National Geographic : 2000 Aug
SHE LOOTING of Banteay Chhmar is a symptom of the worldwide fasci nation with the ancient Khmer and their mysterious works. The past three decades have witnessed an astonishing increase in the value of Khmer art. When the French naturalist Henri Mouhot, exploring Southeast Asia, came across Angkor Wat in 1860, he could hardly believe his eyes. He asked the local Cambodians if they knew who had built this stupendous structure cover ing nearly 500 acres. They shrugged: Who else but giants, or the king of the angels? Angkor Wat does not look like the work of mortals. One of the largest and most beautiful religious monuments ever built, its architec ture is so removed from our Western aesthetic that it defies comparison. I first visited Angkor Wat early one morning. It stands by itself, surrounded by walls and a moat, in a clearing in the forest several miles outside Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. Angkor Wat's five great towers, symbolizing the center of the Hindu universe, stood dark against the brightening sky. The scent of lotus flowers and woodsmoke from a nearby monas tery perfumed the air. Orange-robed Buddhist monks moved silently down a path, carrying their begging bowls, on their way to town. I could hear the faraway sound of chanting. A distant bell rang, and the chanting died away. At that moment the Asian sun erupted over Angkor Wat, pouring rivers of light through the stone porticoes, galleries, and causeway, illuminating carved lions, seven headed snakes, goddesses, celestial dancers, and demons. It was a moment that had occurred countless times in Angkor Wat's 900 year history, and yet its magic was still fresh. The kingdom of Angkor began to flourish in the ninth century along the northern shore of the Tonle Sap, the Great Lake, which dominates the center of Cambodia. The Tonle Sap was to the Khmer what the Nile was to the ancient Egyptians. During the monsoon season the Tonle Sap quadruples in size. When the dry season returns, water flows out of the lake, leaving a fertile layer of mud. Long ago the Khmer learned to divert the retreating water to increase rice production. As the population increased, the Khmer began to manage water ever more intensively, not only for agriculture but also for religious purposes. They created broad moats around temples and built immense sacred lakes called barays, symbolic of the oceans surrounding mythical Mount Meru, the center of the universe. Such works required centralized planning and the hand of an absolute ruler-the god-king. The resulting rice surpluses freed labor for other uses, notably constructing the god-king's tem ples. Most Angkor kings wanted to build their own monuments, leading to a proliferation of temples; there are hundreds scattered in a broad swath north of the Tonle Sap. In the 12th cen tury the capital of Angkor may have embraced a population of one million. By comparison Paris, one of the great cities in Europe at the time, had a population of perhaps 30,000. King Suryavarman II constructed Angkor Wat in the early 12th century after seizing power by killing his great-uncle. Suryavarman ruled vigorously, expanding the empire and establishing diplomatic relations with China. He vanished around 1150 - possibly murdered-and was likely buried here, in Angkor Wat. Toward the end of the century a new king came to the throne, Jayavarman VII. Jayavarman would become Ang S kor's greatest ruler. He was a contradic tory man, a devout Buddhist mystic who waged war, expanded the empire, and exacted tribute. His statues portray DOUGLAS PRESTON is the co-author of Thun derhead, a novel about an archaeological expedition in search of a lost Anasazi city. S STEVE MCCURRY, a frequent contributor, has photographed Asian subjects since 1978.