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Monastic Cities of the Bayon Period

King Jayavarman VII (1181 - c. 1219) made Mahayana Buddhism the state religion. He started an enormous number of constructions, in Angkor, and all over the kingdom. He built a series of monastic cities: Ta Prohm (1186), Preah Khan (1191) and the nearby water sanctuary Neak Pean, Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang, Ta Som, Ta Nei, as well as Prasat Prei Prasat and Banteay Thom, just north of Angkor Thom.

Every city was centred by a temple. Around this temple were the cells of the monks, then the housings of their staff and of further inhabitants.

Centre of the temple from southwest
Centre of the temple from southwest

Unveiled secrets of Ta Prohm

Beauty beyond sprawling roots

Bodhisattva Prajnaparamita
Bodhisattva Prajnaparamita
North face tower
North face tower

  

Ta Prohm, (the real name is Rajavihara, "The Royal Monastery"), consecrated 1186, and Preah Khan, consecrated 1191, were ancestor temples, dedicated to the memory of the king's mother and father respectively.

Each temple was the core of a monastic university. Ta Prohm was the theological college; Preah Khan was the medical university and hospital of international radiation.

The city is surrounded by an enclosure wall, 1000 m by 670 m. Face towers make the gates in the cardinal directions. The east and south towers have collapsed.

Map of Ta Phrohm
Map of Ta Phrohm

The temple complex consists of:

  • The central temple, enclosed by two galleries (the first and second enclosure);
  • the central tower and the towers of the inner gallery form a mandala.
  • Satellite temples at the North and the South.
  • All included in a gallery with gates to the East and to the West (third enclosure).
  • This core is enclosed by two groups of kutis, monastic cells, 93 in total. Each group is aligned along a moat-shaped water basin, and enclosed by a wall (fourth enclosure).
  • Another moat encloses the whole complex. The moats supplied the inhabitants of the city with water.

In Ta Prohm, and still more in Preah Khan, reliefs are scratched out. 

Iconoclasm

About the middle of the 13th century images of the Buddha and the Bodhisattva were systematically destroyed by scratching out the reliefs; statues were defaced or smashed to bits. This was a backlash against the policy of King Jayavarman VII, who had pushed the supremacy of the Bodhisattva, and displaced Shiva.

Sprawling Roots

This temple has been made famous by numerous trees left when the site was uncovered in 1920. The trees overgrow the walls; their decorative roots cling to the stones and force their way into any gaps of the masonry which they gradually burst. About the symbolism of the roots, see …

Restoration

The Archaeological Survey of India is restoring parts of the temple complex. Work at the western terrace is completed. Now the Hall of Dancers is in scaffolds. No trees will be removed! (Kapur/Sahai, p. 31-36.)

Visit

It is recommended to visit Ta Prohm after Preah Khan, where the complex structure of these temples is better to understand. Guided groups enter and leave the temple from north or west. Ta Prohm is usually quiet in the early morning and in the late afternoon. Walk from east to west in the morning, or vice versa in the afternoon. Don't miss the beautiful north face tower.

Photo Album

References

  • Glaize 1944, 219-224
  • Freeman/Jacques, p. 170-177.
  • Roveda 2005, p.400-407
  • Kapur/Sahai 

    Preah Khan—The City of Glory

    Preah Khan: East Gate of the City
    Preah Khan: East Gate of the City

    Preah Khan: Fire Shrine
    Preah Khan: Fire Shrine

    Preah Khan: East Gate of the Temple
    Preah Khan: East Gate of the Temple

    Preah Khan: Hall of Dancers
    Preah Khan: Hall of Dancers

    Preah Khan: Building on Stilts
    Preah Khan: Building on Stilts

    Preah Khan: View to the Central Tower
    Preah Khan: View to the Central Tower

    Preah Khan: At the North Complex
    Preah Khan: At the North Complex

    Preah Khan: Srei Krup Leak
    Preah Khan: Srei Krup Leak

    This large temple is located northeast of Angkor Thom. Consecrated in 1191, Preah Khan was dedicated to Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of universal compassion, and to the memory of the king's father.

    Like in Ta Prohm, a complex flat temple makes the core of a monastic city.

    A significant medical centre

    In Preah Khan lived more than 15,000 people, monks and their servants, and other citizens. 

    The temple was a centre of medical research where experts of Khmer, Chinese, and Indian Ayurveda medicine joined together.

    This city was the core of a progressive health policy, unique in the world. Preah Khan was the mother of more than a hundred hospitals in the kingdom. 

    City of Preah Khan (Map from Roveda 2005, modified)
    City of Preah Khan

    The city

    The city measures 870 m east-west by 700 m north-south.

    The temple, at the intersection of the city's axes, measures 220 m east-west by 170 m north-south.

    The Enclosure Wall of the city is topped by sandstone slabs; standing upright, they show the meditating Buddha, mostly scratched out.

    Along the wall, every 35 m, are 72 huge sandstone reliefs, depicting Garuda, holding two Naga.

    The east gate of the city

    At the cardinal points, the wall of the city is opened by three-tower gates, preceded by causeways which are flanked giants holding naga.

    Inside the gate, we are on a shady way across thick forest. Here was the classiest main road of the city, leading from the main entrance gate to the central temple.

    The houses of the city, made of perishable material, have totally gone; so has an assumed royal palace P in the northeast quarter of the city. 

    Fire shrine

    On the way is a Fire Shrine F, called dharmasalla (pilgrims' rest house). Whilst the back side of the building is totally closed, the face to the road is opened by five square windows, the northernmost much bigger than the others. All windows were closed by two rows of balusters. In the vault are openings for the flue. Doors go to east and west. The corbelled vault covers a room of 4.50 m (!). This building was brilliantly restored by the World Monuments Fund. 

    The temple of Preah Khan (Map from Stierlin, modified)
    The temple of Preah Khan

    The layout of the temple

    Framed by an enclosure wall are: 

    • Yellow: the Central Temple, dedicated to the Bodhisattva, and the Hall of Dancers to the East. 
    • Reddish: On its east-west to the West axis a satellite temple, dedicated to Vishnu, 
    • Green: On its north-south axis satellite temples dedicated to Shiva (north), and the memory of the king's uncle (south). 

    Later more buildings were perched into the open space between the axial and symmetric buildings; a charming architectural chaos came into being. 

    The east gate of the temple

    The structure is similar to the west gate of Angkor Wat:

    • Three gate towers, linked by graduated chambers and roofs.
    • Two outer gate pavilions are linked by galleries with adjacent half galleries. 
    • The gate is some meters wider than the west face of the central temple. 

    Hall of Dancers (H) 

    Friezes with apsara dancing on lotus flowers give the name of this cruciform gallery. Its structure is similar to the cruciform gallery in the third enclosure of Angkor Wat - so was its function: a space of transition from outside to inside. Probably here pilgrims handed over to the monks their offerings for the Bodhisattva.

    Building on stilts (R) 

    To the north you see a building, standing on massive cylindrical columns. No stairway gives access to the second floor. This is sandstone copy of a wooden granary. The columns copy wooden piles. It is one of the buildings that were added later. By local tradition it sheltered the Preah Khan, "The Holy Sword".

    Central tower and inner enclosure

    The central tower is framed by eight towers and two concentric galleries. It is guarded by gods and demons as dvarapala, and by devata - like a temple of Shiva. 

    The inner walls of the mandapa and of the central tower look bare; here are rows of dowel holes, remains of bronze panels. The outside was plastered and gilded. 

    The centre of the tower, and of the entire temple complex, is the intersection of the main axes. From here we have free sight in the cardinal directions: to the gates at the south, west, and north, and back through the Hall of Dancers and the east gate.

    The centre is now taken by a stupa of modest style (16th century).

    Originally the scene looked very different: The entrances of the different temples were closed by wooden doors. The vaults were hidden by wooden ceilings. The interior was illuminated by lamps or torches; their light was mirrored by the polished bronze walls.In the centre was a statue of the standing bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara with the features of the king's father.

    The western courts of the inner enclosure are filled with small shrines which were added later.

    Srei Krup Leak 

    The central temple of Preah Khan is framed by two galleries, standing next to each other. The outer gallery is adorned by guardians, ‘dvarapala'; the inner gallery is embellished by devata in niches. The most beautiful reliefs are in the north-east corner. Hidden in winding and narrow passages which are often blocked by crashed down debris; some of them are well preserved. Local people venerate two special reliefs. They are called Srei Krup Leak. They figure the spirits of Jarayajadevi and Indradevi, the two wives of King Jayavarman VII, the builder of Preah Khan. Women or couples, some of them well-known people from Phnom Penh, visit the site to pray for fertility. Neang Srei Sumpon, the attendant in this part of the temple, told us that they have often returned to thank for the fulfilling of their wishes. 

    South gate of the city

    Off the route it is almost forgotten. The causeway of giants was never restored. The site is lonely and picturesque. 

      Visit 

      Best time is in the morning. Go from east to the centre, from there to north and south. Temporally the southern temple is under restoration; cross the west temple, and  go, outside of the enclosure wall, to the south gate of the temple, from there to the outer south gate, and back to the west avenue.

        Photo album

        External Links

        Credits

        • Map Ta Prohm from Kapur/Sahai, courtesy of Prof. Sahai. 
        • Map Preah Khan, from Stierlin, p. 176 (modified)
        • Map from Roveda 2005, (modified) 
        • Photo Srei Krup Leak, courtesy of Kent Davis.

        References

        (also for Ta Prohm)

        • Glaize 1944, 219-224
        • Stierlin, p. 180.
        • Freeman/Jacques, p. 170-177.
        • World Monuments Fund [WMF], Preah Khan Conservation Project, 2001, 2003.
        • Roveda 2005, p.400-407
        • Chhem Rethy.
        • Lectures by Chhem Rethy at the EFEO Siem Reap.
        • Kapur/Sahai 
        Neak Pean. View from south.
        Neak Pean. View from south.

        Neak Pean—the forbidden temple

        Neak Pean. Standing Bodhisattva
        Neak Pean. Standing Bodhisattva

         

        This fine temple is located on an artificial island in the centre of the now dried up North Baray. It symbolizes the holy lake Anavatapta on the vertex of the world in the Himalayas. From there four holy streams spring up, bringing healing water into the whole world. Pilgrims visited this place to draw salutary water.

        The tower opens to the east; the other faces show false doors with reliefs of Lokeshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. At the pediments are legends of the Buddha. It is located in the centre of the central basin on a circular island.

        Sprawling Naga

        The base of the island is surrounded by two Naga. Their tails are twisted in the west, thus giving the name of the temple which means: "Twisted Snakes".

        Horse Balaha

        East of the prasat in the pond is a statue of the Horse Balaha. A copy of this sculpture is to be seen at Siem Reap Airport.

        A face in a chamber

        The water flows through four chambers to four square basins. These chambers are of fine architecture. Look at the decorated inside of the corbelled vault. The gargoyles show masks, the finest is in the east, a human face.

        Neak Pean. Gargoyle at the eastern chamber
        Neak Pean. Gargoyle at the eastern chamber

        A barricade

        The only access to the temple (from north) is now barricaded by a picket fence in front of the northern basin. 

        Photo Album

        Banteay Kdei

        Banteay Kdei. Hall of Dancers
        Banteay Kdei. Hall of Dancers
        Banteay Kdei. North Face Tower
        Banteay Kdei. North Face Tower

        Banteay Kdei: Map (Glaize)
        Banteay Kdei: Map (Glaize)

        Located at the west face of Srah Srang and next to Ta Prohm, Banteay Kdei is similar to Ta Prohm or Preah Khan. As it is smaller, Banteay Kdei is more comfortable to visit.

        Layout

        The central tower is linked to the inner gallery where there are eight more towers, enclosing four courtyards. All nine towers are standing upright.

        Another gallery, measuring 80 m by 60 m, frames this group, enclosing six more courtyards. The best view to this ensemble is from the west.

        The Hall of Dancers precedes the east face of the second gallery. Nearby are the ruins of a pillared building, probably it was a rice granary, same as in Preah Khan.

        The ensemble is enclosed by a laterite wall, open to the east and the west by gate pavilions.

        In the East Gate we find a beautiful Buddha statue of a later age. In front of the East Gate is a magnificent terrace.

        The city

        The temple is enclosed by a double chain of moats or basins, intended for the water supply of the monks and other inhabitants of the city.

        Face towers in the cardinal directions open the enclosure wall of the city, 700 m by 500 m

        Visitors normally only see the east and west face towers; but those in north and south are also remarkable.

         Srah Srang

        Srah Srang
        Srah Srang

        Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang: Map (Lajonquière)
        Banteay Kdei and Srah Srang: Map (Lajonquière)

        By 10 th century's inscriptions we know that Kavindrarimathana, the architect of King Rajendravarman (who has also built the East Mebon and Bat Chum) has constructed this baray , "for the use of the public, excluding the elephants, which are destroying the dikes".
        (Freeman/Jacques, p. 151.) Srah Srang may be translated as "Bath of the Monks"

        In the centre are vestiges of something that was probably a mebon.

        Contemporary with Banteay Kdei the baray was converted to a basin. It was framed with sandstone steps.

        Preceding the main gate of the complex there is a terrace; originally there was a wooden pavilion on top. Pretty stairs with Naga balustrades lead to a royal landing stage at the basin.

        Srah Srang is an airy place for a rest, at sunrise and sundown.

        Photo albums

        References

        • Photographs of Ta Nei, courtesy of Eric de Vries.
        • Glaize, p. 138-140 explains the architecture.
        • Roveda 2005, p. 410-413, explains the reliefs.
        • WMF, Ta Som