As I walked over the loose fragments of stone, which lay scattered all around and surveyed the sublime grandeur of the ruins, I thought of the times when these walls stood proudly in their original splendour and the galleries were the scenes of hospitality and festive magnificence resounding with the voices of those whom death had long since swept from earth.
After a few hours in Tah Prahm, we visited Beng Malea, which is an hour’s drive from Siem Reap and hardly visited by tourists. Till recently it was unsafe to visit. Because of its location deep inside a forest, the Khmer Rouge utilized it for its genocidal campaign. The subsequent laying of mines around the perimeter of the temple to ward off intruders took a very long time to de-mine and render the area safe for visitors.
As you near Beng Mealea the vast countryside looms in every direction with only the Kulen Mountain range peering over your shoulders. A sole naga head propped up at the small bridge leading onto the temple greets the visitor. Unlike any other place which we visited during our stay in Siem Reap, the place was extremely quiet, except for the melodious calls of birds. The temple is encircled by verdant, ever green forest. Mosses cover large swaths of stone and tiny saplings popping up from minuscule cracks have turned into full-grown trees winding their way around and through ancient ruins. It is almost as if the temple has embraced the surrounding jungle and become a part of it. Beng Mealea, unlike other temples that have been meticulously restored, is in complete ruins. Piles of rocks that once stood as structures for the temples now lie as rubble. With all the greenery running amok everywhere, you feel a poignant sense of appreciation for what once was. There’s something very picturesque about walking through the ruins, similar to Ta Phrom, although Beng Mealea is far bigger and has several levels giving different vantage points down into the temple’s heart. Whereas Ta Phrom has its foliage regularly pruned to keep it from being completely taken back by the jungle, Beng Mealea has been allowed to be swallowed by the jungle.
Composed of a series of galleries and libraries built around a central sanctuary and surrounded by a massive moat, it looks as though an earthquake has struck it. Large stone boulders are all that remain of the tall buildings that once stood here, and nature has run riot. Strangler figs wrap around walls, moss grows out of every pore and crumbling blocks covered in lush, ultra-verdant vegetation have tumbled onto one another. We spent few hours clambering over moss covered slippery stones and through seemingly dead-end passages and emerging out from them to find time worn carvings completely entwined by branches. We felt like explorers discovering a lost world! It was as if a war had broken out between the tropical jungle and the once magnificent temple. For now, the forests seem to have had the upper hand, looking like giant wrestlers just moments away from crushing their foe with bare hands!
The melancholic desolation of these broken monuments reminded me of the impermanence of power. Ruins have long been viewed as allegories of power and its vicissitudes. In the midst of the remnants of the Angkor Empire, I was much like the traveler in Shelley’s Ozymandias, who comes across the toppled remains of a fallen power:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
Yet there was an aura of a presence amongst the destruction, as I watched a lovely, languid, butterfly fluttering among the crevices of the boulders.
Air grows heavy
Moves into the temple
Trees embrace the ruins
With their withered, wooden arms
And wrap the sculptures
With blanket of leaves
I can feel nature
Breathe through these stones . . .
The sigh of history rises over the ruins in these images: photos.app.goo.gl/OzTYbRZ9jKUVnRDA2
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