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THE RUINS OF CAMBODIA.1 — AN EXCURSION TO THE NAGHKON WATT.
OUR journey from Bangkok to Kabin derived its memorable interest from those features and feelings which join to compose the characteristic romance of Eastern travel by unhackneyed ways, — the wild freedom of the plain, the tortuous, suspicious mountain track, the tangled jungle, the bewildering wastes and glooms of an unexplored region, with their suggestions of peril and adventure, and especially that glorious participation in the enlargement and liberty of an Eastern wanderer's life which these afford. Once you begin to feel that, you will be happy, whether on an elephant or in a buffalo-cart, — the very privations and perils including a charm of excitement all unknown to the formal European tourist.
The rainbow mists of morning still lay low on the plain, as yet unlifted by the breeze that, laden with odor and song, gently rocked the higher branches in the forest, as our elephants pressed on, heavily but almost noiselessly, over a parti-colored carpet of wild-flowers. Strange birds darted from bough to bough among the wild myrtles and limes, and great green and golden lizards gleamed through the shrubbery as we approached Siemrâp.
The more extensive and remarkable ruins of Cambodia seem concentrated in this part of the country, though they are by no means confined to it, but are found widely scattered over the neighboring territories.
From Sisuphon we diverged in a northeasterly direction, and at evening found ourselves in the quaint, antique town of Phanomsôk, half ruined and deserted, where the remains of a magnificent palace can still be traced.
The country between Cambodia and Siam is an inclined plane falling off to the sea, beginning from the Khoa Don Rčke, or highlands of Korat, which constitutes the first platform of the terraces that gradually ascend to the mountain chain of Laos, and thence to the stupendous Himalayas.
Khoa Don Rčke ("the Mountain which Bears on the Shoulders," the Cambodian Atlas) includes in its domain the Dong Phya Fai ("Forest of the Lord of Fire"), whence many tributary streams flow into the beautiful Pachim River.
At sunrise next morning we resumed our journey, and after a long day of toiling through treacherous marshes and tangled brushwood came at sunset upon an object whose presence there was a wonder, and its past a puzzle, — a ridge or embankment of ten or twelve feet elevation, which, to our astonishment, ran high and dry through the swampy lowlands. In the heart of an interminable forest it stretches along one side of the tangled trail, in some places walling it in, at others crossing it at right angles; now suddenly diving into the depths of the forest, now reappearing afar off, as if to mock our cautious progress, and invite us to follow it. The eye, wistfully pursuing its eccentric sweep, suddenly loses it in impenetrable shadows. There is not a vestige of any other ruin near it, and the long lines it here and there shows, ghostly white in the moonlight, seem like spectral strands of sand.
Our guides tell us this isolated ridge was once the great highway of ancient Cambodia, that it can be traced from the neighborhood of Nohk Burree to Naghkon Watt, and thence to the very heart of Cochin China; and one assures us that no man has ever seen the end of it.
So on we went, winding our devious way over pathless ground, now diving into shady valleys, now mounting to sunny eminences where the breeze blew free and the eye could range far and wide, but not to find aught that was human. Gradually the flowering shrubs forsook us, and dark forest trees pressed grimly around, as we traversed the noble stone bridges that those grand old Cambodians loved to build over comparatively insignificant streams. The moon, touching with fantastic light the crumbling arches and imparting a charm of illusion to the scene, the clear spangled sky, the startling voices of the night, and the influence of the unknown, the mysterious, and the weird, overcame us like a dream. Truly there is naught of the commonplace or vulgar in this land of ruins and legends, and the foretaste of the wonders we were about to behold met our view in the great bridges.
Taphan Hin ("the Stone Bridge") and the finer and more artistic Taphan Thevadah ("the Angel's Bridge") are Loth imposing works. Arches, still resting firmly on their foundations, buttressed by fifty great pillars of stone, support a structure about five hundred feet long and eighty broad. The road-bed of these bridges is formed of immense blocks or beams of stone, laid one upon another, and so adjusted that their very weight serves to keep the arches firm.
In a clearing in the forest, near a rivulet called by the Cambodians Sthieng Sinn ("Sufficient to our Need"), we encamped; and, having rested and supped, again followed our guides over the foaming stream, and recrossed the Stone Bridge on foot, marvelling at the work of a race of whose existence the Western nations know nothing, who have no name in history, yet who builded in a style surpassing in boldness of conception, grandeur of proportions, and delicacy of design, the best works of the modern world, — stupendous, beautiful, enduring!
The material is mostly freestone, but a flinty conglomerate appears wherever the work is exposed to the action of the water.
Formerly a fine balustrade crowned the bridge on both sides, but it has been broken down. The ornamental parts of these massive structures seem to have been the only portions the invading vandals of the time could destroy.
The remains of the balustrade show that it consisted of a series of long quarry stones, on the ridges of which caryatidian pillars, representing the seven-headed serpent, supported other slabs grooved along the rim to receive semi-convex stones with arabesque sculptures, affording a hint of ancient Cambodian art.
On the left bank we found the remains of a staircase leading down to the water, not far from a spot where a temple formerly stood.
Next morning we crossed the Taphan Teph, or Heavenly Bridge, — like the Taphan Hin and the Taphan Thevadah a work of almost superhuman magnitude and solidity.
Leaving the bridges, our native pilots turned off from the ancient causeway to grope through narrow miry paths in the jungle.
On the afternoon of the same day we arrived at another stone bridge, over the Paleng River. This, according to our guides, was abandoned by the builders, because the country was invaded by the hostile hordes who destroyed Naghkon Watt. Slowly crumbling among the wild plantains and the pagan lotoses and lilies, these bridges seem to constitute the sole memorial, in the midst of that enchanting desolation, of a once proud and populous capital.
From the Paleng River, limpid and cheerful, a day's journey brought us to the town of Siemrâp; and, after an unnecessary delay of several hours, we started with lighter pockets for the ruins of Naghkon Watt.
Naghkon, or Ongkoor, is supposed to have been the royal city of the ancient kingdom of Cambodia, or Khaimain, of which the only traditions that remain describe in wild extravagances its boundless territory; its princes without number who paid tribute in gold, silver, and precious stuffs; its army of seventy thousand war elephants, two hundred thousand horsemen, and nearly six millions of foot soldiers; and its royal treasure-houses covering "three hundred miles of ground." In the heart of this lonely region, in a district still bearing the name of Ongkoor, and quite apart from the ruined temples that abound hard by, we found architectural remains of such exceeding grandeur, with ruins of temples and palaces which must have been raised at so vast a cost of labor and treasure, that we were overwhelmed with astonishment and admiration.
What manner of people were these?
Whence came their civilization and their culture?
And why and whither did they disappear from among the nations of the earth?
The site of the city is in itself unique. Chosen originally for the strength of its position, it yet presents none of the features which should mark the metropolis of a powerful people. It seems to stand aloof from the world, exempt from its passions and aspirations, and shunning even its thrift. Confronting us with its towering portal, overlaid with colossal hieroglyphics, the majestic ruin of the watt stands like a petrified dream of some Michael Angelo of the giants — more impressive in its loneliness, more elegant and animated in its grace, than aught that Greece and Rome have left us, and addressing us with a significance all the sadder and more solemn for the desolation and barbarism which surround it.
Unhappily, the shocks of war, seconding the slowly grinding mills of time, have left but few of these noble monuments; and slowly, but ruthlessly, the work of destruction and decay goes on.
Vainly may we seek for any chronicle of the long line of monarchs who must have swayed the sceptre of the once powerful empire of Maha Naghkon. Only a vague tradition has come down, of a celestial prince to whom the fame of founding the great temple is supposed to belong; and of an Egyptian king, who, for his sacrilege, was changed into a leper. An interesting statue, representing the latter, still stands in one of the corridors, — somewhat mutilated, but sufficiently well preserved to display a marked contrast to the physical type of the present race of Cambodians.
The inscriptions with which some of the columns are covered are illegible; and if you question the natives as to the origin of Naghkon Watt, they will tell you that it was the work of the Leper King, or of P'hra-Inn-Sűen, King of Heaven, or of giants, or that "it made itself."
These magnificent edifices seem to have been designed for places of worship rather than of royal habitation, for nearly all are Buddhist temples.
The statues and sculptures on the walls of the outer corridor are in alto relievo, and generally life-size. The statue of the Leper King, set up in a sort of pavilion, is moderately colossal, and is seated in a tranquil and noble attitude; the head especially is a masterpiece, the features being classic and of manly beauty.
Approaching the temple of Ongkoor, the most beautiful and best preserved of these glorious' remains, the traveller is compensated with full measure of wonder and delight for all the fatigues and hardships of his journey. Complete as is the desolation, a strange air of luxury hangs over all, as though the golden glow of sunshine and the refreshing gloom were for the glory and the ease of kings.
At each angle of the temple are two enormous lions, hewn, pedestal and all, from a single block A flight of stone steps leads up to the first platform of terraces. To reach the main entrance from the north staircase we traverse a noble causeway, which midway crosses a deep and wide moat that seems to surround the building.
The main .entrance is by a long gallery, having a superb central tower, with two others of less height on each side. The portico of each of the three principal towers is formed by four projecting columns, with a spacious staircase between. At either extremity are similar porticos, and beyond these is a very lofty door, or gateway, covered with gigantic hieroglyphs, where gods and warriors hang as if self-supported between earth and sky. Then come groves of columns that in girth and height might rival the noblest oaks. Every pillar and every part of the wall is so crowded with sculptures that the whole temple seems hung with petrified tapestry.
RUINS OF THE NAGHKON WATT.
On the west side, the long gallery is flanked by two rows of almost square columns. The blank windows are cut out of the wall, and finished with stone railings or balconies of curiously twisted columns; and the different compartments are equally covered with sculptures of subjects taken from the Ramayâna. Here are Lakshman and Hanuman leading their warriors against Rawana, — some with ten heads, others with many arms. The monkeys are building the stone bridge over the sea. Rama is seen imploring the aid of the celestial protector, who sits on high, in grand and dreamy contemplation. Rama's father is challenging the enemy, while Rawana is engaged in combat with the leader of the many-wheeled chariots. There are many other figures of eight-handed deities; and all are represented with marvellous skill in grouping and action.
The entire structure is roofed with tiers of hewn stone, which is also sculptured; and remains of a ceiling may still be traced. The symmetrical wings terminate in three spacious pavilions and this imposing colonnade, which, by its great length, height, and harmonious proportions, is conspicuous from a great distance, and forms an appropriate vestibule to so grand a temple.
Traversing the building, we cross another and finer causeway, formed of great blocks of stone carefully joined, and bordered with a handsome balustrade, partly in ruins, very massive, and covered with sculptures.
On either side are six great platforms, with flights of steps; and on each we find remains of the seven-headed serpent, — in some parts mutilated, but on the whole sufficiently preserved to show distinctly the several heads, some erect as if guarding the entrance, others drawn back in a threatening attitude. A smaller specimen is nearly perfect and very beautiful.
We passed into an adytum, wardered by gigantic effigies whose mystic forms we could hardly trace; above us that ponderous roof, tier on tier of solid stone, upheld by enormous columns, and incrusted with strange carvings. Everywhere we found fresh objects of wonder, and each new spot, as we explored it, seemed the greatest wonder of all.
In the centre of the causeway are two elegant pavilions with porticos; and at the foot of the terrace we come upon two artificial lakes, which in the dry season must be supplied either by means of a subterranean aqueduct or by everlasting springs.
A balustrade not unlike that of the causeway, erected upon a sculptured basement, starts from the foot of the terrace and runs quite round the temple, with arms, or branches, descending at regular intervals.
The terrace opens into a grand court, crowded with a forest of magnificent columns with capitals, each hewn from a single block of stone. The basement, like every other part of the building, is ornamented in varied and animated styles; and every slab of the vast pile is covered with exquisite carvings representing the lotos, the lily, and the rose, with arabesques wrought with the chisel with astonishing taste and skill. The porticos are supported by sculptured columns; and the terraces, which form a cross, have three flights of steps, at each of which are four colossal lions, reclining upon pedestals.
The temple is thus seen to consist of three distinct parts, raised in terraces one above the other. The central 'tower of the five within the inner circle forms an octagon, with four larger and four smaller sides. On each of the four larger faces is a colossal figure of Buddha, which overlooks from its eminence the surrounding country.
This combination of four Buddhas occurs frequently among the ruins of Cambodia. The natives call it P'hra Mook Bulu ("Lord of Four Faces"), though not only the face, but the whole body, is fourfold.
A four-faced god of majestic proportions presides over the principal entrance to the temple, and is called Bhrama, or, by corruption, Phrâm, signifying divine protection.
As the four cardinal points of the horizon naturally form a cross, called "phram," so we invariably find the cross in the plan of these religious monuments of ancient Cambodia, and even in the corridors, intersecting each other at right angles.2 These corridors are roofed with great blocks of stone, projecting over each other so as to form an arch, and, though laid without cement, so accurately adjusted as to leave scarcely a trace of the joinings. The galleries of the temple also form a rectangle. The ceilings are vaulted, and the roofs supported by double rows of columns, cut from a single block.
There are five staircases on the west side, five on the east, and three on each of the remaining sides. Each of the porticos has three distinct roofs raised one above the. other, thus nobly contributing to the monumental effect of the architecture.
In some of the compartments the entire space is occupied with representations of the struggle between angels and giants for possession of the snake-god, Sarpa-deva, more commonly called Phya Naghk. The angels are seen dragging the seven-headed monster by the tail, while the giants hold fast by the heads. In the midst is Vishnu, riding on the world-supporting turtle.
The most interesting of all the sculptures at Naghkon Watt are those that appear to represent a procession of warriors, some on foot, others mounted on horses, tigers, birds, and nondescript creatures, each chief on an elephant at the head of his followers. I counted more than a thousand figures in one compartment, and observed with admiration that the artist had succeeded in portraying the different races in all their physical characteristics, from the flat-nosed savage, and the short-haired and broad-faced Laotian, to the more classic profile of the Rajpoot, armed with sword and shield, and the bearded Moor. A panorama in life-size of the diverse nationalities, it yet displays, in the physical conformation of each race, a remarkable predominance of the Hellenic type — not in the features and profiles alone, but equally in the fine attitudes of the warriors and horsemen.
The bass-reliefs of another peristyle represent a combat between the king of apes and the king of angels, and if not the death, at least the defeat, of the former. On an adjoining slab is a boat filled with stalwart rowers with long beards, — a group very admirable in attitude and expression. In fact, it is in these bass-reliefs that the greatest delicacy of touch and the finest finish are manifest.
On the south side we found representations of an ancient military procession. The natives interpret these as three connected allegories, symbolizing heaven, earth, and hell; but it is more probable that they record the history of the methods by which the savage tribes were reclaimed by the colonizing foreigners, and that they have an intimate connection with the founding of these monuments.
One compartment represents an ovation: certain personages are seen seated on a dais, surrounded by many women, with caskets and fans in their hands, while the men bring flowers and bear children in their arms.
In another place, those who have rejected the new religion and its priests are precipitated into a pit of perdition, in the midst of which sits the judge, with his executioners, with swords in their hands, while the guilty are dragged before him by the hair and feet. In the distance is a furnace, and another crowd of "infidels" under punishment. But the converted (the "born again") are conducted into palaces, which are represented on the upper compartments. In these happier figures the features as well as the attitudes denote profound repose, and in the faces of many of the women and children one may trace lines of beauty and tender grace.
SCULPTURES OF THE NAGHKON WATT.
On the east side a number of men, in groups on either hand, are in the act of dragging in contrary directions the great seven-headed dragon. One mighty angel watches the struggle with interest, while many lesser angels float overhead. Below is a great lake or ocean, in which are fishes, aquatic animals, and sea-monsters.
On another panel an angel is seated on a mountain (probably Mount Meru), and other angels, with several heads, assist or encourage those who are contending for possession of the serpent. To the right are another triumphal procession and a battle scene, with warriors mounted on elephants, unicorns, griffins, eagles with peacocks' tails, and other fabulous creatures, while winged dragons draw the chariots.
On the north side is another battle-piece, the most conspicuous figure being that of a chief mounted on the shoulders of a giant, who holds in each hand the foot of another fighting giant. Near the middle of this peristyle is a noble effigy of a royal conqueror, with long flowing beard, attended by courtiers with bands clasped on their breasts. These figures are all in alto relievo, and well executed.
The greater galleries are connected with two smaller ones, which in turn communicate with two colonnades in the form of a cross; the roofs of these are vaulted. Four rows of square columns, each still hewn from a single block, extend along the sides of the temple. These are covered with statues and bass-reliefs, many of the former being in a state of dilapidation which, considering the extreme hardness of the stone, indicates great age, while others are true chefs-d'oeuvre.
The entire structure forms a square, and every part is admirable both in general effect and detail. There are twelve superb staircases, the four in the middle having from fifty to sixty steps, each step a single slab. At each angle is a tower. The central tower, larger and higher than the others, communicates with the lateral galleries by colonnades covered, like the galleries themselves with a double roof. Opposite each of the twelve staircases is a portico with windows resembling in form and dimensions those described above.
In front of each colonnade connected with the tower is a dark, narrow chapel, to which there is an ascent of eight steps; each of these chapels (which do not communicate with each other) contains a gigantic idol, carved in the solid wall, and at its feet another, of the same proportions, sleeping.
This mighty pile, the wondrous Naghkon Watt, is nearly three miles in circumference; the walls are from seventy to eighty feet high, and twenty feet thick.
We wandered in astonishment, and almost with awe, through labyrinths of courts, cloisters, and chambers, encountering at every turn some new marvel, unheard of, undreamed of, until then. Even the walls of the outer courts were sculptured with whole histories of wars and conquests, in forms that seemed to live and fight again. Prodigious in size and number are the blocks of stone piled in those walls and towers. We counted five thousand and three hundred solid columns. What a mighty host of builders must that have been' And what could have been their engines and their means of transport, seeing that the mountains from which the stone was quarried are nearly two days' journey from the temple?
All the mouldings, sculptures, and bass-reliefs seem to have been executed after the walls and pillars were in their places; and everywhere the stones are fitted together in a manner so perfect that the joinings are not easy to find. There is neither mortar nor mark of the chisel; the surfaces are as smooth as polished marble.
On a fallen column, under a lofty and most beautiful arch, we sat, and rested our weary, excited eyes on the wild but quiet landscape below; then slowly, reluctantly departed, feeling that the world contains no monument more impressive, more inspiring, than, in its desolation, and yet wondrous preservation, the temple of Maha Naghkon Watt.
Next morning our elephants bore us back to Siemrâp through an avenue of colonnades similar to that by which we had come; and as we advanced we could still descry other 'gates and pillars far in the distance, marking the line of some ancient avenue to this amazing temple.
1 The Cambodian was, without doubt, in its day, one of the most powerful of the empires of the East. As to its antiquity, two opinions prevail, — one ascribing to it a duration of 1,300 years, the other of 2,400. The native historians reckon 2,400 years from the building of the Naghkon Watt, or Naghkon Ongkhoor; but this computation, not agreeing with the mythological traditions of the country, which date from the Year of the World 205, is not accepted as authentic by the more learned Cambodians.
2 The cross is the distinctive character and sign for the Doctors of Reason in the primitive Buddhism of Kasyapa.