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Sunday, Nov. 30, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

Power and glory of temple ruins


By LEZA LOWITZ
ANGKOR: Celestial Temples of the Khmer Empire, text by Ian Mabbett, Eleanor Mannikka, Jon Ortner, John Sanday and James Goodman; photos by Jon Ortner. New York: Abbeville Press, 2003, 289 pages, $95 (cloth).

News photo
A worker looks out from a Cambodian temple at Angkor Wat.

Built between the ninth and 13th centuries by a succession of 12 Khmer kings using money gained from rice and trade, the mysterious ruins of Angkor spread over 310 square km in Southeast Asia. Yet, due to war, many of these beautiful monuments were inaccessible until recently.

Undaunted by the challenges of the terrain, photographer Jon Ortner, who has a passion for photographing Hindu and Buddhist monuments and traditions in the Himalayas and Southeast Asia, made the journey through Thailand to Cambodia to capture 50 of the most important and unique monuments. They range from the famous like Angkor Wat (the world's largest complex sacred structure) to obscure buildings such as Preah Vihear, which sits precariously on the edge of a cliff; Ta Prohm, which is half engulfed by jungle; and Bayon, in which 200 enormous faces are carved into towers.

The photographs are immensely colorful: vivid scenes of Buddhist monks on pilgrimage draped in saffron robes, Angkor Wat bathed in luminescent pink light, a stately statue of Vishnu adorned with a rainbow of prayer flags. You can almost feel the texture of the huge sandstone blocks worn smooth by the feet of pilgrims and smell the fragrance of jasmine and frangipani planted by Khmer kings thousands of years ago. The photos reflect a deep passion and reverence for the subject, and their artistry is a fitting tribute to the majesty of the sites.

Yet for all its beauty, the author reminds us that there are two Angkors. There is the physical one of the present: ruins that have become one with their natural surroundings, where bats inhabit the sanctuaries gods once lived and the roots of strangler figs embrace ancient towers that once belonged to royalty. And there is the historic Angkor: the web of power exerted by the kings, shadows of indigenous culture, the belief in animism, the Indian and Sanskrit influence such as bas-reliefs of the Hindu myths and the Ramayana epic, and the building of Angkor Wat as homage to Vishnu by Suryavarman, the "Sun King" (1113-circa 1150) who unified Cambodia.

Unlike most coffee-table books, "Angkor" is scholarly and copiously researched. The text, by experts in the field, is as informative as any tour guide you could ever hope to have. Full of updated historical, architectural and religious information, it also contains a glossary and chronology of the Khmer kings and their accomplishments. It includes floor plans and historic watercolors of the sites, all of which give an in-depth view of the monuments, their iconographic detail and religious/cultural symbolism, and the historical background to the construction. There are still hundreds of sites yet to be identified, and what we know now is due to the efforts of teams of dedicated researchers and restorers from France, Germany, Indonesia, China, Italy, India, Japan and others.

As the author notes, the story of the construction, ascension, abandonment and rediscovery of Angkor is the story of the Khmer civilization itself. It's a complex history, one we are just beginning to understand. It's no wonder that Cambodia is considered the most unknown of all of the Asian countries. This book will help to make it better known.



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