Lost & Found - Bhangarh, Angkor Wat, Sigiriya and more
As bastions of culture and repositories of art, Petra, Bhangarh, Angkor Wat, Sigiriya and Ayutthaya are as relevant today as they were in their halcyon days of glory. That’s the common leitmotif running through these five ancient cities of the world, each a vestige of immeasurable magnificence and grandeur where legends live on.
With a rather sonorous lilt to it, the very name Petra instantly conjures up images of a lost city swaddled in the sands of time, ready to be unravelled by the intrepid traveller in search of the mysterious and the exotic. Sculpted out of soft limestone rock, this archaeological wonder was built and inhabited by the ancient Nabateans to serve as their capital city from the 4th century BC to 106 AD. Today proclaimed as one of the Wonders of the Ancient World, Petra is Jordan’s pride and joy. A visit to this open air museum is incomplete without a wander down the Siq which is a narrow fissure, dramatically carved through the towering rocks and languorously making its way down a meandering path. A short walk down the Siq brings you to Petra’s most famous building, the Al Khazneh or Treasury. The 40-metre-high rose-red structure is carved from a single block of solid rock. Although it was originally a royal tomb, legend tells us it got its name because there was treasure hidden in the giant urn, which stands on the second level. A little further on, the show reaches a crescendo as you take in the sheer scale and beauty of the dramatic amphitheatre.
Don’t miss: The rewarding end-of-the-day trek to the monastery called the al-Deir at the far end of the city to catch the rays of the setting sun cast a salmon-pink blush over everything in sight.
Call it a sixth sense, a mind game or plain old paranoia, but the spook-laced legend of Bhangarh comes alive the minute you step into its rather eerie precincts. A feeling as though you are being followed, sudden drafts of chilly wind and an inexplicable sense of despair seem to loom over you here. Built in the 17th century AD, this fortified, walled city on the edge of the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan is one of India’s best kept secrets and the inhabitants of the neighbouring marble carving village of Gola Ka Bas would like to keep it that way. Once a prosperous, intellectual and arts-driven city with a thriving marketplace, housing complexes, temples and even a dance school, the city’s denizens allegedly vanished into thin air one night somewhere in the late 1600s after the city was cursed by an occult magician. Today, its only inhabitants are rival groups of rhesus macaques and the long-tailed, black-faced langurs who don’t seem to mind the occasional tourist onslaught. A wander through the wonderfully quaint stone streets lined with perfectly formed homes and shops, stopping to take in the beauty of the Someshwar and Gopinath temples are just some of the ways to let Bhangarh hold you in its vice-like grip.
Don’t miss: The few remaining intricately carved etchings on the walls of the once seven-storied Bhangarh Palace Fort located at the top end of the city.
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
Rising out of the thick, verdant foliage that forces your mind to come up with names for the many different shades of green, the sight of the Angkor Wat city and temple complex is a mighty jolt to the senses. And this, after a lazy introduction to the sleepy north-west Cambodian town of Siem Reap which is the host city to this complex. As the only monument in the world to find a place on its country’s national flag, the Angkor Wat complex built by King Suryavarman II between the 9th and 13th century AD is heavily influenced by both the Kalinga architecture of Odisha and the Chola style of Tamil Nadu and is dedicated to Lord Vishnu. The main Angkor temple is a representation of Mount Meru, the home of the Gods, while the central colonnade of five towers is said to symbolise the five peaks of the mythical mountain with the moat (the ocean) surrounding the mountain ranges. The other smaller minor temples in the complex include the imposing Bayon temple built by King Jayavarman VII that is famous for its carved stone face structures modelled after the bodhisattva of compassion called Avalokitesvara, as Jayavarman was a Buddhist.
Don’t miss: The ruins of the Ta Prohm temple that had a starring role alongside Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
As much as it is a geographical wonder, Ayutthaya (or to use its formal name, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya) is also a centuries-old cultural bastion for Thailand, modelled and named after our very own Ayodhya, the birth place of Lord Rama here in India. An island formed at the confluence of three rivers, this compact little city—two hours away by road from the urban chaos of Bangkok—was once the hallowed capital of the Hindu kingdom of Siam from 1350 to 1767 AD when it fell to the neighbouring Burmese who destroyed most of its stunning monuments and looted its closely guarded treasures. But a few gems have still managed to escape the ravages of time and plunder. Chief among them is the Wat Phra Si Sanphet with its three bell-shaped chedi or stupa and the Wihaan Phra Mongkhon Bophit, home to Thailand’s largest seated bronze Buddha. If you ever happen to find yourself here on a proper full moon night, your senses will be treated to the beauty of the Loi Krathong festival where tiny boats holding candles are floated on the three rivers to appease the river goddess.
Don’t miss: The statue of the Buddha engulfed by the roots of an ancient banyan tree at the Khmer-style Wat Phra Mahathat temple in the centre of the island.
Sigiriya, Sri Lanka
Imagine this: an enormous lion carved out of dense rock, looming large on a raised platform over a mini city replete with a stunning marble palace, manicured gardens, public baths, etc. All this, built in the 5th century AD, under the auspices of the mighty Sinhala King Kasyapa, who, in the year 491, was defeated and overthrown by Moggallana, his half-brother and rightful heir to the Anuradhapura throne. Today, the ancient city of Sigiriya, nestled in the very heart of the teardrop island of Sri Lanka in the Matale District, is one of the main trump cards, drawing visitors to this UNESCO World Heritage Site in droves. Used as a Buddhist monastery up until the 14th century, all that is left of the aforementioned giant lion today are its two mighty paws. But scratch beneath Sigiriya’s craggy surface and you’re sure to unearth innumerable treasures. From the awe-inspiring beauty of the vividly painted frescoes of apsaras onto the rock face and carved pond at the top of the summit to the trio of special ornamental gardens and the eerie Cobra Hood Cave, a day spent here is über-rewarding to say the very least.
Don’t miss: The ancient 685 graffiti messages scribbled between the 6th and 14th century by travellers of yore onto the three-metre-high Mirror Wall named so due to its polished, gleaming façade.
This article first appeared in May 2014 issue of Hi! BLITZ magazine