Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Cambodia: A Circus Arena in Angkor.

Angkor was in my mind, before my visit in June 2007, an archeological site with astonishing temples considered one of the wonders of the world. It was that, of course. But Angkor was and is, even now and more and more, the capital city of a great empire with an impressive culture which influenced other groups all around the Indochina Peninsula: the Khmer culture. It had its own style in Art, Religion (even with Hinduism and Buddhism influence) and Urbanity.

Regarding Performing Arts, Khmer artistic manifestations were a wonderful source of fantasy and technical “codification”, as anyone is able to notice all over their buildings whose walls are full of carvings depicting dances and festivities.

Angkor was not only temples, it was a huge population (of around 2 million at its peak) living in a fastuous city. This people needed not only religion and food but spectacles as well, and one of them was the circus. The ancient city of Angkor had its own Circus Arena, similar to those Romans used to have: a large earthen surface surrounded by walls, on one side a place for spectators, on the other side “the arena” with towers and space for any event on it.
It is believed that the Khmer Circus consisted of different kind of spectacles with animals, actors and dancers, jugglers, acrobats, and tightrope-walkers. Like in Roman ages there were big scenes of hunting and war.

The principal attraction in this site is the “elephant wall”, a large 12th century wall with sculptures of dozens of elephants and several bas-reliefs depicting scenes of spectacles (1). Facing that wall and just imagining that world full of life I trembled with emotion. Today only ruins and stones lay there.

You will see a video showing just a part of my description. You’ll have to do your part, using the pause button and carefully watching every carving: then you will discover those acrobats, wrestlers, actors and dancers among hunting and war scenes. While seeing the towers you must imagine those ropes and their tightrope-walkers trying not to fall and doing anything to attract the spectators’ attention.

There is not much information about the Khmer Circus, but you can visit the Blog of a Cambodian company that is trying to come to life again with this spectacle:

(1) This and other walls of the Circus Arena in Angkor are 350 meters long, all of them carved with images. The video only shows carvings depicting those with performing arts scenes, but there are religious images in a high percentage as well.

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