Cambodia is one of the very few places in the world where you can still discover a lost temple overgrown by trees and roots. At the extensive Angkorian–era ruins of Banteay Chhmar, in remote northwest Cambodia, you can be Indiana Jones for a day––or Lara Croft.
The ruins of Banteay Chhmar temple are enclosed by a massive wall measuring 250m x 190m, in turn ringed by a 50–metre–wide moat. The temple was constructed late in the 12th century. It is in a bad state of repair, with collapsed towers and huge rocks strewn around, and jungle vegetation encroaching––making it difficult to discern any overall plan. Near the front is a long, narrow central sanctuary, measuring 170m x 40m, with interconnected galleries and towers. To the north, south and west of this are three separate temples that have completely collapsed.
Scrambling over the jumble of stones you come face–to–face with rare forms of Khmer art in stone. One of the most striking is an apsara–kinnari––a half–woman half–bird figure. A row of these project from a lintel. Entering a crumbling gateway, my eye is glued to a bas–relief that shows a kneeling archer who has shot two Sarus cranes through the neck with a single arrow. Killing two birds in one stone. But Cambodian archers from the 12th century? Zhou Daguan, a Mongolian envoy to the court of Angkor in 1296, says archers were unknown at Angkor:
The troops also go both barefoot and unclothed. In their right hands, they hold a lance: in their left hands, a shield. They have neither bows nor arrows, neither balista nor shot, neither breastplates nor helmets…
The puzzle grows––why do unique Khmer artforms thrive here? Why the positioning of a temple of such magnitude so far from the center of power at the Angkorian court?
Banteay Chhmar's Mysteries
Toward the back of Banteay Chhmar stand a handful of four–faced towers, and some three–faced towers, in isolation among the ruins and undergrowth. With huge faintly smiling faces and downcast eyes, the face–towers are constructed in exactly the same style as the myriad towers found at the Bayon in Angkor Thom. The four–headed motif most likely derives from the ideals of compassion and wisdom embodied by Mahayana Buddhism, which was adopted by Jayavarman VII. In any case, the four–faced tower is his signature in stone. A number of French archeologists––Coèdes, Groslier, Parmentier––studied Banteay Chhmar but could not agree over the structure's origin or purpose. Some archeologists think that the citadel of Banteay Chhmar was built as a memorial to his son Prince Indravarman and four generals killed in a war against Cham invaders in 1177. The battle epic is engraved in bas–reliefs on the walls surrounding Banteay Chhmar––in a style very similar to that seen at the Bayon. But others have suggested the temple was built as a memorial to the king's grandmother.
King Jayavarman VII is regarded as the last great king of the Khmer Empire. After rescuing the kingdom from Cham invaders, he embarked on a frenzy of building, throwing up the structures of Angkor Thom, including the Bayon, and constructing roads and stone bridges and hundreds of hospitals, monasteries and pilgrim rest houses throughout the empire. He extended the boundaries of the empire as far as Burma and the Vietnam coast, and into Laos and the Malay Peninsula. But in expanding the empire and embarking on building mega–projects, he may well have exhausted the resources and manpower of the Khmers. After him the empire declined, ravaged by internal conflict and by war with the Siamese.
Banteay Chhmar was evidently part of Jayavarman's building spree. Otherwise, very little is known about the place––not even its name. Some call it "Narrow Fortress" while others have christened it "Citadel of the Cat".
You stumble through collapsed doorways and gates, but without the keys to the grandeur of Banteay Chhmar––stumble blindly through this colossus, not sure how it functions, how it all fits together. And eventually, you emerge at the back of the temple, where some of its finest and rarest artwork is to be found at the exterior walls.
Carved in relief on stone here is a 20–armed Lokesvara, with facial features barely recognizable––worn smooth by the ravages of time. But you can make out the flurry of arms––ten on each side of the multi–headed body, which stands the height of a man. And the man I am thinking of is the subject of an experimental photograph by Harold Edgerton, taken at 50 exposures a second: the subject moves his outstretched arms from high overhead position down to his sides, which results in 16 ghosted arms on either side of the body––and looks almost identical in form to the bas–relief here. But how could 12th–century Khmer sculptors possibly have known about capturing such movements?
Further along the same wall section is a magnificent 32–armed Lokesvara. This one is in very good condition––it is one of the rarest of Angkorian motifs. And then, a void. The rest of the wall is gone.
The Real Tomb Raiders
Art thieves––the real–life tomb raiders of Angkor––are plundering Cambodia's heritage piece by piece. It started long ago with the Thais, who sacked Angkor in the 14th century and carted off much of its portable wealth. Then in the 19th century, in the French colonial era, explorers came along and removed a large number of statues to France under the pretext of safeguarding them in museums (much now kept at the Guimet Museum in Paris).
But more recently, since the 1970s, art theft on a rampant scale has taken place at Angkor to feed the insatiable demand for Khmer statuary on the international antiquities market––mainly selling to private collectors. At several Angkorian sites, up to 90 percent of the heads on statues are missing. The motivation here is vast profits with a short turnover time. Interpol estimates that the trade in stolen art objects is second only to the drug trade, with billions of dollars changing hands annually.
In the late 1990s, to counter the art–theft problem, 350 Heritage Police were deployed around the ruins. This special Cambodian force was trained by the French––in such maneuvers as high–speed motorcycle chases. But the outer ruins of Angkor remain vulnerable to statue–jackers. Using sophisticated heavy machinery and equipment, thieves can now make off with larger statuary previously thought too heavy to shift. In late 1998, National Geographic writer Douglas Preston stumbled across a heist–in–progress at Banteay Chhmar. His terrified guide hustled him away from the scene, where Cambodian soldiers armed with AK–47s were dismantling entire walls of this ancient temple. Using giant circular saws, they worked for a month to hack out whole bas–reliefs of a rare form in Khmer art: that of the multi–armed bodhisattva Lokesvara.
In December 1998, Claude Jacques, an expert on Khmer statuary, walked into an art dealer in Bangkok and was astonished to come face–to–face with an inscribed stone. He knew exactly where it came from because he'd worked on deciphering the script on it. It was from Banteay Chhmar. Jacques informed the police, who confiscated the stone from the dealer.
In January 1999, Thai police confiscated something much bigger. They intercepted two trucks, carrying 117 heavy stone blocks–the drivers confessed the pieces were part of a dismantled wall, from Banteay Chhmar. The pieces by themselves had no value–it was the whole wall that would interest a collector. On the international black market, this truckload of stones would be worth over a million US dollars. But which collector would buy such a huge piece? And how would it all be smuggled out of the country?
The scale of the operation defies the imagination. When Claude Jacques visited Banteay Chhmar on a special UNESCO mission in early 1999, he found, to his horror, that the site had been systematically plundered: heads hacked off statues, pediments and bas–reliefs gone. But the most extraordinary part was that thieves had lifted entire 12–meter–long wall sections. It is the largest heist of Khmer statuary recorded, with an estimated 500 stones stolen.
Only a fraction of the statuary from the heist has been recovered. The 117 pieces intercepted in Thailand, meanwhile, were triumphantly returned to Cambodia. In early 2001, the pieces were re–assembled into original wall sections–that show several two–meter–high bas–reliefs of the deity Lokesvara. One is a ten–armed Lokesvara; the other is six–armed. These masterpieces of Khmer art are now on display at the National Museum in Phnom Penh. There are fewer than a dozen panels like this known to exist. Apart from the two at the National Museum, two panels remain on–site at Banteay Chhmar. The rest are either damaged or have gone missing.
Banteay Chhmar lies in a remote corner of northwest Cambodia, reached by rough dirt road. It takes about six hours to get there overland from Siem Reap (Angkor) via Sisophon, a journey preferably done in a four–wheel–drive vehicle. That means an overnight stay in Sisophon. Or you could use the Lara Croft method–take a helicopter. If you have money to burn, daytrips to Banteay Chhmar with picnic lunch can be arranged by Helicopters Cambodia from Siem Reap: consult the website of HelicoptersCambodia.
Michael Buckley is author of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos Handbook, a comprehensive guide to Indochina (Avalon Travel Publishing, USA, 2006).
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