Tourists to the Angkor Archaeological Park near Siem Reap in Cambodia often complain of being “templed out”. After a few hours of climbing up and down steep and ancient steps, more than one temple starts looking alike. Of course everybody remembers Angkor Wat and its massive towers, Bayon and its mysterious faces and even Ta Phrom with its silk cotton tree roots and the infamous Angelina Jolie ‘tomb raider’ association- people tend to remember that especially. It is easy, faced with the magnificence of these temples, for the hundreds of other smaller temples in the region to fade into a kind of background commonality and be clumped together as ‘the other temples of the Angkor region’.
Banteay Srei is a temple that often gets missed out of the tourist itinerary- a pity considering how exquisite and spectacular it is. I first read about Banteay Srei in John Sors ‘ A Temple of a Thousand Faces’ book.
I visited Banteay Srei very early in the morning. While the crowds are busy piling on their breakfast or focusing on the main attractions of Angkor Wat & Thom I snuck out in a car with a guide and landed up at a semi-closed gate some 20 kilometres away from the main temple group. It takes a bit of walking through fields adjoining a marshy lake to come up against what can only be described as a vision in pink sandstone.
Banteay Srei is unique in that it is almost the only grand temple to have not been built by a king. The first thing that strikes you about the temple is its size- Banteay Srei is extremely compact especially when compared to its larger cousins. But what it loses in size, the temple more than makes up in artistic detail. As you go through the outer walls into the main compound you see that almost every inch of space on the sandstone walls has been squeezed into yet another sculpture- sandstone being more malleable for sculpting than the laterite used for building the other major temples.
The fact that the temple’s name translates into ‘Citadel of Women’ probably has something to do with the aura of feminine beauty that you find everywhere in the temple- numerous carvings of female devatas, intricate ornamental motifs of flowers and mythological scenes literally transport you back to your childhood days when you were hearing tales from Ramayana and Mahabaratha on your grandmother’s lap.
I stared in awe at the scene of Ravana lifting Mount Kailasa. The details show an almost curious Ravana looking up to see the effect his actions are having at the top. While pandemonium reigns among the sages and the animals in the middle level, a slightly worried Parvathi demurely sits on the lap of a very unconcerned Shiva. There are numerous other stories on the walls- Vali battling Sugriva, Indira on his elephant Iravatha, Narasimha killing Hiranya Kashipu. I tried to remember the last time when I saw so many stories depicted so beautifully on the walls of a temple and couldn’t come up with anything. Because the temple is in a fragile state, you are not allowed to enter the inner courtyards and have to be content with staring at the details from the outer walls. Which I was happy to do even though I was told that a bribe would happily get me inside- something about me wanted to leave this behind for generations to come.
And there you have it- the first week of the challenge is already done! 5 alphabets down and 21 more to go- do you think I’ll finish this? And do you think you’d still be reading my blog at the end of the month?