Snake eyes

International | CAMBODIA: Is the religious fascination with serpents in this jungle nation merely a matter of aesthetic custom, or is it something much deeper?

Issue: "Iraq: Present and past," June 12, 2004

Snakes: Indiana Jones in three memorable movies hated them. The middle film of the trilogy is set in India, and that's as close as the Harrison Ford character came to this country where serpentine symbols wave from countless roofs and staircases. Wat Phnom ("Wat" means temple, and Phnom is pronounced "nom") is the most famous temple in Phnom Penh, Cambodia's capital. Seated on an 88-foot-high hill, the only hill in town, its main entrance is via a grand eastern staircase that features serpent balustrades, long snakes heading up the steps. Cobras guard another entrance. In the temple sanctuary at the top stand dozens of Buddha statues where the faithful have shoved 100-real notes (worth 25 cents) into the statues' hands and armpits. Wat Ounalom, the headquarters of Cambodian Buddhism, is two blocks from the Tonle Sap River that connects Phnom Penh with villages to the northwest and the Mekong River just to the east. Serpent balustrades also border the stairway to Ounalom's sanctuary, and stylized snakes flare at the corners of each temple structure, as they do at the Royal Palace complex a few blocks away. When the victorious communist guerrillas known as the Khmer Rouge drove everyone out of Phnom Penh in 1975, the snakes remained. Statues of seven-headed cobras peer around the Phnom Penh street corners where Khmer Rouge soldiers shot Cambodians slow to move, or those who wore glasses (indicating affluence or studiousness). The five-level Independence Monument has five snakes on each corner. "Tela" gas stations have serpent symbols. Some observers call such decorations merely a matter of aesthetic custom. But members of the evangelical group Kampuchea for Christ interpret them theologically: "People make offerings to snakes. They fear them and want their power." Cambodian Christians point to the importance of serpents both in Hinduism, which dominated early Cambodia, and Buddhism, the leading religion over the past eight centuries. For example, the Hindu god Vishnu often sits or reclines upon a serpent, and a snake was Gautama Buddha's best friend, shielding him from both thunderstorms and scorching sun by turning his multiple heads into a protective hood. Some Christians connect these snakes to the Satanic serpent of chapter three of Genesis and say that Satan has been active in Cambodia. They observe that even Cambodian monarch Norodom Sihanouk (quoted in the March 15 Cambodia Daily) called the Khmer Rouge crimes "Satanic" and demanded that Khmer Rouge torturers confess their "abominable, super-Satanic, unspeaking and innumerable crimes." A visit to the Khmer Rouge torture center now known as the Tuol Sleng museum certainly brings to mind abominable activity. These days, roosters crow as hushed visitors from many countries shuffle through rooms with chains and leg irons still bolted to the floor. Then, cries of agony bent the sky as Khmer Rouge interrogators kept careful records of pain inflicted. Here's one entry from 1977, as recorded in David Chandler's Voices from S-21: "I watched [the prisoner's] morale fall when I administered torture.... In the afternoon and evening of 21.7.77 I pressured him again, using electric cord and s-.... He was given 2-3 spoonfuls of s- to eat, and after that he was able to answer questions.... That night I beat him with the electric cord again." A trip just outside Phnom Penh to one of the killing fields, where skulls of some of the 2 million Cambodians killed by their own countrymen are piled high, certainly suggests something super-Satanic. Even the classifying signs there are sobering: "Mass grave of 166 victims without heads" or "Skulls of juvenile female Kampucheans, 15 to 20 yrs. old." A Buddhist temple nearby also has snake symbols everywhere-but talk of serpents as Satan's symbol of domination can sound like spiritualized Indiana Jones, turning the superstitious desire to placate poisonous creatures into something far deeper. Do snake idols represent almost a curse on a land whose inhabitants for centuries have bowed to evil instead of fighting it? Is this only mysticism, or does the worldview that sees serpents as man's best friend also depict God as man's enemy? In an attempt to learn more about the underlying concepts, my wife and I journeyed to one of the wonders of the world, the Angkor Wat temples 200 miles northwest of Phnom Penh. How to get there? Some tourists fly into the nearby town of Siem Reap, but from Phnom Penh it's fun to head up the Tonle Sap River 200 miles on a small boat. Many Cambodians live and work on the river: Families live on the banks in houses built on stilts, with women weaving beneath the houses on spots where the more affluent corral pigs and water buffalo at night. Many Cambodian boats have depictions of water serpents at their sides or at their bows. The 12th-century Angkor Wat is the most famous of the several dozen temples north and east of Siem Reap, but there's a mystery about them similar to the mystery of the pyramids-except the trees and vines surrounding many of the temples add a level of romance. How many people did kings and pharaohs employ or enslave to haul and hoist huge blocks of stone? How many lives were lost and families destroyed to satisfy royal ambition? And yet, ironically, those who built humble temples of wood are forgotten, while the legacies of Cambodian rulers (probably tyrants) like Yasovarman and Suryavarman remain. Part of the mystery is that neither amateurs like me nor people who have devoted their whole lives to studying Khmer art are sure about who or what some of the statues represent; the artists' and patrons' notes, if any ever existed, are long gone. At the gate into Angkor Thom, and at the Bayon Temple (late 12th to early 13th century) you can contemplate more than 200 large faces carved on towers-the big heads face in all four directions, showing that the eyes of someone are upon you all the livelong day. But who is that someone? Some say King Jayavarman VII, some say Vishnu, but no one knows for sure what is the truth in this instance. So let's look at what is clear. One widely known basic, to quote from the Claude Jacques/Rene Dumont book Angkor (Konemann; English edition 1999) is that Khmer temples were (and are) "cosmological. Each temple is an image of the universe, a magical representation.... The temples were not conceived as places of assembly in the way that Christian cathedrals and churches were.... Khmer temple sanctuaries, which are in the form of towers, are very small [and are] reached by precipitous flights of huge steps that climb the apparently endless succession of levels." That word "endless" is poetic license-the temples are generally seven-leveled replicas of Mount Meru, the Himalayan home of the Hindu gods, which functions like Mount Olympus in ancient Greek mythology. What that means practically is verticality: Visitors should expect to do a lot of climbing up very steep and very narrow steps that amount to a 70-degree angle. And visitors should expect to see hundreds, probably thousands of statues and carvings of snakes: serpents with Vishnu, serpents as masters, serpents amid trees and flowers. The central sanctuaries commonly have four doors but three of them are fake entrances, and only the one to the east is open-with that one typically guarded by serpent carvings over and next to the doors. As cherubim guarded the entrance to the Garden of Eden and then the Most Holy Place of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem (Genesis 3, 2 Chronicles 3), so serpents had the place of prominence in these temples east of Eden. (The Garden of Eden was also elevated, since four rivers ran down from it.) The cosmology is evident in the three earliest temples of the Angkor area: Preah Ko (a.d. 879), Bakong (881), and Lolei (893). Bakong, for example, has Mount Meru verticality, seven-headed serpents on the east causeway, and long rows of giant stone gods and demons holding a serpent that extends the length of the causeway. Preah Ko similarly has serpents over sanctuary doors and sculptures of men riding serpents. The serpent motif was prominent at the leading building of the following century, the king's palace known as Phimeanakas (a.d. 968). Khmer kings claimed descent from a sixth-century union of an Indian Brahman and a south Cambodian serpent-king, and within Phimeanakas the king purportedly had to sleep every night with a nine-headed serpent spirit-if he missed even one night, he would die. Cambodian kings were always supposed to have new snake blood to bolster their own, and some sculptures show a symbolic result of snake/human conception: a person with three snakeheads instead of his own. Some of the snake depictions are scary, with mouths open and fangs flashing, but more often the serpents appear to be benevolent, protecting and enveloping a person or god. My notes from visiting two dozen temples in the Angkor area show the pattern: seven-headed snake surrounding the leader at Thommanon temple; snakes with crowns at Neak Pean; Srah Srang's serpent balustrades, three-headed serpents supported by monsters; at Banteay Samre, sculptures of men and gods riding snakes with teeth and reclining on snakes; seven-headed snake statues; balustrades or railings looking like a snake body; Vishnu reclining on a serpent at the Banteay Samre temple. We know that millions of people in India and China had been exposed to biblical teaching by the time these Cambodian temples were built. Is it outlandish to think that the story of the Garden of Eden had spread into the jungles of Cambodia and to suspect that a counter-gospel was being taught here: that the serpent who had contributed to the eviction of man was now the admissions officer to the Eden-like sanctuaries at the top of the many replicas of Mount Meru? Probably the story most often portrayed in the temples is a popular Hindu one called the "churning of the ocean of milk." It comes from the ancient Bagavata-Pourana and tells of how small gods (not the top ones like Vishnu and Shiva) and demons spend 1,000 years churning an ocean of milk with the goal of producing amrita, a marvelous liquid that would make them both immortal and incorruptible. The effort is failing because the gods and demons do not get along, so they ask Vishnu for advice. He tells them to work together and keep churning, using his favorite serpent, Vasuki, as a churning rope. The "churning of the ocean of milk" story is told most skillfully on the walls of Angkor Wat, the most famous temple in the area. Some 88 gods (conical headdresses and almond-shaped eyes) and 92 demons in crested helmets do work together, using Vasuki the serpent as the churner. When Mount Mandara (pivot for the snake rope) is sinking, Vishnu pitches in by becoming a tortoise and propping up the mountain. Gods and devils then pull rhythmically, and Vishnu takes on human form to oversee the churning for the next thousand years and to encourage the churners. Finally, success comes and the wonderful elixer, amrita, comes into being. Moral of the story: When Vishnu, small gods, demons, and a serpent work together, we gain the substance that gives both eternal life and marvelous wisdom. Many temple causeways-the long bridges over their moats-show small gods on one side holding Vasuki, and a demon line on the other side also holding Vasuki. Look at the great south gate of the Angkor Thom complex: 54 gods on the left side of the causeway (facing the gate) and 54 bug-eyed demons on the right guard it. Significantly, many of the gods are frowning; they don't look much different from the grimacing demons on the other. The divide between good and evil found in Western religions is not present here. And the equal number of gods and demons almost makes it seem as if Cambodians, much like lobbyists in Washington, wanted to place their bets on both political parties. When Buddhism became dominant in 12th-century Cambodia, the Hindu temples with slight changes were able to go with the flow. Some (like Preah Khan) became ecumenical, with sections devoted to Vishnu worship, Shiva worship, Buddha worship, and ancestor worship. Others emphasized the stories of how a serpent helped the Buddha to transcend human restrictions. At the Bayon temple, one sculpture shows a serpent coiling his body to make a seat that lifts the Buddha off the ground during torrential rains. The Buddha is too deep in meditation to notice the downpour or the scorching sun that follows, so the serpent becomes a hood that protects the Buddha. The Satanic serpent in Genesis 3 was asking, in essence, can't we all just get along? He portrayed himself as a benevolent help to man, helping Adam and Eve to gain knowledge of good and evil. That's certainly how he appeared within 12th-century Cambodian Buddhism. Related story: Compassion in Cambodia Cambodia is not all snakes and superstition. The Khmer Rouge, driven out of Phnom Penh in 1979 after four years of terrorism and the deaths of 2 million Cambodians, tried to wipe out all Western cultural influence except that of Marxism, but 25 years later schools have names like Hello America Kindergarten, The New York City Institute, and Christian Academy. Shortly after dawn, along the pleasantly breezy riverfront, hundreds of Cambodians exercise aerobically to songs like "Wooly Bully" and the Beatles' "Love Me Do." The traditional Russian Market with its small and often sweltering stalls is the place to go to purchase handcrafts or bootleg DVDs of films like The Passion or The Return of the King, but at Phnom Penh's new Western-style shopping mall escalators transport six floors of shoppers to stores selling faddish urban Western clothes like cropped pants and "New York Style" shoes (that store displays a little Statue of Liberty). A supermarket on the bottom floor sells Hormel chili, French's mustard, Wesson oil, and dog shampoo, and the top floor has a ­display of treadmills. Poverty is not far away from these pockets of affluence. Next to a big Nen Monie pagoda with snake statues is a long dusty (except during the rainy season) road that leads to an enormous trash heap on which families live in houses slapped together of corrugated metal and wood. Adults and children squat, picking through piles of rags and junk, looking for anything of value as the sun bears down on them. Kandal Province south of Phnom Penh is a region of gorgeous temples surrounded largely by miserable huts, with traffic ranging from ox carts to the Range Rovers enjoyed by benevolent inspectors from UNESCO and a variety of NGOs. And at the UNESCO-funded Save the Children Center, 10 teenage girls learn to weave and 20 teenage boys learn to repair small machines. One of the girls, Srey Pov, praised the center because she was learning and because "I have enough to eat." But since neither Cambodians nor the rest of us live by bread alone, the greatest hope in Cambodia is emerging from the work of people like Steve and Jill Fisk, two Americans in their 30s who moved to Phnom Penh from Colorado in 1998. Six years ago Steve Fisk, owner of a ­successful landscape and maintenance ­business, took a two-week mission trip to this poor and oppressed nation. He met children who lived on the streets and came back saying incessantly, "I can't believe I left them behind. I can't believe I left them behind." The Fisks had reasons beyond business not to leave behind a life in America. Jill Fisk was pregnant with their third child. Steve's dad was dying. Jill kept thinking that her ­husband's monomania would pass, but he kept saying, "I feel we're outside the will of God." That dangerous frame of mind can underlie foolish adventures, but the Fisks, seeing Steve's agony as coming from God, were not illogical: Since our natural bent is toward selfishness, convictions to altruistic action frequently are inspired. Steve Fisk soon returned to Cambodia with two fellow church members whose job was to eyeball his plan to ­provide homes for Cambodian kids and tell him to slow down or at least get real: What can one family do in a land plagued by such evil? But the two men came back with a sense of conviction as well. In November 1998, just eight months after the initial trip, the Fisks moved to Phnom Penh under the auspices of Asian Hope Cambodia. Even then their commitment wasn't total, because they were planning to supervise adoption of homeless children by Cambodians. They had trouble finding mature ­Christian house parents, though, and without responsible adults the future they wanted for Cambodian children they had come to love seemed impossible-unless they were willing to go all the way, become guardians of Cambodian children, and take them into their own home. They were willing. One commitment led to more as they united brothers and sisters. For example, the Fisks became guardians of fatherless Rena Chheang, born on Jan. 23, 1989. When Steve took Rena out for lunch on her 12th birthday and asked her what birthday present she would like, she replied, "I'd like my brother and sister to live with us." The search for the brother and sister began, and soon the Fisks became guardians of older brother Borah Chheang, who is now in the eighth grade, and younger sister ­Pahnette, a third-grader. Three years ago the Fisks saw that ­children they were physically guarding were not getting a solid Christian education, so they started Logos International School, which now has 200 students. The tuition paid by children of foreign businessmen, missionaries, and upwardly mobile Cambodians makes it possible for 40 percent of the Logos students to receive scholarships. The school rents an airy compound with classrooms, dining hall, basketball court, and swimming pool, with bedrooms for the teachers-most are Americans fresh out of college on one-year, low-paid tours of duty and compassion. Until 3 p.m. the classrooms are filled with students in their light blue shirts; boys wear khaki or dark blue pants, and many girls wear skirts that must be below the knees. One afternoon the third-graders were chanting their spelling words-M-I-L-L-I-O-N, T-H-O-U-S-A-N-D-and older children were studying world history. The horizons of the students certainly have expanded. One history-loving 12-year-old, Srey Nang, asked where she'd like to live if she could be any place at any time, responded "London in 1837. . . . That's when Victoria became queen. . . . I like it that she married Albert because he was handsome and because he could help her with the country." Fifteen-year-old Borah Chheang would like to go to West Point, or secondarily Colorado University, and then become a leader in Cambodian government, with the goal of reducing corruption. Ancient history is alive for Borah: He would like to model his law-giving on Justinian's. After school 36 members of the Fisk family-Steve and Jill, four children born to them, and now 30 Cambodians-return to their eight-bedroom home two blocks away, which the Fisks rent for $600 per month from a Cambodian Christian who was delighted to have her home used for benevolence. Four long tables on a covered veranda are for eating, with children assigned places; older children sit next to younger ones. Four to six children are in bunk beds in each bedroom, with mixed ages also typical. The children born to Steve and Jill are sprinkled into the same rooms as the other kids. The children refer to Jill and Steve as Mom and Dad, and after dinner they gather in the living room to sing hymns ("Be Thou My Vision" one night) and read the Bible, with each child reading one verse, going around the room twice. They pray in an orderly way, and among their prayers is one that Cambodia be an orderly country. That's not a rote request, given Cambodia's jagged past. The Fisks are a prime example of the literal meaning of compassion: suffering with those in need, becoming caught up in their lives. Since the Fisks are guardians rather than adoptive parents-after some recent baby-selling episodes, Cambodian law now does not allow foreigners to adopt ­children-they would have difficulty getting their whole family out should the situation deteriorate, even if they could rent half an airplane. This means that the Fisks are stuck if ­Cambodian life deteriorates once again. Christ could have chosen evacuation when the heat came down on Him-a relief force of 10 thousand angels was at His disposal-but did not. Nor do His followers like the Fisks.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.


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