Let me begin with a short story. Once upon a time there was a king who wanted to build a large city with a temple at its centre. His architects built a magnificent temple and also created a 10 km long and one kilometer wide reservoir for unlimited water supply to meet the demands of constant flow of visitors.
They also created a network of canals and moats around the temple. The king was very happy and inaugurated the temple and invited people in his kingdom to come and settle down near the huge canals. People obeyed and moved to the emerging imperial city with great fanfare.
The king along with his army and court settled in the city close to the temple and the capital started growing. With lots of water around, farmers started paddy cultivation. Year after year there were bumper crops and city grew richer and attracted more people. Slowly the population reached one million. Its expanse now covered 1000 square kilometers. It was probably the first metropolis of pre-industrial era. The king’s empire was at its zenith.
However, there was a wise old man who had seen something that disturbed him. In the privacy of his chambers he thought aloud and the resonating voice from the walls replied –“shhh don’t disturb the King. He is happy.”
But what he saw was so glaring that he couldn’t stop himself. He confronted the king. Drunk with power and success king awoke to a rude shock when the wise man presented him with his chilling fact – The population and consumption was increasing, the depth of the lake and canals was decreasing. “So?” asked the impudent king. The wise man calmly replied, “This doesn’t augur well for the city. We are becoming vulnerable. When the people break natural laws, the nature punishes them by playing truants. This is what elders have said over the ages.”
The king replied, “Don’t worry. The elders lived in a savage age. Ours are modern times. My engineers will take care of whatever problems nature throws at me. And then the gods in our temple is here to take care.”
“O king,” said the wise old sage, “I don’t fear for my life for very little is left of it in my body. But I am concerned about you and the city. Do take care of the problem while it is still within your power to do that. Remember powers of gods and intelligence of engineers desert you when the nature unleashed her fury.”
King ignored his advice. The old man left. Time went by. In a short span of few decades the shallow water ways were inadequate to satisfy deepening demands of an ever thirsty population.
Droughts, an unheard of calamity, started knocking at the doors of imperial city. Initially they were few and far between, then their regularity as well as intensity increased and so did the intensity. Prolonged drought led to a drop in rainfall and parts of, once deep, reservoir started becoming shallow. At places they almost dried up.
Depth of reservoir, natural deterrent to enemies of the state, slowly turned into a shallow pen. Hordes of marauders that were kept at bay were now free to cross it. City and its pampered population, already battling with prolonged droughts, were now faced with another threat. They were at the mercy of these looters. In a short span of few years the city ravaged by droughts was finally sacked by plunderers.
Living became a nightmare in the city of dreams. As the old man said, both the engineers and the gods deserted the population. Nature’s wrath was too much for them to bear. Slowly the orphaned population, governed by a collective unconscious decision, started leaving the city. Quickly a time came when apart from the priests at the temple everybody was gone.
The magnificent ghost town stood alone facing an advancing jungle. Man-made buildings, boulders, bricks and mortars surrendered to the crushing hug of giant tree branches and their roots.
The city and its traces were lost to the world for six centuries. When it was finally discovered people marveled at its architectural genius, it town planning but missed the real lesson from its demise altogether.
(Context: This is a fictionalized account of Ankor Wat and Angkor Thom, the temple and the city, the centre of Khmer Empire (present day Cambodia) between the 9th century and 15th century. Many archaeologists have propounded different theories of its downfall but drought and water scarcity runs as a constant theme in all of them. It is true that the reasons of demise of any civilization are complex and build over a long period of time. However, the change is so slow that many even perfectly intelligent people miss them at their own peril. The results of the build generally unfold very quickly and at times suddenly.
Moral of the story: The story of Angkor Wat and the lessons it holds is not in marveling at the technological and architectural abilities of the empire, but at its limitation in dealing with prolonged retribution by nature. All the canal, moat and lake digging capabilities and agricultural as well as administrative genius couldn’t save the city from ruins. The lesson thus is over consumption propelled by a smug confidence in technological abilities to find an answer to all the problems is a sure recipe of courting disaster.)
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