Less than a mile from Angkor Thom lie the ruins of Ta Prohm, perhaps the most photogenic of all the temples near Siem Reap, in northern Cambodia. Like the Bayon temple at Angkor Thom, Ta Prohm was built by the iconic king Jayavarman VII as a monument to Mahayana Buddhism.
Construction of Ta Prohm (“ancestor Brahma”) was begun in 1186 A.D. The spacious temple was originally known as Rajavihara, “the Monastery of the King,” and it was built to honor the king’s mother. Her face was used as the model for the central image, that of Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom.
The temple apparently also served as a monastery and training school for monks, and in it heyday it was a beehive of activity: a rare inscription found at Ta Prohm claims that the site was home to 12,500 people including 2,700 officials of various sorts and 615 dancers, with 80,000 other persons in surrounding villages providing support services. Even with an allowance for considerable royal exaggeration, Ta Prohm must have been a vibrant and happening place.
The life went out of Ta Prohm with the fall of the Khmer empire in the 15th century, however. The temple was abandoned, and the verdant jungle slowly swallowed it. Few Westerners knew of its existence until it was publicized by French explorer Henri Mouhot in the mid-19th century, and civil war in Cambodia rendered it unsafe until the late 1990s, but it is now one of the country’s most popular sites.
The modern curators of Ta Prohm have done much to reclaim the temple’s 39 towers and many corridors from the jungle, while leaving a number of the more picturesque silk cottonwood and spung trees, whose massive roots have crumbled much of the temple, while holding other parts of it in place.
The surprising sight of sturdy temple walls crumbling in the grip of giant reptilian roots is not soon lost on the visitor. One tries to imagine the grandeur of the place before invasive roots now long decayed dislodged huge stones that litter the passageways and make some of them impassable. One wonders what now lies hidden, like the face of a once-proud devata that peers implacably through a crack in the encroaching blanket of rootstock.
Walking through the ruins of Ta Prohm, the thoughtful Christian cannot help but ponder the reality of churches that once harbored a vitality that is now rootbound and lost behind the overgrowth of traditions that have nothing to do with faith, or cultural concessions that preserve only occasional glimpses at the face and the call of Jesus.
I’ve never seen a church with physical trees growing like steeples from their roofs, or with giant roots breaking through the stained glass, but I have seen the metaphorical equivalent, and it is neither picturesque nor pretty.
Deep in the heart of Ta Prohm, a small but tall room still serves its original purpose as a meditative echo chamber. Clapping, shouting, or whistling have no effect at all — but one who stands by the wall and strikes his or her chest with a fist is greeted by a deep and resonant THOOM … oom … that sets the whole body vibrating and lends thoughtful overtones to the sense of communion with God.
It’s easy to get distracted and lose track of what church as the body of Christ should be all about. Perhaps, when we gather in our churches, a bit more beating of the breast could lead us to resonate more clearly with the One who is the true and firmly grounded root of our faith.