The Shrine of Banteay Srei
(Note: Mona Gardner wrote this 338 pages book in 1939. It is a fascinating read and is like going on a time travel machine to Banteay Srei. Mona Gardner wrote several other novels, on Shanghai, Japan and Hong Kong.)
The Director of Reconstruction called for me one morning before the dawn was very strong to show me the jewel of all Angkor, the little gem-like shrine of Banteai Srei some twenty miles out in the jungle from the mammoth wat of Angkor. Two wagon tracks in sand was the road, and so close were the trees and creepers that the path ahead did not seem a road but just a crease in the green. In that new translucent light of the early morning, the jungle was like an undiscovered continent where sound and song had notyet found their place. Each glistening frond and leaf had a wet newness and the little puffs of breeze were nebulous and unformed. It was a startling and happy feeling, this being projected silently – rocketted almost – into this shimmering void from a very old and tired world where coffee pots were being rattled and yesterday’s brioche put on breakfast trays. Walking seemed a little unnatural when we left the car and started along a grassy footpath.
The thin grey-eyed Director was brooding over the progress of which in a year could only be measured by inches, and over a government that appropriated a handful of coins to build up what centuries have torn down. He detached himself from his reverie long enough to say:
“We have elephant trouble at Banteai Srei …. The herds are used to wandering there, and they do not stop when we rebuild the walls …. We have such a little money we cannot cut the jungle far enough ….”
“Er …. you mean wild…?”
“Well, shall we say awkward? …. They lean against walls we have rebuilt, knock over pedestals …. Last week they knocked over a tourist gentleman ….” The Director attached himself to his reverie again.
I realized that I would rather have looked at picture postcards of the shrine and I was about to tell the Director so – then we were there.
Gardner’s excerpt on
The Menacing Sun
The path turned at right angles and we looked full at a delicate facade and small pink towers. It was all on a miniature scale and the trees cramped in on it, yet looking at it gave the same sensation as stepping off a cliff whichyou think is only a curb. I had to look and look to convince myself that this thing of pink granite was not a mirage. I couldn’t believe that things of the spirit like fervour, visions and longing, could be put into stone and still be things of the spirit.
This is the quintessence of Angkor. It is the art of those perfectly conceived masses at the Thom, the Bayon, the wat, and Prakan, but distilled to a finer, subtler point. The little terraces and galleries of Banteai Srei might have been made by lapidaries, and the chisels that cut here have been more like needles to make such lace out of stone.
Suddenly, near-by, there was a dull crash and a confused rumble of heavy things falling. In a moment the temple attendant came hurrying towards us. He bowed his head in humility before he spoke.
“A big one, Sire, has just gone out the window of the front wall!„
“The wall we-built last month?”
“Yes, Sire!” the Cambodian said with a wry smile. “The same spot! ” This elephant came in at the breach in the side wall …. When he put his head in the window to go out he got stuck. He pushed and took the wall with him ….”
“You see,” the Director said slowly, like a man who is used to pain, “the work of half a year is gone, and we must wait for next year’s budget to ask for the money to put those stones up. It is hard to know that perhaps, in my life-time, I will not see the complete beauty of Banteai Srei.”
His big sensitive fingers caressed a stone lotus.
Excerpt taken from Mona Gardner, Menacing Sun, London, 1939
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