Dvaravati (6.3) The ‘Green Dvaravati Buddha of Ayutthaya

Comparing from the larger, better-known sites at Ayutthaya, the most remarkable thing about Wat Phra Men is that it is intact. After a day wandering around the island with its broken pillars, mounds of shattered bricks and cracking stucco, it is a surprise to see that this still a functioning wat with a roof on top. While the structures on the island had been all but obliterated by the ferocious onslaught of an invading Burmese army in 1772, this one wat had been left unmolested by their cannons. So why had the Burmese spared this little temple when so many larger and more magnificent specimens had been dealt with so ruthlessly? It seems that the answer was nothing more than superstition.

The later Ayutthaya period had been of frequent warfare and constant instability. During a previous Burmese military campaign, a Burmese king by the name of Bayinnaung had been killed when soldiers were trying to fire cannon on Wat Phra Men in a mid-sixteenth century campaign. The cannon had malfunctioned, killing the king instead. Taking it as a bad omen, the wat had been spared in the next war. This was fortunate for tourists as it meant that there was one Ayutthaya-era wat at the site to compare with all the ruined examples. In entering Wat Phra Men with its twin rows of pillars supporting a sharply sloping wooden roof, I realized that all the lonely pillars set in rows about Ayutthaya would once have supported ornate wooden roofs, topped with coloured tiles. It reinforced for us the scale of the devastation the Burmese had unleashed. And indeed it had so demoralized the Thais that they relocated their capital to Bangkok.

But the fact of it being intact was not the only surprise at Wat Phra Men. After we had seen the main wat, we went into the smaller bot to the side and were met by a massive Buddha statue, which was being fervently worshipped by Thai devotees. Outside were a pile of sandals where the locals had cast off their shoes. Following this cue, I dropped my shoes at the door and went inside into the reverential gloom. There were a number of Thai women kneeling before the large, greenish stone Buddha. At about 4.2 metres in height, it was described as being three times human scale- in which case the locals were much shorter then than are today- and it was famously seated in ‘European style’ with its legs hanging and its feet on the ground. While this might not seem a particularly remarkable circumstance to the average tourist, when you remember that most Buddha statues from Thailand are seated in the lotus position, this seating posture might start to seem of greater interest. For the serious Buddhist art scholar, every gesture of the legs, body and hands is imbued with religious significance and each different posture can be viewed as a reference to a particular story from the Buddhist scriptures; it probably also has a specific Sanskrit term to describe it.

The upshot of all the discussion about this seated posture is that it is typical of the Buddhist depictions from Nakhon Pathom, which was probably the largest settlement in Lower Thailand during the Mon or Dvaravati period. Many reliefs and statues have been found in that city which depict the Maitreya Buddha, or Buddha of the future world, in a seated position with his right hand raised in a teaching position and his left resting on his leg. In short, art historians had categorized this is a Mon-Dvaravati rather than a Thai sculpture. For this and other reasons it was believed that this monumental 4.2 metre tall Buddha had been transported here all the way from Nakhon Patham, probably in the fifteenth century, when the Ayutthaya kingdom was at the height of its power and splendour. The kings of Ayutthaya would doubtless have thought that this revered Buddhist statue, which had already been worshipped by the inhabitants of Nakhon Pathom for seven hundred years at that point, would have brought glory and distinction to their new capital. It had not survived the fourteen centuries since its creation entirely in one piece, however. The hands of this Buddha were both resting on its knees, but this was thought to be due to a poor-quality restoration at one point: the original teaching position hand had been broken off.

For the Thai visitors, this was clearly a revered image and they could be seen praying fervently before it. Previous devotees had left all manner of offerings before it, such as incense, small statues and glittering ornaments. What impressed me most was the size of the thing, the sombre beauty of its black stone and the large head with its tight curls of hair. Sitting there in its flowing robes, as if on a throne, it was a commanding presence. And the idea that it was one thousand three hundred years old, dating back to a previous kingdom that I’d only just heard of and which pre-dated the arrival of the Thais in this part of the country greatly intrigued me. Apart from wanting to know more about this Mon kingdom, Dvaravati, and how it had influenced the Thais who had later occupied the region, I was curious about just how it had got there. I wondered if Ayutthaya had started off as a Mon settlement and had later been conquered by Thai invaders from the north. While the guidebook mentions its age and the fact that it is of Mon provenance, they don’t explain how it got there. It was to be many years before I came across the notion of it being transported there in an academic paper.

After viewing the image, I met with Cameron again outside. Not having any religious beliefs at all, he felt awkward entering active places of worship, feeling somehow that he was disrespecting the believers. He had a quick look at the statue from the doorway and had then waited outside for me. I shared my thoughts with him about the statue and he said that he had never even heard of the Mon or Dvaravati, which prompted a little more discussion. Just outside the compound there was a woman selling chilli squid, which she was barbecuing over hot coals on wooden skewers. Cameron suggested we give them a try and so we stood outside Wat Phra Men, waiting for the squid to cook and feeling content with our day’s sightseeing. As the sun went down over Ayutthaya with the brilliant golden appearance of the interior of a Thai wat, I thought about the ‘Black’ Dvaravati Buddha inside Wat Phra Men and of the Burmese attack on Ayutthaya, and it pleased me to think that the statue had been a magic talisman which protected this wat from destruction by Burmese cannons. My interested in Dvaravati had been peaked.

The Buddha of Wat Phra Men, seated in the ‘European’ style
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Dvaravati (6.1) Our First Trip to Thailand

Cameron and I first visited Thailand in October 1999 on the way to the Middle East. Thailand was then in the ascendant as a tourist destination for sun-starved Scandinavians and other Northern Europeans but it not yet quite as swarming with British lager louts and Danish retirees as it is today. Today the Thais are pickier with their farang (Westerners) than they were then. Backpackers crossing overland in Thailand now only get fifteen-day stays stamped into their passports, while fly-in tourists, viewed as being a better class of farang, still get a full month. As upmarket resorts have spread throughout Southern Thailand, making it one of the beach-holiday destinations of choice for the international jet-set, Thailand has started to turn its nose up at the grubby backpackers who put the country on the tourist map. Back then the Thailand tourist scene was much less of a luxurious affair, with the majority of tourists falling into the backpacker or sex tourist category.

      Arriving at the older, more central Bangkok airport, only a few years from retirement, we received our one month tourist visa and walked down to the Don Muang train station to catch a train into town. This visit to Thailand was the prelude to our ‘Grand Tour’ from Iran to Egypt, which was to take us across a pre-War on Terror, pre-revolutionary Middle East, still offering that inimical mix of warm Arab hospitality and political oppression. Eager to be at Persepolis, Palmyra and the Pyramids, we were not, perhaps, in the best frame of mood to enjoy what Thailand has to offer and we found ourselves somewhat underwhelmed.

     Still we tried our best and saw the main royal capitals past and present with their glittering array of wats, viharas, stupas, chedis and colonnaded galleries, full of gold-leaf plastered Buddhas. Heading north from Bangkok to Chiang Mai we got the main chronology of Thai royal capitals down pat, even if by seeing them south to north you get them backwards historically speaking. The original Thai capital, Sukothai, is the furthest to the north and the capital since the late eighteenth century, Bangkok, is the furthest to the south. Nonetheless, the historical sequence of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya, Bangkok was introduced to us, giving us a sense of the southward movement of the Thai people, as they gradually relocated their civilization in the Chao Phraya River basin.

       After we had done these capitals, followed by Chiang Mai, the capital of the former kingdom of Lanna- a sort of Northern branch of the Thai historical sequence, we flew across to Mae Hong Son in the mountains along the border with Burma. From there we headed south through the hill tribe country along the Burmese border, stopping off in the small towns of Mae Saring and Mae Sot. While this part of the country has its keen promoters, you probably need to go trekking to enjoy it probably and by staying in the immediate vicinity of the towns, we were less than excited. A couple of lively markets are all that have made much of an impression from this distance in time. Tiring of the border town route, we caught a bus from Mae Sot all the way to Isaan- the country’s dry, comparatively poor Northeast region. This took us across the misty mountains, cloaked in forest, from which the great rivers of lower Thailand rise. We never made it back there but we probably should have, as these remote mountainous areas are among the most beautiful in the country. At the end of our thirty days of wandering, we flew out of Bangkok, heading off to Turkey via Germany. But if this leg of the journey was not an entire success, it did give us an introduction to the kingdoms of Thailand, including that most elusive and little-understood of mainland South-East Asian kingdoms: the former Mon kingdom of Dvaravati, which many people will tell you didn’t even exist. These two encounters with Dvaravati happened randomly during the journey outlined above: the first encounter coming at Ayutthaya and the second in the modern city of Khon Kaen, near the centre of Isaan. 

A Dvaravati cakra wheel at the site of Sri Thep
A Dvaravati cakra wheel at the site of Sri Thep

Phimai Sanctuary in Thailand

One of the best places to get acquainted with Thailand’s long history as part of the Angkor Empire is in the small country town of Phimai, in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. Here on the dry Khorat Plateau, deep inside modern Thailand, you will find a beautiful lotus-blossom-shaped Khmer temple, which many people say was a forerunner of Angkor Wat itself. Most of the outer walls of the complex are still standing and these laterite walls have a wonderfully pitted, time-worn quality. You get a clear sense of the idea of a contained sacred space from these walls, which are found right in the middle of the modern town of Phimai.

But it is the central sanctuary within which is the real treasure. The sanctuary at Phimai was originally Buddhist, like Angkor Wat itself, and it is interesting that both were Buddhist monuments built within a culture where Hindu temple-building was more pronounced. The Angkor parallels do not end there either: both have a naga walkway leading up to the main sanctuary and the main towers of both temples are in the form of a lotus bud. Angkor Wat, however, has five buds, while Phimai, the earlier temple, has only one. Some of the charms of this site are also original and unique, however. In particular, the stonework has a softness and sensuousness that is only enhanced by the pink tinge which runs through it. The soft, pink hues of the stone, paired with the lotus bud form, only increase the exoticism of this sanctuary.

Phimai is also a good place to contemplate ancient South-East Asia. After all, this temple predates Angkor Wat by 100 years, dating from a time when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages. 1000 years ago, an ancient imperial highway- the so-called Dharmasala Route- ran directly from here to the Khmer capital of Angkor, a mere 225 kms away. A visit here is a very good way to go back to a time when this remote part of rural Thailand was a hub of one of Asia’s great empires. There is no doubt that Phimai must have been an important ceremonial centre as the whole road to Angkor from here is lined with lesser sanctuaries and even hospitals. This was one of the nubs of Khmer civilization.

 

The main tower seen through a doorway
The main tower seen through a doorway

Tatibins: The Third Kind of Ship Cloth

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A colorful tatibin, the third type of ship cloth

 

Lampung has a rich hand-woven textiles heritage, which clearly has its roots in the pre-Islamic period. There were three main kinds of ceremonial cloths produced in the southern Sumatran province. The best known were the massive pelapai wall-hangings, which were the preserve of the Lampungese chiefly families. They are very impressive textiles of some two or three metres length and would mostly have been used as part of the tableau at wedding ceremonies.

The second and most ubiquitous kind of hand-woven textiles were the small kain tampan, which commoners were also free to weave and display at weddings, circumcisions, births and funerals. But there is a third, very rare, category which are often skimmed over on books and websites on this subject: these are the tatibins, of which you can see an example above. Like the palepais the tatibins often features highly stylized images of a grand ship, surrounded by mythological beings. The handsome sample seen here originates from the Kota Agung region of Lampung, to the east of the provincial capital.

Funan Rising Sun Coin

The first kingdom in the history of Cambodia was Funan, which rose to prominence in the Mekong Delta by connecting in to international sea-routes carrying luxury goods around the Indian Ocean and beyond. It was also the first Cambodian kingdom to produce its own coins. These coins are usually made of silver or tin and the quality of their artistry varies considerably between specimens. The existence of Funanese coinage emphasizes the increasingly mercantile nature of the Funan kingdom and the need for a unit of stored value. 

Judging from the specimens on display online, easily the most common design for Funanese coins was the rising sun design. It features a line down the centre with six more spokes of sunlight on each side, with a small pellet or bead placed between them. The whole sun is often surrounded by a ring and beyond  that is a border of small beads or pellets which stretches all the way around. On the reverse is a stylised wat or temple design known as srivatsa, which was popular in both the Mon and Khmer kingdoms of the early historical era.

A silver Funan coin
A silver Funan coin

Funan and Chenla (1.8) A Highway to a War

 Sambor Prei Kuk, the modern name for the archaeological site of the Chenla capital, divides Western travellers. This is probably due to the influence of Angkor, which is easily South-East Asia’s most famous historical site. Widely hailed as one of Asia’s incomparable sights, Angkor Wat’s kilometre-long bas reliefs and soaring lotus-bud towers are a hard act to follow. You will find their stately silhouettes everywhere in modern Cambodia from the cheaply-made oil paintings on the walls of restaurants and hotels, to the label of the country’s favorite brew, Angkor Beer. But the idea put forward by many travellers of Sambor Prei Kuk being a big letdown after Angkor is a mistake, because the Chenla capital of Isanapura was constructed five hundred years before Angkor’s greatest temple.

   What these tourists mean of course is that they saw Angkor first and Sabor Prei Kuk was tacked on later in their itinerary, often as a kind of afterthought. While it is easy to understand why tourists would start their Cambodian travels at Angkor (and with the rise of Siem Reap as a fly-in destination, tourists often venture no further), this is backwards chronologically. The chronology for Cambodian kingdoms is Funan, followed by Chenla, followed by Angkor and lastly arriving at the Buddhist kingdom of Cambodia, which is much smaller than the Angkor Empire at its peak. To judge everything in Cambodia in relation to Angkor Wat is to view everything else as less worthy or impressive than the artistic and cultural pinnacle of the culture. The travellers who post comments like, “There’s nothing much to see at Sambor Prei Kuk,” or, “It’s a big disappointment after Angkor”, are missing the drama of the gradual evolution of Khmer civilization. Perhaps a better way to approach a visit to Sambor Prei Kuk is to anticipate seeing South-East Asia’s earliest temple city, where more than a hundred stone temples formed the symbolic and politic core of the Chenla Empire.  It was founded around the end of the sixth century by a former Dangkrek Mountains chief known as Bhavavarman, whose war-like father Viravarman had given the whole kingdom-building process a kick-start. After the death of Bhavavarman, the crown passed to his brother Citrasena, who had also been a Dangkrek Mountan chief at an earlier phase of life. Upon succeeding to the throne, Citrasena had adopted the more regal-sounding name of Mahendravarman and he too had ruled from Isanapura. But it was his son, Isanavarman who is remembered as the greatest of Chenla kings and his reign was marked by the frantic temple-building which was to be the hallmark of all subsequent Khmer kings until the end of the eleventh century. And his main legacy was his namesake city, Isanapura, which still constitutes the most impressive archaeological remains of the whole era.

Reaching Sambor Prei Kuk today presents only modest difficulties. There is no public transport to the site, but you can rent a rahork (tuk-tuk) there and back for fifteen dollars, with a few hours’ waiting time. From Stung Sen you follow the new road to the spectacular temple of Preah Vihear, which is the subject of border tensions between Cambodia and Thailand, and is perched atop a peak in the Dangrek Mountain chain which was always the ancestral homeland of the Chenla kings. Along with Chinese imperialist ambitions to various Filipino and Vietnamese islands in the South China Sea, the Cambodian-Thai dispute over Preah Vihear was the hottest border row in South-East Asia. Awarded to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice in 1962, mostly on the basis that it was a Khmer temple (and in spite of the fact that it was one hundred metres on the Thai side of the frontier), this contentious temple had seen exchanges of bomb and mortar fire in recent years, periodically making headlines.

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The classic profile of Preah Vihear

   The overland slog to Preah Vihear had, within recent memory, been an epic three-day overland jaunt on roads with crater-sized potholes,  but the sound of gunfire had focused Cambodian minds and a new road had been built, linking the border temple with Stung Sen, with unbroken tarmac stretching out in a straight line towards the frontier. We hadn’t been on it five minutes before we saw jeeps and trucks heading off toward Preah Vihear in a military convoy.

   “I wonder where the Khmers got the money to build this road,” said Cameron skeptically, “There’s no way they paid for it themselves.”

   “Foreign aid donors?” I suggested.

   “Maybe,” said Cameron, “Or maybe the Chinese. ‘We’ll let you build a casino and a golf-course in a national park and all you have to do is built a sealed road to Preah Vihear so we can sabre-rattle more effectively against the Thais. But don’t worry, we promise not to start anything really serious.’ “

   This skeptical interpretation of Cambodian foreign relations jogged my memory of a story I’d been told by Bill, a former Idaho potato farmer who’d relocated to Phnom Penh to teach English and play house with a young Khmer woman.  His corner of the staffroom was mostly a hotbed of Phnom Penh expat community gossip, but it also devoted quite a lot of time to international politics and conspiracy theories.

    He had told me that the rumor was that the Preah Vihear border dispute was really just a cover for another one of Cambodia’s infamous  grabs. In recent years there had been a worrying trend where poor Khmer peasants had been evicted from their land without compensation, with shadowy figures in the government and military being the main beneficiaries. The country does not attract much international press attention, except for the Khmer Rouge trials, but some of these cases of dispossessing poor villagers had made some international waves. As Phnom Penh had boomed over the past decade, the land on the fringes of the city had become valuable and the powerless migrants living in makeshift villages on the edge of the city had proved an easy target. In the infamous Beuong Kak land-grab, some 3500 families were dispossessed of land in one fell swoop. Other cases had been based in rural areas, with peasants losing land which was then sold off to international agribusiness concerns. By 2012 over 5 million acres of arable land had been ‘grabbed’ with little or grossly inadequate compensation, condemning many to a marginal existence as slum-dwellers.

   Bill claimed that Thailand was not the real target of all this war-mongering from the Cambodian military. He said that they used the fighting as a pretext to remove locals away from the border zone, but the land had then been seized and parcelled out to well-connected figures in politics and the military. While we had no idea whether it was true or not, there was no doubting that Cambodia was a corruption-rife country in which the ruling elite had scant regard for the rights of the powerless. The theory didn’t seem improbable to either of us.

   About fifteen minutes out of Kampong Thom, we reached the signposted turn-off to Sambor Prei Kuk. The road ran at a perpendicular angle to the main road and had obviously been made quite recently by an earth-mover. A stretch of rich, reddish-brown soil ran straight off through the countryside, bordered on either side by rice farms. Though it was still early in the Rainy Season, there had already been a big of rain and the road was boggy in parts. At the height of the rains, it would have been impassable on a rahork; as it was, we had to hop out of the vehicle twice and walk while he made it through a waterlogged section of road. This gave us an opportunity to have a look at the farming communities alongside, in which people lived in wooden houses, often raised on stilts, with large water-jars under or alongside the houses and large mobs of children going about shoeless and in dirty clothes. We noticed how the people out in the countryside looked much different to the people in the cities; many of them out here had darker skins and the features which we recognized as typically Khmer, more closely resembling the faces in the old Angkorian statues. I wondered if the people in the main urban areas were more inter-married with Thais, Chinese and Viets, though it is worth recording that early Chinese visitors to Cambodia often reported seeing people of varying appearance and skin colouring in the kingdom. What was very obvious was that these country Khmer lived very traditional lives with few modern amenities. The children, in particular, were curious about foreign arrivals and walked along paths in the fields watching us closely. After a couple stops, we found the road less troublesome and we soon approached the entrance to the archaeological site, which was hidden within a green nimbus of tropical forest.

Kampong Thom: A Colony on the Stung Sen River

Whether you call it Kampong Thom- as is the fashion for English-language guidebooks- or Stung Sen, as most Cambodians refer to it, Kampong Thom-Stung Sen is not a very prepossessing place. A dusty, run-down market town on the banks of the Stung Sen River, it is now cut through the middle by Highway 1, which connects Phnom Penh and Angkor. The old market, which was been insensitively modernized, leaving barely a hint of its former shape, sits at the centre of the jumble of shops and restaurants which constitutes all there is to downtown. The town- which I will follow the English guidebook fashion and call Kampong Thom- straggles along the highway bit  in both directions. But it is a small country town by most standards, with next to nothing to see, and if it weren’t for the ruins of Isanapura nearby, very few tourists would ever stop overnight there. Perhaps very few do regardless.

We stayed at the Stung Sen Royal Hotel, a local business hotel set beside the bridge across the Stung Sen Royal Hotel. There was only one car in the car park, and the hotel had a deserted feel all throughout our stay. An older establishment, it was typical of the previous generation of Khmer hotels, having a lobby full of highly lacquered and polished hard-wood furniture which probably dated from a (recent) period when Cambodia’s forests were far more extensive than they are today. In a cost-saving measure, almost all of the lights were out, giving the whole place a gloomy air, though by what light there was, you could see a hardwood Buddha smiling down at us from a shelf behind the counter.

Fortunately for us, the receptionist spoke good English: for whatever reason, the Khmers often pick up the English language without mangling the tenses the way Indonesians and Thais do. His name was Dharma, and he told us he was working at the hotel to pay for his course at a local college. We asked him what his salary was and he said fifty dollars a month, much of which went to paying his tuition fees. He said he rarely had money for anything apart from eating and studying. I asked him how the economy in Kampong Thom was and he said it was a very poor province with few job opportunities. If you wanted better pay he’d have to move to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, which was what he intended to do as soon as he finished college. After a few more minutes’ discussion about his job at the hotel and more compliments about his English fluency, he carried our bags up to our room and we gave him a good tip on the understanding it was for his studies. The room, like the lobby before it, was full of dark, lacquered furniture, and it had the musty smell of long vacancy.

bats-in-the-belfry

There wasn’t much to do or see in town, but we walked along the river front, looking for signs that this had once been some sort of river port. It was the end of the dry season and the river levels were very low, with the water in the bottom as muddy and unmoving as a watering-hole. But we imagined that when the water was several metres higher up in the banks during the Wet Season, the river might have been navigable by smaller craft, linking the town with Tonle Sap, the vast lake at the centre of the nation. In strolling along there, I first wondered whether the river had any link with the city of Isanapura. Had the old Chenla capital, like the later provincial capital of Kampong Thom, positioned itself along this sluggish, brown river? I reminded myself to do some research when we had decent Internet access.

A few hundred metres from the main road we came across the town’s only real ‘sight’: a two-storey governor’s mansion from the French colonial era. Not having been to France, I imagined it as a kind of provincial chateau, though the once-white walls hadn’t been painted in a long time and an air of neglect hung over the whole place. The front gate was ajar so we went into the front yard and found a garden run wild. There were still some of the ornamental shrubs along the pathways and hunts of former garden beds but everything was now lush and unkempt. Along the edge of the compound were some very tall shade trees whose broad canopies hosted a colony of bats. They looked like the kind known as ‘flying foxes’ in Australia and there were hundreds of them cocooned there in the leathery, black wings. Their strange, vaguely human cries could be heard almost constantly from the canopy.

We soon noticed signs of human habitation too. There were building materials scattered about the yard, such as lengths of wood and piles of sand. Was the current governor or a property developer planning to restore it to its original grandeur? Would it perhaps be concrete-rendered like the old French casino on Phnom Bokor, removing any trace of historical authenticity? Cameron suggested that it probably wouldn’t become a hotel or guesthouse as there weren’t enough tourists passing through to make it worth anyone’s time. Apart from the building materials, there were hammocks strung from certain trees and a couple of raggedy children peering at us from the grand doorway of the house. Was the interior of the house perhaps filled with squatters or were these the children of the caretaker or builders? I asked Cameron if he wanted to have a peep inside and he said that the garden was far enough. In one corner we saw a tin shed, with a man sitting outside. There was also some signs of a fire nearby, perhaps used for cooking?  We waved at the man and he waved back without rising from his chair. No one seemed particularly perturbed by our presence there, but we didn’t feel welcome to delve any deeper in either.  We turned around and walked back out of the compound.

It was then that we noticed the ruins of jetty out of the front of the mansion, in much the same style as the royal jetty outside the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. Clearly, the French rulers had wanted to make a royal impression on the locals, using the symbols of the old monarchy to remind the Cambodians who held real authority now. The grand mansion with its large garden and high walls would have conveyed the same sense of self-importance. Even more than the mansion, the jetty on the Stung Sen had fallen into disrepair, becoming a relic of France’s failed imperial foray into the nation. Even six decades after the French departure from Cambodia, the locals still hardly knew what to make of this place and had seemingly left it to the bats and squatters. Still for us it was a nice stop on the way back into the region’s comparatively recent past before plunging into its distant past at Isanapura.