DAILY PHOTO: Strangler Fig

Taken in October of 2012 at Angkor.

Taken in October of 2012 at Angkor.

At Angkor, trees swallow temples, both breaking them up and holding them together, giving us a glimpse of the world after us.

BOOK REVIEW: A Record of Cambodia by Zhou Daguan

A Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its PeopleA Record of Cambodia: The Land and Its People by Zhou Daguan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Traveling to an archaeological site as grand as Angkor, it’s natural to wonder what the city must have been like in its heyday. Angkor’s population was estimated to be as much as 1 million people, making it one of the world’s biggest urban centers in its day. One can get a feel for how vast and impressive Angkor was by way of the restorations, its artwork, and even the lay of its rubble fields. However, today’s Angkor is in large part a testament to the power of Mother Nature to swallow once proud temples and palaces with strangler figs and to shatter stout walls with white silk cotton trees. It’s hard to fathom what it was like when it was occupied by kings and concubines, slaves and shamans.

A Record of Cambodia offers a rare glimpse into life at Angkor at the tail end of the 13th century—near the city’s peak. It was written by Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat sent by Yuan China [Mongolian era] as part of a delegation. Zhou spent almost a year at Angkor during 1296-1297. His report was translated into French during the 19th century, and all the English translations in existence had been based on the French not the original Chinese (i.e. twice translated.) This 2007 edition, however, was translated directly from Classical Chinese by Peter Harris.

The thin volume weighs in at only about 150 pages, but fewer than 40 pages are Zhou Daguan’s report. The other 110 pages include front matter, graphics, appendices, and notes. The Introduction, at 30 pages, is almost as long as Zhou’s document. However, this should not be taken as criticism. There’s a lot of useful expansion upon, and explication of, the information in Zhou’s report in both the Introduction and the end-notes. While it’s written by the translator, Peter Harris, it’s probably best to think of the Introduction as an Editor’s Introduction rather than a Translator’s Introduction–the latter creating an impression of a discussion of the minutiae of ancient grammars. (There is a little of that in a separate “Notes on the Translation.”) Harris’s introduction sets the background, elaborates on certain mistakes that Zhou seems to have made, and contrasts Zhou’s report with the accounts of other famous travelers such as Marco Polo, Ibn Buttata, and Xuanzang

Zhou’s report is divided into 40 chapters; though the word “chapter” seems more fitting for some than others, as many are no more than a single short paragraph. Each chapter is themed by some element of Khmeri life during the era. They include coverage of how people dressed, the nature of slavery at Angkor, what the buildings looked like in their glory days, sexual practices, agriculture, trade, local flora and fauna, and eating practices.

While short, Zhou’s book gives us a great deal of information that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. I learned a number of intriguing facts such as that fireworks displays were a regular event, runaway slaves had their faces tattooed blue, and the only ones not all allowed in Angkor Thom were those who were missing a toe(s) (removal of digits was a punishment back in the day.) Zhou has a great curiosity with the sexuality of the Khmeris, which was a great deal more liberal than that of China. Even the practice of toplessness among both men and women of all classes drew Zhou’s attention.

As when one reads the accounts of European explorers and adventurers, there’s a certain bigotry and conceit that comes across in Zhou’s writing—though it doesn’t come across as jarringly as in the works of, say, Francis Galton. Zhou does report on matters where the Khmeris looked down on Chinese practices as uncivilized (e.g. using human waste as fertilizer or using toilet paper / not reserving their right hand for sanitary endeavors.) On some cultural differences, Zhou comes across as mocking the Khmeri ways (e.g. communal bathing practices), and he goes as far as to refer to them as “Barbarians.”

If you’ve been to (or plan on going to) Angkor, I’d highly recommend giving this thin volume a read. It won’t take much time, and it’ll allow you to see the ruins in a new light.

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DAILY PHOTO: Garden of Fatehpur Sikri

Taken October 13, 2013 at Fatehpur Sikri.

Taken October 13, 2013 at Fatehpur Sikri.

Red sandstone dominates the scene at Fatehpur Sikri, a 16th century Mughal city near Agra. The architecture is beautiful, but the view can be a bit drab. There are two areas where this monotony of hue is broken. One is the white marble in the Tomb of Salim Chishti (as well as some decorative accent white marble on the mosque itself.) The other is this little garden which inserts a field of green and rose-red into the mix.

DAILY PHOTO: Ancient Temple, Modern Workers

Taken November 23 at Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebidu

Taken November 23 at Hoysaleshwara Temple in Halebidu

For almost 900 years poor schlubs have had to scrub their way around this temple, washing its ornate carvings.

I wonder how similar or different the workers of past generations looked? Obviously, they didn’t have molded plastic water jugs, but the pottery version might have looked similar (not the day-glo lime green one, but certainly the brick-colored one.) No dress shirts or ball caps  back then, but the turbans and sarongs are probably not so out-of-place.

Of course, the scaffolding, rough-cut wood lashed together, gives it an ancient feel.

Probably, the most striking difference is the female job foreman.

DAILY PHOTO: Chennakeshava Temple at Belur

Taken November 23, 2013 at Belur.

Taken November 23, 2013 at Belur.

Chennakeshava temple at Belur is a Hoysala era temple to Vishnu–the deity of the Hindu trilogy responsible for processes of sustenance and evolution (as opposed to creation or destruction, which are the bailiwicks of Brahma and Shiva, respectively.)

This temple and its sister temple at Halebidu, Hoysaleshwara temple, are probably the most ornate structures I’ve seen anywhere in the world. They are covered with soapstone carvings arranged in several tiers. For example, the bottom layer is a series of elephants, each one unique. There is a layer that tells tales from the Mahabharata in pictures.

Soapstone is soft and easily worked when quarried, but it becomes hard enough to survive everything but looters as it’s exposed to the elements. You’ll note the “windows” carved in the rock to allow in light and breezes.

Close up

Close up


DAILY PHOTO: Gomateshwara of Shravanabelagola

Taken on November 23, 2013 on Shravanabelagola Hill

Taken on November 23, 2013 on Shravanabelagola Hill

[As I was on the road yesterday and missed my Daily Photo post, I’ll double up today—if I can. I’m iffy because Bangalore got 2” of rain in an hour last night (which we arrived home in; I saw a city bus literally—no hyperbole here whatsoever—half underwater in an underpass.) Anyway, my internet connection is spotty at the moment, and could go out permanently at any moment.]

The Gomateshwara (a.k.a. Bahubali) sculpture at Shravanabelagola is the world’s largest monolithic stone sculpture. Gomateshwara was a Jain Arihant, and was said to be the second of 100 sons of the first Tirthankara.

An Arihant–literally a “vanquisher of enemies” (a rather bellicose title for a sect that won’t eat onions because the plant must be killed to harvest them), is one who has defeated anger, ego, deception, and greed. (Oh, THOSE enemies. you say.) A Tirthankara is a special kind of Arihant that appears every so often to revitalize the Jain community.

Shravanabelagola is not a well-known site. Being in rural Karnataka, and not on the regular tourist loops, it’s easy to miss. However it can be grouped nicely with trips to the temples at Halebidu and Belur.

Tip 1: You’ll have to walk to the top of a rather large hill in bare feet, so be prepared. On the bright side, the steps are quite clean and devoid of the usual multi-species feces common to footpaths in India.

Tip 2: Jains, like Hindus and some Buddhist sects, utilize the swastik emblem heavily. Despite the ubiquity of what some call the “twisted cross” or “swastika,” you are not in a den of neo-Nazis. That emblem, and its mirror-image, was used for thousands of years in South Asia before Hitler co-opted the symbol—presumably misinterpreting its meaning (as he misinterpreted so many things.) Ironically, it means a wish for good fortune.

DAILY PHOTO: Lotus Mahal

Taken November 2, 2013 at Hampi

Taken November 2, 2013 at Hampi

The Lotus Mahal is one of the most popular attractions at Hampi. It’s atypical in that it’s built, in part, in the Indo-Islamic style (note: the arches.) (Hampi [Vijayanagar] was the capital of a Hindu kingdom that was defeated by a confederation of Islamic states. ) While this pavilion is often referred to as the “Lotus Temple,” it was believed to be either a rest-house for visiting royalty or the queen’s recreational building–but not a religious building of any sort. 

We got there with good timing. The beige-pink lime mortar seems to glow in the low, afternoon sunlight.  

The Lotus Mahal is located in the Zenana Enclosure with the Elephant Stables.