Spiritual Ecology: A Quiet Revolution
The image displayed on the front cover of this book is from the Ta Prohm (pronounced ta proh-me), one of the spectacular ancient temples in the famous city of Angkor in the northeast of present day Cambodia. Founded by god-king Jayavarman II, Angkor was the center of the Khmer empire from the 9th to the 15th century. It was a Hindu religious complex with about 100 temples, the most famous being Angkor Wat originally devoted to the Hindu god Vishnu. Angkor Wat was designed as a symbolic model of the universe in the traditional cosmology of Hinduism. The temples of the city of Angkor were appropriated by Buddhism in the 11th century.
Angkor was the culmination of some 1,500 years of historical development. A population of a million people was associated with this site extending over 100 square miles, the largest population concentration in the world at the time. It was sustained by an extensive system of wet rice production with natural irrigation from seasonal fluctuations in the flow of water from the great lake of Tonle Sap. The Khmer empire flourished while Europe was in the Dark Ages, and Angkor remains the world’s largest religious complex.
Construction of Ta Prohm by thousands of laborers was initiated in the late 12th century by the King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), the last of the great kings of Angkor. It was originally known as Rajavihara (royal monastery of the king). It was intended to transfer merit to the king’s dying mother. The temple occupied about 2.5 acres while the associated settlements covered about 148 acres. The latter included over 3,000 villages and 79,000 people. Subsequently the temple was enlarged by Indravarman II. The cover photo on the book includes the lower trunk and roots of the ancient giant trees associated with Ta Prohm, silk-cotton from the genus Ceiba and strangler fig from the genus Ficus.
The temples of Angkor became a Yatra, a pilgrimage site for centuries for people throughout much of Southeast Asia. However, it was sacked by Thais in 1431 and by 1432 almost entirely abandoned. During more than four centuries the tropical rainforest gradually recovered and essentially obscured the site. Until recently, most of the stone ruins of Ta Prohm remained embraced by the luxuriant plant growth of the forest. It was initially left that way by French archaeologists and others to show how most of Angkor appeared when this “lost city in the jungle” was discovered in the 19th century. Other sites were more exposed by clearing most of the vegetation.
The decline and fall of the Khmer empire may be explained by a combination of factors, but environmental degradation was an important one and maybe the ultimate one. As Udom Hong (2007) argues: “While it was centuries of conflict with neighboring kingdoms that eventually drove the Khmer Empire into decline, the root cause of the fall of this ancient civilization can be attributed to a gradual degradation in forest, water, and soil resources.”
Angkor was discovered in 1858 and subsequently publicized worldwide by the French explorer and naturalist Henri Mouhot. Restoration began in 1908 and has continued to this day, except during periods of civil strife in the 1970s and 1980s. Famous as a sacred place of awesome religious architecture and art as well as a pilgrimage and meditation site, Angkor was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. (For a visual tour of Angkor and other remarkable sacred sites of Cambodia, Bali, and Java, see the exquisite documentary film titled Prajna Earth: Journey into Sacred Nature by John Bush).
While the cover photo from Ta Prohm is amenable to various interpretations, for the present book it reflects the connection between spirituality and ecology, the surprising fragility and rapid decline of a great civilization even though it endured for centuries, and the ultimate resilience of nature. In the long-term, the idea that humans can dominate nature is simply a delusion; instead, a far more powerful nature inevitably dominates humans. The resilience of nature is the subject of a captivating book by Alan Weisman titled The World Without Us. Grounded in science, he imagines the processes of the recovery of nature if the human species were to become extinct.