At Angkor, there's been endless scholarly research and speculation about how the ancient Khmers moved stones from quarries to far-away building sites. Probably rafts carried the stones along waterways. But at Preah Vihear, there was no need for long-distance transportation--the quarries were right at the temple's mountaintop location. Stones were cut from the ground and moved just a few meters to become parts of walls, door frames and lintels. If you visit Preah Vihear, take notice of the ghostly outlines where stones were birthed. In places you can see individual chisel-strokes that freed stones from the ground. It's quite an experience to imagine that a thousand years ago an ancient mason was at work right where you're standing.
It's clear there was a lot of music in the royal courts of Angkor. Dancers are common in the temple bas reliefs and here and there you can find musicians in the carved scenes. But what about their instruments? One that can be seen is the Angkorian harp with its multiple strings. That instrument did not survive into modern times, but now a team of musicologists has brought it back to life as part of larger efforts to recreate the cultural life of the times.
The work was done by instrument maker Keo Sonan Kavei, a professor at the Royal University of Fine Arts, composer Him Sophy and French expert Patrick Kersalé. They aren't entirely sure how the harp should be played or what the originals sounded like, but we can thank them for filling in another piece of the puzzle of what it was to live in Angkor in those days.
Read this article in the Phnom Penh Post to learn more. And listen to the harp itself in this video on the newspaper's website. The performer is Snguon Kavei Sereyroth, the 13-year-old daughter of Professor Kavei.
There's some very exciting news--confirmation of the location of the first capital of the Khmer Empire. Archaeologists Damian Evans and Jean-Baptiste Chevance headed a team that surveyed the site with a laser-based aerial technology and then confirmed it on foot. It's a collection of outlines in the ground of streets, canals and temples in the Kulen hills north of Angkor. The existence of a number of smallish temples in the hills and urban features has been known for years; archaeologists had a pretty good idea of where the capital site was. What's been added now is evidence of more temples and of a cityscape that tied together a population center. See this report in the Cambodia Daily newspaper.
This builds on a search that's been underway since the 1880s for the birthplace of the empire. That hunt was set off by a reference to a city in the most important of the inscriptions that the French used to reconstruct the lost history of the empire--the Sdok Kok Thom inscription, 340 lines carved into a monolith found at a temple that's now located just inside Thailand. (You can read a full account of this amazing testament in my 2010 book, Stories in Stone, which focuses on how the French recovered the lost history of the empire by learning to read inscriptions.)
Among other things, the Sdok Kok Thom inscription gives an account of the founding of the empire around the year 800 AD. The prince who would become Jayavarman II, first king of the empire, is described as moving from city to city, in the company of a priest named Shivakaivalya. "When His Majesty left Amarendrapura to reign on Mount Mahendra, the august Shivakaivalya likewise went and took up residence there, serving His Majesty as before." The text goes on to describe a Hindu rite carried out at this place to make Jayavarman king and the Khmers free of foreign domination. Historians generally treat this rite as the founding of the Khmer Empire.
The problem is that over time, place names fell out of use, making it a challenge today to identify exactly where particular events took place. It's always been assumed that this Mount Mahendra was located in the Kulen hills north of Angkor. But where in the Kulens? In the 1880s, the first translator of the inscription, the great Etienne Aymonier, climbed the Kulens looking for it, but did not succeed. Part of the problem was that Aymonier and others were convinced that there must be a fabulous "palace of Jayavarman" hiding in the forests up there. They reasoned that surely the empire's founder would have built something remarkable. For a while, attention focused on the huge Beng Mealea temple at the foot of the Kulens (in fact it was built more than three centuries later).
What's been increasingly documented in recent years fits more with what you'd expect for a temporary capital--a place of modest scale and smallish (by Angkor's standards, at least) structures. Judging by fragments scattered around, the temples were of brick. They were small enough to have been completely subsumed by vegetation in subsequent centuries, to the point that they now exist just as bulges in the earth. Some of them could only be spotted through surveillance from the air, which Aymonier obviously didn't have.
This all just goes to show how much there remains to learn about Angkor and the Khmer civilization. It's great that there's such an energetic team of people carrying on the work.
My most recent trip to Angkor took me for the first time into the fabulous Baphuon temple. I’d never been because the temple had been closed for years, convalescing from war, you might say. In the 1960s, the Baphuon had been near collapse. Restorers disassembled much of it, laying out 300,000 pieces of stone for eventual reconstruction. After war closed in on Angkor in 1970, records showing which stone went where were lost. So when peace returned, putting it back together turned out to be an enormous puzzle challenge. The job was only completed in 2011. Now the Baphuon is fully open again and you can climb the great three-tiered pyramid and admire its many bas reliefs.
The temple was built by King Udayadityavarman II as his state temple around the year 1060 AD. If you visit, you should imagine it without certain nearby things--without the Bayon, without Angkor Thom’s walls and gates, without Angkor Wat. All of these came much later. In its glory days, the Baphuon dominated the great capital city.
The Baphuon shows that the temples of Angkor weren’t static. They weren’t just built and left in their original role and state, but sometimes were modified as history progressed and religious beliefs changed. The temple was originally Hindu, dedicated to Shiva. But at some point several centuries later it was rededicated as a Buddhist place of worship. When you reach the back of the temple, you’ll see the most amazing sight--a reclining Buddha that is part of the very fabric of the temple, extending across the west side for about 70 meters. The evidence suggests the image was built from the rubble of a now-missing central tower and other original elements of the temple (if you look closely you can see that some of the stones have decorative carving on them). The holy image is so large that it's hard to take in--what you see in the photo at the top shows the Lord Buddha's reclining head at center left.
All in all, the Baphuon is quite a sight. Don't miss if it you visit.
One of the big questions about the construction of Angkor is how the stones were transported to the building sites from quarries in the Kulen hills to the north. For years there’s been a theory that the blocks took a rather round-about route, moving by water southward to the Tonle Sap, Cambodia’s great lake, then along the lake’s shoreline, then up the Siem Reap River (against the current, no less) to Angkor.
Now comes a study that concludes the route may have been much more direct, and made no use of the lake. Geologist Estuo Uchida of Japan’s Waseda University, co-author of the study, says that analysis of satellite images suggests the presence of an ancient canal that connected Kulen quarries pretty much straight to the Angkor area.
Over the years, quite a lot of academic brainpower has gone into trying to answer questions of which stones came from where. Have a look at the website of the Cambodia Stone Project, a fascinating consortium of experts from many countries of the world. Their job requires both a lot of field research and skill at theorizing and connecting dots. There are no records from the era to tell how stones were transported the long distances, and the temples’ bas reliefs of daily life aren’t much help, including only a few scenes that appear to show construction workers.
The skills of Khmer sculptors and master masons were remarkable, but I’ve always been moved too by the handiwork of the less celebrated people who birthed the stones. A great place to see that is a humble little quarry on the banks of a stream near Beng Mealea temple. Over the centuries, the flow of water softened sharp edges, but you can still see what resembles a ghostly staircase leading down to the stream, where block after block were removed in sequence. Here and there individual chisel strokes are visible.
Probably the blocks were floated downstream to Beng Mealea to take their allotted places as the great monument rose in the 12th Century.
The quarry’s easy to reach if you’d like to take a look. About a kilometer past Beng Mealea on the road to Koh Ker, you come to a bridge across the stream. The quarry’s right beneath it.