Essays and Articles

Khmer Astroarchaeology

Picture3 Many years ago, in a quiet campground not too distant from Bryce Canyon in Utah, my daughter and I lay on our backs looking into the starry midnight sky overhead, awaiting the Perseids meteor showers of August. Coming from a city, she had never seen so many stars. A few seasons ago, along a vacant stretch of California central coastal headlands, we again saw the stars; this time, in a different month, the stars were more skewed to a glorious display of the Milky Way.

In the stillness of that night, we could let our minds wander into the skies, as I am certain so did ancient men. For them, understanding and predicting the heavens was deadly important. Before electric lights dimmed the heavens, time and capacity to see the heavens were all that was required. You and I would have arranged stories from the stars, if for no other reason than to remember their positions one year henceforth. Would we see Orion again, his two dogs fighting that big bull? Orion, the Hunter, is best seen in January and is not seen in the late summer. The heavens, barring clouds, rain, cold or snow, were the absolute best show in town.

A point of orientation (for the Northern Hemisphere it is the North Pole) provides the basis for navigation. In some lands, finding that star required other stellar assistance, like the two stars within Ursa Major (alternately called the Big Dipper or the Plough or the Seven Great Sages) that appear to point right at Polaris, or circumpolar Draco, a coiling, protecting never-setting ancient constellation observed by Ptolemy; the asterism is called the Mother Camel by ancient Arabs. You can see that the story-telling is only going to get better. Draco, a Greek name (but I suspect also an Asian name) would identify as the Serpent in Proto-Christian Rome (I wonder where that Adam and Eve story came from).

Displayed across Asia, both in Hindu and Buddhist lore, is the creation myth of The Churning of the Ocean of Milk that centers on two squads: devas to the one side and corpulent, fanged asura at the other who are churning the ocean of milk in an effort to produce an elixir amrita: immortality. The pivot, Mount Mandara, spinning in the center of the scene with eighty-eight godly devas in a row on one side and ninety-two demonic asura on the other side. They all hold the huge, scaly body of a mighty serpent, twisted like a rope, and pull this naga Vasuki in a rhythmic chorus line of feet, legs and arms. After1,000 years of churning the mountain begins to sink creating many obstacles. Vishnu, reincarnated as a tortoise, comes to the rescue and supports the mountain on the back of his shell. Reinforced, the churning starts again, and, finally, after a second 1,000 years, amrita bursts forth along with other treasures such as Chanda, the moon god, the cow of plenty, and the beautiful, capering apsaras: celestial nymphs.

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Eighty-eight and ninety-two are two unique numbering sequences that certainly were not selected at random, found in the Churning Sea.

Angkor's Third Gallery collapsed in 1947 and was dismantled in the 1960s at the revolutionary rise of the Khmer Rouge. Only recently has it been restored and studied, yielding the epic scene, the Churning of the Ocean of Milk. At the restored Third Gallery in the SE outer corner of Angkor Wat, the bas-relief also depicts the sun and the moon on each side of the epicenter, Mandaranchal, the abode of Lord Krishna. The sun is either above or below the Equator for approximately 180 days (186.40 and 178.24 actual days), with the solstice an apparent slowing and halt to solar progression. Eighty-eight devas added to ninety-two asuras total 180, or approximately the period of one solstice through an equinox to the second solstice; one-half of one year. We are getting closer to the number secrets.

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Asian numerical systems are not as well-known in the Western architectural parlance. Cambodia's Angkor Wat has clues littered everywhere. Give a count to the columns and balustrades at Angkor Wat and you can see immediately a link to some other ancient numbering system: 54. That number, well beyond our digits, fingers and toes, pushes the visual memory. At Angkor, there are 54 columns. There are 54 balustrades. There are other parings of 54, chiefly at the bridge, at the Third Gallery, and at the central tower. Each pairing, 54 phyeams (a measure) adjacent to 54 balustrades atop 54 supporting columns make only half the story, for each set defines only one half. A more important number is the sum of a set of 54: 108, the most sacred number in Asia. This auspicious number occurs in Buddhist and Hindu texts. Vishnu had 108 names. Both Hindu and Buddhist prayer beads number 108 and mantras are chanted with these beads 108 times. 108 is important in astrology and astronomy. Were that not enough, Sun and Moon, or Surya and Chandra, the solar and lunar gods, oscillate approximately 54 degrees north and south above and below the ecliptic during this solstice-solstice half year.

What if the builders back in the sixth century used more than just their memories? Perhaps a star chart and application that symbology of the structure into a form of calendar, predicting the starting and stopping of the sun. Somehow the moon, our great satellite neighbor and parent to earthly tides and water rhythms must be factored into the cyclical equation. 180-days, plus the actual time for the sun to stop and restart. It could be balanced by the 54 degrees wiggle before coming back to true vertical.

We can't make our calendar too simple and yet it must be in the clear for sunrays to demarcate. We must keep portions hidden if for no other purpose than minor self-interest. So what do we hide in plain sight? We hide the numbers! If I knew the secrets in advance, then imagine how wise would my cosmic knowledge appear! As a priest or an all-knowing, you would simply await delivery of the elixir of immortality. Can you taste amrita?

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