UNESCO World Heritage…Cambodia and the ruins of Siem Reap attract more than a million tourists every year.Its ruins and forest locations have found places in many Hollywood films . The story lines revolve around ancient Hindu kingdoms, myths and adventure stories connected with archaeology. I watched the Hollywood movie “The Tomb Raider” which showed the hero, as well as the heroine, crawling through tunnels, running through corridors, scaling broken down walls in search of an artifact in a tomb in Cambodia. Then the heroine found it, the tomb came to life and the statues of mummified soldiers then begin attacking. It was said to have been filmed here. I was eager to know how much could be true, digital, set or morphed. My search led me into the jungle to a sand stone complex fortified, with broken down walls running several meters wide and more than a kilometer long.
My guide knew the security staff at the entrance of the site, and we bye passed the line. He then quickly began his commentary about a civilization of the 11th century wherein a Khmer King Jayavarman VII conquered all the other kingdoms around his and built this commune and dedicated it to his mother. Ta Prom means mothers residence and that is how this place got its name, to be called even to this day. Just beside this complex, the king who had converted from Hindu to Buddhism built a religious university for Buddhist monks. He stayed there studying the nuances of the religion. He was said to have given shelter and permitted some of his subjects who had also converted to reside in Ta Prom. This place had a religious university and monastery in which the king also resided and was therefore called the Rajavihara or the kings abode.
Beside the Ta Prom a huge water tank had been constructed to serve the community.The entrance to the complex was crowned by a temple tower,sculpted with many faces, each facing different directions.I was told that the sculpted face was that of the king himself and it signified that he resided there, knowing all and seeing all. Once inside the compound, we walked beneath entrances that had huge trees grown over it and we had to pass in between many roots. We soon arrived at a massive complex; a maze of ruined corridors, chambers, towers, sanctum sanatoriums, courtyards and so on.The sand stone construction had survived time, weathered four centuries, till until the 15th century, when the fall of the Khmer kingdom ushered its doom. It thereafter fell to ruin, neglect and came to be devastated by nature itself. For some reason the later kings and people neglected its existence and the jungle took over the ruins ,hiding it from man for many centuries.
In the late eighteenth century, a French adventurer Henri Mouhut, accidentally discovered these ruins in Siem Reap. The French who where a protectorate of the Cambodian King, through their school of oriental studies ,rediscovered many more settlements and gave back to the world, the history of this great civilization, which dated back from the seventh century to the seventeenth century.
Going around Ta Prom, I noticed that its stone structures had been uprooted from its foundations and were being strangled by overgrown roots of huge jungle trees. It reminded me of the film “The Fellowship of the Ring” in which huge forests walked and talked with humans, and fought against alien forces. Looking at the trees it seemed as if the jungle had marched through Ta Prom, trampling it down to conquer and subjugate it under its will for time to come.The size of the overgrown trees suggested that the forest had taken over the kingdom for many centuries and I could not understand how such a disaster might have come over this place.
I could not decipher as to why the people who may have fled on the fall of their kingdom feared coming back again ,or why the invaders if any did not occupy it. Was it a natural phenomenon then, or a mighty curse that the defeated and the victorious were afraid of? The guide had no answers and neither did the historical records. As for myself, I enjoy searching for answers and was happy that my search did not end with the trip.
Standing upon the ruins I watched people standing beside the huge roots entwining the huge structures and pose before them for pictures. After taking my own photos I walked the long corridors and was fascinated by the elaborate bass reliefs of “apsaras” or heavenly women, kings, sages, warriors,subjects,animals and Gods sculpted on the walls of chambers, towers and sanctum sanatoriums. I was amazed at the size of the many centuries old, gigantic, silk, cotton trees growing from out of these structures. The walls of the fortified Queen mother’s chambers were elaborately decorated with sculptures and the boundary walls still retained a faded shade of the natural red paint used during that time. My guide showed me a broken down tunnel, a ruined hall, as well as a tower and told me that the corridor I had walked was also a location in the block buster film “Tomb Raider”.
Looking again ,I realized that by entwining fiction and fantasy with reality, one can project dreams to be true.This I say because I could not make out the morphed or digitalized special effects in the film from what was before me. I Imagined, the King , the \Queen mother,the Buddhist monks and subjects going about their every day business and this overshadowed the fiction in the film. This culture as well as its heritage commanded respect and the unanswered questions ignited an unquenchable quest for knowledge.
This site has been declared a UNESCO world Heritage site and is now renovated by the Indian archaeology department under a joint conservation program.Many trees from inside the complex have been removed. to reproduce the complex to its original glory. But, that did not impress me as I preferred their majesty as well as that of the forest, which together portrayed an interesting setting, posing many questions and thought for the brain.
Turning back to look again at the ruins and the ever growing trees I realized that nature outlives and overshadows even the greatest of civilizations. Nature proclaims it’s supremacy.