An Eastern Journey by Somerset Maugham

An Eastern Journey” is the record of the thoughts and feelings W.S Maugham experienced as a traveller when he visited the temple of Angkor wat, an eas


Text: An Eastern Journey

Author: William Somerset Maugham

Language: English

Country: England

Genre: Prose

Sub-genre: Travelogue

Setting: Northern Cambodia (East)

Conclusion: In the countries of the East, the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple nor great wall but the man.

Nature is the most powerful of all Gods.

Note: Angkor Wat is the most famous ancient temple site in Cambodia. With its 5 lotus-like towers rising 65 meters into the sky, it is an awe-inspiring sight. Located in Siem Reap, this UNESCO World Heritage site was once the largest pre-industrial city in the world.


"An Eastern Journey” is the record of the thoughts and feelings W.S Maugham experienced as a traveller when he visited the temple of Angkor wat, an eastern Buddhist temple in northern Cambodia. He writes, “I have never seen anything in the world more wonderful than the temples of Angkor."

First of all, he feels immense difficulty in getting to Angkor Wat. After a three-day boat journey from Phnom -Penh, the great towers of Angkor Wat came to his sight looming gigantic and black in moonshine.

Having approached the ruins of the grand monument, the writer feels another problem: how to interpret their matchless beauty in simple words. Now his mind is occupied by the thought of (literary) style and he mentions the style of Water Pater, Ruskin, and Thomas Browne. He then mentions his early taste for words, but later on, he had found that 'we do not write as we want to but as we can'. So he wants to be plain and old as a telegram in style.

On his journey to Angkor Wat, he read Travels in Indo-China by Henri Mouhot, a French who was the first European to give a detailed description of the ruins of Angkor.

Mother's letter to his wife before his death and his portrait are interpreted subjectively. Later on, he describes what the "stupendous monuments looked like before they had been restored.

The massive remains today are half-hidden by jungle, moss and lichen. For centuries nature has waged its battle with the handiwork of man, it has covered, disfigured and transformed it, and new all the buildings that a multitude of slaves built with so much labour lie in confused tangle among the trees."

Towards the evening heavy rain fell, 'as the lightning tore the darkness like a veil, he saw the jungle stretching endlessly before him and it seemed

to him that these great temples and their Gods were insignificant before the fierce might of nature. The writer, therefore, finds the truth why men created and worshipped Gods. But in his view 'nature is the most powerful of all Gods.

Then he describes the Angkor Wat of bygone days. Some of the temples seem to have been wantonly destroyed. The slaves, after the flight of the ruler, might have laid waste, the city to only a few temples in a teeming forest.

Then he describes the structure, sculpture, and beauty of the 'impassive rather than a beautiful monument. There is neither a plan nor pattern but a rhythm and action. The architects were guided by religious principles.

He finds it as lovely as the Elgin Marbles. It is full of artistic grace. But he finds both a height of perfection and the mediocre in their architecture.

Today there are only bats, and silence hangs, like a presence. He finds the Cambodian dance meaningful, rich in its cultural heritage. It was impregnated with divinity. It was the same spectacle as engraved by its sculptors there. The writer's heart is wrenched on the last day he finds it more beautiful than before.

He then describes the strangeness of the Bayon temple. It is different from others because it did not have the uniformity of the other temples he had seen.

The silence there is unearthly and this fills him with awe and reverence. There are pictures of Cambodian life today. After thousands of years, there is no change. So he says 'in these countries of the East the most impressive, the most awe-inspiring monument of antiquity is neither temple nor citadel, nor great wall, but man’.

The pleasant with his immemorial usages belongs to an age far more ancient than Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China, or the Pyramids of Egypt.

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Short Answer Questions

What does Somerset Maugham’s essay deal with? Explain.

William Somerset Maugham in this travelogue draws his experiences of visiting eastern countries. It is an account of a travelogue. The author describes the places, scenes, people, historical places, buildings and so on that he saw and visited in the journey.

He describes the Angkor Wat, an Eastern Buddhist temple complex situated in northern Cambodia. He is impressed by the Cambodian dances. He concludes that in these countries of the East the most impressive is neither temple, nor citadel, nor great wall, but man.

The peasant with his immemorial usages belongs to an age far more ancient than Angkor Wat, the Great Wall of China or the pyramids of Egypt.

2. Describe the beauty and greatness of Angkor Wat.

Angkor was a great city, thriving, populous, and now there remains nothing but a few ruined temples of a teeming forest. Covering around ten miles, the place has drawn keen attention from the writer. He describes the remains of the Khmer civilization in Cambodia.

He says, "I have never seen in the world (anything) more wonderful than the temples of Angkor." It is more impressive than a beautiful building, with sunrise and sunset. Its loveliness touches the heart. The great towers of Angkor seem strangely insubstantial at dawn.

The architects had not shown great skill while making this. The pattern had neither wanton fancy nor vivid imagination. They were deliberate in their work. The effects of the grandeur of this temple they achieved were through regularity and vastness.

3. What does the essayist write about the temple called Bayon at Angkor?

According to the essayist, the Bayon temple is different from other temples that he had seen at Angkor Wat. It lacked the uniformity to be found in other temples. It consists of a multitude of towers, one above the other symmetrically arranged and each tower is a four-faced gigantic head of Siva.

Each is surmounted by a decorated crown. The most important things about the Bayon temple are bars which present the picture of cooking food, catching fish, buying and selling and in short, the various activities of simple Cambodian people.

Bayon temple and its reliefs gave the author the impression of the Eastern people. If one were to wake up today after a thousand years' sleep, he would find no change in his daily life.

4. Why does the essayist not appreciate Henri Mouhot’s Travels in Indo- China in the essay? Explain.

The detailed description of the ruins of Angkor Wat was first made by French naturalist Henri Mauhot in Henri Myhotbook Travels in Indo-China’ as a worth reading book. The essayist says that Henri Mauhot's aforementioned work is a pleasant, painstaking and straightforward account of that place.

But Maugham does not praise this work because it was a record of that period when the traveller believed that people who did not eat, dress, talk and think as he did were very odd and not human. Besides, Mauhot described many things that would not excite the astonishment of the more sophisticated and modest traveller of this time.

He did not include the accurate details of that place in his writing. There were many unnecessary additions and corrections in Maugham's copy of this book. Some pilgrims had done with their pencils. It led to confusion. The corrections made with the determined hand shows that Mauhot's description was erroneous.

The corrections there were 'not so', 'far from it', ‘quite wrong', 'palpable error', etc. Manihot had no time to correct it before his death. Therefore, writer Somerset Maugham does not praise his work. And he is right in his stand.

5. Nature is the most powerful of all Gods. Explain with reference to the essay An Eastern Journey.

This essay deals with the travelogue of WS Maugham. The author had visited Cambodia, a country in the Asia continent rich in Hindu and Buddhist civilization. He believes that he will be protected from thunder, lightning, downpour, storm etc. in the temple premises.

But the shelter under a big temple with the head of Siva could not ensure his feelings of safety and security. He declares that the temples of great Gods can’t save us from the threats of nature. Nature is the most powerful of all Gods.

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