Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ancient Khmer Mysteries in Southern Laos

                                                          by Jim Goodman

Phu Kao Mountain and its natural lingam
       Champassak is the last major town on the Mekong River in southern Laos.  A little further downriver, just above the Cambodian border, lie the Khone Falls and the Four Thousand Islands, the outstanding scenic attractions in the vicinity and the prime destination for most travelers.  But for anyone interested in history and ancient cultures, the special feature of Champassak is its proximity to Wat Phu, a temple compound built in the heyday of the Khmer Empire and still in use today.
       Among the mountains backing the plains on the western bank of the Mekong, one in particular stands out from all the others.  Called Phu Kao locally, at 1416 meters it is not the highest in the range, but distinctive from all the rest by the cylindrical, phallic-like protuberance on its summit.  To settlers coming here nearly two millennia ago, influenced by Indian civilization, especially Hindu religious concepts, this was a terrestrial manifestation of the god Shiva’s lingam.  The mountain became known by its Sanskrit name Lingaparvata (Lingam Mountain) and a temple at its foot, today known as Wat Phu, was dedicated to Bhadreswar, another name for Shiva.      
classic Khmer style at Wat Phu
       Wat Phu lies along the lowest slope of this mountain, about 11 km from Champassak.  The first religious buildings went up on this site in the 5th century, apparently under the direction of officials or priests from the ancient city of Shresthapura, about 4 km east on the Mekong.  From its size—3 square km—and its fortifications, it was obviously the capital of a state.  But the extent of its boundaries and the identity of its rulers remain uncertain. 
       Early speculation by Western archaeologists that it might be Chăm, probably based on the name Champassak for the province, seemed implausible by the fact that all other Chăm states at that time ran in a contiguous line along the south central coast of Vietnam, quite some distance from Champassak.   Others thought it an early capital of the pre-Angkor state of Chenla, though no inscriptions or other evidence exists about moving Chenla’s capital to Ishanapur, today’s Sambor Prei Kuk, where it remained until its eventual fall.
       Not much remains from that period, anyway; a few inscriptions and worn sculptures at Wat Phu, ramparts, temple foundations and broken stone pediments, some carved, in Shresthapur.  But from the early 10th century the area became part of the expanding Angkor Empire.  Eventually Angkor rulers established a road from Shresthapur to Angkor and began refurbishing the Wat Phu site with all the accoutrements of a classic Khmer temple compound.
barays and twin palaces at the lower end of Wat Phu
       Nowadays most of the extant structures at Wat Phu date from the 11th-13th centuries, when the Angkor Empire was at its peak and the architectural and sculptural styles established in the capital spread throughout the realm.  So there is much about Wat Phu that resembles Khmer religious monuments at sites in Cambodia and Thailand.  This is immediately obvious upon entering the area and seeing the pair of rectangular artificial ponds, called baray in Khmer, that lie in the front part of the compound.
       These barays date from the late 8th century and are essentially the prototypes for the barays subsequently constructed at Khmer sites in both Cambodia and Thailand.  Cosmologically, the barays represent the oceans surrounding sacred Mt. Meru, itself symbolized by the hillside temple.  Whether they had any further use is not clear.  Some scholars speculate they were part of an irrigation system, others that they were meant to hold back flood waters.  While incoming and outgoing channels have been found along the huge barays of Angkor, no such evidence has yet turned up at Wat Phu’ s barays.  They may have been strictly symbolic.
12th century palace at Wat Phu
       Just past the left baray, two ruined buildings of laterite and sandstone stand opposite each other, flanking a pathway lined with stone nagas jutting up on either side.  Local people call them the men’s and women’s palaces, though without any factual basis.  They date from the 12th century reign of Suryavarman II, the king who built Angkor Wat, who commissioned and endowed these palaces.
       Only the walls remain.  The roofs are missing and the interiors are empty.  But the railed windows, real and false doors, carvings over the doors and sculptural themes are all typical of classic Khmer artistry.   The imagery is all Hindu and no Buddha images, old or new, exist on the premises of either palace.  Yet Buddhist Lao devotees visiting Wat Phu leave offerings at the entrances to these palaces of incense sticks and little pagodas made from banana leaves.
Shiva and Parvati astride the bull Nandi
       Though it has long been a Buddhist site, originally Wat Phu was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva.  Thus Shiva is the central figure carved on the typanum, the leaf-shaped, fully carved section mounted above the doorways.  One nice example depicts Shiva and his wife Parvati astride the bull Nandi.  Most others show him above the head of the jawless monster called kalas.  Sculptures of rishis, Shiva’s devotees, adorn some of the columns.
       A few stone sculptures of seven-headed nagas and hellish demons stand on the grounds outside these palaces.  From here on, Wat Phu’s unique features begin to stand out.  Just beyond the palaces is a small temple dedicated to Shiva’s mount Nandi.  There’s not much left of it, besides the foundations and lower walls. A few stone sculptures of seven-headed nagas stand on the grounds outside.  But there’s no shrine to Shiva’s mount in any other Khmer temple compound in the region.  It was here, in 1991, that archaeologists found inscriptions linking the site to Chenla, in the form of dedicating statues, long since disappeared, to the parents of a Chenla king.
the jawless monster kalas
portrait of a rishi
       From Nandi’s temple the dirt path soon ends at a shrine to a bigger than life-sized statue of a Khmer warrior.  This is the start of the ascent to the main temple, on a staircase of long rectangular stone blocks, flanked by frangipani trees that blossom with fragrant white flowers in mid-winter.  Brick terraces lie on either side of the staircase, though no one knows what use, if any, were made of them.
remains of the Nandi temple and the path to the main shrine
After a moderately steep stretch, the staircase terminates at the main temple.  Recently outfitted with a corrugated iron roof, the rectangular building is not too much larger than the one dedicated to Nandi down below.  But it is in better condition, even though some of the extant sculptures are partly obscured by white encrustations.  The figures include Indra atop a three-headed elephant, Shiva, rishis, warriors and goddesses, augmented by floral and geometric patterns.
       Just behind this temple, next to a cliff, lies a small spring.  In ancient times the water from this spring was channeled to run over the lingam installed in the temple.  When Wat Phu became a Buddhist center instead of Hindu, sometime in the 13th-14th centuries, a Buddha image replaced the lingam.  The one installed today, of indeterminate age, is definitely in a Lao style, if rather primitive looking, and not Khmer.  It remains a popular object of veneration to the local Lao people.
odd courtyard image
venerated ancient warrior image
       Yet vestiges of its origin as a Hindu shrine abound in the area.  Just outside the temple stands a stone sculpture of the Hindu trinity.  In the center stands multi-headed, multi-armed Shiva.  To his left sits four-headed Brahma and to his right sits Vishnu.  A short walk from this sculpture is a boulder with an elephant carved into its face and a stone makara, a mythical sea-creature.
Lao Buddha in the main shrine
Also in this area is the most unusual sculpture in Wat Phu, or in any Khmer temple compound.  This is the famous, or even notorious, ‘crocodile stone’ that is apparently one of the original sculptures in the area.  Legend has it that this stone carving, roughly the size of a man lying down, was the site for ancient human sacrifices.  Supposedly the victim was tied along the outlines of the sculpture.
       The allegation originated in an interpretation of an 8th century Chinese history of the short-lived 6th century Sui Dynasty.  In writing about Chenla, the text describes a Lingam Mountain near the capital, with a temple on its summit, “always guarded by five thousand soldiers and consecrated to the spirit named Po-do-li, to whom human sacrifices are made.  Each year the king himself goes to the temple to make a human sacrifice during the night.  It is thus that they honor the spirits.”
       This is all the existing evidence about human sacrifice at Wat Phu.  The identification of Phu Kao with the Lingam Mountain of the text is not definite, for it is possible other similarly shaped summits, while not as striking, could have been designated by Hindu kings elsewhere as their own Lingam Mountain.  Moreover, no temple compound remnants exist at the summit of Phu Kao, much less evidence of encampments for five thousand soldiers, or even a designated pilgrim’s path to the summit.  And if the crocodile stone were a sacrificial stone, why was it outside the temple?  Finally, we must consider the possible prejudices of a Chinese historian writing about the ‘barbarian’ customs of a faraway ‘barbarian’ state.
the 'crocodile stone'
       On the other hand, there’s no plausible explanation for what the crocodile stone might have been instead.  No other Khmer temple compound holds such an image and the crocodile was not a creature common to mythological tales.  Crocodiles, as well as elephants, existed in the area at the time, so perhaps both carvings simply represented the outstanding fauna of the vicinity.  But without a satisfactory alternative explanation, the legend of the human sacrifice stone lives on, mentioned in all the guidebooks, perhaps because it’s easier to believe in old myths than to accept their refutation.
       Sometime around the late 13th century Theravada Buddhism began replacing Hinduism as the religion of the people of Champassak.  At Wat Phu devotees of the new religion substituted a Buddha image for the Shiva lingam in the temple, but made no other changes to buildings or statues in the compound.  Angkor’s political authority over Champassak, and the lands north and northwest of it, began weakening the following century and the province wound up being the birthplace of a new kingdom.
the Hindu Trinity:  Brahma, Shiva, Vishnu
       By the early 14th century the Lao portion of the Khmer Empire had dissolved into a string of more or less autonomous states, over which Ayutthaya was trying to establish suzerainty.  A newly born grandson of the prince of the northernmost state Muong Sua, later to be renamed Luang Phabang, supposedly had 33 teeth, a feature considered both inauspicious and threatening.  As a result, the ruler ordered him put on a raft and floated down the Mekong.  Eventually the raft reached Angkor and the Khmer Court rescued the boy and raised him.
       This is the legend around Fa Ngun, whom the Khmer king raised as his own son, appointed a royal tutor for him and eventually arranged for Fa Ngun’s marriage to one of his daughters.  In 1352 the Muong Sua prince died and was succeeded by his son, Fa Ngun’s father.  But when he died seven years later, the Muong Sua court passed over Fa Ngun and installed another relative.  Fa Ngun persuaded the Khmer king, who probably hoped to restore Khmer political influence in Laos, to give him an army to assert his claim to the Muong Sua throne.
twilight on the Mekong at Champassak
       In 1359 Fa Ngun’s army crossed into Champassak, swept aside local resistance, continued upriver and eventually conquered Vientiane and Muong Sua.  But rather than restoring the authority of his former Khmer patron, Fa Ngun proclaimed the foundation of a new kingdom called Lanexang—Land of a Million Elephants—the precursor of the modern state of Laos. 
       Champassak had another brief fling of historical importance as an independent state in the 18th century, when Lanexang broke up into three countries.  But otherwise, the records are sparse and one of the lingering mysteries of Wat Phu is the fate of the Khmer who once lived there.  Today less than 6000 ethnic Khmer live in Laos, whose population is about 6.5 million.  What happened to the Khmer soldiers used by Fa Ngun to establish his kingdom?  And all the Khmer who came to worship Shiva at Wat Phu, where are their descendants?
       In 2001 UNESCO declared Wat Phu a World Heritage Site.  The award citation praised its “integration of a symbolic landscape of great spiritual significance to its natural surroundings.”  This is obvious upon entering the site and is still the main attraction of Wat Phu.  But it is the unsolved mysteries—the use of the barays, the motive behind the odd temple to Nandi the bull, the ’crocodile stone’, the vanished Khmers—that accentuate the mystique of the place.  They tease the mind with fancied ‘explanations’ and thereby enhance the excursion.
ancient stairway to Wat Phu's main sanctuary
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