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The Fantastic Creatures of Angkor

 

Angkor Wat

Spread out amongst the dense jungles of Cambodia hide the remains of an ancient and grand civilization. Once inhabited by a people known as the Khmer, today millions of tourists visit the temples at Angkor to get a glimpse of the majesty of this once proud city. While most visitors focus on the beauty of the city’s towering temples, another story lies in the intricate stone carvings adorning the buildings. These inscriptions tell of everyday life, grand military conquests and perhaps most intriguing of all, strange mythological creatures. But are all the fantastic animals depicted at Angkor purely myth, or are some of them based on real creatures that once lived?

The Khmer began to develop as a unique culture in Cambodia around 2000 years ago. Early contact with Indian Garudatraders had a tremendous influence on this developing society, bringing agricultural, mathematical and literary knowledge to the coastal regions of Cambodia. This contact also brought with it Hindu beliefs, in particular the worship of Vishnu and Shiva.

In later years, Mahayana Buddhism was introduced to the Khmer, followed by Theravada Buddhism in the thirteenth century.1 Even a casual perusal of the stone carvings at Angkor shows the importance that Hindu and Buddhist beliefs had to these ancient people.

The most common creatures represented at Angkor come from Hindu mythology. One of the most unique of these is the Garuda, a creature comprised of the head, wings and talons of an eagle with the body of a man. One of the three principle animal deities in Hindu mythology, the Garuda is the king of the birds and enemy of the serpent.

Some of the most impressive examples of the Garuda at Angkor can be found along the outside walls at Preah Khan. This impressive site also contains many wonderful examples of giant trees fused with the natural stonework of the site.

While the Garuda is most likely a purely mythological being based on a combination of two real creatures (the eagle and man), our next animal may share its mythological heritage with a living animal. NagaThe highlight of any trip to Angkor is usually a visit to the vast and towering temple complex known as Angkor Wat. Upon passing through the outer gates, a causeway flanked by seven-headed naga serpents leads to the central temple complex.

Known from Hindu and Buddhist mythology, the naga is a snake of gigantic proportions. A staple of Southeast Asian architecture, in Thailand the naga is depicted as a large crested serpent. However at Angkor, the naga loses its crest in favor of a more ominous multi-headed appearance reminiscent of the Hydra from Greek mythology.

Many fantastic abilities are attributed to the naga of myth and legend, including the power to shape shift into human form and walk among man. Buddhist scriptures describe a variety of killing methods available to the naga, including a fatal poisonous bite, the strength to constrict its victims within its deadly coils, and the ability to spit a paralyzing venom.

Most ominous of all, the naga is said to be able to kill simply by staring into the eyes of its victims. 2 NagasThis same power was attributed to another mythological snake, the basilisk of mediaeval Europe whose powers were brought to a wide audience in the third Harry Potter book and movie.2

But is the naga purely a creature of myth, or is its legend based on a real animal that once lived? Belief in the naga is strong among the inhabitants of Southeast Asia. Every year hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists gather along the shores of the Mekong River to take part in the Bang Fai Phaya Nark festival during which naga fireballs can be seen rising from the water along Thailand’s border with Laos.

The source of this strange luminous phenomenon is attributed to the naga, with some legends describing the balls of reddish light as the eggs of the serpent floating out of the water. In recent years, the appearance of the genuine phenomenon has been obscured by modern sound and light shows on the Thai side and Laotians who send up fireworks from the opposite side in an attempt to fool the Thais.

Modern skeptics dismiss the naga fireballs as nothing more than Laotian fireworks witnessed by gullible Thais. However, the long history of the fireballs, dating back hundreds of years, argues that there may be something more to the show than just modern trickery.

Sightings of giant serpents continue to this day in Southeast Asia. In October of 2000, cryptozoologist Richard Freeman journeyed to Thailand with the Discovery Channel in search of the naga. The findings of this expedition were mixed.

While real evidence such as a reputed naga bone and a video of the creature both turned out to be misidentifications, Freeman found the eyewitnesses he spoke with to be sincere and credible. The results of their investigations led Freeman to conclude that a genuine giant serpent most likely does inhabit the tropical jungles of Southeast Asia.2

Another Hindu deity commonly found around Angkor is the monkey god Hanuman. Particularly impressive depictions of him can be found at Banteay Samre. Monkeys certainly abound in the tropical forests of Cambodia, but another much more intriguing apelike creature is said to inhabit the region as well.

Known as the orang dalam to the indigenous people of Malaysia, legends of this mysterious creature in many ways seem to be almost Hanumanidentical to stories of Bigfoot in North America. Said to stand between six and eight feet tall and give off a pungent odor, encounters with this jungle inhabitant have occurred with some frequency over the last 200 years.

Intrigued by the stories of the orang dalam, author and explorer Harold Stephens mounted an expedition in search of the creature in the early 1970’s. As recounted in “Return to Adventure Southeast Asia,” Stephens journeyed deep into a mostly unexplored part of the Malay jungle near to an area the orang dalam was said to inhabit.

Upon reaching their destination, the expedition discovered a game trail used by a variety of animals. Among the tracks they documented was a long series of enormous footprints 19 inches long and 10 inches wide. The native guides confidently identified the prints as those of the orang dalam.3

Due to the credibility of the witness and the remote location in which these prints were found, fraud seems unlikely, but skeptics remain unconvinced. While the ape-man carvings at Banteay Ta ProhmSamre are merely depictions of Hindu deities, when viewing them one can’t help but be reminded of the orang dalam, a very similar being with strong evidence in favor of its existence.

But not all of the mysterious creatures depicted at Angkor come from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. One of the last sites I visited was the jungle temple of Ta Prohm, said to contain an animal carving unique in the reqion. Ta Prohm is one of the most beautiful places to visit in the area with an incredible blending of ancient architecture and aggressive jungle growth.

Fig trees weave in and out of the crumbling stones both dismantling the fragile construction and yet holding it together. Archeologists involved with restoring Ta Prohm are left with a difficult decision. Cutting away the trees will prevent further destruction of the site. However, their removal will undoubtedly cause damage to both the stonework and perhaps just as importantly, to the atmosphere of this sacred site.

After wandering through the temple and marveling at the twisting fig trees for over an hour, Dinosaur GlyphI finally located the glyph I was searching for near the exit to the complex. Before me, enclosed in a round circle, was a clear depiction of what could only be a stegosaurus.

The creature had a small neck and four short legs with a long tail. Along its humped back, a series of plates were clearly carved. As I stared in a wonder, a guide leading two American tourists approached the spot and casually asked them if they believed dinosaurs lived 800 years ago? He then proudly showed them the stegosaurus carving to their utter amazement.

Stylistically similar circular carvings can be found all over Ta Prohm, but none of them show this same creature. While to my knowledge reputed sightings of a living stegosaurus have not been made, other saurians have been glimpsed. In 1999, Papua New Guinea’s The Independent newspaper reported that a “dinosaur-like reptile” was witnessed near Lake Murray.

The creature was described as having a long neck and tail with a body nearly two meters wide and “as long as a dump truck.” It walked upright on thick hind legs and had two smaller forelegs. Most intriguing of all, the creature was said to have “largish Ta Prohmtriangular scoops on the back” very similar to a stegosaurus.

The dinosaur-like creature was witnessed by local villagers traveling in a canoe and was glimpsed the following day by a Seventh Day Adventist pastor and a church elder.4 Obviously the creature did not match any wildlife indigenous to the region and to this day the sighting remains unexplained.

The most famous of all living dinosaur legends comes from the Congo. Here it is said that a creature resembling a small brontosaurus lives to this very day. Known as the mokele-mbembe, the animal is described by locals as having a body similar in size to an elephant with four short legs. Unlike an elephant however, the creature is said to have a long serpententine neck with a small head and a matching tail.

Numerous expeditions have gone in search of the mokele-mbembe and have brought back tantalizing clues to its existence. In 1992, a Japanese film crew working on a documentary filmed a creature moving rapidly through Lake Tele, one of the places where the beast is said to live. The footage showed what appeared to be a creature with a long neck that yet again matched no known local wildlife.5

A more mundane explanation for the carving found at Angkor is of course that the Khmer unearthed the fossilized remains of a stegosaurus 800 years ago and it was these fossils that prompted the carving. Unfortunately we will probably never know what the real motivation was for showcasing this fascinating monster.

From dinosaurs to ape-men to giant snakes, the plentiful stone carvings at Angkor offer much to ponder over. While most visitors gaze in wonder at the massive towers and grand architecture, the subtle details of the intricate stone imagery offer a much more intriguing puzzle. Whether the Khmer meant to incorporate depictions of fantastic animals they knew to exit locally or whether they were simply carving based on Hindu and Buddhist mythology, we may never know. But either way, the carvings at Angkor rank among the best of the ancient world and can be appreciated by all.



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Further Reading:
Angkor
Jon Ortner

Angkor and the Khmer Civilization
Michael D. Coe

Cryptozoology A To Z
Loren Coleman

Mysterious Creatures
George Eberhart

Along The Royal Roads To Angkor
Yoshiaki Ishizawa

Return to Adventure Southeast Asia
Harold Stephens

 

Sources:
1) Yoshiaki Ishizawa. Along The Royal Roads To Angkor (Weatherhill, Inc., 1999).

2) Freeman, Richard. "In the Coils of the Naga," Fortean Times, February 2003

3) Harold Stephens. Return to Adventure Southeast Asia (Wolfenden, 2000).

4) The Independent (Papua New Guinea), December 30, 1999, p. 6.

5) Loren Coleman & Jerome Clark. Cryptozoology A To Z (Fireside, 1999).