(Note: Norman Lewis was a British travel writer. Even though he was not necessarily famous, he is said to be one of the best travel writer of the century. Some of his travel writing recounted his travels to the Indochine (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam), Indonesia, and India.)
Ta Prohm, which Jayavarman VII built to house his mother’s cult, and which occupied the working lives of 79,000 of his subjects, was scheduled to detain the thirty tourists from Siam for one hour.
The temple was built on flat land and offers none of the spectacular vistas of Angkor Vat, nor the architectural surprises of Bayon. It has therefore been maintained as a kind of reserve where the prodigious conflict between the ruins and the jungle is permitted to continue under control. The spectacle of this monstrous vegetable aggression is a favourite with most visitors to the ruins.
Released from the hotel bus, the thirty tourists plunged forward at a semi trot into the caverns of this rectangular labyrinth. For a few moments their pattering footsteps echoed down the flagstoned passages and then they were absorbed in the silence of those dim, shattered vastness, and I saw none of them again until it was time to return.
Ta Prohm is an arrested cataclysm. In its invasion, the forest has not broken through it, but poured over the top, and the many courtyards have become cavities and holes in the forest’s false bottom. In places the cloisters are quite dark, where the windows have been covered with subsidences of earth, humus and trees. Otherwise they are illuminated with an aquarium light, filtered through screens of roots and green lianas.
Entering the courtyards one comes into a new kind of vegetable world; not the one of branches and leaves with which one is familiar, but that of roots. Ta Prohm is an exhibition of the mysterious subterranean life of plants, of which it offers an infinite variety of cross-sections. Huge trees have seeded themselves on the roofs of the squat towers and their soaring trunks are obscured from sight; but here one can study in comfort the drama of those secret and conspiratorial activities that labour to support their titanic growth.
Down, then, come the roots, pale, swelling and muscular. There is a grossness in the sight; a recollection of sagging ropes of lava, a parody of the bulging limbs of circus-freaks, shamefully revealed. The approach is exploratory. The roots follow the outlines of the masonary; duplicating pilasters and pillars; never seeking to bridge a gap and always preserving a smooth living contact with the stone surfaces; burlesqueing in their ropy bulk the architecural motives which they cover. It is only long after the hold has been secured that the deadly wrestling bout begins. As the roots swell their grip contracts. Whole blocks of masonary are torn out, and brandished in mid-air. A section of wall is cracked, disjointed and held in suspension like a gibbeted corpse; prevented by the roots’ embrace from disintegration. There are roots which appear suddenly, bursting through the flagstones to wander twenty yards like huge boaconstrictors, before plunging through the up-ended stones to earth again. An isolated tower bears on its summit a complete sample of the virgin jungle, with ferns and underbrush and a giant fig tree which screens the faces of the statuary with its liana-curtains, and discards a halo of parakeets at the approach of footsteps.
The temple is incompletely cleared. One wanders on down identical passages or through identical courtyards – it is as repetitive in plan as a sectional bookcase – and then suddenly there is thirty-foot wall, a tidal wave of vegetation, in which the heavenly dancers drown with decorous gestures.
Norman Lewis, A Dragon Apparent, Travels in Indochina, London, 1951.
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