11 April 2013

Kesararam: the wat and the killing field

Earlier this week, in preparation for writing this blog, I googled Wat Kesararam, a wat in central Siem Reap, immediately adjacent to the five-star Angkor Sokha Hotel on Route 6. Little do the guests enjoying that hotel’s luxurious surrounds realise what sits next to their sumptuous accommodation. Much to my surprise and with not a little horror, I discovered that the wat had been the site of a security office, a prison and a killing field during the disastrous days of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, a fact not much advertised in this town.

A news story from the Phnom Penh Post, dated as recently as 12 September 2012, described the finding of a mass grave during excavations for a new building within the wat grounds. The disarticulated remains of at least 18 bodies were unearthed and now rest in a small wooden hut, amidst the burial stupas of deceased monks. It is rather a gruesome sight but, sadly, a very real part of the all too recent history of this country.

The news article related a conversation with the wat’s head monk, Sambath Ly Yeut, during which he described previous macabre finds in the wat grounds: ‘In the last five or six years we have been discovering human bones. In 2001, when we built our temple, we saw many bones of bodies, buried with handcuffs.’ The most recent bones also showed signs of having suffered violent deaths, with arm bones trussed with ropes and leg bones fastened together by iron manacles. Indeed, the skull I looked at had a large hole above the left eye socket and a smaller one in the right temple area, which may have occurred during the excavation process but may also have been bullet holes, or worse. There were, apparently, 24 known killing sites in the Siem Reap area alone, with the number of victims at these sites estimated at 44,528!

I find such violence difficult to contemplate and it seems appropriate to me that Wat Kesararam is now a place for meditation and prayer. Many sources date the wat’s construction to the early 1970s but this seems unlikely given the site’s violent history: in the early 70s, the Khmer Rouge were slowly gaining control of Cambodia and their genocidal regime was in full swing. Ly Yeut named 2001 as the year of the temple’s construction, though the wat may have been founded prior to that.

The temple’s excellent state of preservation supports this more recent construction date, and both its exterior and its interior walls are decorated with immense and very colourful depictions of the events from the life of Buddha. Lions and nagas (representations of seven-headed serpents) guard the stairways at the four entrances to the building, with the nagas’ bodies forming the balustrades that border the temple platform and fantastical bird-headed creatures (garudas?) supporting these balustrades.

Wat Keseraram is also known as the “Pagoda of the Cornflower Petals”, perhaps from the shapes of the gold-painted moulding that adorns the roof edges of the temple. The anthropomorphic ornamental roof supports, the windows, doors and their frames also glisten with gold paint, as do many of the burial stupas near the boundaries of the wat.

Most impressive is the tall shrine that sits in the large courtyard in front of the temple. It’s the largest I’ve seen here in Siem Reap and is wonderfully embellished with intricate sculptural reliefs. And encircling the whole of this wat, and the dark secrets sheltered within, is a garishly painted boundary wall, making its location very easy to find. Perhaps all this wat’s bright colour serves as the monks’ way of banishing the grim truth of its not so distant past.

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