E leanor Mannikka's life's work has been spent decoding the ancient mysteries of Angkor Wat. In a precis here of
her upcoming book, she argues that a planned light and sound show at the temple degrades Khmer ancestry, dignity
and history, and that it must be stopped.
I was shocked when I read in the Phnom Penh Post (Nov. 17-30, 1995), that the dignity and majesty of Cambodia's
greatest temple, Angkor Wat, was to be prostituted by a Hollywood-style degradation of "light and sound."
Does the government really believe that Angkor Wat has so little to offer that it has to be "sold" to
the public by vaudeville-like shows created by entrepreneurs whose only goal is to make as much profit as they
can? The company pays lip-service to the superficial when it says "it will not damage the stones of the temple."
What of the damage to everything the temple symbolizes? Ashes of Angkor's royalty and King Suryavarman II were
once placed underneath the pedestals of statues in the chambers of Angkor Wat, buried in the temple. As a comparable
example, I cannot imagine Washington D.C. giving permission for YTL Corporation to do a "light and sound"
show at Arlington Cemetery in order to attract more tourists. We have more respect for our ancestors.
If the government had as much respect for their ancestors as they do for a foreign company that began in construction
in 1955, the idea of exploiting Angkor Wat would have died a sudden death. The inheritance of Angkor's kings has
been passed on to Cambodia's government for safekeeping and protection. Instead, they have apparently chosen to
discard the past, and sell it out in fact, to the highest bidder. I am asking them to reconsider, and hope that
others will join me in the request to save Angkor Wat from a fate it does not deserve. Of course one must do everything
to develop the tourist industry in a wise and efficient manner. Hotels and tourist accommodations will be needed
more and more (but a golf course? Who goes to Angkor to play golf? Do people go to the pryamids in Mexico, Central
America or Egypt to play golf? Has golf taken over the world while no one was watching?) Exactly what Angkor Wat
really is has not be publicized yet. I have a book (Angkor Wat: Time, Space and Kingship) due out in 1996 and published
by the University of Hawaii Press which contains the results of 20 years of research, and a Ph.D. dissertation
on the temple. In order to give some idea of the spectacular, unprecedented nature of the temple, and what needs
to be saved from the embarrassment of "light and sound," some of the cosmological meaning coded in Angkor
Wat is summarized here.
When Angkor Wat's measurements are expressed in the original cubit unit used in the construction of the temple,
they reveal the most remarkable and unparalleled information found anywhere in the world, in any temple. For example,
the exact solar and lunar years are recorded in the axes and circumference lengths of the outer enclosure and elevation.
The dates of King Suryavarman's birth (the builder of Angkor Wat in the first half of the Twelfth Century) and
year of accession, as well as the date of the consecration of the main Vishnu image are recorded in the axes of
the third (historical) gallery. The measurements of the central tower define it as the planet earth (the Khmers
knew the earth was a round sphere floating in space) surrounded by 28 lunar constellations and 12 zodiac signs.
The central tower is pierced by a vertical axis whose measurements define the arc of the north-south oscillation
of the sun and moon between solstices. The exact latitude of Angkor Wat is recorded in the north-south axis of
the central sanctuary. All of the measurements of Angkor Wat occur in systems which take the visitor through time
cycles that, believe it or not, trace their origins to the Mesopotamian area several thousand years B.C. People
may not be aware that our 60-second, 60-minute basis for measuring time (hours) and space (degrees), along with
our 24-hour days come from pre-Babylonian astronomy. This data is recorded at Angkor Wat.
Angkor Wat has a spectacular solar, March 21/22 equinox alignment between the west end of the western causeway
and the central tower nearly 500 meters away. The sun rises up exactly over the top of the central tower on that
day. There are eight lunar alignments between sets of staircases along the causeway and the subsidiary towers of
the second and first galleries. There is a solstice light bracketing of the main images that represent Vishnu or
his incarnations or one royal surrogate in the bas-reliefs on the east and west sides of the third gallery. This
bracketing symbolically places the figures between the two solstices - at the axis of the earth. The preau cruciforme
has a shaft of light which perfectly frames the cemented square at its center (the place of a reliquary that may
have once held the ashes of an ancestor) at 4:30pm on the winter solstice day and a week or so before and after
that date. Another shaft of light crosses near that center at 5:15pm on the summer solstice day. These are the
only times in the year in which that space is pierced by the sun. Without going into more detail, the shafts of
light define this space as the place of the god Brahma along the axis of the earth during the solstice nights.
The god would "see" the light approach him in the same way it once approached his statue at the center
of the preau cruciforme.
The Churning of the Sea of Milk on the east side of the third gallery is an accurate solar calendar. Its 91 asuras
to the south of the central pivot, Mt. Mandara represent the 91 days between the winter solstice and the spring
equinox in March. The pivot itself marks the former three-day calendrical period of transition to the new year.
The 88 devas between Mt. Mandara and the end of the relief on the north represent the 88 days to the summer solstice
after the equinox period. The god Indra flying down to steady the pivot adds an 89th deva to the count, when 89
days are needed to complete a full six months. The god Bali, the king of the asuras who holds the seven heads of
the cosmic snake Vasuki (symbol for the Milky Way) is in full sunlight on the morning of the winter solstice day.
The asuras are in full sunlight on that day (their "noon") at the south celestial pole. The monkey-king
Sugriva who holds the tail of Vasuki is in the darkness of a pillar at sunrise on the winter solstice day. The
gods - and Sugriva as half-god - are in darkness at the north celestial pole on that day (their "midnight").
Bali and Sugriva, therefore, are markers for the winter and summer solstices, respectively. The relief holds much
more information which the attached diagram from my forthcoming book illustrates (see below).
The temple is so accurately aligned with the movement of the sun and moon throughout the year that it defies description.
The ancestors of the present Khmer knew that the only lights worthy of attention were those in the heavens, and
if the temple were to have ritual meaning and function, it had to be joined to the sun and moon and stars. And
so the temple was harmonized with the revolving universe around it. That ancient harmony, so revered and respected
by the world at large, is worth more when not maligned by colored lights, actors playing roles like King Suryavarman
(Keanu Reeves? Brad Pitt?) and canned jungle sounds meant to replace what everyone can hear in the natural world
around the temple.
Reverence for the past, for its accomplishments that are unparalleled today, and for the spirits of kings and gods
that roam the historic walls of bas-reliefs is in danger of extinction. The powerful modern deity that manifests
through dollars and riels, yen and francs, stocks and bonds, has demanded obeisance. Veneration once given to Angkor
and the greatest architectural achievements the world has ever known has apparently been transferred to the money
god. The irony is that Angkor Wat has more power to attract tourists if it remains at it is - respected for what
it is. I am asking the government to please leave Angkor Wat in peace, unscathed by Disney-like inane entertainment
that not only degrades the temple, but also insults the intelligence and maturity of anyone post-pubescent and
able to feed themselves. Relegate such entertainment to movie theaters, CD roms, and video tapes where it belongs,
and keep it out of the sacred precincts of a monument that has preserved past ideals as an inspiration of the present,
and that merits our continued care and protection.
(Eleanor Mannikka works at the Department of the History of Art, University of Michigan, U.S.A.).