Sunday, October 28, 2012

Small notes from the Baphuon, Angkor Thom

View from the top of the Baphuon Temple in the temple city of Angkor Thom; this central axis and water ponds (actually moats - the Khmer rulers were hugely fond of them) can compete with Versailles itself, don't you think?  
The Baphuon Temple lies within the temple city of Angkor Thom, just northwest from the temple in my previous post, the Bayon... and these are just two of the countless (well, at it least felt so) marvellous temples in this area, which in its turn is only one of temple areas of the ancient Khmer empire. Which makes me wonder what else did they could have had time and resources to do than to build temples? The Baphuon is the state temple of King Udayadityavarman II, built in the mid-11th century. It is a three tiered temple mountain dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva (some sources say Lingam, so I'm not quite sure, but I go with the guide book I bought in Siem Reap...). I know I'm overusing the word, but amazing is what I thought, and will always do of the creations of the Khmer civilization.
View from the central walkway to the entrance on the east side of the temple - temples in Angkor open to the east, as the Khmer thought is was the direction of life and new beginnings; according to our guide, many people in Cambodia still sleep with their faces to the east. West is considered the direction of closure and death. The moat is almost overgrown, but used to be fully rectangular; sometimes, crocodiles were kept in the moats.

Windows opening from the central, smaller entrance that can be seen in the middle of the first picture.
No, you are not alone anywhere at the Angkor archaeological sites anymore - the place is filled with mostly middle-aged, culturally interested tourists properly clad in sunhats and sensible shoes... but who cares, this place is such a wonder to see. (the two young and pink exceptions above are my daughters, the only kids we saw there during our four day visit).
 Entrance to the inner temple, through a series of stone corridors.
 Opening at the top of the temple...
 The north side of the temple forms a reclining Buddha, which was difficult but possible to see at place, but unfortunately impossible to understand in the photo. The jungle keeps trying to reclaim the temple... and occasionally almost succeeds, as seen in the last photo below. The tree roots are like huge, organic trunks that ruthlessly push their way through the stonework.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Travel notes from The Bayon, Angkor Thom in Cambodia

 The Bayon Temple behind its large moat in the ancient city of Angkor Thom. It was built in the late 12th century as the official state temple of the Khmer King Jayavarman VII, who was a Mahayana Buddhist (many of the earlier rulers in Angkor were Hindus).
Just back from a little trip to Siem Reap in Cambodia, the hometown for Angkor Archaeological Park, of which the Angkor Wat temple is the most famous... Really, there was no end to huge, painstakingly carved and decorated temples looming in the hot Cambodian jungles, each impressive in its own way. I can't get over the amount of hard, raw work that was needed to build and carve these enormous buildings, all constructed without any other power machines than elephants, from the 9th century until early 13th century. What does this have to do with gardens, you might think; not much really, but I wanted to share some of the experience anyway.
Navigating one of the countless galleries of the large temple, with the mysterious stone faces smiling from above.
All surfaces are covered with intricate carvings; here, sitting Buddhas (I need to learn more... my knowledge is so irritatingly limited here!), Apsara dancers performing their classic Khmer style dance, and a female Devata, a guardian spirit.

From the 49 towers of Bayon, 200 carved faces of Lokesvara, the "Lord who looks down",  still smile at visitors, just like they did at the inhabitants of Angkor Thom for nearly a millennium ago.
Lingam, a reminder of the older, Hindu times at Angkor; it is one representation of the Hindu deity Shiva.

Here, a huge Lokesvara seemed to be engaged in a deep discussion with a lesser one... 

 The outer galleries, where snake gods Naga still kept faithfully guard and greeted us goodbye.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Bamboo, mountains and waves of the Canglang Pavilion

 The Canglang Pavilion at the top of the man-made little mountain in the garden carrying its name. Couplets carved in the stone pillars read: "The refreshing breeze and the bright moon are priceless; the nearby water and the distant mountains strike a sentimental note", giving a hint how the garden was meant to offer an escape and a refuge from the city life outside its walls. A group of chatting old ladies played cards in the shade of the pavilion like they would have been in their own garden, completely ignoring the visitors around them.

The Canglang Pavilion  is the oldest of all existing classical gardens in Suzhou - an impressive achievement in a city where no cultural sights worth seeing have less than half a millennium of recorded history behind them. Its pinyin name is Cāng Làng Tíng, and it appears as the Great Wave, Surging Waves or Blue Wave Pavilion in English textbooks and maps - it took me a while to figure out which garden I was trying to visit.
View from the bridge leading to the entrance of the Canglang Pavilion. The Chinese word "garden" has many other common meanings, one of them being "pavilion", which tells of the important role that pavilions play in these gardens.
 A clever double-sided corridor contains two parallel paths; one side offering views of the garden, the other lingering by the water channel and connecting the two viewing pavilions outside the garden (the little boat in the picture above is just around the corner of the lower right picture).

This venerable garden was built in 1044 by Northern Song poet and government official Su Sunqing, who needed a new project to console himself with after being banished from the court of Emperor Renzhong. Disgraced by misdeeds he denied to have committed, Su named his gardens after a poem in book Songs of the South by Qu Yuan (ca. 340 BCE-278 BCE). Qu writes:  "If the Canglang River is dirty I wash my muddy feet; If the Canglang River is clean I wash my ribbon", which implied that an honest official rather retires from politics than acts in a corrupt manner; a message that scholars of that age would have been fully equipped to understand.  

 A covered walkway circles the garden, and imaginative carved windows - some of them showing musical instruments, some formed like fruit, some depicting seasons - in the walls both separate and connect the different parts of the garden. The leaf window below was one of my favorites in its lively simplicity.
Su Sunqing built his garden upon an existing imperial flower garden from the early 900s, incorporating its features into his own design. Despite having been destroyed, rebuilt and restored many times since, some central features remain. A man-made mountain (more like a hill, but of course, a mountain sounds so much more poetic) with meandering pathways and rockeries fills the centre of it , topped by a stone pavilion offering views of the different vistas in the garden. Quite unusually, the main water feature is outside the garden, formed by a public water channel that widens almost into a pond in front of the garden. A clever double-sided corridor contains two parallel paths; one side offering views of the garden, the other lingering by the water channel and connecting the two viewing pavilions outside the garden.
Above: Well-chosen details add discreetly to the visual appeal of the garden; gourds and a vase as door openings; both are auspicious symbols for the Chinese. Below: A plum blossom paving; the flowering plum (Prunus mume) was a highly appreciated under the period of the Song Dynasty and appeared both in poetry, art and as an architectural detail. As it flowers early in spring before all other flowers come out, it has become a symbol for abandonment, retirement and recluse - all so well suited meanings for this garden's initial owner.
Walking through the gardens, the Canglang Pavilion provides cleverly designed views and vistas behind every corner. One moment, you feel like you are climbing the pathways of bamboo covered mountains; next, you enter an elegant pavilion or study with elaborate latticed windows, where the sophistication of the past learned owners and their peers feels almost tangible.  I loved the way this garden open up to the pond-like channel and so connects with its outside environs - most Chinese scholars' gardens hide behind their high wall with no such connection.  Having been open to the public since 1955, much of the intimacy of a scholar's garden has been lost, and it now feels very much the public park it is. Still, given the sad alternative fate of most gardens of its age, it is extremely rare and so lucky that the Ganglang Pavilion is still with us, adding new pages to its millennium-old tale each year that passes.
  Elaborate latticed windows provide shade and offer views to the garden around - over 100 different designs of them can be found in this garden. 

Qing Xian Guan, "The pure fragrance house" from inside and outside - huge, century old Osmanthus tree grow outside its windows, spreading their scent in early winter. The idea comes from a Tang Dynasty poem, that reads approximately as "keep the Osmanthus Fragrance under lock and key, not letting its pure fragrance drift away". (The old couple seemed to have many strong opinions about the plants, unfortunately I wasn't able to understand them).

 A covered walkway winding around the Bu Qi Ting - Pavilion of Walking along Winding Bank;  deep down the bamboo covered sides of the hilly banks is the only small water feature inside the garden walls.

The Mountain-in-View Tower (Kan Shan Lou) with handsome, flying-up eaves overlooks a miniature bamboo grove; there is a rock cave room inside the base of the tower. It was built first in 1873 to provide better views over the southwest corner of the garden.

Guan Yu Chu - The Pavilion for Watching Fishes to the left, as seen from the other side of the outside water channel; it is rare that Chinese scholars' gardens are this open to outside onlookers, but here you can observe the Canglang Pavilion's visitors from afar, without them noticing.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Some bamboo structures from Suzhou

Wonderfully organic bamboo protection for an old Wisteria wine that climbs up a arbor in the Humble Administrator's Garden, Zhuōzhèng Yuán, in Suzhou.

I've always loved the way the Japanese use bamboo in their gardens. They build some amazingly beautiful, architectural bamboo constructions to protect plants from snow, or use it for pergolas, arbors, gates, fences and other elements in their gardens in a deliciously elegant way. While in Suzhou, some lovely bamboo structures, just as beautiful as their Japanese counterparts, caught my eye, so I wanted to share them with you. As bamboo plays such a huge role in the Chinese gardens, these elements blend in so seamlessly, not distracting from the whole but still forming their own, beautiful detail in the whole.
A beautiful umbrella support for a climbing rose, Rosa Banksiae var. normalis with a lovely cinnamon bark, also in the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhuōzhèng Yuán). I would love to have this kind of structure in my garden and drink tea under it... My visit was accompanied by thousands of Chinese visitors spending their Golden Week in Suzhou, so it was very difficult to get photos without any people in them... this guy really seemed determined to be photographed, as he stood in his position while I waited, and waited... and when I finally took my picture and gave up, he left immediately afterwards. Garden photography definitely asks for patience!
Low bamboo fences were used everywhere to protect the gardens from the crowds; unfortunately, they were often not enough to keep them off sensitive plants and details (also in the Humble Administrator's Garden).
Another beautifully architectural arbor shading the working area in the Humble Administrator's Garden, with hundreds of potted azaleas.
A lighter but elegant version of a bamboo arbor that supports a climbing rose, this time in the Great Wave Pavilion, Cāng Làng Tíng - more about it tomorrow.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A morning walk through the Master-of-Nets Garden

The Master-of-Nets Garden (Wǎngshī Yuán) at 7:30 in the morning. The sun is rising above the high walls of the garden. Originally from the Southern Song Dynasty in the 1100s, is has been rebuilt several times through the centuries. Its original name was the Hermit Fisherman Garden, which refers to the owner's retreat from the social life into the natural world.  Built as an abode for an aristocratic family, this small but elegant garden complex is considered one of the most exquisite of its size and type.
The gardens of Suzhou have centuries of history behind them and there is no way of compressing it into blog-sized posts... So I just thought of walking you through the gardens, with small notes on each picture.
I didn't expect to be affected by the gardens of Suzhou as much as I did; their restrained, highly disciplined sophistication definitely struck an unforeseen chord inside me. To be so tightly, intellectually composed - every single stone, plant, window and piece of woodwork has its meaning and place in the garden - and still radiating such serene tranquility and harmony is a lesson in garden making that I won't be forgetting soon.
A paving depicting a crane and a branch of pine in a little courtyard leading to Tiyun Room (Room of Cloud Ladder) seen below. The crane and the pine each symbolize long life. They also symbolize conjugal fidelity: the crane mates for life, and pine needles fall from the tree in pairs.

You can reach a study on the second floor by climbing up the rockery under it. The name of the house refers to a poem verse of "climbing up the ladder of cloud to reach the moon".
To understand these gardens, it is important to study the philosophy behind them deriving from ancient Chinese culture - the principles taught in I Ching and by Taoism and Confucianism, and their related expressions in painting and poetry. I've been spending time trying to grasp this universe of teachings, but of course, my learning is still very limited.  What I would love to mention is that these gardens were not constructed to copy the beauty of nature as it is, but to master the forms and to explore the Tao embedded in them. As Hu Jie mentions in his excellent book The Splendid Chinese Garden - Origins, Aesthetics and Architecture, the Chinese believe that all visible phenomena in nature represent the principle of Tao, and can thus become objects of art and have artistic value. So the "nature" in Chinese gardens is not simply a copied miniature of real mountains and waters, but a world that has experienced human construction, generalizing, processing and refining, and thus represents the supreme spiritual realm of the natural world as a "condensed mini-universe in human embrace", as Hu Jie puts it. And so they felt, complete in their own beauty and serenity, offering new delightful views and sights behind every unfolding nook and corner.
Climbing in an out of the rockeries resembling mountains. Confucius wrote that "the wise likes water, while the benevolent likes mountains"; in Chinese garden art the mountain is considered as benevolent, silent and everlasting, and thus an inspiration for human thought.
 "The Watching Pines and Appreciating Paintings Studio" - watching evergreen pines in the winter had metaphorical associations, and "appreciating paintings" referred to being able to read and gain understading of paintings as pictorial records of philosophic thoughts and concepts.
In and out from the studio; a view through latticed doors and a moongate all the way to the Rose Cloud Pool that forms the center of the garden.
First rays of sun climbing over the high walls to an enclosed courtyard by the Wu Feng Study, with a carefully orchestrated scenery of rocks, grasses, osmanthus and tree peonies. A great example of how in Chinese garden art, even the smallest of spaces can feel indefinite, as they a built like condenced miniature worlds and sceneries.
Beautiful woodwork and latticed windows; I love the way the columns stand on a rounded stone.
Inside the Dianchun Yi Study; borrowed views through windows are a key element in Chinese garden design.
Another study; unfortunately, I lost my notes for which one, but I thought this would be a perfect study for a "gentleman" writing poetry about bamboo or some other masculine subject...
A covered pathway leading to Gallery of Osmathus Clusters on Hill - the roofs provide shade in summer and protect from rain in winter.
Sheya corridor and the central pond called the Rosy Cloud Pool; the corridor was named after a duck shooting game that was popular among the maidens serving in the royal palaces in the ancient times. The Moon Comes with Breeze pavilion with a lantern on the right.
The Pavilion for Washing Cap-Ribbon on the left, and the The Moon Comes with Breeze pavilion with a lantern again on the right.
Walking around the central pond that feel much larger than its size (it is only about 330 sqm); and yet another view of the The Moon Comes with Breeze pavilion.
Several carved windows both connect and separate the different courtyards of the garden, and always provide carefully thought-of views for the garden wanderer.
Elaborate stones from Lake Taihu by the Pavilion of Cold Spring; these stones were especially appreciated for their imaginative forms and in the end became so popular that craftsmen started chiseling copies of them by hand. Carved windows extend the garden beyond the walls.
A champion bridge. I leave you with a picture of a small stone bridge in the southeastern part of the pond that I photographed quite accidentally. Only afterwards I noticed it in Hu Jie's book, with a note that "it is so exquisite that it is ranked as a champion among all smallscaled bridges in all the gardens of Suzhou". Honestly, I would never have guessed. There is so much to know and to understand, and it would take years to really learn to appreciate these gardens as the true connoisseurs do. But even with my limited knowledge, I do enjoy their quiet elegance and charm.