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Out of Angkor's mists
Publication Date : 05-03-2013
Characters from the 12th century come to life in a novel steeped in Khmer history
The great marvel of the Angkor temples, apart from their sheer scale, is the stories that unfold in the bas-reliefs that cover the walls. There are kings and queens and their attendant Brahmins and courtiers, of course. There are the dancing apsara. And there are also soldiers and slaves and others from every walk of life.
But what John Burgess notices most is the multitude of people carrying royal parasols.
In the south gallery of Angkor Wat, King Suryavarman II, its chief builder, is seen on an elaborate dais shaded by 13 elegant parasols. But who holds the parasols? Who toiled for the king to build the temple?
It took Burgess considerable effort to piece together a historically (and archaeologically) accurate portrayal of the commoner's life in 12th-century Angkor - not for an academic document but for a novel. "A Woman of Angkor" centres on a family of parasol-bearers, a dynasty that served the royal dynasty. The parasol is paramount throughout the story.
Top-selling thriller writer John le Carre calls the novel credible and seemingly authentic in a cover blurb. "I preferred a fictionalised account because so many non-fiction books have been written about the subject," says Burgess.
A former foreign correspondent for the Washington Post who also briefly edited at The Nation in its early days, Burgess was in Cambodia in the late 1960s and early 1970s, first visiting Angkor Wat in 1969 as a teenager. The US would soon begin its "secret" bombing of North Vietnamese forces on Cambodian soil.
He was back a decade later, after the Khmer Rouge fell, a stringer for Time magazine covering the refugee exodus. Near the camp in Aranyaprathet he stumbled upon Sdok Kok Thom, an 11th-century Khmer temple on Thai soil. "It was completely in ruins and overgrown. The locals had put a little shrine there with incense."
Sdok Kok Thom had a sandstone stele with an important inscription in Khmer and Sanskrit, dating to 1053, that recounted the temple's founding family's two and a half centuries of service to the Khmer court, mainly as chaplains to kings. The inscription eventually inspired Burgess' non-fiction account "Stories in Stone", published in 2010.
In 1980 he began a 28-year career with the Washington Post and returned to Cambodia on a media junket organised by Heng Samrin, head of the pro-Vietnam government. Angkor Wat was devoid of tourists but full of Vietnamese soldiers chasing down the ousted Khmer Rouge.
There was yet another trip to Angkor in 2002, and since then he's been back five or six times, gathering material for his books. "What always fascinated me was who built this place. You can still see scenes of markets and everyday life just like those depicted at Angkor Wat and Bayon. I tried to imagine who the original people were, and I came up with a dozen characters - all but one of them imagined."
"A Woman of Angkor" depicts life in the royal court before and during King Suryavarman II's 1113-1150 reign. Nol, a one-eared parasol master, and his wife Sray run into trouble when Prince Indra falls for Sray, despite her being older and married with children. "Kings never go out in public without parasols, symbols of their authority, so the parasol masters are influential and wealthy," Burgess explains.
Indra is crowned Suryavarman II even as the court Brahmins scowl at his covetousness, and meanwhile Sray knows the secret behind his brother's death.
But the king continues to visit her and helps the family financially, including her son Sovan, who is one of the Angkor Wat architects. The king has a sculptor portray Sray as one of the 1,800 apsaras adorning the temple, though she looks decidedly different than the rest, a little older and without jewellery or a headdress. This apsara doesn't appear to want to pose at all.
Burgess "found" Sray in another inscription at another 11th-century Khmer temple, Prasat Ban That in southern Laos. It describes a respected and devout woman named Tilaka. "So I imagined a woman respected in her society and held up as an example. She did her best to live up to the religious principles but had some kind of secret and felt bad about it.
"In fiction you need conflict. Nol and Sray have conflicting personalities. He wants wealth and power and is dismissive of religion. Sray is religious and happy to remain low in rank."
Sray is a role model, well read in Hindu scripture, knowledgeable enough in trade to accompany a Khmer mission to China. And yet it is her beauty for which she is most admired. A king falling for an older, married woman was taboo, according to the Sdok Kok Thom inscription. It proclaimed King Udayadityavarman II, then on the throne, a good man. He "viewed women as either a sister or as poison", Burgess says, "recognising that some women are off-limits".
Amid the human drama, though, the glory of Angkor shines through Burgess' saga. It's a tribute to how much the Khmers accomplished over the centuries. As with every empire, of course, there came the downfall, in the 19th century.
"If the French hadn't come in," says Burgess, "Cambodia would have disappeared, swallowed up by its neighbour either on the east or the west. The French definitely preserved Cambodia as an independent state, making it a protectorate in 1863. And France made Thailand give back some provinces, including Angkor, in 1904.
"The country was a great military and intellectual power that ruled most of Southeast Asia five centuries ago. Now it's shrunk into a sad condition of war and poverty.
"But Angkor Wat remains in the hearts of all Cambodians, the basis of their soul," he says. "They're proud that they were the builders of Angkor Wat. Every government, whether royalist, communist or Khmer Rouge, has put Angkor Wat on the national flag as a symbol of pride. It tells you what Cambodians can accomplish."