Two sisters

On our first day of temple exploration at Angkor Wat we opted to have a guide with us for the day. She had lots to tell us, and we learned many things we didn’t know about the history of the buildings and the stories behind the carvings and bas-reliefs, and the symbolism of the many motifs. However, on our second day we felt we wanted to explore on our own. We hired a tuk-tuk driver, consulted the many guide books to decide where we’d like to go, and headed off at sunrise.

We both loved the Preah Khan site. It covers a lot of ground, with a long central corridor running straight through it, but is not of the same giant height proportions of some of the other temples. As you explore, you find yourself in corridors, courtyards, galleries and sanctuaries. For the most part the paths are well-trodden and it is easy to guide yourself through. But we had read about two very special wall-carvings that were harder to find. The Rough Guide to Cambodia described them as “sublime” portraits of the two wives of King Jayavarman VII (the king who build Preah Khan and lots of other temples during his reign – the Lonely Planet author called him the Donald Trump of the Angkor era). Their names were Jayadeva and Indradeva, and they were sisters.

The Rough Guide suggested they were in one of the tumbledown sections in the northern part of the temple and that they were hard to find without the help of a guide. Fortunately a Russian-speaking guide came along just at that time, and I mustered up the little Russian I could remember to ask him if he knew where we could find the portraits of the two sisters. Fortunately too, he was only guiding a couple of people, because as he led us down a series of narrow, low-ceilinged corridors, we realised that no large groups would come down here as it was just too small. We also realised that there was no way we’d have found it without guidance.

The first of the two sisters is more visible, at the end of an alcove. Local people had lit incense sticks and left flowers.

Then the Russian-speaking guide indicated where we would find the second sculpture: bend down and stoop through a low doorway, into a nook that seemed to be filled with rubble. Then turn your head sharply to the left, look under the fallen lintel, and there she will be.

Both Tiny and I felt excited by the find (even though we had been led to it, and not discovered it by ourselves). We were struck by the fact that these were evidently portraits – both women looked completely recognisable from the carvings. The details in their faces were unique to them – unlike the many apsaras and other female figures that adorn so many of the temples. We stayed in the cubby hole a long time, just looking at one then the other, making way for other tourists when they arrived.

They were such beautiful pieces of art. “Sublime” was a highly appropriate descriptor. If you are trying to find them, the nook/alcove is near the end of a north-eastern corridor. But do ask a guide if you can.

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