This only is denied to God: the power to undo the past - Aristotle (448BC)
I thought about this when I first saw the Taj Mahal in March. It made me feel glad that I hadn't been brought to see this work of genius when I was a boy, else I would have forgotten what it was like to feel what I felt that day. As kids, we feel wonder at so many things; but as adults it's difficult to present oneself to situations which are genuinely new and exciting enough for the mind to be overwhelmed.
In March, I felt that rush when I first saw the Taj. And in August the same year - 10 days ago - the feeling was back when I saw the lotus bud shaped towers of the Angkor Vat dominating the horizon.
It's a feeling like being covered with a muslin cloth which is then slowly pulled away from you - making your flesh tingle with the sensation. But in this case, a thousand thoughts went through my mind at the same time - mostly asking myself about the audacity required to envision such a thing.
Two weeks ago, I took off for a mini backpack trip through Thailand and Cambodia. Away from Sanitized Singapore - into the world of Kings who were thought to be gods.
I spent about 4 days in Thailand - exploring the Rattankosin region of Bangkok. Much as I was bowled over by the numerous palaces and Buddhist temples in Bangkok and Ayuthaya, I could not wait to get over the border to Cambodia.
On 23rd August, I took the 5 hour long boat ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap - up the Tonle Sap river. From the makeshift harbour, I travelled another 15 km by motorbike to get to my hotel in Siem Reap town. A quick bath later I was back on the road - off to see Angkor Vat.
And what a sight it was. This marvel of construction - dating back to about 1120 AD from the reign of Suryavarman II - seemed to me to be a bringing together of all human genius. There was science, art, politics, technology and religion all in one sweep.
To imagine the genius behind the place - one should try and think about the artisans who chipped away at rock and created things like Indra figure on the left.
One would not only have to be an artist, but also a bodybuilder ! Imagine the physical strength needed to chip away this deep into rock. With such precision. that people a thousand years later would just look and wonder. One mistake, and the artisan would have to start all over again. There was no way to erase a mistake. Your work was, quite literally - set in stone.
In more ways than one, a visit to these sites is to take a journey into perfection. Each figure here has been done from start to finish in one go.
No erasers. No copiers.
It is also a journey into the minds of power crazy kings. The late 12th century saw King Jayavarman VII come to power in the Angkor. He converted to Theravada Buddhism and went on one of the most ambitious construction sprees ever in history. In roughly 35 years as king, he built about 20 major temples and palaces. Each one a testament to his love of the arts and megalomania.
Here - the devaraja, or god king - commissioned the carving of his face on about 50 pillars. Not once on each pillar. Oh no. Four faces on each pillar. So the temple is a maze of alleyways, and nowhere are you far from the gazing eyes of one of the over 200 faces of Jayavarman.
It's as creepy as it gets.
In 13th century a Chinese traveller Zhou Da Guan lived in Angkor for a while and gave some fascinating accounts of the city in those times. He wrote of the Bayon with it's towers covered in gold, glistening and visible for miles.
It was a sight to see even in the 13th century - in this city which was littered with artistic masterpieces. The city which supported a population of a million people, at a time when London was in squalor barely managing to keep it's population of about 40,000 people from starving.
In many ways - the Angkor empire is a mirror of our own times. Great rulers - with visions of grandeur - each thinking that God is on his side. Each thinking his kingdom will last through the ages. Not one person wants to acknowledge the fact that one day his empire and country will be rubble.
The Angkoreans were powerful in their time, and Angkor Thom was the London City of it's time. Like Europe of today, they flattered their powerful ally by imitating it's grandeur. The grandeur of India - the centre of culture at the time - which impressed the Khmers enough to build the Vishnulok (Angkor Vat), is just too much to imagine.
And it's true.
Dust we are. To dust we return.