To an Indian, it’s a matter of great curiosity that the largest Hindu temple in the world should lie not in my own country but across the Bay of Bengal in tiny Cambodia. And so for me, exploring the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor held the added delicious thrill of stumbling upon familiar myths and legends in a foreign land.

The Angkor period, stretching roughly from 800 to 1400 A.D, is widely considered the Golden Age of Cambodian history. Since its decline in the 15th century, the country has witnessed long periods of violent and brutal strife. Starting with frequent attacks by its Thai and Viet neighbours, bombing raids by the US, the genocidal Pol Pot regime and finally a long drawn out civil war waged against Khmer Rouge militias which came to end in 1998.

The quiet green villages and the cryptic Khmer smile belie the region’s bloodied past though its legacy can be felt in the widespread signs of poverty. Like the knots of little children hovering hopefully around tourists everywhere sweetly chiming “one dolla” as they hawk little handmade trinkets.

What is perhaps a lesser known fact is India exported not one but two religions to Cambodia. Arguably the greatest of all the Khmer kings, Jayavarman VII, was Buddhist and some of the most impressive constructions in the Angkor region were undertaken under his rule. Albeit the Angkor Wat started off as a temple to the Hindu god Vishnu, it was converted to a Buddhist shrine within a few decades and has remained one ever since. A large stone statue dressed in bright saffron robes near the entrance best represents this – it has the many-armed body of Vishnu and the serene, smiling face of Buddha.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 1: Hinduism in Cambodia

According to Khmer folklore, the land of Kampuchea was created by the mythical seven-headed snake god Naga. His daughter took human form and married a Hindu Brahmin prince called Kaundinya thus founding the Khmer race.

In reality, no one knows for sure exactly when and how Hinduism made its way to Cambodia. Some date it as far back as the first century of the Christian Era. Indian merchants on trading missions would bring Brahmin priests along in their entourage. They are presumed to have been influential in introducing the local elites to Hindu mythologies and Vedic rituals. Hinduism really came to the fore when it was made the state religion by the founder of the Khmer (Angkor) Empire, Jayavarman II in the 9th century. He and his descendants established the cult of “Devarajas” or God-Kings and declared themselves to be the incarnations of the Hindu Gods Shiva and Vishnu. They built impressive temples, Sanskrit became the language spoken amongst the elite, society started being stratified into the Hindu caste system, and epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata became embedded into local folklore.

Angkor was the capital of the Khmer empire and at one point was one of the most populous “megacities” of the world, home to just under a million people (more than its contemporary Paris!). Its name is a derivative of the Sanskrit word “nagar” meaning city.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 2: Angkor Art and Architecture

I managed to cover fourteen temples on my two-day guided tour. There are some recurrent themes and motifs amongst them. The most common design motif is that of Apsaras (celestial beauties). They are often depicted guarding the doorways and on the outer walls of shrines. Some temples also have Apsara dancing halls where smiling, dancing nymphs wearing elaborate gilded headgear are carved on pillars and doorway arches.

A deity very frequently depicted is Narasimha – a half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu. According to legend Vishnu took this terrifying form to protect a devotee of his from being killed by a demon Hiranyakasipu. This demon had won a boon from the Creator Brahma through his penance and this is what he asked for:

“Grant me that I not die within any residence or outside any residence, during the daytime or at night, nor on the ground or in the sky. Grant me that my death not be brought about by any weapon, nor by any human being or animal.”

And so Vishnu took the form of Narasimha (not human nor animal), and killed the demon at twilight (not daytime nor night), while standing in a doorway (not indoors nor outdoors) by lifting him up and balancing him on his thigh (not on the ground nor in the sky), and tearing into him with his fingernails (not a weapon). Vishnu is often called the Protector or Preserver on account of myths like this.

My Cambodian guide asked me why in Hindu mythology even demons are able to win boons after having done sufficient penance. I think its because there is no black and white in Hinduism, no one is wholly pure or completely evil. Everyone just accumulates karma based on their deeds and reaps the consequences thereof. The gods often don’t play fair, the bad guys sometimes win, the trick is to try and keep your balance in an inherently off-kilter world…

Also often seen are statues of lions, snakes, elephants and the mythical Garuda – a bird-like creature said to be the mount of Vishnu.

The snake motif is very popular in Angkor temples as is the myth of the Churning of the Oceans. According to this ancient Hindu myth, at one time the demons (Asuras) ruled the universe and the gods (Devas) went to Vishnu to ask for help. Then acting upon his advice the gods convinced the demons to help them churn the Ocean of Milk to produce Amrit (divine nectar of immortality), promising that once the task was complete they would share the Amrit equally. They used the king of the snakes as a churning rope. With the gods on one side and the demons on the other, the snake was wrung and pulled back and forth thus churning the oceans. In the end, Vishnu helped the gods cheat the demons, drink the Amrit, defeat their enemies and restore order to the cosmos.

This legend is immortalized in several temples around Angkor. Many have their entranceways lined by stone statues of gods on the left and demons on the right pulling at a snake like in a tug-of-war. One of the finest examples of this is at the South Gate of Angkor Thom.

The most recognizable architectural feature in Angkor is the conical tower. The temples typically have five towers arranged like dots on the five-sided faces of dice. These towers represent the mythical Mount Meru, the Indian version of Olympus where the gods reside. Meru is said to be surrounded by the cosmic oceans. The oceans are represented in Angkorian architecture by moats or artificial reservoirs of water which often encircle the temple complexes.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 3: Banteay Srei

Banteay Srei meaning “Citadel of Women” is a temple dedicated to Shiva and it probably got its name because it’s pink and so darned pretty! The temple towers here are small but much more intricately carved, perhaps the red sandstone used in construction was easier to work on.

There are incredibly detailed tableaus carved over the doorways of the shrines. One shows Krishna beheading his evil uncle Kamsa.

One shows the demon Ravan abducting the god Ram’s wife Sita.

Another shows Ram and his brother Lakshman stepping in to intervene in the battle between the two monkey brothers Sugriva and Bali.

An especially detailed one shows animals and birds stampeding around in a blind panic in a forest which has been set on fire by the god Agni in an attempt to kill the snake King Naga. From above the god of thunder Indra is unleashing rain showers to douse out the forest-fire. From the bottom corners of the tableau, Arjun and Krishna are firing a torrent of arrows up at the sky to stave off the rain and help Agni.

Another detailed one shows Shiva with his consort Uma on his lap seated atop a mountain which is being shaken by the many-armed and many-headed demon Ravan. The mountain is peopled by sages as well as mythical creatures which are half-man-half-beast.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 4: Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat, meaning “Temple City”, was built in the 12th century and dedicated to the god Vishnu. Along with being the state temple, it was also meant to be a mausoleum to the king who built it Suryavarman II. This is the single biggest Hindu temple in the world and it takes a fair amount of time to cover it. First, you cross a moat and go past the outer wall. Then you walk down a stone causeway lined by Naga (snake) balustrades. At the end, you reach the central complex which is made up of three concentric rectangular galleries each one higher than the previous.

You have to climb an especially steep makeshift ladder to reach the uppermost layer of galleried terraces which surrounds the five temple towers. From these galleries are wonderful views across the entire complex – courtyards, towers, terraces, ponds, libraries all laid out symmetrically in a vast clearing surrounded by lush green forests on all sides.

There are many beautiful carvings on the inner and outer walls of heavenly apsaras, devatas, and intricate floral motifs. But the crowning achievements are undoubtedly the vast stone bas-reliefs depicting battle scenes from the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata carved on the walls of the outer galleries.

One shows the elder statesman Bhishma lying on a bed of arrows after being tricked and felled in battle by Arjuna.

One shows Rama being aided by the monkey-king Hanuman as he battles the demon Ravan.

One shows the Churning of the Ocean of Milk with Vishnu balancing on a tortoise as he holds steady the Mount Mandara which is being used as a churning rod.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 5: Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom, meaning “Great City”, was the capital city of Jayavarman VII who changed the state religion from Hinduism to Mahayana Buddhism. The city has five gates each of which has a “happy-face-tower” i.e. a stone tower with four giant smiling Bodhisattva faces on all sides. At the heart of Angkor Thom is the Buddhist temple of Bayon famous for its cluster of happy-face-towers. There used to be 49 such towers at Bayon. Along with the five at the city-gates that makes a total of 54 which represented the 54 provinces in the kingdom. A syncretic curiosity of these “happy faces” is they have a vertical third eye carved into their foreheads. This is a tribute to the Hindu God Shiva who opens his third eye whenever he is angered and decides to unleash destructive fury upon the world. Another curiosity is the uncanny likeness the serene faces bear to the king Jayavarman VII himself. In its heyday, the central tower of Bayon and eight of the Bodhisattva faces around it were covered with gold leaf, and a gold bridge led up to its entrance flanked by gold lions on both sides…

There are bas-reliefs here as well but unlike the mythological subjects at Angkor Wat the ones here give glimpses of daily life Chinese merchants haggling at a fish market, people playing chess and engaged in yoga-like stretching exercises, as well as scenes of battle between the Khmer and Cham armies.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 6: Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm literally means “The Ancestor Brahma”. Contrary to its local name it isn’t actually a temple to Brahma at all but was built as a Buddhist monastery in the late 12th – early 13th century. What makes this temple extraordinary is the way “strangler” trees have grown amongst the ruins with their gnarling roots literally bursting out of the stonework like giant octopus tentacles. There’s a constant hum of crickets and cicadas in the air, the walls are carpeted with iridescent moss and lichen, and the trees form a leafy canopy which casts a greenish hue over the ruins. The way the jungle’s tentacles have insidiously crept over the temple’s structures as if to reclaim the territory make this by far one of the most atmospheric of all the temples in the area. One startling detail is a small carving of a creature which looks remarkably like a stegosaurus. As much as conspiracy theorists delight in this possibility, it’s unlikely 12th century Khmers were aware of the existence of dinosaurs so this was probably a stylized depiction of a rhino.

Cambodia Travel Diary Part 7: Neak Pean

Neak Pean literally means “Twisted Snakes”. This is a small temple in the middle of an artificial pond. The pond represents a mythical lake in the Himalayas where the four great rivers of India were believed to originate. The pond is surrounded by four other stepped tanks of water. This used to be a hospital, believe it or not. People with ailments came to bathe here as the waters were meant to have healing powers. The temple gets its name from the stone serpents entwined around the central tower. The entire complex itself is on an island surrounded by a large lake. Neak Pean is worth a visit for the walk down the causeway across the lake alone. There’s a heavy silence in the air made all the more haunting by the floating forest of dead trees in the lake. The reflection of their skeletal branches in the still waters along with pads of pretty white water lilies makes for a great photo opportunity.