Friday, November 21, 2008

The secrets of Neak Pean

There is no hint of the uncommon quiet beauty of Neak Pean from the road nor from the hard packed dirt path that bisects a still and murky waterway and winds itself around various vendors selling ‘peeled’ skewered pineapple, bananas and bottles of cool water. Eventually you pop out of the foliage and up a small rise and there she is, in a clearing, five walled pools, in cruciform, of calm green water and in the centre an island with a single sanctuary prasat like an illustration from an ancient story book; Mt Meru surrounded by Himalayan Lake Anavatapta, whose waters had the power to soothe the fires of inner torment, and four ‘rivers’ at the four cardinal points.

Its design is based on the ancient philosophy of balance common in many belief systems with four pools representing the four natural elements; earth, wind, water and fire and the fifth pool, the heart of it all, being the source. The Hindus believed akasha (the fifth an esoteric non-material element) was used by God to create all the others. Jayavarman VII built the pools, with a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu iconography, as a place of healing. Since the human body is made up of the same five elements they believed swimming in the pools would rebalance the elements within the bather thereby curing any disease or dis-ease. In early Buddhism, the four elements, perceived as both external and internal, are the foundations for the theory of suffering and for the release of suffering hence bathing in the sacred waters could be conceived as therapeutic.

Neak Pean is different in the dry season when the pools dry up and it is possible to reach the centre ‘island’. The island is encircled by two entangled naga (‘neak pean’ in contemporary Khmer) their fanned raised heads face east, the intended entrance. Remains of one of the four guardian elephants is also evident. The now idol-less sanctuary, crowned with a lotus form, its pediments decorated with detailed images of the life of Buddha, like the ‘rivers’, has four ‘doors’ facing north, east, west and south. All but the east door are false, the others festooned with panels of images of Lokesvara, the compassionate bodhisattva. It is not hard to imagine the visiting devout resting on the steps to the centre pool before crossing the medicinal waters and climbing the delicate stone steps to lay their offerings of yellow gold, coloured jewels, aromatic perfumes and prayers at the foot of the Buddha inside.

Next to the temple, rising above the water, is Balaha, the legendary horse king. We sat next to one of the smaller sanctuaries and read from the guide book.

The story goes that a huge storm shipwrecked a merchant named Simhala and his men on an island of monster cannibals, called Rakshashas, disguised as alluring maidens. The men were quickly convinced by the maidens but Simhala was not so sure. He searched the island and discovered a tower full of prisoners who warned him about the tricky Rakshashas and told him of a flying horse, Balaha, who could, if called from a certain spot, save them from their grizzly fate. Simhala raced back to his crew who were, by this time, completely intoxicated by the pleasures of the islands shape shifting inhabitants and while the Rakshashas slept managed to convince the men to follow him to Balahas landing strip. Balaha appeared on cue.
‘Climb upon my back, close your eyes, and I will take you home. But you must not look back,’ Balaha warned.
The men mounted the great stallion with Simhala at the head. All the commotion woke the Rakshashas who wiggled their tempting bodies and cried in sweet voices, ‘Look at all the feasts, luxuries and treasures that are yours if you stay.’
Simhala’s men looked back one by one, fell and were immediately eaten by the angry ogres. The weathered sandstone Balaha stands at Neak Pean reminding followers that they too can be saved but only if they are not tempted by their desires.

The stele of the nearby Preah Khan describes Neak Pean as a pilgrimage site that held not only images from Buddhism but also a thousand lingams, the symbol of creation, and the images of fourteen gods.
By this time the sun was almost directly overhead. Time for one more stop before going back to wallow in the cool salty water of the Victoria’s pool.

1 comment:

Verity said...

I love the story about Balaha and the last photo of that tree is amazing.

thanks for the nice comments by the way!!!