​Bloodshed and bravery by the cubit, for the Gods | Phnom Penh Post

Bloodshed and bravery by the cubit, for the Gods


Publication date
05 June 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt

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Angkor: Time, Space, and Kingship purports that Angkor was created not just as a grand monument to the Khmer Empire, but also as an astrological observatory. This photo from Angkor: Cities and Temples demonstrate the temple's precise design.

American comedian Bill Cosby replayed a dialogue between God and Noah: "Noah, I want you to build an Ark. Make the Ark 100 cubits long by 20 cubits wide by 40 cubits high."

"Yeah, right," Noah answers. "What's a cubit?"

What, indeed? The cubit is central to the astrological and religious significance of Angkor Wat, according to Eleanor Mannikka, a lecturer in Southeast Asian art at the University of Michigan. Mannikka has devoted a quarter century to the study of the temple, culminating in Angkor Wat: Time, Space, and Kingship (University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1996, 341pp).

Mannikka's book looks like any of the coffee-table tomes of Angkor, packed with photos and diagrams, but this is a work of serious scholarship, meticulous, insightful and often, alas, boring. Tedium is inevitable given the mass of numerology she crams in. But persevere in her multi-faceted tour of Angkor Wat - its measurements, sight lines and parallel bas reliefs - and you'll be rewarded with the reason behind King Suryavarman II's monument to himself and the Hindu gods.

"When I began this work," Mannikka writes in her preface, "no one in the scholarly world had suggested a temple could be constructed based on measurements that conveyed any particular meaning, much less solar, lunar, and historical meaning - at least not in Asia... No one had discovered solar and lunar alignments within a temple compound... In other words, there was no precedent to hint at what lay ahead in this cultural context. Worse yet, in 1972 my knowledge of astronomy was limited to the shape of the Big Dipper."

In the early 1960s, a team of French and Khmer surveyors spent two years measuring Angkor Wat. "But it was not until I changed the measurements from meters to cubits that the unusual numerical totals appeared," Mannikka says.

"The reasons for the astounding accuracy were soon clear: the measurements of the temple recorded data, fixed solar and lunar alignments, defined pathways into and out of sanctuaries, and put segments of the temple in precise association with rays of sunlight during the equinox and solstice days."

What, then, is a cubit? It is the measurement, inherited from India, between the elbow and outstretched fingertips. Naturally this varies. But after four months of trial and error, Mannikka found that "a very precise unit of .43545m yielded the most consistent results."

The cubit, in short, unlocked the mysteries of Angkor Wat.

The western approach bridge for example, measures two lengths of 216 cubits which symbolize one total: 432 cubits and the 432,000 years of the kali yuga, our current profane time according to the four successive time periods of Brahmanical cosmology.

The entire Ankgor Wat complex is l,728 cubits long, embracing the longest and most sacred period, the krta yuga of 1.728 million years. The inner temple measures 864 cubits by 1,296 cubits and symbolizes the dvpara and treta yugas of 864,000 and 1.296 million years. Progress from the bridge, then, is to leave profane time behind and enter into the sacred Golden Era reign of King Suryavarman II.

More than this, Angkor Wat is a working astrological observatory.

The gateway towers and staircases of the inner causeway provide observation points for the movements of stars, planets, moon and sun.

Observes Mannikka: "If our current calendrical systems were destroyed in the future but Angkor Wat remained... these systems could be derived from the temple once again. Angkor Wat needs only to be measured to retrieve numerical data. Solar and lunar alignments would soon become apparent in its obvious arrangement of towers and causeway.

"This research began with nothing to indicate that the temple was other than a breathtaking design of volume and space. It is not that difficult to ascertain the original Angkor Wat cubit, the monument is so precisely constructed along its axes and circumferences. Once that cubit length is determined and applied against the measurements taken in surveying, all else follows."

Moving into the third gallery, Mannikka explains the parallels between the historical bas reliefs on the southern side, glorifying the reign of King Suryavarman II, and the divine Hindu bas reliefs to the north. By direction, scale and grouping, measurements and cosmological principles, each is a commentary upon the other. The dark second gallery is devoted to the lunar diety Brahma; the airy towers framed by the third to the solar god Visnu.

Mannikka speculates that each of the two inner galleries was centered upon a divine image in the form of Suryavarman II, uniting both principles. These images, and countless others, have long been carried off by waves of looters.

All the symmetrical glories of Angkor could not keep Suryavarman II from getting trounced in Vietnam. Toward the end of his life the Chams and the Dai Viet slaughtered his armies.

Twenty-seven years after the temple's completion in 1150, the Chams sacked Angkor Wat.

Still, the monument remains.

Mannikka pays a final tribute: "In the end, the measurements' corroboration of Hindu concepts demands a great deal of respect, both for the coding of these concepts and for the priests who developed this system of temple construction.

"The architects of Angkor Wat were brilliant and well educated - true sages whose knowledge ranged from architecture to Sanskrit poetry to astronomy to religious rituals.

"They were extraordinary human beings for any society, in any era."

Another worthy addition to your groaning Angkor bookshelf is Angkor: Cities and Temples (River Books, Bangkok, 1997, 319 pp, available at Monument Books).

Author Claude Jacques is no fly-by-night Angkor expert. A member of the Ecole Française d'Extreme Orient, Director of Studies at l'Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, he lived in Cambodia for nine years, teaching Khmer history at the Archaeology Department of Phnom Penh and deciphering Khmer, Sanskrit and Cham scripts in the footsteps of George Coedes, doyen of Cambodian studies.

In Angkor: Cities and Temples, he provides a sweeping panorama of Khmer imperial history in lively, non-academic prose.

In contrast to the laser focus of Mannikka upon Angkor Wat, Jacques ranges throughout the entire Angkor complex and beyond to temples on the frontiers of the Khmer Empire. Complementing his text are superb color photographs by Michael Freeman, who captures the play of light and vegetation upon the solemn splendor of Khmer architecture.

Following an introductory chapter on Khmer civilization - inscriptions, lineages, religions, architecture, sculpture and the day-to-day life of villages and temples - Jacques takes the reader at a stately pace through 1,500 years of history. From circular neolithic sites to the mythical beginnings of the Funan Empire, Jacques describes first Khmer temples of the 6th-8th centuries and the coronation on Mount Kulen in the Angkor region of Jayavarman II, "World Emperor", in 802 AD.

The heart of the book covers the glory years of Angkor (802-1431) and the kings who built Preah Ko, Bakong, Lolei, Bakheng, East Mebon, Pre Rup, Banteay Srei, Ta Keo and Bapuon.

Jacques quotes with relish an inscription concerning the victory of the king's faithful General Sangrama over the traitor General Kamvau: "Many a brave enemy captain riddled with wounds sank into the sleep of death, with limbs stained in floods of thick blood, resembling mountain ranges. On seeing the enemy chief advance toward him with bow in hand, Sangrama, with his skilled eloquence addressed him in a proud, deep voice: 'You depraved madman, I have long sought you! How can anyone who attacks Indra not be fearful, despite being insane?

"'Stay, stay, great hero! Show me your valour. As soon as I have the proof of it I will despatch you to the domain of Yama (the god of Hell)!'"

Despatched the traitor Kamvau is, with arrows to the head, neck and chest: "The enemy fell to the ground with a terrible cry, as though announcing the sad news to his followers."

Jacques devotes an entire chapter to Suryavarman II and Angkor Wat, magnificently illustrated by 30 full-page photographs. He moves on then to the reign of Jayavarman VII (1181-1220?), builder of Angkor Thom and the great Bayon Temple. A final chapter details the twilight years of the Khmer empire and the Western "discovery" of Angkor Wat.

Jacques concludes his book with the hope that "after the appalling cataclysm suffered by the Khmer, all and sundry will be able to see the marvels of Angkor, and witness the renaissance of the Khmer people."

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