Friday, April 16, 2010

Spotlight on Banteay Chhmar

The Banteay Chhmar Preservation Project
A face tower at Banteay Chhmar that could represent the tantric deity of Vajrasattva
Banteay Chhmar is a fascinating temple complex in northwest Cambodia. It's a temple built during the rule of King Jayavarman VII in the 13th century and unlike the temples constructed at Angkor around the same time, it didn't suffer the iconoclasm that engulfed temples such as the Bayon and Ta Prohm, where Mahayana Buddhism images were chiselled away and defaced after the King's reign came to an end. To that end, Banteay Chhmar can reveal a lot more about the time and beliefs of Jayavarman VII than other sites. That's if it was still in pristine condition. It's not. It too has suffered the ravages of time and temple thieves and only 25% of its bas-reliefs are still standing. The rest lie in pieces on the floor or have been stolen and lost forever.

The Global Heritage Fund and its many partners are now trying to piece the temple back together again. Stone by stone, carving by carving. Last year they held their 2nd conference about the temple in Sisophon and you can find out much more about the project to renovate and restore Banteay Chhmar from the video-papers presented by various speakers here. One of the speakers was Dr Peter Sharrock, a scholar from the University of London, who had his own view on the identity of the giant face that stares out from the face towers of Banteay Chhmar, the Bayon and elsewhere. He discounts the possibility that it is the face of Jayavarman VII himself or the Avalokiteshvara, which is often stated in guidebooks and the like and instead suggests the face belongs to the tantric deity of Vajrasattva. "I think its the supreme deity presiding over a tantric cult of Hevajra. I said Vajrasattva in my chapter in Joyce Clark's book Bayon, New Perspectives in 2007 and nobody has yet argued against this analysis. Let's wait and see. Hevajra is a fierce emanation of Vajrasattva, who is more of a primordial conception than a god you could picture or address," he told me by email today. If that's the case, and proving it will solve one of the key mysteries that still envelope Angkor, then every book on Angkor will need to be updated.

Sharrock also highlights a carving at Banteay Chhmar that he believes is the first representation of Hevajra in stone, rather than the more common statues of the deity in bronze. This is of massive importance to understanding more of the Buddhism promoted by Jayavarman VII and is one way in which Banteay Chhmar can tell scholars so much more about that period of Cambodian history, which fascinates so many. The secrets of Banteay Chhmar are still waiting to be discovered. I've written an essay on the temple for my book To Cambodia With Love, which should be out in June, as it's one of the ancient temples that I have a close affinity with, after my first visit there in November 2001.
Scholar Peter Sharrock believes this carving at Banteay Chhmar is of the deity Hevajra, with 20 arms and 9 heads. A smaller figure below has 5 heads.
The carving is above a doorway that is unstable and will be one of the tasks of Global Heritage Fund to ensure that this wall is safely preserved

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Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Looking out from the forest

The central tower of Prasat Yeay Chy
This is Prasat Yeay Chy, one of nine satellite temples that surround the main temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in northwest Cambodia. It has fared as well, or not so well depending on your point of view, as the main temple. The central face tower has just two of its four faces remaining intact, the other two lie in pieces on the floor of the temple. Its gopura is broken and in ruins and the forest is trying its best to reclaim the area. On the wall of the gopura are some fading examples of female devata as well as other smaller buddhist figures etched into the sandstone but I couldn't find any lintels in situ. The undergrowth makes investigating the temple area a challenge but it wouldn't be a temple adventure without a problem or two, one of which is the giant red ants that don't give you a chance to stand still for too long. Yeay Chy is one of four satellite temples with their face towers still standing, Prasat Samnang Tasok being another, and the location of our overnight tented accommodation, whilst Prasat Ta Prohm, located just behind the village of Banteay Chhmar, has been cleared of much of its vegetation and is considerably easier to visit.
The weather-worn devatas on the gopura wall
The eastern face of the central tower at Prasat Yeay Chy
The central tower is still surrounded by quite dense vegetation
The inside of the central tower, which is pretty ruined
The north face of the central towers peeps out from the forest of trees
The north face of Prasat Yeay Chy

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Blogger makes me mad sometimes. Over the last few days its done it darndest to make posting as difficult as possible and then today its miraculously back to normal. No mention of the problem on the blogger forum. I suppose I should be thankful for small mercies that its back to normal but it gets very frustrating when you have something you are dying to post. For example there was a 3-day conference on Banteay Chhmar, one of my favourite temples, and the efforts being considered to file for World Heritage site status, which prompted me to post lots more pictures from my visit a few months ago. The blogger problem put an end to that, temporarily. The conference was held in Sisophon over the weekend just gone and over 100 experts, officials and scholars attended to discuss the future of Banteay Chhmar. Wish I had been invited. Anyways blogger is back (for how long is anyone's guess) and I'll post the pictures this week.
What else is on my program for this week? Well, I'll be at Olympic Stadium tomorrow afternoon for the two Cambodian Premier Leagues games that are due to be played. Also sometime very soon there should be a press conference to announce the Cambodian U-23 football squad that is being assembled by coach Scott O'Donell for the forthcoming SEA Games in Laos in December. I think they want to make a big splash about it in the press, especially as Metfone are now involved as major sponsors.
After my visit to the ECCC (Khmer Rouge trial) last week, more testimony is being heard this week from former S-21 guards and workers though the appearance of Rob Hamill, brother of one of the foreign victims at S-21, Kerry Hamill, has been rescheduled to next Tuesday, the 18th.
Finally, I've just had word that Khmer artist Khin You has passed away in Bangkok a couple of days ago, though I haven't had this verified as yet. The painter had his first exhibition in Phnom Penh a couple of months ago, having returned to the country in 2004 after many years abroad. You can read more about Khin You in this interview with Asia Life.

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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Satellite prasat

The central tower and east face at Prasat Yeay Chy peering through the undergrowth
I've been a bit slow to bring you some more pictures from my visit to the northwest complex of Banteay Chhmar, but here's a taster from one of its nine satellite temple, Prasat Yeay Chy, which I popped into after waking up in our tented camp next to its sister satellite Prasat Samnang Tasok. Both temple sites lie west of the main temple complex and are in a ruined state though the central tower at Yeay Chy, also known as Temple IV, is still standing and houses two remaining faces, on the north and east sides. More to come soon.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The face of the Angkor Empire

The northern face tower of Prasat Samnang Tasok, at Banteay Chhmar
I promised to bring you some more photos from Banteay Chhmar. So here they are. Well actually, they are photos from Prasat Samnang Tasok, one of the nine satellite temples that surround the main complex at Banteay Chhmar. It is one of four standing satellite temples with the Bayon-like faces. The other remaining satellite temples may've had them in the past, but they are now in disrepair and all trace of the faces have disappeared. Samnang Tasok is essentially a gate-tower, such as you'd find at the city of Angkor Thom, standing to the east of the main complex, amidst dense vegetation and undergrowth, with a ruined gopura nearby. In fact we camped next to its moat and you wouldn't have known there was a temple inside the dense foliage until you walked inside and saw the faces peering directly at you. There's something about these giant faces that have captured my imagination since I first saw them at Angkor Thom, oh so many years ago. 1994 to be precise. I truly believe that they belong to the god-king Jayavarman VII. I don't have any evidence, just my gut-feeling. Probably, because I want them to be of Jayavarman. They are an incredible legacy from the Angkor Empire and everything should be done to protect and preserve them whilst they are still in situ. One of the face towers in the central complex has already collapsed, this cannot be allowed to happen again. I'm pleased to see conservation efforts are being undertaken at Banteay Chhmar, there is much to do and I hope one of their priorities is to ensure the stability of all the face towers.
The blind doorway and northern face at Prasat Samnang Tasok
The decoration is still visible around the north face of the gate-tower
The western face is in a much poorer condition and will only get worse without restoration
The doorway and western face of Prasat Samnang Tasok
This is the southern face of the gate-tower
The southern (left) and eastern faces of Samnang Tasok at Banteay Chhmar
A longer shot of the southern and eastern faces at the satellite temple, east of the main complex

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Samnang Tasok's magic

The mysterious east face of Prasat Samnang Tasok
Our first look at Samnang Tasok, showing the east face from the broken gopura
Prasat Samnang Tasok brings back memories. Both good and bad. It's one of the nine satellite temples that surround the main central complex of Banteay Chhmar. The first time I went there in November 2o01 I didn't even know the other temples existed. It wasn't until my January 2005 return to Banteay Chhmar that I had my first opportunity to uncover their whereabouts, thanks to the diminuative Sita and my moto-driver Heang. And they were a great find, especially the temples like Samnang Tasok that were essentially gate-towers with Bayon-style faces looking out in all four directions. With the ruined temples covered in vegetation and dense undergrowth, and seeing those faces peering through the foliage above, this was temple discovery at its very best. For its part, Samnang Tasok had a sting in its tail. Here's my text from that first visit to this satellite temple, located to the east of the main complex:
The path into the complex of Prasat Samnang Tasok was fairly straightforward aside from the ferocious red ants, so standing still was asking for trouble. The floor of the site was covered in thick bushes so it was easier to utilise the walls and roof of the outer gopura to make our way to the central sanctuary, which was topped by four more giant faces and other carvings. Like the majority of the temples we'd located, apart from the three of us, not another soul was anywhere to be seen and the only sounds we heard were birdcalls and the occasional rustle of a lizard amonst the undergrowth. On the way out, I was perched precariously on the lintel of a gateway when two red ants bit into my stomach after crawling up my trousers - I managed to keep my balance, though this final warning from the 'guardians' reminded me that temple exploration has a downside!
On my recent return to Banteay Chhmar, we camped out overnight right alongside the moat that surrounds Samnang Tasok. The temple is still in the midst of undergrowth and still retained that magic feeling as we walked through the tree cover and emerged to find ourselves looking at the stone faces in the forest. Here are some of those faces.
On the left the south face and the east face on the right
Buddha carvings at the base of the east entrance to the face tower
Buddha in meditation at Prasat Samnang Tasok
More Buddha in meditation motifs alongside this colonette
A circular doorway medallion with bird motifs in the center
The east face of Samnang Tasok
On the left, the east face and the profile of the north face at Samnang Tasok

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Wednesday, July 8, 2009

View from above

A bird's eye view of Banteay Chhmar
I said I would bring you some pictures from my recent trip to Banteay Chhmar, though this photo of the main temple complex is courtesy of Eddie and his microlite. You may recall that Eddie took me up in his 2-man 'flying moto' back in February for a whizz around the edges of the Angkor Park for an hour. However, he has flown his microlite all over Cambodia and as you can imagine, and see, has some amazing aerial photos from just about everywhere. This is Banteay Chhmar from the west, with its Mebon at the top of the picture and the houses of the village on the right hand side. Though you can see the moat surrounding the temple, the rest of the structures within are almost completely obscurred by the tree cover. The photo was taken in March of this year. Read about my microlite fun here.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Making camp

Its 6.30am and the early morning sun shows our safari tent and last night's fire
Beautiful early morning light on the moat and trees surrounding Prasat Samnang Tasok
In a precursor to my pictures from my recent visit to Banteay Chhmar, I need to provide some context. I was travelling with my brother Tim and two drivers in a 4WD and after leaving Anlong Veng, which I've covered in previous postings, we arrived at our camp-site at 6pm. The site wasn't inside the main body of the central complex, instead it was right next to the moat surrounding one of the nine satellite temples that orbit around Banteay Chhmar. The temple name was Prasat Samnang Tasok. Our crew had arrived before us and set up the camp. A large safari-style double tent for Tim and myself, with a shower and toilet tent nearby. The rest of the crew would sleep in small individual tents closeby but out of sight. We'd called into the market near the main temple for some water supplies before we settled down onto our comfy beds to discuss the day's adventures, before a nice warm shower and a dinner that would not have been out of place at a city restaurant. Three excellent courses, followed by dessert, eaten in a clearing next to a water-filled moat surrounding a 12th century gateway - does it get better than this? After chewing the fat for a couple more hours, we switched off the fans and fell asleep to the occasional howl in the distance - wild dog, monkey, tiger, we didn't know. Up and showered by 7am, it was time for another food extravaganza, this time a hearty breakfast to set us up for the rest of the day. Then it was time to explore. Prasat Samnang Tasok was less than fifty metres away and it was a temple that I'd experienced before. More later.
Inside the safari tent are our two comfortable beds and fan
Mr Comedy himself, Tim in the toilet tent
Two youngsters fill their water containers from the moat of the main temple
The moat surrounding the central complex at Banteay Chhmar

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Monday, July 6, 2009

Faces in the forest

The south face of Prasat Samnang Tasok with its bewitching smile
This week I will bring you the pictures from my recent visit to the temple complex of Banteay Chhmar in northwestern Cambodia. Banteay Chhmar is one of my favourite locations, so staying overnight in a luxury safari tent, inches from the moat surrounding the western satellite temple of Prasat Samnang Tasok, waking up to the sounds of early morning birdcalls and cicadas, was exactly what the doctor ordered. More from my Banteay Chhmar adventures later this week.

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Monday, June 22, 2009

DFID depart

In the papers today, DFID, the UK's international development agency, is pulling out of Cambodia. They arrived eight years ago but now say that their money would be better spent where there are more poor people, less NGOs and less admin costs in providing the aid. The pull-out will be staggered and their successful public health program will be the final one to go in 2013. DFID provided about $30 million in funding last year and will do so this year as well. Link: British Embassy.
Another journo, this one from the Washington Post, has been busy reporting on Banteay Chhmar here - soon the place will be overrun with journos intent on telling everyone that you can still find a remote temple in Cambodia. Someone tell the world's press that there are thousands of them, not just Banteay Chhmar, though its a good one I grant you. Also while you are at it, tell them that the lighting up of Angkor Wat at night is not a new event, they've been doing it for a while now. And its official, the lights will not cause harm to the temple according to Deputy PM Sok An. The heat from the lamps is 50,000 times less than from the sun.

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Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Into the fields

The young monks at Wat Khtom. Eh Da is the smallest, on the far left.
The author next to a ruined doorway at Prasat Lbeuk Smaoch
Normally when I go in search of an ancient Khmer temple site amongst the dried rice fields in the middle of nowhere, I'm usually either on foot or bobbing around on the back of a moto. I've never bounced around the fields in a 4WD before, so that was a new experience during my recent visit to the northern reaches of Cambodia. We were making our way from Anlong Veng to Banteay Chhmar and I noticed on a map, the presence of a potentially large ruin, Prasat Lbeuk Smaoch, about ten kilometres north of Samraong. So we called into the village of Khtom and spoke to the head monk at the village pagoda. He pointed us off into the distance and said it was about three kilometres from the main road and into the fields. One of the young monks, Eh Da, said he knew the way, so he jumped in our 4WD and we were off. Navigating our way across the dried fields was like an assault course for our vehicle, there was no path for much of the way and after ten minutes of being tossed around in the rear of the 4WD, Eh Da announced that we'd arrived. Apart from a clump of trees and thick bushes there was nothing to see. Undeterred, he led us through a break in the undergrowth and into the belly of the temple, a laterite and sandstone ruin, impossible to make out its design though we did locate some false doors with pretty carving, as well as the odd naga head and colonette. The thick spiny undergrowth made it very hard to find our way through the badly ruined site and even standing on top of a ruined doorway made it no easier to identify the outline of the prasat, though I could see the presence of a dried-up moat circling our location. Eh Da led us out again, telling us that he was sixteen years old and had become a monk three months earlier when his grandmother died. He also said he enjoyed it and planned to carry on when his initial period expired. He had also been told a story about the temple by his grandmother and it involved a King, Damrei Sar, who got so angry when he lost his son that he ripped the temple apart with his bare hands. Eh Da himself believed a more modern theory that temple robbers had destroyed the prasat in the last few years. We thanked him, gave him some money for the pagoda fund and carried onto Samraong, for a refreshment stop at a restaurant run by Annie and her sisters from Pursat. By 5.30pm we'd reached Banteay Chhmar.
A strangler fig tree takes root on the ruined temple wall
This false sandstone door is buried nearly to the top in earth and rocks
A part of the floral design of a broken lintel at Prasat Lbeuk Smaoch
The temple's main construction is with laterite blocks and sandstone doorways
A carving of naga heads buried in the earth floor of the temple
The dry moat surrounding the ruined prasat
Annie and the author at our Samraong refreshment stop

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Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Making me smile again

The author with the children of Prasat Ta Prohm at Banteay Chhmar
So to cheer myself up, here's some photos of the gorgeous children I met on a recent trip to Banteay Chhmar in northwest Cambodia. This is a great temple site, which is currently undergoing renovation. Outside of the magnificent main temple, there are at least nine satellite temples and it was at one of these that I encountered these kids. Prasat Ta Prohm is effectively in the middle of Banteay Chhmar village and its water-filled moat is used by the locals. The four-faced temple is on an island and on all previous visits was almost completely shrouded in tree cover and undergrowth. However on my latest visit a couple of months ago, most of the trees had disappeared and the temple is now exposed. A shame in my view but once we arrived, we were quickly surrounded by this group of young children, eager to joke around with the big-nosed barangs - I was with my brother Tim - and the oldest girl Srey Mak spoke pretty good English. They weren't in the least bit shy and we eventually had to tear ourselves away from them as we had to get back to Phnom Penh the same day. Children everywhere in Cambodia make me smile and those at Ta Prohm were no exception to that rule.
Srey Mak, gorgeous smile and a thirst for English
Two more of the children we encountered at Prasat Ta Prohm
These girls were pretty shy compared to the younger kids in the temple itselfOne final face from Prasat Ta Prohm at Banteay Chhmar