The Threads of Khmer History - a ‘Warped’ look at the Temples of Angkor
A solo traveler’s journey is a quest for the unknown, not quite knowing what the destination or goal is, nor knowing what exactly to expect. And, just as in the journey of life, sometimes, you trudge along empty handed, still seeking, still searching, and at other times, the journey- like life - rewards and delights you beyond imagination.
My trip to Angkor Wat did the latter.
Being allergic to history lessons since childhood, I left for Cambodia equipped with as much knowledge of its ancient civilization, as could fit into a single sentence. All I knew was that they had great monuments that are worth looking at for their stunning architectural beauty. So I went with just a backpack and half a page full of jottings from the lonely planet website.
The day at Angkor Wat began with sluggish walking and lazy viewing because of the hot white roasting sunshine. A picture taken here and another there. Resting on the cold stones for hours every few minutes! And through this cumbersome tedious walk in the heat, I began noticing the ladies in stone.
Initially, I did not think about them at all, because they are an expected feature in temples in the region anyway. But as I walked on and found them all over the walls, and on every panel, I inadvertently began absorbing their details.
And a spellbinding awareness dawned upon me slowly – slower than the pace at which I walked - that they wore the most amazing adornments I had ever seen on sculptures.
Textile adornments, jewel adornments and possibly flower & bird adornments. I was awe-struck, and from then on, my attention and my camera were energized and devoured by the varied adornments of these ladies.
My reaction was envy, frustration and delight; I was envious that I didn’t have all their wonderful things; I was frustrated that it would never ever be possible to examine the physical articles that these sculptures depicted. And I was delighted that the trip yielded more viewing pleasure than I had anticipated.
The net take-away was that I profited as much from finding these adornments as I did from understanding the complex architecture of the temples …….
This is the oldest temple built around the year 1100. As I sat amongst the large stones that were laid out during the restoration, on level 3 of the temple, it seemed to me that the diagonal distances between the corner towers in each subsequent layer, were in the Fibonacci number sequence. When I checked with the google gods, none of this was confirmed but it appears that Fibonacci sequence does connect the Angkor Wat and the pyramids in a way that I have yet to read and understand !!!
is the most intricately sculpted carved temple in the area. The ornaments of the ladies in red stone show much greater detail.
This place totally took my breath away. It is currently in the ‘jungled’ condition that Angkor Wat must have been in, just a few years ago. The meaning of ‘ruin’ is conveyed perfectly by taking a precarious walk through the various chambers of the temple, over the fallen stones and overgrown roots, as the forces of the earth gradually consume the manmade structure.
Pic 10b, 11, 12
I heard about Angkor for the first time through Somerset Maugham’s writing – who in an entirely different context also mentions that ‘In 50 years none of this will matter’. This impactful line came to life, when I experienced these ruins - that were once beautiful living structures built on investments of love, spirit, effort and dreams of an invincible eternity.
Bayon was built later, and the fashionistas at Bayon exhibit different adornments from the ones at Angkor Wat.
The number and range of adornments, found in the sculptures at Angkor Wat, Banteay Srei and Bayon, suggest that this aspect of life was an important one in the Khmer life of that time. Below I have put down some of what I captured.
1.1 MATERIAL / COLORS
- TEXTILE ADORNMENTS
I do not know if real textiles have been found from the 1000 year old ruins.
But the drape and fall of the fabric, as seen in the picture above, suggest that these are fine delicate cottons or silks, and therefore it seems unlikely that they would have survived the forces that even stone structures succumbed to. Therefore the material and colors of the sculpted garments can only be a guess.
( The only knowledge that we do have from that era, is from the records of a Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan (or Chou Ta-Kuan), who provided an account of life in the kingdom sometime before 1312. He was translated into French by sinologist Paul Pelliot in 1902. )
1.2 GARMENT FORMS
In the Angkor period, unstitched cloth was used while, stitched garments for the upper body are seen in the later Bayon sculptures.
The lower garment is a sarong like cloth worn either as a wrap around skirt fastened at the waist with a jewelry belt, or worn like a ‘dhoti’ by drawing the loose end through the legs and fastening it at the back.
Note the two corners of the skirt peeping from the back of the waist, and the low circular arc in which is tied in the front.
In addition a long broad sash is seen, which is either woven or printed. The medium of the sculptor, restricts him from distinguishing a weave from a print – so again, it’s for us to guess what created the floral and other motifs that are seen. The sashes are pleated and tucked in, and emerge from the inner fold of the skirt on the right side, and is free flowing on the left side.
1.3 WEAVING PATTERNS or PRINT MOTIFS
Simple four-petalled flowers are scattered across most textiles. Thin borders with varying designs are seen.
Flowers with a varying scatter density on the two sides
Large flowers with vertical stripes
Pointed petalled flowers in checkerboard pattern
Flowers & circles pattern
No pattern ( or maybe it got wiped out ) and a simple border
Sash with intricate Zigzag weave
Intricate floral weave on sash
Hybrid floral-zigzag weave on sash
Curved or fish-scale weave on sash
1.4 GARMENT DRAPING FORMAT
Lady carrying her sash garment with grace. Note the end peeping from the back of her waist has only a single corner compared to the one in picture 18, that has 2 corners.
The garment seems to be folded over beyond the top of the belt. The loose woven flap that extends diagonally in front, all the way down to the calves is also arranged differently.
The flap and the perfect circular tying at the waist are noteworthy.
The flap is arranged differently. The design motifs also connect the flowers creating a lattice. ( the words I using below to describe these are lay people terms )
The unstitched cloth is tied like a pair of shorts.
Curved loose end of the sash
Checkered loin cloth
The following are from the Bayon temple
Man in a lungi
Long sleeveless shirt & skirt
Half shirt similar to a ‘bandi’ worn in other places
Twisted textile loin cloth
Woven or padded? Skirt
All the new fashions ( pic 39 onwards ) seen in Bayon panels may be representative of the visiting tradesmen from other cultures.
1.5 GARMENTS AS STATUS SYMBOLS
I quote from Zhou Daguan’s text: “There are many rules concerning what materials can be worn by persons of different rank. Among the materials worn by the sovereign, there are some which are worth more than three or four ounces of gold; they are extremely fine and costly. Although fabrics are woven in the country, some come from Siam(Thailand) and Champa,(Vietnam) but the most esteemed are in general those which come from India for their fine and delicate texture. Only the ruler can dress in cloth with an all-over floral design. The important officials and princes can wear cloth with groups of bunched flowers. Ordinary mandarins are only allowed to wear cloth with two bunches of flowers. Among the people only women are authorised to wear these cloths” “When officials go out, their insignia and attendants are decided according to rank” This includes parasols and palanquins of different kinds. “All these parasols are made of red Chinese taffeta and their ‘fringe’ comes down to the ground. Oiled parasols are all made with green taffeta and their ‘fringe’ is short.”
1.6 TEXTILES AS LIFESTYLE ARTICLES
Curtains on the palanquin
Large Hand fans
Pic 51 – 52
Pic 53 – 56
Procession Parasols, torches? & flags
Adornments extend beyond textiles, to hairstyles and jewelry.
- HAIRSTYLES & HAIR ADORNMENTS
About half the hairstyles that I found.
- JEWEL ADORNMENTS
Mixed jewelry – for the neck, waist, hands…
Jewelry for the feet
Jewelry for the ears
Someday I will go back with a better camera and take serious pictures of these elements that say so much about the adornment arts of the Khmer world.
Actually - perhaps the temple carvings are a blog written in stone, documenting the fashion of the time!
written years ago!
First published on Turkotek.com
[I must have thought the title to be very clever at that time! A 'warped' look...?!!!]
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