23 April 2013

Wat Atwea: the old, the new and the just plain funny!

Sunday has lately become wat day in my world, and last Sunday was no exception. And, first off, I need to modify a comment I made in a previous blog, about Wat Preah Enkosei being the only place to see Angkor-era temples for free – at Wat Atwea I discovered another (though I have heard some tourists have been asked to pay to look around).

I tuktuked, as Wat Atwea is about 4 kilometres from the city centre, along the riverside road towards Tonle Sap and then perhaps another kilometre down a dirt side road, straight in to rural Cambodia. The transition from city to country can be very rapid here.

The wat covers a large area, with the new living wat sitting within the boundaries of the ancient complex, whose boundary was once a moat that is currently mostly dry. You can’t see the ancient ruins at first approach, as they are tucked in behind the modern temple and its burial stupas.

I decided to have my tuktuk driver, Bunsoth, wait for me and was glad I did, as he was able to share some fascinating details with me, though he hadn’t been to this wat before or known there were Angkor ruins here. He came with me into the modern temple, knelt and made the appropriate obeisance, then walked around taking photos with his cellphone.

I was immediately struck by the large size of the main Buddha, especially considering how out of the way this wat is; and by the large number of colourful hangings dangling from the ceiling; and by the colourful bead hanging that was draped around all four corners of the Buddha’s enclosure, almost like the curtains around a four-poster bed.

Behind the Buddha were more surprises: two four-foot high lions – not dragons as I often think of them (Bunsoth pointed to their manes) – painted in the gaudy bright colours Buddhists seem to prefer. Against the rear wall was a large open-fronted cabinet, like a large set of bookshelves, on which sat an impressive number of small Buddha statues – gifts to the temple in exchange for favours from the deity, apparently.

On the lower three shelves were small cloth bundles, shaped a little like brown pumpkins, but much covered in dust. I was a little shocked when Bunsoth explained these were dead people, the ashes and pieces of bone that remain after cremations. 

For those well-off enough to afford it, these bundles would normally be placed in a family stupa but, for the poor who didn’t want to keep their bundles of ancestors in their homes or bury them in unmarked graves in their fields, they could deposit the bundles in the pagoda. Bunsoth said he was happy not to be in the building at night-time when the ghosts were about and, yes, he was serious. Most Khmer, especially those who live in the countryside, believe in ghosts.

There was one very large stupa in the surrounding grounds. It was bright white and obviously new, and had a small open-sided marquee in front of it. It was unadorned except for the ornately framed photos of three monks. Bunsoth said this would be the burial place of all the wat’s monks and had only recently been inaugurated, perhaps during the recent Khmer New Year celebrations.

Bunsoth escaped to his tuktuk, away from the draining heat, while I continued exploring, through the other burial stupas, around the ancient ruins and amongst the other wat buildings, chatting to a rather bored official who said he didn’t get many visitors and to a couple of monks who also seemed pleased to have a visitor to speak English with.

The ancient ruins are in relatively good condition. They look rather similar to those at Angkor Wat and, by examining the style and remaining decoration - though there is a general lack of carving, there are a couple of apsara dancers, some script, and some sculptural reliefs - experts have deduced that the ruins date to the late 11th century and were left unfinished. There has been some restoration, as the numbers written on some limestone blocks and the newness of other stones testify, and the scattering of masonry to the west of the temple is thought to be the gate to a second enclosure that was also not completed.

After the solemnity of the modern temple and the solitude of the ruins, my morning finished with a charming surprise. A small family – husband, wife and young son – were sitting on the steps of one of the wat buildings and, as I watched, a monk approached and began to drench them with water, a cleansing ceremony, usually to wash away bad luck and evil spirits. The husband and wife were quite serious at first, with hands held in an attitude of prayer but after a couple of bowls the man started to clean the dirt off his legs and the young boy, struggling to contain his joy, began to giggle hysterically. I couldn’t help but laugh with him and I don’t think it was disrespectful – after all, laughter is meant to be the best medicine, especially for chasing away unhappy spirits. I left smiling after another wonderful morning.

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