1 The Holy Land of Kuruksetra
What was about to happen next is part dream, part myth and very much a part of real life. The sequence of events at the time of their occurrence would not fully reveal their hidden meanings to me for several months. How those deeper meanings would eventually surface into awareness is what this story is all about.
Embarking on any pilgrimage to a sacred site is going to provide the mind with a whole new set of meanings and interpretations. Some of those meanings may be quite obvious and others may have a profound effect on your way of thinking which you may be unprepared to understand. So, there is little one can do in preparing for a sacred journey other than finally committing oneself to going on one. This is a story of a pilgrimage to Vat Phu in S. Laos. A day came and I committed myself to making a pilgrimage. Little did I know I would end up at Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas with Lord Shiva…well almost.
It was early morning and King Devanika, (celestial protection), who came from the Cham holy city of My-Son, was assembling his people to continue their westward journey in search of a sacred mountain which an old rishi named Vaktrashiva told him rose into the heavens and was topped with a crown of gold. The time was about 400AD and King Devanika had been traveling for many days. He had to leave his religious capital of My-Son, near the South China Sea, because warring tribes from the north had weakened and destroyed much of his beloved kingdom. The King brought his architect, King Kammatha, advisors and all his people to find the sacred mountain the old rishi had told him about.
The truth of the exact origins of King Devanika may never be known, but what we do know is that he erected a stone stele which was found at Vat Luong Kau on the western banks of the Mekong River and at the base of the sacred mountain which he was looking for. The Lingaparvata (mountain of the linga) was consecrated and a Mahatirtha (very holy place of pilgrimage) was established at its base and named New Kuruksetra (holy land) in honor of the legendary battle fought by Krishna and Arjuna as told in the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata.
At this point in my story I am indebted to Chhom Kunthea who is a Khmer scholar from the Royal University of Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Kunthea's recent research on the 64 lines of Sanskrit inscriptions on the Devanika stele bring to life more fully the scope and detail of the significance of the holy land of New Kuruksetra. Kunthea compares New Kuruksetra at Vat Phu with the original Kuruksetra in India and focuses on the meaning and background of the Mahatirtha. With the additional research done by Claude Jacques, an epigraphist from France, Kunthea has been able to show that the knowledge and understanding of the Mahabharata was fully understood by King Devanika and his court. Kunthea clearly shows that the influence of the arrival of Indian cosmology to Kambuja was much earlier than is generally accepted by Indo-Cambodian historians. Certainly it is safe to say that the epic story of the Mahabharata was known very well hundreds of years prior to King Devanikas consecrating his New Kuruksetra at the base of the Lingaparvata and erecting his stele. We might even infer that the rishi Vakrashiva was the Indian poet guru who helped the new king to establish his Mahatirtha where he did. Vakrashiva was known to have lived in the area as a result of Sanskrit inscriptions found in a cave stating it was his home.
Vat Phu was the first Khmer temple that shows a direct influence of the Mahabharata on the establishment of the holy foundation that would influence all the future Kings of the empire. According to Kunthea the next time Kuruksetra is mentioned in a temple is 7 centuries later when King Suyavarman II created the southwest bas relief at Angkor Wat. Suyavarman's temple additions at Vat Phu and the construction of Angkor Wat, incorporating Kuruksetra, is testimony to the lasting influence Kuruksetra had on the Khmer Kings.
Kunthea's research further shows how many of the inscriptions on King Devanika's stele were taken directly from verses in the Mahabharata. The importance on focusing on these lines of Devanika's stele was to reveal the spiritual significance tirthas had in India which in turn lent understanding to the holy tirtha (water tank) dug by Devanika at vat Phu and which can still be seen today.
King Devanika's Water Tank
The tirtha of King Devanika, remarks Kunthea, was as important as the tirtha in Kuruksetra in India. By bathing or dipping in the waters of this tirtha all sins would be washed away. Everyone would go to this watery tank and pray to the gods. Pilgrims only had to recite the mantra,
I'll go to Kurukshetra
I'll stay in Kurukshetra,
and one would become free from all suffering.
To demonstrate even further how the influence of the epic poems of the Mahabharata and Ramayana were honored at Vat Phu one need only visit the UNESCO Project holdings of found sculptures in and around the Vat Phu complex. Through the assistance of Tha Sirychantho, chief administrator for Vat Phu, I was able to see this most amazing collection of lingams, ante-fixes, an un-deciphered stele, and a pedestal for Nandin the bull, also found at Vat Luong Kau, showing a Sanskrit inscription. The inscription has been deciphered by Claude Jacques in an unpublished paper titled: "Mahendravarman's Campaigns in North-East Thailand".
But, by far the most exquisite of the stored sculptures is the one showing Hanuman, the Monkey God King, saving Sita from the evil King Ravana. This un-displayed piece of Khmer art shows the beauty of Sita with her long flowing dress as she is whisked away in flight from the evil king.
Hanuman, the Monkey God King, and Sita
The story of Shiva and Sita is one of the most emotionally moving stories in the Ramayana and the sculpted image was and placed somewhere in Vat Phu honoring the rescue of Sita.
Kuruksetra would attract spiritual pilgrimages by Khmer Kings for the next 1000 years. This was the beginning, the birth place, and the cradle of the greatest civilization on Earth; it would be known as the Khmer Empire. Over 400 years would pass before King Jayavarman II would inaugurate this wondrous empire on top on Mt. Mahendraparvata (Mt.Kulen) in 802AD.
In the meantime, however, Kuruksetra, had become a magical kingdom. King Kammatha, builder of temples, set upon the top of the mountain a golden linga which gleaned in the morning sunlight. The spring water which came forth from the base of the mountain was channeled into a sacred shrine and would be the holy water for all oblations to Shiva. King Devanika's kingdom flourished and word spread quickly of the holiest city in all the land. Following King Devanika a new Chenla capital city was named after the first King of the newly formed Khmer empire. King Shrestavarman was the son of Srutavarman who was in turn the 1st King of Kanbuja (Cambodia) and a direct descendant of the lunar race or soma line from India. Srutavarman claims to have been a direct descendant of the 2nd Kundinya lineage which formed the genealogy for the succeeding dynasties of the Khmer empire.
The new capital was named Shresthapura. The birth of the Khmer empire began in the middle of the 5th century in Kuruksetra, or what is today known as Champassak, in honor of the Cham King Devanika, The temple of Vat Phu would house the sacred linga of Shiva under the vocable of Bhadresvara, patron saint of the Chams, and act as the spiritual focal point for a long line of Khmer Kings who would develop the Khmer empire all the way through to the 14th century.
The implications of the significance for this lasting duration of Vat Phu as a spiritual center can not be underestimated for its influence and meaning when applied to the Khmer civilization. Vat Phu was in all respects a temple modeling the universe and the beliefs which were held secret by the future purohitas and hotars had a lot to do with the way the civilization evolved. Shiva had shown to the world that he was in fact the most respected of all the manifestations of Vishnu. Mt. Kailasa is a very sacred mountain in the Himalayas and mythologically considered to be the sacred abode of Shiva and his wife Paravati.
Mt. Phu Kao (chignon mountain) is another very sacred mountain and is located in S. Laos in Champassak, and even though it is not in the Himalayas it is also considered to be the holy abode of Lord Shiva and known today as Lingaparvata. (mountain of the linga).
The cradle of all human civilization is considered by many to be the Indus Valley and a very long time ago, as much as 12,000 years ago, humankind inherited a very unique and divine understanding of how it came to pass that knowledge of the universe was encoded into rituals, language and stone temples mirroring the secrets of the stars.
This knowledge of time and space was attributed to divine beings, gods, who created the manifest universe as we know it today. The ancient cuneiform tablets of Mesopotamia alluded to knowledge of the heavens and ancient Vedic texts likewise tell the story of creation. These stories of long ago are referred to as the creation myths. However, to only read these ancient translations as myth misses the fact that they were real stories about real events taking place in the real universe.
The pilgrimage to Vat Phu afforded me the opportunity to learn about the architects of the universe known a Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. In order that their story of creation would never be forgotten the demigods of an age long forgotten fashioned the material world to mirror their knowledge of the universe.
The teachings were passed down from millennium to millennium until today those stories have been preserved by countless carvings left on stone temples all over the world honoring the origin of the gods, by encoding those stories in pictograms, hieroglyphs, and ancient texts with symbolic references to the heavens.
The Kings who came upon the Lingaparvata in S. Laos surely must of thought they were being communicated to by these heavenly hosts of creation when high atop the mountain was fashioned by nature's creative forces a natural chignon, a symbol of Lord Shiva, and below his heavenly abode ran a river reflecting all the stars of the Milky Way galaxy. The entire land was filled with the auspiciousness of Shiva. From the top of the mountain Shiva was holding the mighty Ganges River in his hair, and slowly he allowed it to trickle to earth so prosperity and well being could be enjoyed by all living things. No other place could be more holy than here in S. Laos except for Mt. Kailasa in the Himalayas.
While I stood still on the edge of an old motorized raft laden with food and animals to be taken to local markets I saw the western banks of the Mekong River slowly come into focus. As I approached the land I could see thatched houses lining the streets and high in the sky was the silhouette of the Lingaparvata peaking through the morning haze. I knew at that moment I was about to relive one of the most important periods of SE Asian history as King Devanika had done over 1,500 years ago by establishing a holy land that would eventually become the birth place of the Khmer empire. The holy land of Kuruksetra was about to be entered. Once I set foot on the land of this ancient city I could not help notice how quiet every thing was. The cattle were grazing on the open roads and the mood was extremely peaceful. It felt as though time had intentionally forgotten the small town of Champassak, and a distinctive air of a long gone center of religious activity could still be felt. The evening approached and with it a warm dark velvet sky punctuated with a million sparkling stars. I had made it to the holy land of Kuruksetra.
Crossing the Mekong River to Champassak
As I adjusted to my surroundings I prepared myself for an early evening sleep as I knew I would need plenty of rest for the journey up the mountain to see the ancient temple of Vat Phu.
Curiously, and unbeknownst to me, I would have a dream that evening which would leave a profound message in my mind, but one I was unprepared to understand until several months later.
The Cube from Space
As I was sleeping the dream came unannounced and from high in the night sky a tumbling cube came falling to earth. The cube became larger and larger until it seemed I was at the center of the cube. I was surrounded by white walls and noticed a door opening, and in walked what appeared to be people all dressed in long white robes. They talked to me and told me I was a two dimensional person and that they were multidimensional. They presented a small book for me to read but said everything in it was a secret. They then showed me a person being put into a golden colored box which seemed to contain a yellow liquid of some sort. When I looked into the box I saw things flying all around in a whirl pool of energy.
I asked if I could go outside of the room. They said I could but if I did the things I saw and read would not be known anymore. Only in this small room along with the golden liquid cube was I able to listen to everything they said. I can not recall all they told me.
The dream was extremely clear as if I were actually in such a room.
End of dream.
I was awakened by a ringing sound and realized it was the sound of a Buddhist bell permeating the early morning solitude of Champassak. The bell was on Vat Thong's temple grounds which I passed upon first entering the holy land of Kuruksetra.
As I walked down the dirt road to visit Vat Thong that morning images of the tumbling cube were still in my mind. What I saw at Vat Thong was the most beautifully decorated golden bell tower over looking Phu Kao Mountain.
Bell tower at Vat Thong
It did not take much hesitation on my part to climb the steep inclined stair case that reached to the top of the bell tower. With my camera slung over my shoulder I was hoping to capture a better view of the Lingaparvata. Once on top I had the most beautiful view of the surrounding holy land of Kuruksetra. Totally entranced with the view and walking in a circle around the top of the bell tower a most unfortunate accident took place. A dull gong like sound entered the air which was immediately followed by a sharp pain to my forehead, accompanied by warm red blood flowing down my face. I was stunned and my head was throbbing, dizziness set in and everything started spinning underneath me. In an instant serenity was turned into fear thinking that a sever cut to my head might require stitches. I had walked directly into the bell making everything start to turn and spin before my eyes as I descended the staircase which seemed extremely wobbly and very steep. Water was my first priority which I saw coming out of a hose next to a stupa on the temple grounds. Numb and bewildered the water felt cool and rejuvenating. Was this the end of my pilgrimage or an initiation to enter this most sacred ground? Was it necessary to spill blood before Vat Phu became a reality for me to explore? I had journeyed to far to stop now and kept my determination and resolve to continue with my pilgrimage.
I suppose a dream of a cube coming from space with white robed people talking to me and showing me a golden liquid whirlpool in another cube, followed by walking into a bell at Vat Tong could be looked upon as just a series of unconnected events and no more. Somehow I thought differently about these unusual events. I certainly felt very different from when I first got out of bed that morning.
I met my guide Bountham Penkham back at the Vong Paseud guest house and we immediately left for Vat Phu. The entrance to Vat Phu was about 10KM from the guest house. It was extremely hot and dry. The landscape appeared as if you entered an alien world and the world you left behind the never existed. Pockets of mud and algae made the landscape appear alien and surreal. The entire countryside looked as if nobody ever came here with the exception of the villagers who erected their thatched homes.
Countryside in Champassak, Laos
I realized I was in a very ancient land which had been the cradle of the Khmer civilization. I looked for as many indications of this former empire as I could based on what knowledge I had accumulated since November of 2003 when I was in Vientiane, Laos. From that time until now, April 2, 2005, pilgrimages were made to Preah Vihear and Beng Mealea in Cambodia. Everything I read of the Khmers always referred back to Vat Phu. Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed a sandstone pedestal which was used for a statue and was lying half buried in the ground. It was my first architectural sighting on the Kuruksetra plains. Further ahead of the pedestal was a small shrine in total ruins pointing directly at the Lingaparvata and sitting solemnly underneath a large tree. Upon closer inspection it may have been a Neak Ta mound holding ancestral spirits. The condition of the shrine made it hard to determine exactly what was there, but it was a certainty that an effort had recently been made to provide some sort of protection from the weather. The use of the mound had long since been abandoned as was evidenced by the collapsed enclosure under the tree. However, to my amazement, when I returned to Vat Phu 6 months later a completely new enclosure had built around this sacred spot. I was happy to see that since my first visit to this shrine, when it was in shambles, was now restored and the spirits were still being honored. I could not help but feel that my first visit had re-awakened the spirits that were already at the mound and their powers were now felt by the villagers encouraging them to once again honor the spirits with a proper shrine.
Pedestal near sacred shrine
Shrine before restoration Shrine after restoration
Surely the shrine was an active site for many hundreds of years, and it was a visible confirmation that far from the main sanctuary of Vat Phu a shrine was placed on the Kuruksetra plains to continually pay respect to Shiva on top of Lingaparvata. At this point I had no idea what to expect next as we continued on to Vat Phu.
Near the entrance we were greeted by Thongkhoune Boriboune, the current Director of Vat Phu. I had been introduced by letter to Thongkhoune Boriboune by Thongsa Sayavongkhamdy, Director of the Department of Museums and Archaeology Ministry of Information and Culture, in Vientiane. Thongsa was the person responsible for getting Vat Phu to be put on the list of World Heritage Sites in 2003. Through meeting Thongsa, in Nov. 2003, was I then recommended to Thongkhoune to support me on my quest to understand Vat Phu. Once Bountham, my guide, arrived at the eastern most baray the atmosphere all around the base of the mountain was perfectly quiet. Frozen in time is an expression that comes to mind to describe what I was feeling. Very far ahead were the outlines of a temple, but from where I was standing only water lily's were reflecting the morning sun.
Baray and Causeway in front of Vat Phu
The approach to Vat Phu is solemn and dignified with a grand walkway lined with lotus carved columns exuding a different sense of time the closer you approach the main palace. It was so supremely quiet that it was as if an entirely different space had been entered. Somehow I felt I had passed into another dimension of time and could not help remember standing in the cube in my dream the night before. The cattle were grazing on the plains as they had for centuries completely oblivious to the strangers where were walking directly in front of them. Truly nothing had changed over the centuries.
When King Devanika saw this land over 1,500 years ago he too had to have been struck by the natural symmetry that lay stretched out before him. From the top of the Lingaparvata to the river of stars directly behind him he had to have thought he was in a magical kingdom. For over 1500 years this land acted as a spiritual focal point where Lord Shiva lived with his wife Parvarti. Two ancient trees formed a natural gate into the palace grounds. On the north side of the causeway the northern palace stood majestically still and stately as if still occupied by kings studying their scriptures. These temple additions to the land come from a long line of Kings who started coming to Vat Phu to receive what can only be considered the most holy of holy instructions to honor the living Shiva, understand his celestial abode and give guidance in governing their Empire. How fitting then that Devanika's name is translated to mean (celestial protection).
What is known of the ancient city of Shresthapura is very little. The research done in the early 20th century by scholars such as Louis Finot, Georges Coedes, Henri Parmentier and Etienne Aymonier provide valuable historical perspectives on Vat Phu gained from the inscriptions on the Devanika stele found in the surrounding area. The Devanika stele was found at Vat Luong Kua and translated by Codes and Claude Jacques with further research done by Chhom Kunthea which led to more insights on the historial beginnings at Shresthapura. Charles Higham, from New Zealand, has provided excellent background research of the early civilizations before the Khmer Kings came to the Kuruksetra plains. Finally, the exhaustive work of Lawrence Palmer Briggs pulled all the Khmer research together in a book he published in 1949 titled "The Ancient Khmer Empire".
After King Devanika's reign there is epigraphic evidence showing a lineage of successors to the throne, albeit the details on the duration of their individual reigns is hard to identify. Shresthapura would act as a focal point to educate and establish the many ministerial decisions that would last for 400 years before King Jayavarman II established the Khmer Empire in 802AD. Eventually the seat of the Khmer Empire would be re-located to Angkor Wat where King Suyavarman I began the foundation of the most astounding temple mirroring the secrets of the universe. All the Khmer Kings, all the way up to King Suyavarman VIII, would pay tribute to Vat Phu by adding new additions to the temple and supporting the daily functioning of the temple with supplies and food. Unfortunately, the sacking of Angkor Wat, by Siam in 1471 AD, brought a slow abandonment of all temples in the empire as well as the wonton destruction and removal of the most important documents showing the significance of the empires operation.
But as in the beginning, Vat Phu made a peaceful transition to become a place for sacred pilgrimages even without the support it had received up until King Suyavarman VIII. As a consequence Vat Phu is the only ancient city that still has intact its foundation walls from the early 5th century prompting it to be registered as a World Heritage Site in 2003, and an untrammeled land from the ravages of war, but not the tempers of Mother Nature which has eroded and felled many of the stone structures.
So, passing through the ancient trees onto the temple grounds today can still capture the mood of what it was like 1,500 years ago. And of course the Lingaparvata, sacred mountain springs and the mighty Mekong River are unchanged with time.
Entering the Palace Grounds at Vat Phu
The pre-Ankorean King list of Vat Phu:
King Devanika – early 5th century
King Kammatha – early 5th century
King Sreshthavarman – mid 5th century
King Rudravarman – early 6th century
King Viravarman – mid 6th century
King Bhavavarman I – end 6th century
King Mahendravarman – end 6th century
King Ishanavarman – 616AD
King Bhavaraman II – 637AD
King Jayavarman I – 657AD
Jayadevi – 713AD