Temples De-Coded happens quietly once a week within an attap-roofed pavilion at Tangram Garden in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Nicholas Coffill, creative director of Bambu Stage, begins his presentation by drawing a map of the world in black ink. Then he invites a guest to help him draw the hexagramic frame that forms the basis of the structures in Cambodia’s renowned Angkor temple complex.
Using site photography, projections, live drawings projected onto overhead screens, sound effects, music, and plaster cast miniature models of Angkor, he creates – with Bambu Stage co-creators Jon de Rule and Wab Peakdeay – “an experience for the first time visitor to Angkor that blows all the guide books out of the water and implants a mind map they can take to ANY temple”.
“Temples was a most delicate project and terrifying to do,” says Coffill.
“Because there have been so many archaeologists, historians, researchers under Unesco (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) coming out with the academic facts. I can only present a generalist history. I can’t put in all the details – like the fact that in the early history of this region, there were more female queens than male kings; this was prior to the rise of Angkor. Early cultures had a greater power sharing between the sexes. Later it became more militaristic and more of a boys’ game.”
The idea of Temples began percolating with Coffill’s journey up the Kulen Mountains, 48km from Siem Reap.
“We start right back with the essential Khmer values about the natural world, spirit houses and the guardians of the monsoon.
“With Wab Peakdeay’s help we built a model of a typical Angkorian temple that could be readily constructed as the talk progressed. From the very early and simple brick prasat (temple) in the Kulen Mountains to the huge complexes of the 14th century, they all have common ways of seeing the universe and humankind’s role within it.”
Facing the spectacle that is Angkor Wat, the most well-known of the temples within the 400 sq km of the Angkor Archaeological Park, with such a mind map took one way beyond the “been there, done that” mind set. Walking through its elaborate gates and causeways, extended porticoes, beautiful partitions and galleries and storehouses, and past long, long bas-reliefs that told epic stories, that deeper understanding helped to transport one to the ninth century.
To imagine what life was like in the largest pre-industrial city in the world. And then there, amidst some solitary space within this sandstone wonderment, there is a chance to find one’s own spiritual connection with the gods.