A Wonder Raised from the Earth by Gods, Not Men

WILLIAM McCLOSKEY

May 19, 1993|By WILLIAM McCLOSKEY

Angkor, located near Siem Reap in central Cambodia, has on of the world's greatest concentrations of supreme art, comparable in its abundance of quality only to Florence in Italy. The area has been barred to visitors since the late 1960s when the turmoil of the Vietnam war destabilized it. When I visited Angkor last November and then again in February, the door had just begun to creak open again. U.N. troops, stationed there as a peacekeeping force since 1991, had made the area relatively safe for motivated handfuls of tourists willing to pay a high price and to travel in groups.

Now Angkor may snap shut again. In the days before Cambodia's national elections Sunday Khmer Rouge guerrillas attacked Siem Reap, pushing civilians ahead of them as human shields. The U.N. forces seem able to control only the turf on which they actually stand. Even then, bullets sometimes whiz around jeeps on patrol.

During the dark years of the 1970s and 1980s when no unenslaved human saw Angkor, rumor had it that the great temples had been used as target practice and had been at least half destroyed. Fortunately this was not so. They might have been off limits to the world, and indeed they were neglected, but even the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese (who next took control) respected them despite a steady theft of free-standing statuary. The glories of Angkor remain. And crowds of Cambodians including orange-robed Buddhist monks have come to caress the 800-year old carved figures that have faces like their own.

At Angkor and its environs along the huge inland lake called Tonle Sap flourished the kingdom of the Khmers between

roughly 800 and 1250 A.D. The Khmers were engineers enough to harness monsoon water for irrigation throughout the year. It gave them three annual rice crops. This stability translated into wealth, and consequent power over neighboring kingdoms in the territories now called Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.

The Khmers maintained a fierce army, and expressed their civilization by building temples and covering them with sculptures. The level of inspiration was phenomenal. What remains in the ravaging jungle are structures of heart-stopping imagination and grandeur. Their masterpiece was the sprawling but unified temple complex of Angkor Wat, built between about 1130 and 1160. Dozens of other magnificent temples rose during the two centuries previous to Angkor Wat and the century after.

The Khmers' aesthetic influence came from Hindu India, but nothing in India depicts and represents the Hindu gods with such extravagance. The five cone-shaped towers of Angkor Wat rise from the jungle like little volcanoes erupting from the flat earth. Encroached by vines and foliage in steamy climate, other of the great structures like the Angkor Thom gates, Ta Prohm, Bayon, Banteay Srei and Preah Kahn have a haunted beauty that adds to their original rhythmic grace. The vigorous and poetic carvings that cover them race gloriously across walls and lintels.

A controversy rages within the international art world over the restoration of Angkor Wat by archaeologists from India. In 1986 the Vietnam-dominated government allowed the Indian team to begin again the endless job of keeping the jungle at bay that the French had pursued for a century. The choice had logic. India recognized the existing government; France and the U.S. did not. India, the historical source of the Angkor inspiration, had practiced responsible restoration on its own monuments. The Indians, whose project ends this summer, have diligently worked away while sporadic gunfire popped nearby, often with inadequate funding and supplies.

The Indian restoration work includes scrubbing the stones with a strong ammonia compound and shoring up gaps with concrete. Destructive, say both French and Japanese archaeologists (who would love to be doing the work themselves). Local women perform most of the job with hand brushes on large surfaces and with toothbrushes on the crevices and details. There is virtually no contact between them and the Indian team since they do not not speak each other's languages.

Dr. R.P. Singh, a short, intense man with pointed moustaches and a blue turban, is the chief scientist for the project. The criticism that the scrubbing injures the ancient stones upsets him. ''We are trying our level best to preserve the monument,'' he told me between shouts at several women on the scaffold to get back to work rather than watch us. ''We do not restore or reconstruct, only conserve. Whatever has survived before we came, will remain.''

He explained in detail how, after the ammonia scrubbing, the chemicals are all washed away and the stone finally coated with a preservative. Indeed, the carved walls that have been cleaned glow in the late sun with a brightness not matched by the black, lichen-covered stone still awaiting the brush.

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