Thursday, 10 November 2011

Days 65 to 68: Angkor Temples: Ta Prohm

My search for Wonders is focussed on the man-made efforts: any hunt for the natural Wonders of the World will have to wait another day (and risk the untold wrath of my girlfriend who, perhaps understandably, is already somewhat displeased about my current project). However, sometimes there is an overlap. The upcoming Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines is an ongoing agricultural sculpture of mountains to grow rice - "tweaked mountains" you might say - and even Machu Picchu relies on the mountainous backdrop to glorify the man-made ruins. The Angkor temple of Ta Prohm is another example, a cross between ancient temple and creative jungle to make something quite spectacular and unusual.

Like Bayon in my earlier entry, Ta Prohm was not on my original list of Wonders (being overshadowed by nearby Angkor Wat), but in hindsight I realise should have been. It is an improbable marvel that makes one of the biggest impressions to any visitor to Angkor, and as such features on all the conventional day tours of the site. That is, you can be assured of lots of old people with big cameras round their necks moving slowly.

Appropriately, "old man" is the meaning of "Ta Prohm", or at least according to our guide. Unfortunately, I've not been able to find anything else online or in my notes to back this up, leaving me to conclude that our guide was either misinformed, or was talking about something else entirely (I did attempt to clarify and he restated the same fact), but I'll generously concede that he was putting his own spin on the actual meaning, which is "Ancestor Brahma" (Brahma being the Hindu god of Creation). Anyway, it wasn't an old man it was built for, it was an old woman - Jayavarman VII's mother. Upon ascending to the throne in 1181 and turning the realm into one colossal building site, Ta Prohm was started in 1185, and likely finished a couple of decades later (no fixed date is given for this). As Jayavarman VII was in his 60s when Ta Prohm was begun, we can assume that his mother was a very, very old woman, likely to the point of being pretty dead.

In its day, Ta Prohm would have been notable for its size in terms of area, as its rectangular outer wall of 1000 by 650 metres would have enclosed a large area that an on-site inscription says 12,500 people lived in. A thriving little temple town then, headed by 18 high priests, and supported by 80,000 people living outside the grounds. The temple itself sits west of centre inside the outer walls taking up an area of around 200 by 200 metres, although like Bayon or Angkor Wat the inner layers were not elevated - visiting Ta Prohm is a wander rather than a climb.

And what a wander it is. The tourists can flock, but the area is large enough to spread them out assuming you avoid peak time. This would be about late morning, according to our guide, although I think he may just have been saying that as he fancied an early lunch. It suited myself and Burness, as after our morning wander around Bayon and Angkor Thom, we were both a little peckish. Burness treated himself to a couple of beers, which transformed his grumpiness into cheer (it never fails), and I felt better for some food and rest after a lacklustre morning. Even our guide seemed in better form after an irascible morning. This improvement in mood was certainly helped by our visit to Ta Prohm.

While Ta Prohm in its day might have been a thriving temple town dedicated to Buddha and Jayavarman VII's mum, these days it is notable for the bonus features it has acquired over the years, courtesy of the jungle. When Angkor was formally rediscovered in the 19th Century (in Western terms at least, there were a few locals that hung around but they weren't so well connected), it was fairly covered in jungle. Hundreds of years of neglect had seen all but Angkor Wat - which was being used as a Buddhist temple - being overcome by a jungle that didn't care much for the sanctity of ancient artefacts. The coverage was so much that temples were barely discernible - even today it is thought that the ruins of temples still lie undiscovered in the jungle. Having plants and trees grow rampantly inside temples usually isn't good for the temple's health, and so between 1907 and 1970 the École française d'Extrême-Orient, a French institute dedicated to studying Asian cultures, cleared the jungle away as an important first step to the restoration of the temples (they stopped in 1970 due to the Cambodian Civil War breaking out, followed by the genocide of about a fifth of the country's population). The exception to this was Ta Prohm. It was deliberately left in its natural state, unrestored, with just minimal treatment to keep it stable and to make it accessible to tourism. This was to highlight the effect of the jungle, contrast the unrestored with the restored, but really, to paraphrase the École française d'Extrême-Orient, just because it looked really cool.

And Ta Prohm is cool. It's a bit crazy. Upon reaching the main temple after the long approach from the east gate, the first thing you notice is that it has a giant tree going right on top of it. It couldn't be better placed. The tree isn't growing next to the building, it's sitting right on top, with the roots covering the walls. It's not the only one - a wander through Ta Prohm reveals loads of trees growing on top of the temple building, the roots snaking around and slowly consuming the temple. It is incredibly picturesque. The trees are not regular, well-behaved trees, they are crazy gnarled monsters that look like they've been mixing their steroids with psychedelics, and spread themselves around without regard for the conventions of tree growth. A tree should have its main body overground and its roots underground; the Ta Prohm trees do everything overground. They proudly display their thick, coiling roots without inhibition. The sight is wildly unlikely. Ta Prohm is half-temple, half-jungle, and looks like something you'd find in an olde worlde inhabited by elves and hobbits.

How? How are trees growing on top of a building? It's amazing what a few seeds and several hundred years can do. The jungle is a competitive place, and any free space is fair game, and so whether by wind or by birds, seeds ended up on top of Ta Prohm. A little rain and sun and a nice little spot to take root in, and a few hundred years later the seed has become a tourist favourite, clinging onto the ruins of the temple with a massive network of roots.

In truth, despite the illusion of being left to the jungle, Ta Prohm is a little more manicured than advertised. It's all real, of course, but only the showcase trees are allowed to flex their muscles, with all the other less attractive parts of the jungle trimmed back. Thus, while Ta Prohm is a glorious mix of temple and jungle, it's not wild or unkempt. It is tourist friendly. This isn't a criticism, rather the opposite, as the condition of the temple is maintained and the natural effect optimised. Because it is beautiful, very beautiful. True jungle growth might be authentic, but it would be very messy so let's not let the truth get in the way of beauty. Ta Prohm gets the best of both the man-made and natural world and makes for a truly atmospheric and scenic gem. It looks like in should be a film. Which it was - Angelina Jolie and her bosoms appeared here in "Tomb Raider".

Ta Prohm is also known for another small curiosity, featured in one of its sculptures.

A stegosaurus, apparently. This has led to lots of wild internet speculation about dinosaurs living on in 14th Century Cambodia, or at least having existed in recent enough human history to be recalled in the consciousness. Some creationists have seized upon it as backing up the 6000-year-old earth theory. The truth, as truth often turns out to be, is more prosaic. Of course, we don't know the mind of the person that carved it, but the carving is placed alongside a bunch more, many featuring mythical creatures. Also, the alleged stegosaurus spikes are probably just decorative background embellishments - which would have been clearer hundreds of years ago - and indeed the same embellishments are found on different creatures. The stegosaurus is probably just a cow.

Ta Prohm is pretty amazing, and Burness and I left in high spirits. Where to go from there? It was time, our guide said, to visit the big one. Time to visit the icon of Cambodia. It was time for Angkor Wat.

(Of course, he said this in a much less dramatic way. Our guide wasn't really much into making things seem exciting.)

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