Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Stone Face

Stone Face Tower of Ta Nei

Tuesday, 4 November, our first full day touring the ruins of Siem Reap started  early and was a very busy day for us.

Our first stop was to witness sunrise at Angkor Wat.  We witnessed sunrise with many other tourists - including the dreaded bus tours from China, Russia, and South Korea.  I had read a great deal about the crowds at the ruins for sunrise.  I did not necessarily have a desire to photograph the sunrise and more importantly for me, deal with hordes of people all jostling to photograph the same pictures.  Our guide recommended that we go.

We arrived 5:30 A.M. at the reflecting pool to the left of the ruins as you face the ruins - the prime location for sunrise and sunsets.  Despite the time, there were a couple of hundred photographers already there.  All the spots at the edge of pond were already occupied. The vast majority of the people were either using cell phones or tablets to capture the event.  Fortunately there is a slight upwards slope from the pond.  I had brought my tripod so taking advantage of the tripod and moving away from the pond's edge I was able to shoot over the heads of the other people.  All in all the experience was not nearly as stressful or unpleasant as I had anticipated.  I would not discourage anyone from trying to shoot an Angkor Wat sunrise based upon our experience.  My advise would be to arrive there early with lowered expectations, with no desire to be at the water's edge.  I also recommend that you arrive with a couple friends to block off the areas around - especially directly in front of your camera setup.

After the sunrise, while the bus loads of people, returned to their hotels or went to restaurants for breakfast, we drove over to a very popular temple ruin, Ta Prohm, the "Tree Temple" of the film "Laura Croft, Tomb Raider" fame.  Arriving at the vacant temple at 6:40 A.M., we spent one hour touring the ruins at our leisure, one hour enjoying the only sounds of birds, monkeys, and insects waking up along with the click of our cameras as the early morning sunlight filtered down through the forest canopy chasing away the shadows.

After completing our tour of Ta Prohm, we experienced a very special treat.  Lead by our guide, we walked roughly 15 minutes through the "jungle" to another temple - "Ta Nei".  Many resources refer to the terrain between the ruins as the jungle.  In all my travels I have yet to find the jungle, or at least my vision of the jungle from all those Tarzan movies of my boyhood.  I have been in many rain forests since my days as a youth.  I would categorize the terrain more as a forest - dense new growth perhaps 25 to 30 years old with very well defined sandy trails.

The first major artifact that we encountered at Ta Nei was a face tower - stone block tower with caeved blocks forming large faces at each of the cardinal compass points.  Face towers are a common sight in the Siem Reap area.

Who is the stone face?  A mythological animal?  Some long ago King? Perhaps some Animist deity?  Hindu deity?  A Buddhist deity?  One thing for certain the face is neither Christian or European.

Another obvious truth about the stone face is that it is of some one or something that is very revered attributable to the size and numbers of the faces.  Another indication to the extent of the face's importance and perhaps its power is its orientation at N, S, E, and W points of the compass.

Many sources state that the face is of the king.  Other sources state that the face is a representation of Lokesvara, the Bodhisatava of infinite compassion.  Some sources state that the faces are guardians of the Khmer Empires cardinal compass points.

Representation of Lokesvara the Bodhisatava of infinite compassion?  What is that and what is that all about?  First of all, a Bodhisatava is anyone who is motivated by compassion to attain liberation (enlightenment) for benefit of all others.  Buddha prior to becoming enlightened is referred to as a Bodhisatava in his previous lives.  Bodhisatavas are on the path to liberation and considered further along the path to enlightenment than others in that their goal is to become fully enlightened.

In Buddhism doctrine, Lokesvara (Avalokitsvara) was a Bodhisatava that made a vow to help people during times of difficulty (Aren't all times, times of difficulty?) as well as to delay his achieving of enlightenment until after assisting every person to attain their enlightenment. He is the representation of the compassion of all the Buddhas.

As for the King ... Ta Nei was constructed as a Buddhist temple in the late 12th century by King Jayavarman VII who reigned from around 1181 to 1218. Jayavarman VII was a great king in all senses of the term.  He lead an army that ousted Cham invaders that had killed the previous Khmer King, pillaged the capital, and perhaps worst of all made off with the Apsara dancers. Besides ridding the kingdom of the Cham invaders, he extended Khmer control up the Mekong River Valley up to current day Vientiane, Lao People's Democratic Republic.

During his thirty year reign, King Jayavarman VII was responsible for a monumental construction program.  Projects for the public good included hospitals (102 of them!), reservoirs, and rest homes along the highways for travelers.  He also had Buddhist temples such as Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan built.  He commenced construction of the magnificent state temple, The Bayon.

King Jayavarman VII was also responsible developing the city of Angkor Thom - a metropolis of perhaps over 100,000 people in the late 12th and early 13th century.

It is inscribed on a monument that "He suffered from the illnesses of his subjects more than from his own ..." His stated goal was to alleviate the suffering of his people. He lived to be 85 to 90 years old - astounding for someone in the 13th century.

There are some statues existing today that are supposed to be of King Jayavarman VII and ... his face closely resembles the stone faces of structures built during his reign.

Who is the face?  I believe that if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck. For me the stone face is that of King Jayavarman VII as the representation and embodiment of Lokesvara, the Bodhisatva of infinite compassion.  The orientation of his face on each tower(s) signifies the extent of his power and glory across his land.

Ta Nei is a small temple ruin but a special ruin.  There is no vehicle access to the site.  The lack of a road prevents tour buses with their hordes of tourists from accessing the ruins and drastically limits the number of visitors to the temple site. This provides a tranquil place to explore, experience, and appreciate the ruins in a relaxed atmosphere at your own individual pace. We ended up spending a thoroughly enjoyable 45 minutes at Ta Nei.

As I wandered about exploring and photographing the ruins with our guide, Duang took advantage of the Buddhist temple to do some praying.  Often during our tour of the ruins, she would pray and worship - connecting with places where people were worshipping one thousand years ago.

Stone Carving Over Doorway
Our guide once again had taken us to special place without hordes of visitors destroying the atmosphere of a special place linking today to a long ago time.  Our visit to Ta Nei was a special memory that we cherish.

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