Saturday, March 31, 2012

Angkor Day 1: Rolous Group Temples

Our first day in Siem Reap, Nana and I didn't do much beyond relaxing in the hotel. We'd had a late flight, and a heck of a couple months at work.

On our second day, we spent the morning at a group of brick temples near modern-day Rolous, site of the first Khmer capital at Angkor. That capital, called Hariharalaya (literally, "the city of Harihara," a combined deity representing both Shiva and Vishnu), is home to the oldest surviving temples of Angkor. Founded along with the Khmer Empire by Jayavarman II around 800 AD, Hariharalaya was the proving ground for many of the architectural styles and engineering technologies that would become the hallmarks of Khmer construction.


Dedicated in 893, Lolei is actually the youngest of the Rolous temples. It used to be an island temple, built in the middle of a large man-made reservoir, or baray, called Indratataka (literally, "the reservoir of Indra," in this case Indravarman I). 
The water would have come all the way up to the terrace
in the rainy season.

These reservoirs were a major source of Khmer power: by harnessing the monsoon rains, these reservoirs provided a reliable source of water for rice farming. Their related canals also provided a means of transportation and trade. 

Typically, each baray had a small temple built at its center. Like many Khmer temples, these baray temples  were meant to represent Hindu cosmology. The central structure represents Mt. Meru, the home of the gods, while the surrounding water represents the world ocean.

Lolei is a relatively simple temple, dedicated to Shiva and to the four grandparents of Yasovarman I. It consists of four towers, with the eastern towers representing each grandfather, and the western towers representing each grandmother.
Those are later Buddhist stupas (burial monuments) in the foreground.
The towers are, generally speaking, in a style common to the earlier temples of Angkor: mainly brick, originally decorated in stucco, with statues, relief carvings, ornamental door frames, and other features in carved sandstone.

One of the lintels is a brilliantly garlanded image of Garuda, the bird-man vehicle of Vishnu.
Keep in mind that this carving is 1100 years old.
Each tower is itself a small shrine decorated with images of Hindu deities in the likeness of the ancestors being honored there.
If I remember correctly, this is both Sita (Shiva's wife)
and Indravarman I's paternal grandmother.
At the center of the four towers stood a large linga. Water that flowed or was poured over the linga was considered holy; it would be collected and used to treat a variety of physical, spiritual, and karmic ailments.
We're standing on one of the four channels that radiate from the linga.
Today, Lolei is also the site of a Buddhist monastery, which anywhere else might have been a minor attraction in and of itself.
Two much more recent stupas, where the cremated remains
of Buddhists are interred.
Preah Ko

Preah Ko, dedicated in 879, is the oldest major temple in the Angkor region. It was built by Indravarman I, the same fellow who built the Indratataka reservoir and the temple-mountain of Bakong (see below). 

He dedicated the temple to his ancestors: its six towers represent his parents (in the center) and his grandparents on each side.
Scholars presume that the large outer precincts of the temple likely included a royal palace built of wood, but no trace of the structure has been found.

(By the way, it was pure dumb luck that we were visiting all these ancestor temples on Nana's dad's birthday. Luckily, we'd come prepared to wish him a happy birthday.)

The name Preah Ko ("sacred bull") comes from three well-preserved statues of Nandi, Shiva's steed, lying in wait for the god at the entrance to the temple.

Nandi is usually depicted in this half-rising position,
indicating his readiness to bear Shiva away.
Given its age, some parts of this temple are really well-preserved. Nana and I dug these lions - often, ornaments like this are among the first things stolen and sold off to antique dealers.
In addition, there are a number of surviving stucco fragments that show how the brick would originally have been decorated.

Keep in mind that the stucco, and probably the sandstone, would have been painted in Khmer times. Though like the classical art of Greece, Khmer art is also pretty beautiful in its unpainted form.

Finally, Preah Ko is a great place to see the effects of Cambodia's climate on the temples of Angkor. You see, during the rainy season, the winds come in from the southwest. As a result, the southwest corner of each structure erodes faster than the rest, with the southwest tower typically showing the most wear and tear. Contrast the two photos below: one of an east-facing wall, the other of a southwest-facing corner.

The southwestern corner almost looks like it's melted away. Sucks to be the maternal grandmother, whose tower (I think) this is!


Bakong, dedicated in 881 to the god Shiva, was the state temple of Indravarman I. It's the first temple-mountain built by the Khmer using techniques Nana described in an earlier post, and the first Khmer temple to be built primarily of sandstone and laterite (as opposed to brick). 

Like most Khmer temple-mountains, Bakong is surrounded by a big moat. 

Not only was this practical, it was symbolic: temple mountain, Mt. Meru, world oceans, yadda yadda yadda. 

Bakong, however, is the oldest temple with a surviving causeway which, bordered by a naga baulstrade, represented the passage between the mundane world outside the temple and the sacred world within.
Bakong, like many of the Khmer temple mountains, is primarily designed to impress - fitting, as this was where Indravarman I established himself as god-king. 
In its efforts to impress, Bakong still succeeds.

From that point forward, each king's state temple would serve as both a religious site and a testament to imperial power. I like to think it was also a kind of gymnasium: to make the tower sturdier and taller-looking, the builders made those stairs really, really steep!

To add insult to injury, they get steeper
as you get closer to the top.

A final note: the more open temple-mountain architecture does mean that the detail work is much less well preserved. Compare the Nandi below to the one from Preah Ko above.
Rough day at the office.

That said, there are still some neat little details, like this doorstep that doubles as a footwiper . . .
. . . this library with its false windows . . .

. . . and some decorative lintels on the east-facing walls of the outlying towers.

 If you love thousand-year-old temples, there's plenty more where these came from. And if you don't love thousand-year-old temples . . . there's plenty more where these came from.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Gods of Ancient Angkor

A few days ago, Nana introduced us to Khmer temple architecture. The hope was that we could link back to that post as needed so our readers wouldn't have to hear an explanation of what laterite is every time they visit the blog. This way, we could focus in later posts on what makes each individual temple unique.

Today, I'm going to attempt something similar: a brief introduction to Khmer religion, with a short roll call of the deities most commonly found in carvings around Angkor.


The religions of ancient Angkor were Indian in origin.

Officially, the Khmer Empire was a Hindu state with the god-king at its head, and the surviving state temples were almost all dedicated to Hindu deities and built in honor of the king himself or of his ancestors. Sometimes, there's evidence that the carvings of the gods in these temples are actually likenesses of the royals in whose honor the temple was constructed. Thus the temples often doubled as mausoleums for the royal family, whose ashes would be interred there.

In addition, the largest state temple complexes were also capital cities - their huge, empty precincts, many of which are now forested, would have been packed with wooden homes and buildings. This is another way of saying that there was no separation of church and state. Essentially, the church was the state, and the state was the church.

At the same time, we don't know much about the everyday religious practices of the Khmer people. What we do know is guesswork, based on fragmentary information and the assumption that locals worshipped at smaller, wooden temples and shrines that have not survived the intervening millennium. Most scholars suppose that the Khmer people practiced a blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, and local traditions of animism and ancestor worship.

At the very least, we know that Khmer Buddhism was strong enough to allow for Jayavarman VII, the major exception to official establishment of Hinduism in the Khmer Empire. Jayavarman VII is widely regarded as the greatest of the Khmer kings; he was also the last great king before the empire's decline. He was a Buddhist, and sought to establish Buddhism alongside traditional Hinduism as the new dual state religion of the empire.

The many temples built during the reign of Jayavarman VII symbolize in stone his efforts to reconcile the rival  faiths. His efforts failed in the short term - his successor, Jayavarman VIII, was a reactionary Hindu who destroyed the most overt Buddhist carvings of his predecessor's reign.

In the end, Jayavarman VII has had the last laugh: even the Hindu temples of Angkor have long since been taken over by Buddhists, and some have been in continuous use as sites of Buddhist worship for almost eight centuries.

The Gods

There are three main gods in Hinduism, collectively called the Trimurti. These three gods, like all Hindu gods, are actually just manifestations of a single, unfathomable God. Thus in practice, they tend to blend together, and in a sense a temple to one is a temple to all three.


Brahma is the Hindu god of creation. He has four faces. He creates the new universe at the beginning of each cosmic era, but after that he doesn't really do anything. Hindus, practical folk that they are, don't spend much time on Brahma. There isn't a single temple at Angkor dedicated to Brahma's worship.

At Angkor, Brahma usually appears on a lotus blossom sprouting from the resting Vishnu's stomach, ready to launch the next cosmic cycle.
Sadly, after you've heard these stories a few dozen times,
they almost begin to make sense.
He's also represented by the face-towers strewn about in the reign of Jayavarman VII.

These towers have four faces, just like Brahma. However, they're not pure Brahma symbols: they also represent Jayavarman VII himself, watching over the four cardinal directions; and at the same time they represent the Buddha, which makes them the largest Buddha images to survive the reign of Jayavarman VIII.


Vishnu is the god of preservation or stasis. He's enshrined in a handful of temples around Angkor, including Angkor Wat. He is usually shown with four arms.

Often, he's riding Garuda, a god who's shaped like a man on top and like a bird on the bottom.
Chhaiy, our guide, was very careful to remind us
that Garuda does not fly.
Often, Garuda himself is used to stand in for Vishnu. It's common in Khmer art to use the god's vehicle as a symbol for the god. Garuda was also co-opted as a Buddhist symbol of intelligence and social cooperation.

Vishnu's wife is Lakshmi. She usually appears as a depiction of the real-life wife of the king (or king's father) honored by the temple.


Shiva is the Hindu god of change or destruction. One of his primary aims was the destruction of evil. He was the most popular focus of worship in the surviving temples of Angkor. Accordingly, he shows up in many forms - too many to count, really, though the most common is definitely the linga or lingam, an abstract phallic statue on a pedestal that simultaneously represents Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, and female fertility.

Here's a linga without the pedestal.
Nana's looking at a pedestal without its linga.
Shiva is often represented by his vehicle, the sacred bull Nandi.
Here's Nandi, about to wish a happy birthday to Nana's dad.
Shiva's wife is Sita. Like Lakshmi, Sita usually appears as a representation of the wife of whichever royal dude honored by the temple.


Indra is the Hindu god of the sky. He controls the weather. He rarely appears in person at Angkor - instead, he's represented by his steed, a three-headed elephant named Airavata (also Erawan).

Here's Indra riding Airavata.
Indra is one of the Hindu gods later co-opted by certain Buddhist traditions, in which he serves as the guardian of heaven. Jayavarman VII used Airavata frequently to symbolize harmony between the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.


Yama is the Hindu god of death and the dead. He's not common at Angkor, though you see him in a couple important bas relief carvings, and there was a statue of him on the misleadingly-named Terrace of the Leper King. (The statue there now is a replica.)


In the Cambodian tradition of Hinduism, the naga is a mythical serpent with a bunch of heads.

They're all over Angkor, and they're important both to Hinduism and to Buddhism. The naga is a key part of the Hindu creation story, as a huge naga is used by the angels and demons to churn an ocean of milk in an effort to achieve immortality (trust me, this is not the last you'll hear of this). According to some traditions, a naga also sheltered Buddha from rain and flood while he was meditating to achieve enlightenment.

Traditionally, the naga is the enemy of Garuda (above), but Jayavarman VII often depicted the two together, again symbolizing cooperation between the Hindu and Buddhist faiths.


Buddha's not technically a deity, but we won't get into that here. At one time, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, there were probably as many Buddha images at Angkor as there were images of any Hindu god. Nowadays, most of them look like this:

Empty niche = former Buddha.
That's because Jayavarman VIII, who reverted to Hindiusm as the state religion, had most of the Buddha images at Angkor destroyed.

However, the famous face-towers of Jayavarman VII also represent Buddha.

It's likely Jayavarman VIII declined to destroy these images because they also represented Brahma and, at the same time, the personal power of the Khmer god-king. In fact, while all the obvious representations of Buddha have been destroyed, most of Jayavarman VII's layered Hindu-Buddhist imagery survives, giving many of the later Angkor temples a distinctly Buddhist vibe.

Note to family: Yes, we will be appearing in these photos, eventually. Stay tuned for some posts about our actual visits to the temples, once we've laid the groundwork with all this historical stuff.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Putting the Red-Eye in Red-Eye

Nana and I got back to Fukuoka this morning via a bumpy four-hour red-eye flight from Siem Reap to Busan, South Korea. We promptly fell asleep for several hours, and hope to sleep fur about a bajillion more before we head back to work tomorrow.