Our first day of temple touring. As I explained earlier, our room rate at the Pavillon d'Orient included not only an all-day tuk-tuk with driver, it also included certain trips via car. Banteay Srei is approximately 37 kilometers from the hotel, so this was one of those trips via car. I arranged with the hotel to combine a couple of other stops with this temple trip and obtained a package price. We would see Banteay Srei Temple, Kbal Spean (river of a thousand lingas) and the more distant Beng Melea Temple in one full-day with the car and driver. The additional cost was only $40 or half the price of making separate trips. Main advantage was to get all the distant things done in one day.
First stop of the morning was to purchase temple passes. You can purchase either a day pass for $20 or a 3-day pass for $40. There are 2 versions of the 3-day pass -- either 3 consecutive days or any 3 days within one week. Obviously we opted for the 3 days within one week.
On the drive to Banteay Srei we saw lots of roadside stands in front of homes. They were selling locally grown produce and some kind of short block looking things. The driver explained that these were palm sugar, so we stopped and purchased a few packets. A photo and explanation of palm sugar was in our previous posting.
Banteay Srei Temple is often called the women's temple. But that misnomer is thought to have been caused by a mispronounciation of the name at some point in history. This temple was not dedicated to women as some people continue to believe. The name actually means citadel of beauty. This would be an appropriate name because of all the intricate carvings covering almost every surface of this temple.
Banteay Srei is a single story, low temple; unlike all the other temples is this part of Cambodia. It is also by far the most ornately carved and decorated temple. It was built in the year 967 A.D. and was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. The temple remained in use at least until the 14th century and is assumed to have fallen into disuse sometime during that century. It was not rediscovered until 1914. Rediscovered by the outside western world, that is; the locals always knew it was there......just like the local people in Aguas Calientes always knew about Machu Pichu and the local people in Siem Reap always knew about Angkor Wat.
The Hindus believe in 3 major gods: Brahma, Visnu and Shiva. Brahma is the god of creation; Visnu is the god of protection; and Shiva is the god of destruction. Hinduism believes in balance, so if gods of creation and protection are to be worshipped, then the god of destruction must also be worshipped. There are many lesser gods or helpers to these gods. It is easy to get lost in all the names and details and there are different forms of Hinduism to further confuse us westerners. Wikipedia states there are 330 million Hindu dieties. I have enough trouble with Father, Son and the Holy Ghost; 330 million dieties is mentally overwhelming.
The temple is constructed mainly of red sandstone, which is easily carved like wood. It is situated facing east like most Hindu temples. I won't go into all the layout details. Check Wikipedia if you are interested in that sort of thing. Suffice it to say, we appreciated the beauty of the carvings and the intricate work performed so long ago; but since we are not Hindu the site details are not very important to us. It is amazing to me that these stone carvings are over 1,000 years old and they have lasted so long in such a high-humidity environment.
After being rediscovered in 1914, Banteay Srei was the subject of a celebrated case of art theft when Frenchman Andre Malraux stole four devatas in 1923. About this time there was a newly heightened interest in artifacts from ancient temples in SE Asia, and Monsieur Malraux contrived a way to take advantage of this interest. He stole the four devatas which had stone carved images on multiple sides. He endeavored to remove each stone image and sell it separately, thus quadrupling the amount of money others might have expected for selling the same artifacts. He was soon arrested and the figures returned to Banteay Srei Temple. This man later became somewhat of a cult hero in France and was appointed to the position of curator of a large museum in France. He supposedly repented the error of his earlier ways and became a convesator of art and historical artifacts.
This incident sparked worldwide interest in the temple site. The following year it was cleared. In the 1930s the temple site was restored in the first important use of anastylosis at Angkor. Anastylosis is the disassembling an historic monument piece by piece, usually involving numbering and measuring each component; then reassembling all the components back into their original configuration, adding reinforcement materials as required to help prevent further deterioration. This is the process now used on all the temples where attempts are being made to preserve. Until the foundation stela was discovered in 1936 it had been assumed that Banteay Srei was much older because of the extreme decoration and carvings. Discovery of the foundation provided exact date of construction.
To prevent further water damage to the temple site, a drainage system was installed between 2000 and 2003. At this time measures were also undertaken to alleviate damage to the temple walls from the nearby trees. Trees have been cut back and a single-lane dirt road built completely surrounding the temple site.
Unfortunately, the temple has been ravaged by theft and vandalism. Authorities removed some of the original statues and replaced them with concrete replicas. The original statues were taken to the National Museum in Phnom Penh for safekeeping. The black market for temple antiquities is so lucrative that looters continue to attack. The original statues were even attacked within the National Museum. One sees statues with heads removed at all the temples. Apparently, the biggest black market item is a statue head.
One of the things I found interesting in Cambodia was the written Khmer language. It is so different from any other written language that I have seen. Sort of a cross between thick sanskrit and Greek. The main difference between sanskrit and ancient Khmer is that the characters in Khmer are much thicker and bolder, with more curves.
As we were leaving the rear entrance of the temple there was a group of men sitting on the ground playing musical instruments. Their sign stated they were landmine victime and were asking for donations. We saw no missing legs or arms; no missing fingers or toes; and no facial scars. Decided to follow the earlier advice and not give them any donations. Better to give money directly to the man who can use it.
Next stop for the day was Kbal Spean --- the river of 1,000 lingas.