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La Commissione 31.10.2020

The Dragon's Mirror: The Magic of Angkor Wat V

Part 5

Diego Antolini

We arrived in Siem Reap after about a five hour drive on the Phnom Penh-Battambang-Siem Reap route, crossing much of Western Cambodia. Despite the late hour we ask our guide to lead us immediately to Angkor Wat. The temple is closed to visitors at night, but the road that runs along the entire outer perimeter allows you to see the pond and, beyond it, the treetops that surround the sacred area.

We stop in front of the stone corridor that the next morning will take us over the water barrier to the Western entrance of Angkor Wat.
The clearing of the car park is deserted even though we know that there are guards, hidden nearby, who watch each access in case any reckless tourist decides to approach out of the visiting hours. We say tourists, because no Cambodian would ever dare to enter Angkor Wat at night.
We admire the statues of the two Nagas towering on the stone slab that marks the beginning of the walkway, the silence and the night give the already magical place an ineffable aura of vitality.

The Nagas, mythical snakes of Hindu mythology who in some versions would be chthonian beings whose inherent wickedness drives them out of their underground burrows only to kidnap and kill human children; in Khmer culture the Nagas represent a fundamental element both from an architectural and a sculptural point of view. The Nagas are depicted as huge, multiple-headed snakes (seven or nine usually, and in any case always in odd numbers) positioned in the shape of a corona. Each head has a membrane on the neck similar to that of cobras.

The view of the Nagas guarding the walkway to the temple was quite an impressive moment, for all around us was silence. The sounds of the jungle and the guard lighting up his cigarette somewhere in the darkness seemed irrelevant if compared to the striking image of the stone serpents, and the silhouette of the temples looming in the background.
During our research on the origins of mankind we came across the symbol of the snake (or dragon, which in some cases is a different version of the same symbol) way too many times to ignore its importance. Here, in the heart of the Khmer Empire, we know that the Nagas were connected to the water element, and present in the myths of the origin of the Khmer people: ancient legends tells that the Nagas are the result of the union between an Indian Brahmin and a Cambodian princess-snake.
The Nagas appear in many other legends, from the Churning of the Milk Sea to that of King Leper (whose bas-relief is located in the temple of Bayon) to the story of Mucalinda, the Snake King who protected the Buddha from the fury of the elements.
We feel that we have traveled not only in space but also in time, a feeling that only magical places can produce, and those who have tried it at least once recognize it immediately.
Angkor is one of the ancestral cradles of our origins; our guide had repeated it several times in Phnom Penh, and tells us again, with a proud smile:

"In Angkor Wat, the gods are still here."

We then remember the phrases and beliefs that we collected in Phnom Penh about the magic in the temple, and a code of conduct to keep inside it on every occasion: do not raise your voice, do not swear, do not make promises, do not disrespect the gods, do not take away any object.
From various sources we have learned about people who, for having failed to comply to those rules, saw their face deformed, their mouth sealed, their throats squealed by invisible hands, their heads turned one hundred and eighty degrees and, in the most serious cases, being hit by diseases and persecution even after leaving Angkor.
After silently expressing thoughts of gratitude for visiting such a unique place, we decide to go back to the hotel to rest. The next day would be very long and intense.