By Siddharth Kapila:
“Sir, a taxee vee be de ad aaepo to pi you ub“, our prospective tour-guide, said over the phone. “Da ca numba e 4-1-9-7. OK?”
“Ya, thanks, Johnny,” I said, “I’ll be on the look out.”
As we snailed forward in the queue terminating at the immigration desk I was struck by a mural displayed on the far side of the hall: a scene of tug-of-war between two mythical factions, the rope taut and serpentine.
“That’s a painting of the Samudra Manthan, isn’t it?” I nudged my mother. A pleased nod.
A half hour later, passports-stamped and a total of eight bags trollied up, my mother, her sisters (my aunts), and I trundled out of the wood-panelled oriental-palace-like airport.
“Wekkum! Wekkum to Anko!” I heard a warm voice. A stout man, roughly my age, was smiling and holding a placard bearing my name.
“Haro, Haro! You cuddan fin da ca? It e der, in frun ov you!”
“Huh. Where? You said the car number was 4197. This is 4971.”
“Bu e same-same na!” Johnny beamed.
An annual pilgrimage is a compulsion for my mother’s side of the family, with my mother acting as the perennial group-leader. I usually end up as the compliant tag-along. But this year, I took charge and decided to take her to some place new and foreign.
Owing to my tepid but enduring interest in Indian mythology, the Khmer relics had been on my bucket-list for a long time. “Enough with poojas,” I tried to persuade them. “It’ll be nice to look at monuments purely for their aesthetics.” My mother, ever-keen to add a place of worship to her credentials, never least the one listed as the largest Hindu temple, wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. I’d expected that my aunts, too, though nowhere near as idolatrous as my mother, would be agreeable to coming along. I wasn’t let down.
Johnny slid the door open to van number 4971. I chuckled as my aunt grinned in a manner that seemed to say, ‘these guys are like us only. Same-same.’
We had landed in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
As a boy I spent my Sunday mornings much like everybody else I knew – at home, transfixed to what in my planet was universally regarded as the thing to watch on Sundays – the televised renditions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For one godly hour, shops shuttered down and road traffic hummed to a lull. Servants gathered all agog and grandparents’ features matured yet to wholesome glows.
In those guileless and imaginative years, before the unstoppable flood of Cable TV and 3D effects and other such happening things had begun, the epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were considered ‘The Most Happening Thing of All Time’. Even then, my six year old self had a sense that he was witness to something bigger than mere drama; for not only did these classics open portals to worlds at once surreal and too-real, they were also believed by those around me to be the very manuals to living life. Indeed, these were the primordial – bearded Banyan trees, I imagined laden with fruits of meaning.
For me, though, it was always about the Super-Powers.
The galaxy of god-powers, the curses liberally dished out by quick-tempered sages, and the herby potions vied for by all were the sorts of things that drew me to that fabled fold. The Sudarshan Chakra – the disk that spun fiercely on Vishnu’s index finger, was the most exciting choice of weapon; the shapeshifters, avatars of the ever-mounting wickedness, frightened me more than anything. Mumbling half-memorized mantras, eyes closed, I’d perform the bow-and-arrow scenes of Ram and his brother Laxman fighting evil, praying I could in some way conjure onto myself their talents. Only then would I be able to vanquish some bully I’d decided looked just like a Rakshasa.
Growing up, I imbibed from my mother a great many stories on the continually colliding constellations of Hindu avatars. Parables that wove into me a skein of honourable battles and justifiable deceptions and petty conceits playing out between the Asuras (Demons) and the Devas (Gods), not to mention the tussles among the Gods themselves.
Once, as a 10 year old, I breezed into the Shemaroo video rental store near our home and asked to rent the Mahabharata series.
The salesman’s eyes widened. “Ya there are 94 episodes. Which one you want?”
“The one with the most magic!”
So it is perhaps understandable when years later, as a Sci Fi-obsessed adult, while watching the X-Men movie, I felt something in my mind ricochet – a memory cobwebbed to a stored-away alcove. Where before had I observed this same situation, in which two opposing forces had come together for a common objective before going their own separate ways? Was I imagining a link where none existed? But the echo lingered. It dogged and gnashed until it untangled and rose to clarity.
Yes, the same thing had occurred in the Samudra Manthan, or in “The Churning of the Ocean of Milk“. In that account the Devas and the Asuras had for once, joined hands in pursuit of a single quest – the obtainment from the deepest depths of the ocean, Amrit, ambrosia, or the nectar of immortality.
And it was this affair that I was to find depicted on its grandest, most intricate canvas in the architecture and imagery of the once Hindu and now Buddhist temples of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom.
“This place feels like India only,” my aunt said. “Like South India. No difference only.”
A better description I thought might be India-like. For one thing, Cambodia was home to fewer people than just Delhi and its environs.
“We should get going,” I said. “Johnny is waiting for us in the lobby.”
The previous evening we’d dawdled down the tourist-brimming and justly named Pub Street—my jeans amid the tri-flutter of salwars—pausing for dinner at a barbecue joint. I marvelled at the choices of meat my aunt sought certain essential clarifications for from the waiter.
“We are vegetarians. We are looking for something totally vegetarian. No meat and no stock-shock or anything.”
“You hab no mee? Fee you hab?” came the baffled response.
“No. No meat, no fish. We are pure vegetarian.”
“We do for you. Can-can.”
“But please, no stock. We want vegetarian. To-tallee pure.”
“OK. OK. No probrem. We pu mirral votta.”
Three bowls of steaming vegetable noodle soup placed beside a platter of raw chicken, shrimp, pork, shark and crocodile landed on our table. Additionally available were kangaroo and frog, but seeing as my aunt said between meagre gulps and watery eyes, “Beta, I don’t know how you can put that in your mouth!” I thought it practical to refrain from further gastronomic misconduct.
“I hope the smell isn’t bothering you,” I said, feebly apologetic, the aroma of smouldering meat about us. My mother said she loved her broth, and my aunt reminded me she’d long since lost her sense of smell.
Johnny had been a guide for six years. He flaunted a picture of his wife and son, which he said he kept with him in his wallet.
“Da Khmer Empire,” he said seriously, craning his neck to face us, “wa biggit in whore South Eet Asia.”
The morning was bright and the air warm. A scent heavy with sodden leaves blew through the windows leaving a sweet trail. Clear of the thick-trunked trees edging the road, rice fields opened out for miles upon miles under the cloud-puffed skies.
We were on our way to the temple city, Angkor Thom.
“Burma, Tailan, Veenam, all came under Khmers,” Johnny waved his hand, gesturing the countryside passing by.
Though our guide was proud of his country, he was not exaggerating. At its peak, the Hindu-Buddhist Khmer Empire had ruled over most of mainland South East Asia. Angkor (or city)—a vernacular form of the word ‘nokor’, whose origin lies in the Sanskrit ‘nagar’—is the supreme legacy of that period, satellite imaging having revealed it to be the largest pre-industrial urban centre of the world.
We stood on a bridge leading up to an arched stone gate, one of many, to the Angkor Thom. Below, a moat encircled the 9 square kilometre sprawl of ruins; and on its bottle-green shore, not three feet away from us, barefooted kids leapt in and out of the water, cackling, snorting. Railings to either side wore the form of a rock-hewn naga (serpent). To the right, a row of Gods strenuously pulled the length of its tail, on the left side Demons tugged the reptilian stretch controlled by an upright and engorged head.
The story went that Vishnu, using his wiles, positioned the Demons on the fanged-end so that the Gods would be kept safely distant from the venomous fire-jets spouted by Vasuki, the king of serpents – a sure side-effect of the bodily stress he was to undergo. Accordingly, throughout the joint exercise of ocean churning, the Demons’ hair and vitality scorched and singed, and were by the end of it all but shorn off, while the clouds driven downward to the snake’s tail by the breath of his mouth refreshed the Gods with invigorating showers.
As the Gods and Demons started to pull back and forth on the snake hugging Mount Meru – the centre of all physical and metaphysical universes which had taken on the role of the churning rod – they felt themselves being dragged to the ocean bed by the weight of the rapidly sinking mountain.
It was then that the Universe’s Preserver, Lord Vishnu, came to their rescue. Adopting the avatar of a turtle he supported the mountain on his impregnable back.
We made our way past the immortally-strained boulders, and on through the gateway. I’d just entered what looked like a craggy and foliaged compound, and was waiting for the next cue from our guide when a concerned, vaguely out-of-breath-voice from far back chimed in,
“Johnny, bhai, can you please make sure that we get pure vegetarian South Indian food for lunch?”
At first glance, the Khmer temple Bayon appeared a muddle of stacked up boulders, a wild sprouting of rubble that was withdrawing into the jungle. It was a structure barren of its function, but seemed also to have been robbed of its allure.
It was only when you lifted your gaze that the eyes came to rest on the temple’s majesty: the multitude of stone-faceted Buddha countenances, thick-lipped and thin eyed, each as placid as they were expressive, and every one haloed by a nimbus sky. It was remarkable: the way in which a face could bring focus to the beauty of an everyday thing.
Lore says King Jayavarman VII built the Bayon in the late 12th or early 13th century as an exhibition of his own likeness – himself in the incarnation of Devraja or God-king, an avatar of the Buddha represented in the 216 faces etched on the temple’s towers. Illuminations in such vein were consistent with the royal order of the day, as they can still sometimes occur today, but where the king departed from custom was in adapting his persona to the Buddha rather than with Shiva.
Following his death nevertheless, the temple was modified by succeeding rulers in keeping with each one’s persuasion, a number pulling towards chaste Buddhism, others tugging to the Khmer kingdom’s Hindu past.
Incised on the hardened grey walls were hundreds of dancing apsaras, nymphs of the waters, the enticing portents to the elixir of life that was to finally surface.
Afterwards, mother and I climbed up and then went down some prohibitively steep stairs creeping to a tomb while the aunts relaxed on a couple of the embellished stones studding the surrounding lawns below.
Descending, our ears caught a tempo of beats, a lilting cadence, chants and singing, a clapping of cymbals. And predictably, my mother melted into a stream in search of its fount, my legs wading behind.
A pulsating Buddha temple. White-robed female priests, their heads shaved, sat on the floor in concert with a huddle of kids enfolded in prayer. Some palms clasped, some held incense sticks, but all minds present called on the powers that be.
Except for the difference in the language employed—Pali, not Sanskrit—and the God(s) inveigled, mother was at home. I could tell she was eager to join the energy, but alas she knew nothing of the tongue.
She decided to seek the advice of the astrologer sitting in the corner, a wizened face with wrinkled hands thumbing through a flaking papyrus scroll enshrouding a wad of promise. Unfortunately again, the man spoke no English either.
Even so, he beckoned, finger pointing at my right hand and I trod near. I extended my arm.
Benignly the old man tied a red string on my wrist as his lips quivered to formulate, “You gib me dorra?”
Read the full story here.