Ancient Angkor Hindu temples located at the foot of Kulen mountains helped sanctify river water as it passed over the carvings of a thousand lingas.
The Khmer kingdom at Angkor was established by Jayavarman II, a Javanese exiled prince who consolidated the area around the 8th century CE. He made Mahendraparvat (currently known as Phnom Kulen Mountain) his seat of power. This mountain range is around 50 kilometers northeast to main Angkor site of the great monuments of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. The ancient city still lies hidden within the dense jungle on the mountains but there are intriguing symbols of this long-lost civilization in the form of unique riverbed carvings in the river which flows down the mountain and irrigates this fertile land before draining into the great Tonle Sap Lake.
There are some carvings said to be from the 9th century, but the definitive dating based on the inscriptions found on the site can be traced back to the reigns of King Suryavarman I and Udayadityavarman II, between the 11th and 12th centuries CE. To reach this archaeological wonder called Kbal Spean, one must walk 1.5 kms uphill through a dense forest. Although the path has been cleared for walking, the walk is of moderate difficulty due to the natural gradient. The 45-minute climb leads to a jaw-dropping site that has an entire rock surface full of carved images of deities. The riverbed has a natural stone bridge which spans the breadth and is the best place to see these carvings cut in the river bed. This site was discovered only in 1969 and was again cut off from the world due to the Khmer Rouge Civil war in Cambodia. But today this mountain awaits all those who want to trek up the slope amidst the prescient greenery with the sound of running water, to be greeted by the Hindu Holy Trinity in their iconic poses and the numerous Lingas purifying the river water as it flows towards the fields below in the plains.
(Riverbed carvings within deep Jungle)
The images that have been carved on one side of the horizontal cut face are that of Lord Shiva and his wife Goddess Parvati, sitting on Nandi and Ganas near them; Reclining Vishnu on Sheshnag with his wife Goddess Lakshmi near his feet and Lord Brahma on the Lotus that comes out of Lord Vishnu’s Navel; Lord Brahma depicted with four faces and sitting on a Lotus; A single piece of river bed sandstone rock is carved with Lingam motifs that depict neatly cut Shivlingas.
(Images on one side of the river bed)
The carvings on the opposite side of river bed are that of the iconic reclining Lord Vishnu with Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Brahma and temples with Shivlingas as the main deity. All three Gods of the Trinity are covered on one rock face. It is a brilliant vision and realisation by the devout craftsmen/hermits of those days.
(The carvings of the Hindu Trinity on the other side)
The 1000 Lingas are said to have been carved by hermits, who lived in that area. They must have been very devout to meticulously carve out rows and rows of identical Shivlingas on the bed of this river. It is believed that these carvings were made so that the water flowing in the river would be blessed by the sacred Lingas and the Gods of the Hindu pantheon, ensuring a good harvest. After the rainy season, when the river is shallow, the sight of the endless number of Lingas leaves one spiritually charged and all the effort taken to climb the hill vanishes. This inner feeling can only be experienced.
(The river of Thousand Lingas – at Kbal Spean)
Apart from this site with the carvings and the Shivlingas, there is another site within the Phnom Kulen Mountains with Shivlingas in the river. This other location is in the Kulen national park reached by a drive up the hills. On the top, there is a larger waterfall and the pathway to the waterfall leads to a plain area of the river with another stretch of Shivlingas within the river bed. The Lingas are carved in a slightly different manner here with every one of them enclosed within its own square.
(Shivlingas in the river at Kulen national park)
The Angkor capital later moved south to the area of Rolous group of temples and subsequently to the central Angkor area (Phnom Bakheng Temple) in the 9th century. The early part of the 10th century was a hectic time for the Angkor Empire when the capital was moved to Koh Ker area which is around 100 kilometers away. King Rajendravarman brought the capital back to Angkor in 944 CE and during his time many temples were constructed in the eastern part of present-day Angkor archaeological park. These Hindu temples are dated to 10th century, i.e. earlier than the big monument phase of Angkor civilisation.
Banteay Srei, meaning ‘The Women’s Citadel’ is an exceptionally beautiful temple that stands unparalleled amongst the Khmer architectural wonders for the intense but fine and clear images of deities and foliage carved on pinkish hued sandstone. This temple is rather small when compared to other Angkor monuments but its hue, skillful blend of stylisation and realism of carving makes it a must visit temple. It is located near the foothills of the Kulen Mountains around 35 kilometers from the other Angkor monuments.
Inscriptions on the temple give the position of sun, moon, planets that places the construction time to 967 CE. It contains an invocation to Shiva and Shakti and a eulogy of Jayavarman V of his Guru Yajnavaraha, who founded Banteay Srei with his younger brother Vishnu Kumar. The construction started under the reign of King Rajendravarman II and continued under King Jayavarman V, who ruled from 968-1001 CE. This is the only temple that was not built by a Khmer King. This temple was lost to the thick Cambodian jungle and was found and painstakingly restored by the method of Anastylosis by H. Marchal during 1931 - 1936. This site is an impressive restorative achievement of the French archaeologists.
(Ponds in front of the temple)
The first entry gate to the temple complex faces the east and has two side doors. The Gopuram has intricately carved pillar structures and a Triangular head with the intricately carved multi-headed Nagas giving the effect of a Torana. Indra sits on the three-headed elephant at the centre surrounded by intense foliage. At first glance, one may feel that the carvings are on wood as it is so intricate. But the work is on beautiful Rose tint sandstone and laterite.
(The first entry Gopuram that leads to the temple complex)
The gate leads to a processional pathway, bordered with galleries and pillars that are intersected with Gopurams. There are room-like structures too but most of this pathway stands in ruins.
(Pathway to the main temple)
The Gopurams in this pathway have superbly carved frontons with the multi-headed Nagas forming a border within which various gods have been carved in relief. On one side there is Shiva and Parvati sitting on Nandi. Shiva’s Ganas are floating nearby with hands together in obeisance to their lord. Another fronton has Vishnu as Narasimha Avatar, killing Hiranyakashyapu.
(Shiva Parvati on the top fronton and Vishnu as Narasimha below)
This gate leads to the main enclosure surrounded by a moat, which remains as a pond even today. We can see the remains of the laterite steps that lead into the water. The Lotus flowers in the ponds add an ethereal effect to the surroundings. The second enclosure is made of a laterite wall that has an entry Gopuram. This enclosure has rest galleries and double paired porticos. The Gopuram is set with a superbly imposed triangular fronton with deeply cut borders that end in a flame-like effect giving it a beautiful ornamental look.
(Inner entry Gopuram)
One of the few broken items found in the temple is a Nandi placed outside the Sanctum Sanctorum outer gate. This gate also has very fine carving with a dancing figure (most probably representing Krishna) in the center.
(Broken Nandi in front of the main shrine outer gate)
There are a number of separate towers with various shrines inside the temple with elaborately carved gateways. Apart from human figures, there are humanoids with lion and monkey faces that sit near the doors of the shrines. The towers have beautifully designed seven-headed Naga in the corners. The centre of these gates has the ubiquitous God Indra on the three-headed elephant. This specific representation of Indra has been found in temples in the Angkor civilisation across the years.
(The sitting figures of humans and humanoids in front of the shrines)
Carvings on the tower lintels
The enduring fame of this temple is mainly because of the fine carving on the lintels of the towers. This temple has been called the “Citadel of Women” because it was believed that men cannot create such exquisitely refined workmanship. Apart from the central theme from mythology depicted on the lintel level, these gateways have carvings on the multilayered Toranas on the top as well as on the pillars of the gates.
(The intense multi-tiered carvings on the towers of the shrine)
There are myriad themes on different doorways of the different shrines. In the morning light, the sunbeams interact with the sandstone and create light effects giving different chromatic hues to different parts of the temple. Some of the easily identifiable sculptures are (Clockwise from top left):
- An iconic representation of Gajalakshmi
- Bhim killing Jarasandha (from the Epic Mahabharata)
- The fight between Vali and Sugriva (From the Ramayana)
Ravana trying to lift Mt. Kailash, with Lord Shiva and Parvati sitting on its summit. The multi-tiered depiction of ten heads of Ravan in this relief preceded the more famous depictions in the famed corridors of Angkor Wat temple.
(Mythological stories carved on lintels)
The galleries contained subsidiary shrines, matching the construction theme of contemporary temples built in far-off India. Standing amidst the galleries with the empty shrines, sometimes containing only the base pedestals, it is difficult to imagine that it is not a temple in India, but in far-off Cambodia.
(Remains of the pedestals upon which there must have been deities at an earlier time in History)
Prasat Kravan temple
Prasat Kravan is one of the earliest temples amongst the temples in this part of ancient Angkor civilisation, dating back to 921 CE. It was constructed in the time of King Harshavarman I, probably by one of his high officials, named Mahidharavarman. It is a brick structure and the expertise of builders is visible in the smooth mortar-less joints. It has 5 towers in a row on a single platform with gates facing the East.
(The five towers of Prasat Kravan. Only central tower retains its upper tiers)
The central shrine was dedicated to Lord Vishnu and has beautiful images carved into the brickwork of the interior walls. This is a unique feature among the Angkor temples. The central wall depicts a standing form of Lord Vishnu with eight arms. He is surrounded by seven rows of devotees standing with folded hands. The left wall has the iconic image of Lord Vishnu with four arms, holding his attributes, Conch (Shankh), Disc (Chakra), Mace (Gada) and Lotus (Padma). On the right wall, Lord Vishnu is shown on the shoulder of his mount Garuda. Garuda plays an important part in Angkor iconography, whereas in India, it is not so prominently displayed.
(The carvings of Lord Vishnu inside the central tower walls)
The northernmost Tower is a shrine dedicated to Goddess Lakshmi, wife of Lord Vishnu. The central and the left walls have the image of Goddess Lakshmi in standing form, with devotees at her feet. The central figure on the right wall has been damaged.
(The brick carvings of Goddess Lakshmi)
This temple has the best preserved on-site inscriptions, placed on the sides of the entry doorway to all the shrines. These inscriptions are in Sanskrit language and the Khmer script used here has an uncanny similarity to the old Tamil script used in ancient Tamil Nadu situated in the Southern Indian Peninsula.
(The inscriptions on the temple doorways)
This temple was built by Rajendravarman in 952 CE. It was situated on an island in the middle of a huge reservoir called Eastern Baray, which played an important role in water management of the area. At present, the reservoir has lost its shape and has become a cultivated landscape. This temple contains the symbology of the central tower representing Mount Meru with four side towers. These five towers are placed on a 3-meter high platform. The central tower held the main deity in the form of a Shivling. The opening of this shrine is on the East side and the other sides have false doors. There are monolithic elephants with detailed harnesses at the corners of the raised platform.
(Five towers with the central Tower flanked by Lions)
The towers are constructed out of bricks covered with lime mortar and have a hollow tapering design. The top of the Towers have been damaged and one can see the sky above.
(The towers leading to the sky)
This temple is the first temple with a large number of additional structures as an integral part of the temple complex. Apart from the central platform with 5 towers, there are 8 additional towers within the inner temple enclosure. The inscriptions give the details about the central tower Shivling called Shri Rajendreswara and eight different lingas placed in these 8 towers. There are remains of galleries and rooms outside the main temple enclosure that functioned as waiting/meditation places. The timber roofs have all perished due to vagaries of time. This arrangement of additional structures was the precursor to the elaborate galleries and corridors of future Angkor monuments.
(Additional structures around the main temple platform)
The towers have carvings of Apsaras and various Hindu deities apart from fine latticework patterns on the false doors and lintels. It has been a hard task preserving these great works of art as the image below shows. The carving of King of the gods, Indra riding his three-headed elephant is on the verge of collapsing and has been supported with woodwork. The broken pedestal casually tossed in a corner within the shrine is the only reminder of the glory of this path-breaking temple when royalty patronised it and worshipped at its shrines.
(Inside a tower)
This temple was established in 961 CE by King Rajendravarman. The 5 central towers representing Mount Meru are placed on a high three stepped pyramid. It was a Shiva temple and the inscriptions found during restoration have shown that it was part of the cult of God-King where the deity was supposed to have Royal Essence or the Spirit of the king.
(The impressive height of the quintet of towers)
All the sides of the Pyramid are accessible by steep stairs flanked by lions. At every level, there is a small wide parapet surrounding the central platform with smaller towers all around it. All the towers in this temple have been built with bricks. There are Apsaras and Dwarpalas on both sides of the doors. In the central area, the towers have openings to the east and other sides have false doors closed with decorated stonework. Most of the limestone plasterworks on the towers are damaged, although a large number of towers have a major part of inner brickwork still available.
(The steep stairs that lead to the top of the temple structure. One needs to use both hands along with feet to climb these high steps)
There are two sets of 3 outer towers near the main entry gate. These are separately standing structures in the outer enclosure on the Eastern side.
On the ground level, right in the center of the courtyard, there is a big tank like structure which was a topic of debate among the early discoverers about its purpose. The placing of it right at the centre of the steps, aligned with the entry of the central tower that was dedicated to Lord Shiva, makes it most likely that it may have had a pedestal with Nandi sitting on it.
(The positioning of the tank like structure in the courtyard and a perspective of its size)
The height of the central platform gives a bird’s eye view of the layout of this temple. The concept of an outer enclosure and two levels of corridors all around the central temple area is clearly seen in this temple. It is an impressive sight due to its commanding height and it was a center of a big establishment in its heyday. The enclosure in this temple has many towers and other room like structures, which housed different shrines. It is said that two such buildings sheltered “stone of the nine planets” and the “stone of seven ascetics”. It is amazing how not only the major concepts of Gods and goddesses were carried here from India but the intricate concepts of Nine Planets (NavaGraha) and Seven ascetics (Sapta Rishis) were present.
(The view from top revels remains of two outer corridors all around the temple structure)
Banteay Samre was most likely built during the first half of the 12th Century CE during the reigns of Suryavarman II and Yasovarman II. It is a Hindu Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu and a closer look reveals its architectural similarities with Angkor Wat. No inscriptions have been found in this temple.
Legend has it that the ‘Samre people’, an indigenous people living in the foothills of the Kulen mountain had much to contribute to this temple. A poor farmer named Pou of Samre origin cultivated the sweetest cucumbers in the region. The king became obsessed with these cucumbers and gave Pou exclusive rights to cultivate these cucumbers with the power to kill anyone who entered his fields. Once the king himself went to the field in the night and mistaken for a thief was hit fatally by Pou. The king had no direct descendant and the search for a successor culminated in the divine intervention of the ‘Victory Elephant’ that saluted Pou, the farmer, and so the cucumber farmer became king. The court dignitaries humiliated Pou for his humble background. This led Pou to live at ‘Banteay Samre’. Thus ‘Samre’ became associated with this temple.
(The Main entrance)
This temple is a specimen of classic Khmer art and ornamentation. It is enclosed by galleries and has four Gopurams or entryways. The roofs of the gallery do not exist today as it was made of wood and tiles.
(The gallery that runs around the temple)
The full view of the main temple from within the gallery area shows the classical architectural feature of the inner enclosure with entryways (Gopurams) on all four sides and the central tower inside.
(View of temple from within the corridor area.)
A remarkable feat of architecture is the double entry gate construct to the inner courtyard. These gateways have two sets of carved Gopurams that are connected by horizontal frames. The frontons of these structures are beautifully carved on the sides facing the outer enclosure as well as the sides facing the inner courtyard.
(The Double entry gate system)
On entering the inner area one gets the feeling of being in a labyrinth of towers, pavements, courtyards and balustrades. Take a deep breath and soak in the artistry as it is immense. The inner area has many towers with carvings on the tower faces and lintels. A good eye may come across porticos depicting scenes inspired by the Ramayana and other mythological themes. The Naga balustrades that culminate into the multi-headed Naga runs everywhere and at different levels, on the sandstone pathways as well as on the raised platforms to the shrines.
(The inner multiple towers and Naga balustrades)
There are remnants of broken deities and pedestals on which images of deities must have stood. There is a mysterious chest (broken) in one of the shrines that has been placed on a pedestal. Locals offer prayers at this spot.
(Broken pedestals and the mysterious Chest)
The Central tower is grand and reminds one of the Angkor Wat central tower for its size and architectural similarities. It does not follow the ‘Mount Meru’ representation as there is only one Grand central tower that is connected to a smaller antechamber (Antarala), which connects the sanctum sanctorum to the pillared pavilion or the Mandapam. This type of temple structure is more akin to North and Eastern Indian Temples where the mandapam was used for public rituals.
(The grand central tower)
The concept of sanctifying the flowing water of the river to ensure that divine munificence helps the harvest is a unique aspect of Angkor civilisation. Establishment of such a large kingdom and managing the water system in such a flood-prone - monsoon based area was a stupendous achievement. The French Archaeologists have done a wonderful job to recover this long-lost architectural wonder and to recreate the beauty of these temples. Visiting this wonderful location should be on the bucket list of every Indian.