“‘As the scream of the eagle is heard when she has passed over; so a man’s name remains after his death.’ This is our lament, the forgotten whisper on a breath of wind in this hot and scorched place. Where before us our fathers and our forefathers lay peaceful on a hill, surrounded by grasses, by meadow, by lotus, by flowers; here we perch in this watery basin, resting fitfully in our lonely mausoleums that crumble to dust as our bones once did. Our rotten splendour is guarded by the dogs of Bangkok, fed by the shrieking whirr of torn machinery, baked hard by this unrelenting sun. This is our foreign field so very far from home and we walk these tiny paths, between the greying, upthrusting trees of stone in silence for we cannot be heard by our children’s children.
Where once we were a hundred or more, now we are less for the sealing lids of some of our tombs have been torn open; our bones have crumbled to dust and our very beds are naught but a vessel for broken bottles, mud, water, mulched leaves, broken branches. We leave only our frowning faces on the plinth of our places. We gaze hard at you, o wanderer, with your silent camera, your inability to speak to us in this place. Rest is what we crave, care of our tombs is what fades away as our memories disappear. Now dogs bark and growl, guardians of our home, scavengers given welcome for we are long gone from this dreary abode. What is it you want here? You are not here to listen to our stories, to mourn our achievements in life. That would take more time than you can give. Walk amongst our stones, our bones, then leave. Leave us to our ghostly tears which fall on our citadel of remembrance and hide us in this lake of silence.”
As I shuffle uncertainly past the broken, rusting iron gates and step under the lintel of the sky I stop to listen to that endless lamenting soliloquy that cares not for an audience in a place where time has no meaning. A soft, palpably nervous step forward into this field, where the scene of barrenness is interrupted by the spreading branches of a few trees which throw their gloomy shade. Here, beyond the somnolent dogs who rest those small circles of shade, there is no living creature save the gecko scrambling amongst the headstones, hanging upon points so destitute that despair shrinks from them. An Appian Way of stone crawls away from me; a narrow straight path of concrete unwavering until a bare wall rudely drops its hand down, preventing any further movement. Rearing up in this avenue is a a colonnade of portals that are terrible even in ruins; mausoleums which from age and neglect have fallen into decay; the air of solemnity given space by the huge masses of ruin scattered in this area, now silent and covered in unmoving, stagnant pools. I can do nothing more than walk into this crumbling labyrinth of neglect. Noise is forbidden, the shadows cast by the stern headstones are forbidding. Weeds scramble from cracks in the paving, litter juts defiantly, apologetically from the murk of the pools that surround the tombs. On each there are letters I cannot read, on each are grey portraits of those who once knew life, who now are placed in this forgotten field, this level hill. They stare blankly at me.
At a junction I pause, feel the rivulets of sweat coursing over bare skin, feel the lacklustre movement of air from the tired breath of those who inhabit this mournful necropolis. What was once gleaming marble and stone is now cracked plaster, rusty brickwork caught in a tight mesh of roots; nothing remains save Nature’s insistence on reclaiming not just the bones and flesh of those who have gone, but the very place which is meant to keep their memories alive. Great cracks run top to bottom of these mournful crypts, chasms through the heart of their descendants, the skin of their bright afterlife sloughs away, crumbling into piles of dust on the floor, washed away yearly by the monsoon rains and the floods. These houses are abandoned by the dead. The ground groans beneath the weight of the headstones, gives way in places; a resting place has a canted marker, a slumped straining stone that knows it must eventually fall face first to the ground.
The boundary wall of this town is full of opened niches. The ashes within are long gone, spirited away on the winds. A forlorn few remain sealed, proudly declaring their name, their legacy, what their life did attain. In one, the plinth is now a runway for a set of broken toys – a yellow digger, a green plane. The playthings of youth are as discarded as the ashes of the long gone. On the faded stucco, amongst the stones is the odd splash of colour that has escaped the raging artist’s attempts to smear this canvas in gloomy grey. A red half sun tops a headstone, a pair of golden lions keep watch, a few wild orchids struggle to grow. I stand in that place as the sun beats fiercely down; a place where sorrow is forgotten, yet I hear the weeping of those who thought they would be eternally remembered, and, in a single moment of clarity, I come to understand what Shelley knew….
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away
Shelley, Ozymandias. 1818
As I depart, stepping carefully there is a last whisper of lament in the air.
“Speak of us. If the one that has told this tale, by its scenes beguiled the fresh mourner of one minute of sorrow; the effort, however humble has not been in vain, nor are our memories unrewarded.”
A note – this blog entry was inspired by a visit to the Chinese cemetery off Silom Soi 9, next to the BTS Chong Nonsi. There are two cemeteries next to each other (actually, there are several in the area…one a few hundred yards down Silom is pristine white, manicured grasses, locked to the public). Of the two I saw, one is partially submerged, its tombs vast with some actively cared for, a few mourners there remembering their ancestors. The one that inspired this blog is faded, forgotten, broken. I saw no one, saw no evidence it had been visited in a long time.
I’d also recommend a read of this blog to get a photographer’s feel of the place.
Is this what diplomacy is all about?