200 Faces and A Stonework Cockfight at Angkor Thom

Angkor Thom was the first stop on my first day in the park, and it turned out to be my last stop of the day, because there’s so much to see and it’s too hot to move quickly from one site to the next. (Have I mentioned how hot it was in Southeast Asia yet? Don’t worry, I’ll be sure to dwell on that point for the next several weeks, because even summers spent in muggy Michigan swamplands and concrete-baked Chicago porches could not prepare me for the humid heat of this part of the world.) Anyway, heat aside, Angkor Thom was a great introduction to the wonders of the park at Angkor.

At Bayon in Angkor Thom

At Bayon in Angkor Thom (there I am for a sense of scale)

The South Gate

angkor thom face tower

The south gate is the main entrance point for modern visitors, and it’s an impressive introduction to King Jayavarman VII’s city-temple. The bridge over the moat is flanked by two rows of figures–gods on the left, demons on the right–and each group of figures holds the body of the rainbow naga, a giant serpent, which is either meant to bridge the world of the gods and the world of humans, or to show the creation myth the Churning of the Sea of Milk, making the center of the city the created world. That’s a difference between Angkor Thom and most of the other temples in the area–there’s no moat or wall around the main temple inside, Bayon, so archaeologists theorize that the whole city is meant to represent Mount Meru, rather than just the temple, which would seem to bring up a lot of theological questions in terms of the inhabitants of the city, what activities were and weren’t holy in the city, etc.

Serene gods

Serene gods

Anyway, this is how I reacted to these interesting archaeological and theological questions:

Holding up the snake

Holding up the snake

Bayon

Bayon

Bayon

The Bayon is a weird and wonderful temple. Its central portion is filled with face towers: large blocks of stone with a face carved in each of the four sides. The faces might resemble King Jayavarman VII or Lokesvara, the bodhisattva of compassion in the Buddhist tradition, or they might resemble Jayavarman as Lokesvara. There’s a long tradition of rulers around the world having their likeness dressed up as historical heroes or religious figures; it lends majesty. Apparently there are 216 faces in this one temple alone, but there used to be more, or maybe less. It’s hard to tell with all the renovations made over the centuries. So there may have been some significance to the number of faces found in the temple, but it’s hard to know what it would be.

So many faces at Bayon

So many faces at Bayon

The many face towers contribute to the crowded feeling of this temple, since there’s a tower cropping up just about everywhere you turn, unlike at other temples, where there were carefully planned distances between the considerably fewer towers. Apparently, the Bayon was just added to and added to over the years, and built up higher than it was originally intended to be, so we see more towers, and also narrower hallways, than at other temples.

Crowded hallways in Bayon

Crowded hallways in Bayon

The Bayon also has one of the most extensive collections of bas-relief friezes in the park. Like Angkor Wat, the Bayon does include friezes depicting mythological scenes from Hindusim, but there are also huge walls of bas-reliefs showing everyday life in the late 12th century in Angkor, as well as some historical events. There’s a wrestling match, a chess game, a cockfight, and a market scene, among many others.

Cockfighting

Cockfighting

Chess game

Chess game

There are also naval battles between the Khmer and their traditional enemies the Cham, and some processionals involving Khmer generals atop their elephants. I really enjoyed poring over all these scenes.

The friezes were multilevel

The friezes were multilevel

Dancing on a boat

Dancing on a boat

Crocodile mishaps

Crocodile mishaps

Bapuon

Bapuon

Bapuon

Here is where my guidebook’s last update (2003) came in sharp contrast with reality. The book shows photos of a grass-covered mound, and vaguely describes the massive temple as once more impressive than even the Bayon. Reality shows a completely restored, impressively massive temple, complete with ridiculously long bridge with a couple ponds on either side, and my first introduction to just how steep the steps of Angkor temples can be.

Everyone made jokes about what a workout it was to go up and down these stairs

Everyone made jokes about what a workout it was to go up and down these stairs

Ssssstone carvings

Ssssstone carvings

Not sure who carved the arrow--the ancients or modern restoration workers--but the hole was probably used to hold wooden pegs as stones were maneuvered into place, then removed when the stones were snugly fitted

Not sure who carved the arrow–the ancients or modern restoration workers–but the hole was probably used to hold wooden pegs as stones were maneuvered into place, then removed when the stones were snugly fitted

The Royal Palace and Phimeanakas

Philijdsf

Phimeanakas

I tried to follow my guidebook’s plan to get to the Elephant Terrace after the Bapuon, but found myself going through a side entrance to the grounds of the Royal Palace. Tucked back here is the Phimeanakas, the temple of the king. It wasn’t in great condition and couldn’t be climbed on. A dusty path led away from the temple toward what was left of the gate of the palace.

A rare instance of Khmer writing at Angkor

A rare instance of Khmer writing at Angkor

In a small grove of trees to the right, I saw a group of Cambodians eating lunch and resting from the heat of midday, kids running around playing games and screeching as kids do. Pretty much everyone I saw touristing at Angkor was white or East Asian, so I guessed these families were working here, and were taking a break. Then I saw a couple of the women stand up and grab plastic bags and long poles and realized that they were part of the crew I’d seen picking up litter all along the roadways on the way here. They were why Angkor was so much cleaner than most tourist sites I’d visited in Thailand.

Snack Break

The snacks tree

The snacks tree

I left the palace and went across the road to find some refreshment. As soon as I started crossing that road, at least three women started screaming out for me to visit their stall. I headed across the field toward the large tree under which the snack stalls were set up, but the women literally ran toward me in order to be the one to get me to buy a $1 bottle of water. It was disconcerting to be the focus of such a ferocious sales pitch, and saddening to get to the shelter of the tree and buy my mango slices and bottled water from the 10-year-old daughter of one of the women who had run to greet me. Several girls vied for my attention and my dollars, and they all talked to me in good English. They’d all learned English by selling snacks to thirsty tourists, and none of them could be spared by their parents to go to school, or if they could be spared, they couldn’t afford the uniforms required to attend.

I swallowed my privileged American white lady guilt along with the mango slices and went back across the road to see the rest of the structures, but I’d lost the enthusiasm I’d had earlier.

Elephant Terrace

Elephant Terrace

I admired the Elephant Terrace (so named for the long-trunked animals carved into the side of the terrace) and smiled as kids chased each other through the narrow walkways of the Leper King Terrace (so named for the king of legend who had leprosy, whose likeness might be seen in one of the carvings–or who might be called to mind simply because the lichen has eaten away the carving of the king figure here).

Restoration work is a giant jigsaw

Restoration work is a giant jigsaw

Dig the groovy swirls

Dig the groovy swirls

Then it was time to catch a sunset at Angkor Wat and head back to the air-conditioned comfort of the guesthouse before another day in the splendid ruins.

So. Hot.

So. Hot.

A Stowaway From the Past: A Real Family Christmas

Hello dearest fellow travelers! I posted this musing on the original reason for the season last year, but since I feel pretty much the same about it now and am about to begin my time off of work, I’m re-posting it today. Also, stay tuned Thursday for a brand-new post, with video!

I went to church with my family every week for eighteen years, so even though I don’t practice anymore, I’m very interested in the theories and workings of Christianity and people who believe. Don’t get all upset that I’m going to proselytize at you just because I say “Jesus” a lot in this post. Oh and in case any clarification is needed, Pastor Kit graciously allowed me to read the written version of her sermon and quote from it, but don’t take that to mean she endorses any of the rest of this post. That religious right rant is all me, so don’t hold it against her.

Two years ago, I was sitting in my parents’ church on Christmas Eve when the priest, Pastor Kit Carlson, blew my mind. In her sermon, she suggested the idea that Jesus was not born in a lonely stable, but rather in a house full of extended family. Apparently, when Luke writes in his Gospel that “there was no room at the inn,” the word he used for “inn” was actually kataluma, which is more accurately translated as the guest room, or the upper room. And he’d used a totally different word for “inn” later on, when talking about the Good Samaritan, indicating that he wasn’t talking about an inn when he said Mary and Joseph couldn’t stay in the kataluma. The couple was returning to Joseph’s ancestral home for the census, after all; it is more likely than not that he had many relatives in town. Surely those relatives were ready to squeeze in and make room for Joseph and his very pregnant wife, and since there was no space available in the guest room, Mary and Joseph settled down in the main room on the first floor of the house. The homes of the time and region had a split-level first floor, with one side reserved for the humans and the lower side reserved for the animals. There was a gap in the wall between the two, and straw was placed here for the animals to eat. So Mary goes into labor, the women of the house gather ’round to help with the birth, and when Jesus arrives, he is indeed “wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger” — it’s just that the manger happens to be in the family home, rather than in a cold outdoor cave or stable.

JUMP BACK. What?

the traditional nativity sceneThis family picture was photoshopped

This could really change how we think about Jesus not just as the son of God (however you may feel about that), but also as a human, someone who was part of a larger family from his very first breath. As Pastor Kit said, “Jesus was not born into a simple nuclear family. Jesus was born into a clan… And this was how God chose to come into the world.” Obviously the Christmas story is one chock-full of symbolism, whether that symbolism indicates to you a larger truth or not. What does the symbolism of the traditional story say to us as opposed to this new view?

The usual way of looking at the story has Mary and Joseph as social outcasts, their only visitors people driven to the stable by supernatural forces. Only a few special people noticed how special Jesus was, and everyone else was cruelly indifferent or outright hostile to him and his parents. He had a hard and lonely road laid out for him, and that was clear from the start.

But if we look at the story from this new perspective, everything changes. Sure, the family still flees the country because King Herod is after them, but other than that, his parents are not rejected or treated badly. Jesus isn’t born into an uncaring world, but rather one full to bursting with extended family (all of them likely sharing conflicting advice with Mary the moment he pops out). His life path is still a difficult one, but the man who preaches love and peace for all humankind might have believed in these concepts more deeply based on a childhood full of both.

Perhaps Jesus’ extended family bickered a lot, or perhaps they got on well with one another. Maybe they blamed Mary for becoming pregnant before her wedding to Joseph or maybe they accepted the story that Jesus was a premie. The family might have been close or only seen each other once in a blue moon. Regardless of the exact make-up of the family, if they were there at Jesus’ birth and the days that followed, they were an important part of his early life. No matter what kind of family we’re born into, there’s no denying that they shape us, and now we can see how this might have been true for Jesus too.

the delightful family from "While You Were Sleeping"
Welcome to the world, kiddo! Here’s your family

A final note: Not to get too political (not that that’s a surprise on this blog, eh?), but I also think Jesus born into a large family can have implications for Americans in particular. Christians throughout history have clung to the idea of their persecution in the early days of the faith, and there are varying degrees of accuracy to that. However, the religious right in America is steadfast in the belief that this applies to contemporary America and themselves all the time. They seem to truly believe that they are being persecuted for their beliefs, despite the fact that Christianity is overwhelmingly the dominant religion in this country, and God is mentioned in our Pledge of Allegiance, our presidential oath, etc., not to mention you can’t get elected in this country without swearing up, down, and sideways that there has never been a more devoted follower of Jesus than yourself. Despite the fact that it’s non-Christians who continue to bear the brunt of intolerance, the religious right remains convinced.

I’m not saying there’s a direct line between the nativity and this false belief, but think about it: In the traditional story, Jesus and his family are turned away from inn after inn, ignored by their neighbors, and chased out of the country by a ruthless leader intent on their destruction. Jesus is all the more special because only a few recognize his specialness. Too much time focused on how special you are as compared to everyone else, and you can start to treat everyone else badly, which let’s face it, the religious right is really good at doing.

Okay, I know I’ve lost some of you here, and granted, it’s not the most well-thought-out theory, but man, they get so angry and exclusive, despite all Jesus’ actual teachings. They talk about a human family, but they make that family smaller and smaller — no gays, no non-Christians, no powerful women, no one too different from a narrowly defined category.

What if they thought of Jesus being born into a large, loving family instead? What if many people witnessed the birth and celebrated it? What if instead of being a misunderstood prophet from the start, Jesus was an appreciated addition to the family, despite the odd signs and portents surrounding his conception and birth? What if Jesus’ problems with fitting in only came later, and in the beginning his family accepted him for who he was and what he meant to them? What an inclusive way to view the virgin birth. What a wonderful way to start a story.

American Christians, instead of feeling put-upon and misunderstood, can look at this story and see a new way to view their current situation: just like all of us, they are born into this large, loud, extended family of humanity, and just like all of us, they can grow up and give back to this weird and wonderful family with love and joy. Just like Jesus.

ACAM: The Time Warp Effect of Travelogues

I’ve just finished Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudolph Wurlitzer, and I was struck by how of its time it is. Published in 1994 (written in ’93), it’s about Wurlitzer and his wife traveling to sacred sites in Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia as they grieve the sudden death of their son. They’re American Buddhists looking for some measure of peace at various temples and shrines, and the book is full of quotes from various Buddhist texts and religious thinkers.

book cover of Hard Travel to Sacred Places by Rudy Wurlitzer

travelogue/time machine

The jacket copy on the book mentions the word “classic” more than once, and certainly Wurlitzer’s meditations on grief and loss are moving and timeless. How do we cope with the death of a child? How do we hold that unspeakably personal sadness and also hold the tragedies of deaths on a massive scale in various parts of the world? How does the death of a loved one force us to face our own mortality? Wurlitzer’s prose is simple and swift as he grapples with these questions, and I appreciated his insight even while I, as someone who doesn’t practice a religion, couldn’t quite grasp the religious framework he’s working with.

So that part was, despite the personal nature of his grief, universal and timeless. But the rest of it was so specific to 1993! He’s horrified by the commercialization of Thailand, specifically the Coke-drinking, sex trade-working, neon-lit city of Bangkok. Now, of course, the seediness and Westernization of Bangkok is well-known and few travelers are surprised by it when they visit.

In Burma–wait, he visits Burma (Myanmar). That, right there, is different from now. According to Wikipedia, about 800,000 people visited the country in 2010, compared to 1.13 million overseas tourists visiting Chicago alone in 2009. When Wurlitzer visited, Aung San Suu Kyi had only been under house arrest for a few years, after the 1990 elections that saw her party overwhelmingly elected were disregarded and the military junta decided to stop having them for awhile. Wurlitzer talks about an antiquated country, one with very little new industry or commerce since the outside world isn’t dealing with the junta (his descriptions sound like descriptions I’ve read of Cuba), and while he wonders at the brutality of the junta, he sounds relieved to be in a calm, quiet country after the electric buzz of Thailand. Nowadays, some groups advocate tourism to Burma to bring money to the local people and help them keep in contact with the outside world, but most activist groups discourage it, since the junta has forced labor in tourist destinations and the industry mostly supports the junta and not the people. A far cry from the sleepy country Wurlitzer visited almost 20 years ago.

In Cambodia in 1993, the Khmer Rouge were still a major threat; Wurlitzer heard gunfire and saw holy sculptures vandalized by people taking parts of them over the border into Thailand to sell on the black market. He describes a country in chaos, with elections right around the corner, but no one sure of who will win or who ought to win. Today, Cambodia has finally prosecuted some Khmer Rouge as war criminals, and humanitarian groups have sprung up all over the place, but its prime minister, Hun Sen, has kept in power through some very shady means, and the country is still one of the poorest in the world. The biggest change on the ground is the lack of Khmer Rouge with guns around every corner, although the mines from the civil war that could blow up at any time in 1993 can still blow up on any unlucky pedestrian today.

I enjoyed reading Hard Travel to Sacred Places both for Wurlitzer’s thoughts on death and grieving, and also for the time warp experience. It’s fascinating to read a contemporary travelogue alongside a history textbook and see how personal experience intersects with facts.

Image from here.

The Faith of a Woman

“The people making the rules are not the people in the kitchen.” So says my friend Leah as she explains the intricacies of kosher to a group of us as she prepared the Seder dinner for Passover on Monday. No mixing of meat and dairy, of course, but also why only matzo should be used and not regular flour, what fermentation is allowed and what is not, and so on. Some of it conflicts, or doesn’t apply to modern day life, and when we point this out, that’s when Leah points her chopping knife at us and says, “exactly.” Later, after we’ve finished the Haggadah and dug into our meal, someone asks about the rules on the Sabbath. Leah’s friend says that not only are you not allowed to turn lights on and off or make any money transaction, you can’t carry anything on the Sabbath. So, she points out, if you have a baby, you can’t carry your baby for a whole day. To get around this rule, you must be in an eruv, or ritual enclosure established by rabbis, in order to carry things on the Sabbath; this provides a literal loophole from the rule, allowing you to do basic things like care for your child. Again, Leah says, “the people making the rules are not the people in the kitchen.”

Those people making these difficult, impractical rules are, of course, men. Despite the fact that more women than men are religious worldwide, far more men than women are in positions of power and authority within any given religion (okay, except maybe for Wicca). Despite the egalitarian messages promulgated by the major world religions, every single one of them has something to say about the inferiority of women. Every single one of them has fought, or continues to fight, women’s desire for full inclusion. Roger Ebert, on his endlessly interesting blog, wrote a piece about this last December, and I encourage you to read the whole thing. He points out a couple different ways in which Catholicism in particular keeps women subordinate, and links to some videos with different takes on the issue in Buddhism, Catholicism, and Judaism.

Photo from http://roaring20sblog.wordpress.com/category/you-and-your/page/2/

Ebert’s main question is why do men have the upper hand in all religions, and his answer is bluntly, because they can. I think patriarchy’s roots are a little deeper and more complex than simply “men can physically overpower women so their word is always final,” but on some basic level, he’s right. Men have had power in just about every group of humans the world over for thousands of years, and frankly, once you get used to power, you’ll do a lot to cling to it rather than share it more fairly.

As you may recall, I’m not a particularly religious person anymore, but boy howdy was I when I was younger. I liked that there are rules, and that you have to follow them or suffer consequences—my middle school bullies suffered many agonies in my mind for their un-Christian behavior. I liked that there was a plan, that someone was in charge and knew what was going on, because I had no idea why the world functioned as it did and that freaked me out. And perhaps I had an easier time of reconciling my religious beliefs with my growing, changing mind because I went to a fairly liberal Episcopalian church. The main priest during my formative years was a woman, and I didn’t question whether that was the norm until an evangelical classmate told me my congregation was going to hell because it was led by a woman.

That stroppy boy got me thinking and questioning more deeply about the similarities and differences between his branch of Christianity and mine, and whether there were too many upsetting similarities for my comfort level. By the time I finished college, I was no longer a practicing Christian. Now I’m a Creester, showing up to Christmas Eve and Easter services only, tuning in for the beautiful music, the comforting liturgy, and the familiar community of people who raised me.

There’s the part that means so much to so many, and explains in large part why women remain committed to their religions despite the regular reminder that they are less than; it’s the community. My parents have found a community of kind, irreverent people at their church, and they wouldn’t leave them for the world. They are bound by a common belief system, but even within that there are varied thoughts on any topic you can name, from when to kneel and cross yourself to the divinity of Jesus himself. For them, it’s not how precisely they agree on every topic, but rather the willingness to return week after week, year after year, to ponder spiritual questions and share their lives with one another. They’re a beautiful group of people and one I’m proud to know and be an ancillary part of.

Still, it is ironic (yes, truly ironic) that the major religions, which have done so much to keep women down in every possible way, are full of women who defend those religions, attend their services regularly, and make them central to their lives. In that sense, religion is not the opiate of the masses that Marx so famously referenced, but rather the biggest power play ever made, and the greatest trick men ever played on women. If I think too much about the particulars, I get real furious real fast.

Which is why so many women take religion into their own hands. They return to the original texts, they seek out alternative histories and commentaries, they share what they’ve learned with one another. They ordain themselves. They convince the governing body of the religion to change its mind and ordain them.  They nurture the communities they hold so dear and seek relentlessly to find an honest place in their lives for the religion that means so much to them.

While I find it difficult to reconcile the very real oppression of women by the major religions of the world with my desire for a spiritual life in a larger community, I understand the desire to do so, and I understand the women who continue to go to services and profess belief in a faith that excludes them on a basic level. This week is Passover and Easter, and as we go through Holy Week (as it’s known in the church), I’ll be thinking of the women who grapple with these issues in their religious lives. I’ll be thinking of Mary Magdalene, the first person to see Jesus after he rose from the dead. I’ll be thinking of Miriam, the prophet some fill a glass of water for during Passover for her essential role in the liberation of the Jews. I’ll be thinking of the women who are in the kitchen and making their own rules.

Mary Magdalene and Jesus

Mary Magdalene, the faithful, the purported whore, the first to see the resurrected Jesus

Photo from http://www.lib-art.com/tag/catches.html

ACAM: Indonesia

I’ve been reading The Indonesia Reader: History, Culture, Politics; ed. Tineke Hellwig and Eric Tagliacozzo, and so far what’s really standing out is neither deep nor original, but here it is: Indonesia is a collection of islands that has been inhabited for thousands of years. And in those thousands of years, never once has Christianity been the dominant religion. Hinduism, Buddhism, and for the last several centuries, Islam, yes, but not Christianity. This is true of most of the world, of course, but that’s easy to forget here in the United States. Here, in a country founded by Christians (not the land, which was inhabited by tens of thousands of people who were doing fine without Christianity, but the country the United States), we think of a mostly Christian nation as the norm.

There’s a giant, stupid political fight going on right now because some non-Christians want to build a community center and some Christians are really upset about it. While it’s natural to center your own experiences at the expense of taking others’ experiences and needs into account, it doesn’t make for good policy. There’s a whole lot more about this fight that I’m not going to get into, but I wanted to bring it up to point out just how ridiculously narrow this point of view is. There’s so much more to the world than those people are willing to admit, or if they do, it’s only because it scares them.

Indonesia is especially interesting to me in this respect, because so much of the spread of religion there was peaceful. Considering the violence religious groups perpetrate against one another, and the force with which many people are made to convert to various religions, this is rather remarkable. Hinduism and Buddhism arrived with Indian traders early on, and Islam spread mostly through Arab traders visiting the spice islands of Java, Sumatra, etc. Sadly, in the twentieth century, religion played a major role in some terrible, deadly conflicts in the country, and tensions remain high.

Okay, I realize both posts this week seem a bit preachy, but sometimes that’s how it goes. Stay tuned tomorrow for The Good, The Bad, and The Silly, which always includes a bit of preaching but then a good dose of fun or bizarre as well — that spoonful of sugar always helps.