Introduction

The period of 500 years between the 9th and 14th century CE was the golden age for the Khmer civilisation. The area near the Angkor Wat temple and Angkor Thom walled township was the centre for all the hectic activities related to monument construction. There are numerous monuments which are a testimony to the prevailing mood for temple building and reflect the churn of reigning monarch’s religion from Hinduism to Buddhism and back and so on.

What remains almost consistent are the script and language of the inscriptions found in these temple structures. The inscriptions on the temple walls or Steles are in Sanskrit.  The Khmer script is based on the Brahmi and Pallava scripts. The language used in these areas right from the 7th Century CE was Sanskrit and old Khmer which had a heavy influence of Sanskrit and Pali languages. Angkor culture including the religion and language was heavily influenced by the Indian sub-continent.

Ta Prohm

Ta Prohm was constructed as a Buddhist monastery under the reign of Jayavarman VII. A stele found in the structure indicates the date of this structure as 1186 CE.

Ta Prohm is one of the most frequented locations of Angkor by tourists as it was here that certain action scenes for the movie called Lara Croft – Tomb Raider was filmed and these scenes left the viewers intrigued by the fact that such a place actually existed and it was not a set created for a film.

When the French archaeologists under the Ecole Francaise d’Extreme-Orient had started the restoration work (early 20th Century) of the ruins in Angkor, they ‘felt obliged to leave at least one temple in Angkor as an example of the “natural state” that so marvelled early explorers, while also showing by comparison the importance of the effort already achieved in its work to safeguard these ancient stones. It chose Ta Prohm – one of the most imposing and the one which had best merged with the jungle, but not yet to the point of becoming a part of it’. (Excerpt from ‘The Monuments of the Angkor Group’ by the French Archaeologist Maurice Glaize, 1944)

The passageways and structure were cleared of vegetation to gain access to the ruins and to prevent further decay. These ruins are merged with vegetation in the form of giant silk-cotton and Ficus trees that have rooted themselves onto the stone structures. It is the most fascinating site and it shows the force of nature as it reclaims its area.

The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) along with APSARA (Authority for the Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) have managed the task of protecting the monument by constructing wooden/metal support for the structures that are on the verge of collapse. In some areas, even the roots of the massive trees have been supported to keep them in place.

[The giant silk-cotton trees that have grown and enclosed the ruins]

When entering the temple complex, one gets overwhelmed by the expanse and ruinous state of the structures. So, it is important to stay alert and watch out for the fine carvings on some pillars amidst the ruins. This temple was built as a Buddhist monastery but it is interesting to see carvings of rishis on some pillars. The French archaeologist B.P.Groslier had observed that this temple was not built in a single throw and traces of alterations and adjustments are visible. Some parts appear closer to the Bayon style of architecture and some parts to that of Angkor Wat. The carvings of rishis on some pillars may have been a later addition.

[Carving of a Rishi on one pillar]

This is a Buddhist Monastery and is typical of the last building phase of the Khmer rulers. It no longer followed the typical depiction of Mount Meru with multiple levels of towers. There are various towers in this temple and all are at the ground level. Inscriptions found in this temple mention 12640 people living within the interiors of the temple enclosure that included high priests, numerous officials, assistants, dancers, etc. Approximately 3000 villages and 80000 people were involved in the service of this temple. This reveals that the complex was more like a temple city for which supply came from numerous villages that surrounded the complex. 

[The Central Tower area]

One of the steles found in the ruins mention that Jayavarman VII had placed a statue of his mother in the form of ‘Prajnaparamita’ or ‘perfection of wisdom’ as an epitome of the ‘mother of Buddha’. This temple glorified and deified mother of Jayavarman VII. It shows the continuance of the ‘Godking’ status of the Khmer rulers.

There are numerous towers spread out in the entire area within the boundary walls. The doorways and lintel areas are decorated with images of Buddha, Devas, lions etc., but one has to look out for them as the scale of the ruins overpowers the finer carvings. The top of most of the towers has been damaged to such an extent that the inner carvings no longer exist and the sunlight beams through the opening at the top into the shrines. One must enter a shrine to get a view of the skylights created by ravages of time.

[A tower from the inside; in ruins as the Shikhar is no more]

There are some areas within the inner courtyards where carvings on the inner walls, doors, and lintels have survived. Here we see Angkor Wat style Bas-reliefs and the Apsaras resplendent with their beautiful headgears, ornaments and flow of movement. The foliated scrolls that run along the boundaries are a reminder of the Bayon style of carvings.

[The intricately carved walls with Apsaras and floral motifs]

What makes this Ta Prohm complex extremely intriguing are the lofty trees and the roots that appear to be holding roofs and vaults of the structures in a suspended position. Nature has made the human-made structures look minuscule and powerless. The mighty giant silk-cotton trees and variety of banyan/ficus trees have made this site look otherworldly. This is just a reminder that it is we humans, who have destroyed nature to such an extent that we stand in awe when we see nature just trying to regain its lost grounds.

[The magnificent trees all around the temple ruins]

Just outside the inner wall boundary, one can see piles of stone blocks, all in a ruinous condition. The wall has niches carved into it that in its heydays must have hosted statues of Buddha and other deities. There is beauty even in the ruins and leaves one breathless at the thought of how grand this complex must have been in its prime.

If today Buddha had seen this site, he would have been happy to find the green foliage and nature dominating. After all, Buddha found peace and knowledge meditating under a Peepul tree (Ficus Religiosa) and not under a manmade structure.

[The ruins on the outside. The empty Niches on the boundary wall]

Preah Khan

Preah Khan is another huge complex and was built during the reign of Jayavarman VII during the second half of the 12th Century CE. To be exact, the construction started in 1151 CE. This temple was dedicated to Buddhism and is one of the biggest complex built in this era. The outer enclosure is 700×800 metres and was surrounded by a moat. The overall structure was more like a university as there are numerous rooms inside the complex.

The entryway is grand. There are carved posts on both sides of the walkway. There are carvings of Garudas in a kneeling position holding up the upper part of the pillar. These short pillars are quite intact and give a regal look to the entrance.

[Grand entry path]

The pathway leads to an inner entrance area. This is a raised platform that leads up to a carved gopuram and pillared gallery. This temple, like the other Khmer ruins, was also overrun by dense vegetation and was quite ruined. The clearing was done by the French archaeologists showing respect for the trees wherever possible.

[Entrance way to the inner complex]

The entire inner complex has two galleries and two enclosures formed by simple walls. A stele found in this complex states that it was here that the king won victory and founded a city in his name – ‘Nagara Jayasri’, meaning ‘The City of Victorious Royal Fortune’. So quite likely Preah Khan, the name that came into usage as the city of the Sacred Sword was the mark of a Royal City.

This complex, therefore, may have served as a provisional residence of Jayavarman VII. The Stele further states that a statue was consecrated in Preah Khan to Bodhisattva Lokeswara named Jayavarmesvara in the image of his father – Dharanindravarman. This temple glorified and deified father of Jayavarman VII quite like Ta Prohm was dedicated to his mother.

The central sanctuary has a crowning motif of a stupa. It is unusual in form with a slender branded shaft and a tiered parasol that appears to be of a later date. From here the lines of rooms and galleries stretch out to the four cardinal points. Whilst standing at the central point where the stupa has been placed, one can view the four corridors that give an infinite effect and a wonderful play of shadow and lights. The other corridors have broken Vedis (Vedic worship alters) and Shivalingas.

[View of the stupa and endless corridors from the central location]

The area between the galleries and corridors has numerous buildings, shrines, rooms around the inner temple. The carvings on the structure walls are beautiful and typical of Khmer style. Some walls have rows of rishis sitting in Padmasana pose with folded hands, in meditation and prayer. The carvings of holy men resemble the sadhus and saints that is typical of the timeless Indian culture. There are carvings of flora and fauna around the sitting holy men.

[Bas relief of Rishis in meditation]

The campus is very big and intimidating and one may feel that they are lost amidst the various structures. But it is not so difficult to find an exit. There is a lot of walking to be done and a keen eye will definitely notice the exquisite carvings on the lintels of the doors and gallery ways.

The lintel on the doorway of one corridor has intricate carvings depicting a God with devotees next to him and celestial beings hovering above. Another lintel shows a unique depiction of Lord Vishnu and his wife Goddess Lakshmi holding lotus blooms and sitting on a magnificent stylised lion. Turtles and fish are seen near the lion’s feet. The depiction of sages sitting in Padmasana and meditating is a common sight here. 

[Corridor lintel carvings]

The subsidiary shrines and other enclosures also have wonderfully carved depictions of Hindu Gods and sages on the doorways and lintels as shown below (clockwise from top left). Lord Shiva sitting in a meditating pose and the Gandharvas are hovering around him. A fascinating long boat with an animal head that resembles a beaked bird. There are many sailors rowing the boat and it carries a temple-like structure on it. Sages are meditating near this boat. Lord Krishna amidst devotees and celestial beings. A deity with eight arms that could be the Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara along with devotees.

[Shrine and gateway lintel carvings]

The outer area near the boundaries have rooms that run along like a corridor. These rooms have beautiful carvings of Apsaras, Dwarpalas and sages. They may have been used as rooms for students as they resemble hostel like quarters. There were around 10,000 workers for the upkeep of this complex as inscribed in the stele found in the complex. It also mentions that there were 18 annual festivals celebrated there. There is evidence of alterations and additions as although this was a Buddhist monastery, we still see an abundance of Hindu iconography.

[Outer carved walls of the rooms and corridors)

Banteay Kdai

Banteay Kdai or ‘the citadel of chambers’ is said to be built during the 12th -13th centuries and was started under the reign of Jayavarman VII. No information with regards to its consecration has been found. This temple was also dedicated to Buddhism. This temple complex is located near Ta Prohm and is within an enclosure. The main entryway is through a gateway that resembles the Angkor Thom style four-faced smiling Bodhisattva Avalokiteswara. We find the similar four-faced towers representing smiling Avalokiteswara at the gateways of Preah Khan and Ta Som.

[Angkor Thom style four-faced smiling Avalokiteswara at the entrance to Banteay Kdai]

Although it is smaller compared to Preah Khan, the campus is quite big compared to usual Angkor temples. The long pathway leads to the entrance courtyard that has the Angkor style Naga Balustrades and lions on pedestals. The Naga Balustrades are a sign of a Royal city. We find such Naga Balustrades even in the entrance way to Preah Khan. Here also we find two different styles of architecture relating to the periods of Angkor Wat and Bayon.

[Naga Balustrades and lions at the entrance court]

An image of Buddha in stone has been placed at the entry shrine of this complex. The wheel of Dharma has been placed behind Buddha. It is open to worshippers. The pillars that hold the shrine shikhar have carvings on the capitals. Garudas are seen on these pillars. Garuda is the mount of Hindu Lord Vishnu.

[Buddha idol at the entry point]

The shrines are not in good condition and we can see the immense effort that has been taken to keep the structures standing and in place. The ravages of time, the 13th-century religious altercations between the followers of Buddhism and Hinduism plus the dense vegetative growth has left its marks on the structures. The giant magnificent trees are seen symbiotically living with the structures quite like at Ta Prohm and Preah Khan.

The central shrines appear older than other parts. The carvings of Apsaras, devas and floral motifs along with the false windows and towers resemble Angkor Wat style architecture.

[Towers kept safe by bindings to hold the stones in place]

Neak Pean

Neak Pean is the water temple and one of the delights of Khmer Art. It was built in the second half of the 12th Century by Jayavarman VII. It is dedicated to Buddhism. There is a huge reservoir of water 3500 x 900 metres area in the centre of which stands an island that hosts this unique temple. The modern walkway that leads to the island is made of wooden planks. One can view the expanse of the reservoir and feel enchanted by its beauty.

[The lake that surrounds the temple. A walk way built on the lake leads to the temple]

The main structure in the temple complex is a pool of 70 x 70 metres with a 14 metres diameter circular stone sanctuary at the centre. There is a lotus pedestal at the centre and the sanctuary carvings are dedicated to Buddha. There are images of Buddha in a meditating pose, his ‘Grand Departure’, and images of Boddhisatva Lokeswara. These are not visible from the pathways though. This temple was initially dedicated to Buddha and then to Lokeswara under Jayavarman VII. There are four secondary pools around the central area. The water is a symbolic character of Neak Pean as it is considered sacred water with the potential to heal and purify those who came into contact with this water. The water was further said to cleanse one from the stains of sin and also revered as a vessel to cross the ‘Ocean of Existence’. Pilgrims used to shower themselves with the water that flowed out from the gargoyles by water fed from the lake.

Around this central structure were stone animals that stood in the waters. The horse is still standing. Originally there used to be an elephant, a lion and also a human statue on the other cardinal points. There was also a sacred ficus tree at the central structure that got damaged by a storm in 1935. No tree at the centre exists today

[The Central tower and the horse visible to the left of it in the water]

Ta Som

This is another temple complex of the later 12th Century CE and built during the reign of Jayavarman VII. It was dedicated to Buddhism. We find the familiar tower with the four faces of smiling Lokeswara and the Naga balustrades like the monuments at Ta Prohm and Banteay Kdai. A generic temple style of the Jayavarman VII era. The temple complex has the shrines next to ruins that have not been arranged to give its near original shape.

[Inner tower structures amidst ruinous atmosphere]

The first enclosure to this complex is in the form of a gallery with four Gopurams or gateways. The cruciform shaped Gopurams are not intact but one can find carvings on the walls, pillars and lintels of the standing structures. There are carvings of Bodhisattvas. Some figures are defaced. What is noteworthy are the deeply incised carvings of apsaras and dwarpalas at the doorways. They stand guard of the doors while holding weapons in their hands. The apsaras in a welcoming pose are also a common sight.

[Apsaras and Dwarpalas]

The restoration task has led to the reassembling of the lintel of a doorway or a Gopuram. Lord Shiva has been carved in a standing pose with his hooded Naga on his right shoulder. His Ganas are hovering next to him and there are devotees with folded hands depicted on the lower panel.  The style of carving along with the Toran reminds one of the Hindu temple Banteay Srei. 

[Reassembled lintel with carving of Lord Shiva in a standing position]

There are so many temple complexes associated with Jayavarman VII and therefore to Buddhism that one becomes sceptical of the truth of the actual date of the structures as some of these temples show signs of an earlier era and with additions cum alterations of a later phase. It could be that Jayavarman VII made additions to some older temples and included panels and shrines in honour of Buddha and Lokeswara.

Phnom Bakheng

This temple has been built on top of a hill that is 60 metres in height. It was built by Yasovarman I around 900 CE. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva. This Hill became the centre of the first kingdom of Angkor and was called Yashodhapura, which is quite near the moat of Angkor Wat. Yasovarman I had abandoned Hariharalaya (Roulous) and built Phnom Bakheng as the first ‘Meru’ or the seat of the Gods near the River at Siem Reap.  The concept of God king was very much attached to the temple and its deity was called Shri Yashodharesvara.

[The original mount Meru. On top of the hill]

[Nandi made of a single stone at the foot of the pyramid structure, guarding the entrance to the temple of Shiva]

On the whole, there were 109 Prasats or towers at various levels of the pyramid structure with five sandstone towers at the top level. All towers are not present now and many are in ruins. Sandstone blocks have been arranged for future reassembly. The four stairways on all four sides are mostly in ruins and not for climbing. They are rather steep with a 70% incline. On one side, wooden stairs have been carefully placed to allow visitors to climb to the top. The journey to the top is mesmerising as one can see the numerous towers and stone lions at various stages of height.

To get a view from the top of Phnom Bakheng is sought after in the evenings as one gets to see the beautiful sunset into the paddy fields, jungles and other Angkor monuments.

[View from the top. The towers at various heights of the Pyramidal Meru]

This temple was dedicated to Lord Shiva and some remanences of the deity are still available. On the top level of this massive structure is a shivling in the centre of a broken shrine. The apsaras stand guard at the entrance.

[Shivling shrine on top]

The Central tower stands although in a ruinous state. The four doors have been given wooden support at the sides and lintel. There are delicately sculpted apsaras, floral motifs, devas and Makara toranas terminating the frames. Alternations have been done as this was originally a Shaivite temple but there was a structure that sheltered a Buddha’s footprints of a later date. The eastern side of the central tower has an image of a sage, who is worshipped by both locals and tourists.

[The central tower and the worship place]

Thommanon

Thommanon was built during the first half of the 12th Century CE. This temple belongs to the phase of the golden era of Classical Khmer Art. It is a Hindu temple and stands near the Angkor Thom Victory gate. It is of modest proportions with a sanctuary that opens to the east into a rectangular room. The entire temple structure is built upon a 2.5 metres high base plinth where we find layered sculpturing of floral motifs. Two entrance Gopurams on the east and west side still exist in their original form.

[The enchanting architecture of Thommanon]

The main sanctuary tower has four upper tiers with beautiful carvings at all levels. The Makara Torana above the lintel is still recognisable. A shivling was found in the sanctuary chambers at the time of reassembly. The lintels to the doors depict Hindu Gods – Vishnu & Garuda, Shiva, death of Vali by Sugriva etc.

[Central tower; perspective of size]

Chau Say Tevoda

This charming Hindu temple stands opposite to Thommanon and near the Victory Gate. It was found in a more ruinous state but the hard work of the restoration teams have ensured that the significance of these structures shines again. This has the same plan and architectural structure as that of Thommanon. The carvings of apsaras and floral motifs give life to the outer structure.  This place gives a calming effect and a short rest in the shade of a shrine felt divine.

[The temple of Chau Say Tevoda that was dedicated to Lord Shiva]

[One of the shrines of Chau Say Tevoda]

Ta Keo

It is a huge temple constructed around the late 10th century and it is the second such sandstone construction after The Phnom Bakheng temple. It has five levels like a stepped pyramid and the standard enclosure and tower structure. This temple was incomplete and was not consecrated and thus does not have an association with any particular king. Even in this dilapidated state, it is still an impressive structure and a tribute to restoration efforts of the APSARA authority.

[High step towers of Ta Keo]

Baksei Chamkrong

It is a small 5 step pyramid temple built around 947 CE by the King Rajendravarman. It is located amidst dense foliage just north of the much bigger and imposing Phnom Bakheng temple. It was built with laterite and brick and the lime mortar plaster covering it has almost totally disappeared. It was a Hindu temple housing Shiva as deity within the tower placed on the top step of the Pyramid.

[Isolated Pyramid temple within the serene jungle]

Koh Ker

This temple is traced to King Jayavarman IV and is located around 100 km from Siem Reap area where the major attractions of Angkor Wat and other major temples are situated. This place was capital of Angkor during 921-944 CE. The multi-tiered temple evolved through many designs in the Angkor Empire. Starting with the Baksei Chamkrong and leading up to Phimeanakas and Ta Keo, there are multiple temples where the stepped pyramids look like an Aztec or a Mayan structure that has been magically lifted out of central/south America and installed here. The best example of this deja vu feeling happens when one sees the remote temple Koh Ker for the first time. One has to really look at it twice to ensure that it is not the famous Kukulkan temple at Chechen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico (literally on the other side of the earth). It is remarkable that the Mayan pyramid (temple of Kukulkan) at Chechen Itza is dated to 800- 900 CE and the stepped pyramid of Koh Ker is dated to the early 10th century.

[Koh Ker stepped Pyramid temple]

Beng Mealea

This is a big temple campus where the temple has been totally overrun by the vegetative growth. It is located around 85 km away from the Siem Reap area. It is one of the few sites where the present vegetative decay is probably more than what was there when these locations were discovered in the late 19th century. The whole structure is impossible to explore due to the dense jungle growth and the only way to see the magnificent structure is via a pathway made for the tourists. No precise date is available, but by its style, it seems to be constructed around late 11th century.

[Beng Mealea – covered in Vegetation]

New discoveries

With the help of new technologies like LIDAR, various agencies have extensively mapped the larger Angkor area within Cambodia. The Lidar images ignore the outer layer of the jungle and vegetation growth and the underlying brick, stone or earthen structures are clearly shown. These images show that the civilisation had a large network of interconnected cities and was much more widespread than what has been currently excavated. The Beng Mealea temple shown above is presently almost fully covered by the jungle. But the LIDAR image shows the extensive structures hidden all around it. Another big complex is shown to be at Preah Khan at Kompong Svay (far from the main Angkor Wat), where restoration is yet to take place.

[Beng Mealea (upper) and the Preah Khan at Kompong Svay (lower)]

Conclusion

The Angkor civilisation has turned out to be the largest single site with an advanced Indic civilisation during the so-called Middle Ages. While the whole European world was searching for the richness of Indian civilisation, it is remarkable that another civilisation had achieved such greatness in this hidden part of South-East Asia. It is no wonder that Angkor monuments are probably the leading destination with a repeat value for tourists. It’s must on the bucket list for every Indian as the whole area is suffused with Indic civilisation influences.

This article was first published by http://www.pragyata.com/mag/the-golden-era-of-indic-civilisation-angkor-part-4-682