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Sonntag, 22. Mai 2011

Part 15 - Preah Vihear No Man's Land

3rd Avenue, 4th Gopura and Gallery

The 3rd Avenue is quite short. The long body of the Naga serpent borders both sides. Her seven faces directed North, starring at the arriving visitors.

The body of the Naga lines the 3rd avenue

View back to the King's Palace. A lion guards the entrance to the 4th Gopura

The sanctuary inside the gallery is the oldest part of Preah Vihear, consecrated to Shiva and supposedly built towards the end of the 9th century. The stones of the sanctuary were cut out of the nearby rocks at the edge of the escarpment. The traces are obvious. A gallery surrounds it.   

The gallery

Half of the sanctuary was destroyed by artillery, either by Thais or by Cambodian government troops fighting the Khmer Rouge, whose hard core remnants entrenched here until 1998.

This is the site that witnessed beginning and end of the Khmer Empire, happiness and atrocities, change of rulers and religions, eventful times. For a long time the Khmer kings ruled in the name of Lord Shiva the destroyer supported by Lord Vishnu the preserver.

Descendants of the Khmers visiting their ancient place of pride

The Siamese Kings, who would become the successors of the Khmers in this geography eventually, took over the godly tradition of the Khmer rulers and blended it with Buddhism. They abandoned Lord Shiva and saw themselves as deputies of Lord Vishnu the preserver on earth. This is still the case today, alleviated though. The Kings of the Chakri-Dynasty call themselves Rama, the 7th incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Bangkok city seal shows Lord Indra riding a white elephant called Erawan, the government emblem or crest of Thailand depicts Garuda, the mystic bird and companion of Lord Vishnu. There are many other Hindu traditions celebrated in Thailand still today. Loy Krathong is one of them to name just one.

The lengthy name for Bangkok: “Krungthep Maha Nakhon Amorn Rattanakosin…” etc. does not contain a single reference to Lord Buddha or Buddhism, but to the Hindu Gods Lord Indra (Thai: Phra In) and Lord Vishnu (Thai: Phra Narai) only.

At the same time the Thai Kings considered and consider themselves as the supreme custodians of Buddhism. Thais don’t draw a sharp line between the Hindu pantheon and Buddha. Instead they absorb the Hindu Gods and convert them into servants and supporting companions of Lord Buddha. The Hindus do it the other way around. For them Lord Buddha is just one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.  

Preah Vihear was dedicated to Lord Shiva. A Shiva lingam or a Shiva statue once decorated this small chamber inside the gallery at the topmost location. Today this small room is dedicated to Lord Buddha.

Sometimes in the 13th or 14th century the colourful Mahayana Buddhism strengthened in the Khmer Empire under the influence of Chinese traders. However, people never have been divided by their believe. They saw this as an enrichment to the heavens and just worshipped the idols of both religions at the same time. Same as is the case in Thailand today. The Ratchaprasong intersection in Bangkok is the best example for this attitude. The Hindu God Lord Brahma, the creator, Phra Prom in Thai, in the Erawan shrine enjoys the main attention among the Thai Buddhists. Lord Ganesh with the elephant head and Shiva's son in front of the CentralWorld shopping center is frequently visited by students before examinations and by entrepreneurs before setting up or investing into a new business.

The Mon culture and their more strict and back to the basics Theravada Buddhism eventually substituted the younger Mahayana Buddhism in the Khmer empire. Some historians claim that this was the beginning of the end of the divine and powerful Khmer rulers. These historians argument that Lord Shiva lost his role as the sole heavenly ruler and therefore his deputies on earth, the Khmer kings, along with him. To make matters worse, the Theravada Buddhism delivers the message that everybody is responsible for his own destiny and fate, inherits the potential to be enlightened and for this reason can end his suffering forever by not being reborn again.             

This might be a romantic view of believers, but is not failing some logic at least. The more obvious reasons for the fall of the Khmer Empire are much more down to earth however. The light at the end of the tunnel means demise for the Khmers and hope for the ambitious Siamese...

View through the hallways of the 4th Gopura

Cautionary Remark: Whoever intends to visit Preah Vihear / Khao Pra Wihan should ask for advice beforehand. As of now, May 2011, the place is closed for visitors. Thai and Cambodian troops face each other in close proximity. Renewed battles could emerge at any time.   

stay tuned... 

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