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Angkor Thom, Cambodia | Facing up to the past

Angkor Thom, Cambodia | Facing up to the past

Symbols of a churning ocean and a mythical peak are among the remains of this king with a quirky nickname and divine ambition.

Ramya Sriram

Mint(Wall Street Journal India) – April 26, 2014

angor1--621x414“Today we will explore the buildings built by J7,” our tour guide Sophai Cham says as he ushers us into a tuk-tuk.

“J7? What sort of a name is that?” I think. Did I mishear what he had just said? I hesitate to ask. J7 sounds like a rapper’s name to me.

“Welcome to Cambodia,” our driver smiles at us. “We will head first to J7’s Angkor Thom.”

I look quizzically at Sophai. “We affectionately refer to Jayavarman VII as J7,” he says. With a pause to allow us to chuckle, he adds, “…and we call Jayavarman II as J2, Jayavarman VIII as J8, and so on.”

Jayavarman VII, I learn, was the 12th century ruler of Cambodia who had built the city we are exploring, some 7km from the provincial capital of Siem Reap. My curiosity gives way to amusement and I laugh, though I can’t help feeling disappointed that a YouTube channel of J7’s Khmer rap doesn’t exist after all.

Soon, I am standing at the South Gate of Angkor Thom with my family and Sophai, a neatly dressed man in his mid-30s. We walk up a stone causeway leading to the city’s gate, which towers over a moat’s clear water dotted with pink lilies. I pause for a moment, for I have just spotted something familiar.

Statues holding the body of a seven-headed naga (serpent) stand on either side of me. Where have I seen them before? Of course, this is a depiction of the churning of the ocean of milk (the Samudra Manthan), a story I have heard many times from my grandfather while growing up. The devas (gods) to my left smile, whereas the asuras (demons) to my right frown and grimace. I am thrilled to see this childhood memory come alive in this unlikely place.

But many of these statues lack heads and limbs. They have been plundered by local smugglers over the years and sold to international art collectors, Sophai tells us. I’m saddened to see this representation of one of my favourite mythological stories ravaged in this way.


Atop the city’s gates are four large faces, with thick lips curving upwards at the corners in a meditative smile. “The faces represent Lokeswara or Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion,” Sophai says. Back home, I keep a tiny, golden statue of Avalokitesvara on my desk. But these humongous faces before me are in stark contrast to the delicately carved features of the image on my desk. I can hardly believe they represent the same god.

As we walk towards the temple, a posse of about 30 photographers stands in front of the temple pond, bodies twisted in contorted poses, as they attempt to fit the temple and its reflection into their frames.

A giant tower stands in the centre of the temple in front of us, surrounded by towers of decreasing height. The structure represents Mt Meru, the centre of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist mythology, Sophai tells us. I am transported back to my Sanskrit class in school where I’d first heard the story of this mountain. The moat we had seen is symbolic of the cosmic ocean that surrounds the mythical Mt Meru, he adds.

I marvel at J7’s carefully thought out and executed plan which implied that the Bayon temple was the centre of the universe—and that J7 was its overlord.


The Bayon was built by J7 originally as a Mahayana Buddhist shrine towards the end of the 12th century. When King Jayavarman VIII (J8, of course), J7’s brother and successor, came to power, he destroyed Buddhist symbols and replaced them with Hindu ones, because he was a proponent of Hinduism.

“When J8 looked at the Bayon temple, he was confused. The faces looked so much like his brother’s that he could not bring himself to destroy them,” Sophai tells us. The faces were intended to be images of not only the Avalokitesvara, but also of J7, who had had them made in his own image. And so the Bayon survived, even though many of the other Buddhist symbols in the city did not.


To reach the outer gallery of the temple with intricate bas-reliefs of scenes of battle and everyday life, I place my feet sideways on the narrow steps of the staircase and walk up.

“To reach God you have to do a little hard work,” Sophai says, grinning. He tells us the steps are made in this way so that visitors can descend the library’s steps without “showing your back to God”.

The inner gallery, a level higher, showcases carvings of gods from Hindu mythology—Shiva, Vishnu, even Ravana—and figurines of Hindu ascetics. Some of the carvings depict Hindu gods wrestling serpents and kings holding court. It’s time for another nostalgia-attack. I am instantly reminded of the panels in Amar Chitra Katha stories I had pored over as a child—these look like distorted black and white versions of those panels.


Over 35 gigantic towers surround the centre of the Bayon temple. Most of these bear four faces arranged back-to-back, with eyes shut, and almost maddeningly mysterious smiles on their lips.

Nagas form a protective crown above each tower. The faces are formed by interlocked pieces of stone—half a lip is on one piece of stone and the other half on another, giving it a jigsaw puzzle like appearance.

“One stone out of place and the whole statue crumbles,” Sophai says. I immediately have a vision of the faces crashing down, like a pile of Jenga tiles.

If J7’s intention while carving the faces of the Bayon in likeness to his own was to perceive himself as a devaraja or god-king, he certainly achieved it, because I feel a wave of reverence wash over me as I sit down on a bench, taking in the “I-know-something-you-don’t” smile on the faces. Perhaps, if I stay and stare long enough, one of them might open its eyes and speak to me.

Ramya Sriram is a cartoonist, editor and writer based in Hyderabad. She draws comics at The Tap and loves long train journeys.

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