Ta Prohm, Cambodia: where trees and trunks tell a tale

February 2, 2017 / Lakshmi Sharath

Roaming around the Angkor complex, I was taken in by the ancient trees that surround the temples. It is the trees that add so much character to the monuments. Like Ta Prohm, for instance. The trees add to the drama here. And it is one of the most dramatic temples ever where trunks and trees tell a tale.

The guide book says that you would need an hour to look around, but I can spend an eternity here. The roots of the silk cotton trees which have an ageless sense around them entwine around the ruins, giving them a sense of mystery. The temple itself may be around 1000 years old, but the trees with their trunks entrenched deep inside the walls take you to a different era. The brown and the green merge with the fallen leaves as the breeze comes calling.

You do not just look at the structures or the sculptures carved on the walls. Instead, your eyes gaze upon the branches of the ficus trees that curve around the carvings, some of them sturdy enough to hold the entire structure in place, while the others have collapsed, taking in the stony edifices with them.  The leafy branches dangle casually as the birds find a perch. This is Ta Prohm – the 12th century temple in Cambodia, left in its “ natural state.”

For a lot, of us , Khmer civilisation and the state of Angkor begins and ends with the Angkor Wat, but there are several temples in the region that catch the tourist’s attention. Be it the Rolous group of monuments, at ancient Harihalaya where king Jayavarman II built his early capital or the city of Angkor Thom, which became the later capital of Jayavarman VII, the temples here speak of a civilisation that flourished for several centuries. Ta Prohm is one of the monuments that live to tell a tale.

A temple made famous by the Angelina Jolie film , The Tomb Raider, Ta Prohm today is often referred to as the Angelina Jolie Temple and guides take you to the site where the roots and the branches of the trees create a vivid impression of the wild, even as tourists pose for cameras. The temple was called Rajavihara or the royal monastery, also referred to as Old Brahma built with concentric galleries, corner stones, gopuras and courtyards.

Walking around, I see the dwarapalakas and the devatas carved on the walls, even as the trees frame them. I am told that the temple was built for more than 250 deities and the principal deity, Prajnaparamita , referred to the Perfection of Wisdom was carved in the likeness of the king, Jayavarman VII’s mother. The sun’s rays light the dangled roots that lend an eerie air to the temple.
 Deep inside the forests, it is hard to believe that the outer area around Ta Prohm was once an inhabited city with more than 3000 settlements. It is deliberately left in its natural state although boards say that restoration work is in progress with the help of Indian archaeologists and officials. This however does not seem to have gone down with the locals, as I hear a guide complain to a group of foreign tourists that the Indian consultants have suggested removing the trees and restoring the temple. As you walk along some of the galleries, you do come across certain restored structures that seem to be bereft of trees.
Walking along the east, we make our way along a path lined with trees to a structure built in sandstone across the moat. Some of the bass reliefs in the shrines can be seem amidst all the ruins around. The roofless structure of the hall of the dancers with the tree trunks winding around it beckon you as you watch in awe at nature’s design over man’s art.
And then you realise why Ta Prohm leaves you breathless with wonder. It is nature and man’s hand at its best and you would not like to change it for anything.

Lakshmi Sharath is a media professional, a traveller, travel writer, blogger and photographer.