Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Retrospective 7: on the trip to Banteay Chma

The authorities are getting ideas--
the woman who plants chilies
and the man who plant mung beans
have been told that they must stop
using the degraded field around
the U-shaped muddy moat that
encircles the jumble of stones and
precarious tower of the ancient
Khmer temple Ta Prohm.
Four giant serene faces gaze out upon
the landscape in the four cardinal directions--
the fourth face is splitting upwards from its chin,
gravity tugging at its supporting lintel.
The authorities are returning on the 5th of September,
to discuss these matters, these sliding stones.
The woman knows the type of wood that has been
used to shore up the four lintels and the bowing arches;
she gives me a handful of green chilies, bundled into a
pouch made from twisting her sarong. I put them into
the front of my shirt for the walk home under the blazing
sun in a humid sky threatening rain. Someone unknown
has been uprooting the shrubs that have taken root around
the dilapidated towers, burning the undergrowth. The smell
of hot ash rises as I slowly circle the tower to gaze upon all
four faces. On my way out I pass a structure
like a chicken shed
and see pieces of carvings, stacked haphazardly--
a lotus flower pillar,
three partial statues of meditating Buddhas--
the bases with the crossed
feet and the cradled hands
resting upon them remain, the heads and torsos
are gone. They were probably victims of the 1998 debacle
that allowed the Thai military to loot Banteay Chma,
the vast broken sister
of this small temple. These fragments
surely have great value,
but no one is guarding this precious rubble,
and I stand in the ashes
and reach out and lift one of the blocks--
a curving shoulder.
I look for its companions, but find nothing.
It is startling heavy, this
piece of ancient stone, and I feel like a looter,
toting around the Buddha's shoulder,
stroking the toes on one standing foot. Hewing off
these stones heads, these shoulders
would have required great strength
and heavy tools. These pieces of the twelfth century,
dismembered, stolen,
lie now in my insignificant hands.
The block scrapes against its fellows
when I lay it back down. It was the fighting that destroyed the temples,
a woman argues. The Khmer Rouge were at one temple, the resistance
was stationed over there. Originally she accused the Vietnamese,
but then the group of interested onlookers agreed that this fighting was fifteen years ago,
long after the Vietnamese had gone.
Time has become elided here, in these places
where years were marked by battle after battle.
We hid in trenches, she said. Airplanes
shelled them. They even cooked rice in the trenches.
Her grandfather was too afraid
to open his eyes.

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