Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sacred Places

When journeying to places on this earth that establish a powerful sense of meaning and connection to the land, sky and water, one can always observe the intelligence of the structures built there as a response to the place. What we've lost in our modern urban cities and suburbs is a sense of how a place is rooted in its location, how it engages the sun and looks at the sky. Some of these places are sacred sites; some of them have been developed by earlier civilizations as a response to the land and water and also keyed to the constellations and solar and lunar solstices. They are the great mandalas, temples and pyramids that follow celestial patterns and embrace them with cultural meaning and intellectual patterns of response embodied in its form, whether it's the Golden Section of Greece or the mandalas of the far east. The ruins and temples of Peru, Bolivia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Mexico, and so on are all grounded in an ancient world view that engages the earth with a mystic understanding of its patterns and flows, guided by older yet highly sophisticated observations of the solar and lunar cycles. These structures evolved over hundreds of years, expressing a timeframe that is beyond our comprehension; embedded in generational efforts to construct these massive places is the given culture and expression of mind that is alien to us now.

In Cambodia, Buddhist temples were built between the 9th and the 13th centuries by a succession of 12 Khmer kings. Angkor spreads over 120 square miles in South-East Asia and includes many major architectural sites. In 802, when construction began on Angkor Wat, financed by wealth from rice and trade, Jayavarman II took the throne, initiating an unparalleled period of artistic and architectural achievement, exemplified in the ruins of Angkor, center of the ancient empire. Here Angkor Wat, the world's largest temple, an extraordinarily complex structure filled with iconographic detail and religious symbolism, is sited. It was ultimately abandoned in the 15th century because of internecine rivalries and left to the ravages of time. It does, however, retain its orientation to the stellar axes and markers of the solstices; it's a means of orienting a holy form that serves the continual acknowledgement of deities and the stories of history, most markedly the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The culture of South India has made its mark here; it's remarkable how the parts of the day are honored with the gods watching over all, prayers wafting to the sky.

Built in the later part of the 12th century by Jayavarman VII (the last king), Ta Prohm has been overtaken by jungle and is only now being slowly restored to its initial form. It has a smaller presence than the other temples, and is not as elaborate. The roots of the invading trees have crawled into the structure to the point that their removal would result in the collapse of the structure, so not all of this temple will be resurrected. It will remain firmly embedded in the Cambodian jungle as a reminder of an old civilization that failed to conquer the natural world for long and then passed into history. As have all the old civilizations. As will ours.

Update 3/24/16: The origins of Angkor Wat