The Stones Cannot Speak

4 September 2016

But They Whisper Still

2016-08-16 10.59.15.jpgAt a distance the temples are just old, decaying buildings – shells of something that for someone else used to be. This is Angkor, and tourists rush headlong towards heritage, that abstract noun which covers all things we don’t really understand about other cultures, and often about our own.

Pick one structure or another and the impression lingers. Walk through the tumbledown doorways, along the narrow halls, beneath the arches with block piled upon perilous block. What does it mean? What did it mean, and for who? There’s a sense that all we can see is just the core of something else. Perhaps it was always that way – a framework of convenience layered with stucco and gems and other fancy things, but held together by an idea of grandeur, and the persistence of that idea.

The bas-reliefs whisper this insistently, hurrying the mythic past ever forward into our many presents. See the Hindu epics reshaped by Khmer hands, worn by time and many tribulations but emphatic in their portrayal of order at its origins. Look elsewhere in the sandstone for how life must have been when the temples were the city, and the city was the most magnificent the world had ever seen.

So there is decay, and the scars of many thefts, conquests and savage wars remain. Yet that accentuates the story in the stones. Angkorian civilisation was not pleasant – it was built by force and slavery. But it was without parallel, and it persists as a magnificent idea, murmured across time.