclaimed from the jungle.  As Maurice Glaize explains in his still-definitive 1944 guidebook, The Monuments of the Angkor Group, "Even though the relentless force of the vegetation is the cause of so much damage, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient felt obliged to leave at least one temple in Angkor as an example of the "natural state" that so marvelled the early explorers, while also showing by comparison the importance of the effort already achieved in its work to safeguard these ancient stones. It chose Ta Prohm - one of the most imposing and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it - as but one specimen typical of a form of Khmer art of which there were already other models."

Today, conservation efforts have to protect the trees as much as the stonework.  If a tree falls, it will further ruin the temple remains. And yes, Ta Prohm is also the highly atmospheric temple from Tomb Raider (starring Angelina Jolie as Laura Croft) which was filmed here. Many come to this temple simply for that connection.

In one corner, our guide quietly pointed out an apsara's face which many call Cambodia's Mona Lisa.

Many writers have written descriptively of Ta Prohm. For me, the integrated juxtaposition of stone and vegetation was completely captivating.  I was also drawn to the contrast between restoration and ruin that was very evident at Ta Prohm.

View this short "atmospheric" video if you are interested in seeing the incredible detail in the stone carvings of Ta Prohm.

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