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Angkor pyramids, ancient Khmer state temples

Angkor has two kinds of huge monuments (besides many smaller structures). Some large temple complexes consist of buildings at ground level. They are called flat temples, Banteay Samré from the Angkor Wat period, Preah Khan and the "jungletemple" Ta Prohm from the Bayon period are significant examples. But layouts of most large-scale Khmer temples in Angkor are three-dimensional. Their inner enclosures are constructed on higher levels than their exterior enclosures. Angkor Wat is the perfect example. Temple complexes with core structures on elevated platforms are often called "temple mountains".

Some of those monuments with elevated levels for the main structures are strikingly steep, for example Pre Rup, Ta Keo and Phimeanakas. The outlines of some of those rising monuments resemble Mesopotamian or Mesoamerican step pyramids. This is why this article uses the name "temple pyramid" instead of "temple mountain", as these structures, with the exception of Bakheng, are not temples located on a natural hill. Rather, a man-made mound is part of the construction.

Sometimes the word "pyramid" is used for Angkorian structures in a narrow sense only. In this case not the whole artificial "mountain" is called "pyramid", but only a particular part of it. For example at Pre Rup, there are two platform levels close to the ground and one upper platform. The latter is much higher and clearly separated from the lower levels by a massive laterite construction with steep stairways on each side and subdivided by intermediate tiers consisting of a narrow ambulatories. Only this steep stepped structure forming the basis of the highest platform is called a "pyramid" in the narrow sense. In a wider sense, the whole Pre Rup temple, including its lower platforms, could be called a "step pyramid".

In this wider sense of the word, there are ten temple pyramids in the plains of Angkor plus some small "templehills" such as at Preah Pithu. The list below describes them in chronological order. It can be read as a short history of Angkor kings, too, because nine of the Angkor pyramids listed below were so-called "state temples" of particular kings. In the course of the centuries successive kings tried to beat the architectural records of their predecessors. The pyramids' sizes, complexities and their wealth of ornamental art increased, and culminated in Southeast Asia's most astonishing building, Angkor Wat.

Nine Angorian pyramids (or ten including Prasat Prang in Koh Ker) were "state temples" in the following sense: They were built by a king and they were provided for the royal cult. They were not at all places of daily worship for ordinary people. They were reserved for official ceremonies attended by the state's dignitaries and court officials. They served an imperial purpose. The king's power was sanctified as being closely connected to the power of the highest god, represented in the main sanctuary of such a state temple. The veneration of the divine and the royal power were identified at those state temples surmounting all other structures.

It is known that there are Indian origins of Khmer art. Anyway, Khmers did not simply copy Indian sculptural and architectural models, they formed their own styles. But some features of religion and fine arts are of Khmer origin without Indian example. The temple pyramid is such a feature as it charakterizes major Hindu monuments in Cambodia, but not those in India. Most probably, the temple pyramid was invented to transfer a specific Khmer ritual traditionally celebrated on hilltops or mountains to the plains. In this regard, Khmer pyramids or temple mountains functionally resemble Mesopotamian Ziggurats.

Not merely by chance, the declaration of independence from "Java" and the supposed unification of Khmer principalities under an emperor titled "Chakravartin" and the introduction of a "Devaraja" (godking) cult - acts of Jayavarman II in 802 considered to be the foundation of the future Angkor -, were celebrated on the top of a natural mountain, viz. Phnom Kulen. Those days Phnom Kulen was called Mahendraparvata, "Great Indra's Mountain". Hilltops also served as places of ancestral worship throughout Southeast Asia. Correspondingly, some of the Angkorian pyramids were not only state temples, but royal ancestor temples at the same time. By the way, in this respect they differ from Maya pyramids, half of those Mesoamerican pyramids were more than temples, they sheltered tombs. Angkorian pyramids usually were not funerary temples, though, most probably, with one significant exception: the Angkor Wat. The first pyramid in Angkor was built on top of the only hill in the Angkor area, Phnom Bakheng.

In most cases, the main idol of a state temple was a particular Linga, phallus symbol of Shiva. Each state temple sheltered its specific Shiva-Linga as its main icon, usually the Linga's name was a combination of the king's name and Shiva's title "Ishvara", meaning "Lord of the World". This meant a personal identification of that Linga symbolizing divine power and fertility with the reigning king constructing the state temple. The king secured the stability and the wealth of the country due to the sanctity of his power celebrated at the state temple. Thus, Angkor pyramids are striking manifestations of the religio-political ideology of the Khmer empire.



The Bakong temple is situated 13 km east-south-east of Siem Reap, in the village now called Roluos. The Bakong was built by Indravarman I and consecrated in 881. Indravarman I is the first king of the dawning Angkor era who left inscriptional records and who, beyond doubt, can be called a national Khmer ruler or even an emperor, calling his country Kambuja-Desa, meaning Cambodia-Land. The original name of his capital Roluos was Hariharalaya. "Harihara" is a Hindu deity being half Shiva and half Vishnu, "alaya" in Sanskrit means "abode".

Indravarman I invented a most significant element of the Angkorian civilization by constructing a huge reservoir (Baray), it was called Indratataka. Ornate lintel carvings at Indravarman's ancestor temple Preah Ko became models for typical Angkorian temple decoration. Last not least, Indravarman I erected the Bakong, the first state temple dedicated to a Shiva-Linga. It was called Indreshvara. Furthermore, the Bakong is Cambodia's first Hindu sanctuary with a massive base in the form of a step pyramid. Many more of this temple's structural elements, such as extensive use of sandstone, sculptural decoration, bas relief technique, concentric enclosure walls and surrounding moats, dams with serpent-railings, became charakteristics of monuments in Angkor. The Bakong can be regarded as the prototype of an Angkor pyramid.

The Bakong originally was surrounded by an outer moat and enclosure of 900 m length and 700 m width, but not much is left of this exterior wall and moat. Only the inner moat (450m by 400 m, 60 m wide) is well-kept and really impressive, even compared to Angkor. The main entrance is the causeway from the east, a second ramp crosses the moat at the back in the west. The causeway is decorated with two seven-headed serpents called Nagas. Their huge bodies form the railings, as mentioned, this is another invention of Indravarman's period that became typical of Angkor.

In the inner temple enclosure (160m by 120m) there are remains of four entrance gates called Gopurams at the four cardinal points, two chapels on either side of the temple avenue, furthermore six square buildings with air vents near the corners of the enclosure (the two in the west are ruined), and three elongated rectangular buildings, three at the east and south wall are from the reign of King Indravarman I. They can be considered to be predecessors of those continuous temple-corridors in Angkor called galleries, whereas the Bakong's square structures with a grid of holes are the first examples of those chararacteristic buildings (of unknown function) that are called "libraries" in Angkor.

The two elongated halls parallel with the access avenue are later additions, testifying that the Bakong temple was not at all abandoned after the capital had shifted from Roluos to Angkor. Even today a monastery with modern buildings is located on the very same temple island.

Eight brick towers on platforms encircling the main temple mountain are arranged symmetrically, they are dedicated to the eight aspects of Shiva called Murtis, namely Sun, Moon, earth, water, air, fire, ether and Atman. A similar arrangement will later on be built at the East Mebon. The walls of those satellite temples bear traces of masterpieces of stucco, the best preserved are on the western towers. Lintels and sandstone columns are noteworthy as well. The most beautiful door decorations are those at the north-east Prasat, but the best preserved lintels are at the western towers.

The main structure, of course, is the central temple-pyramid built of sandstone blocks. It is 67 m long and 65 m wide and of a total hight of 14 m. Unusual rectangular pavilion gates with pitched roofs and gable ends and with semicircular moonstone-thresholds give access to axial stairways on each side. Lions guard the four flights of steps. The upper tiers are smaller than the lower ones, it is a trick of false perspective, the pyramid appears higher than it really is.

The five tiers represent the five levels of the Mount Meru with their respective mythical inhabitants: Naga serpents, Garuda birds, Rakshasa demons, Yaksha tree spirits and Deva gods respectively. Statues of elephants face outwards on the corners of the three lower tiers. Their size is dimished from tier to tier.

On the fourth tier there are twelve small sandstone towers arranged regularly, they once enshrined Lingas. Remains of figural bas-reliefs on the walls of the uppermost tier are remarkable as first examples of Khmer stone carvings covering a large area. Only a panel depicting Ashura demons losing a fight, on the south side, is in a comparatively good condition.

The central Prasat now dominating the silhouette of the whole Bakong pyramid was a later addition in the Angkor Wat style of the 12th century. It replaced the meanwhile ruined original Prasat. Only foundations remain of the original Prasat. It was this sanctum on top of the pyramid, that enshrined the new state's main icon, the Linga Indreshvara.



Indravarman's son and successor Yashovarman I (889 - ca. 910) completed the reservoir in Roluos, today dry, and the island temple in its centre, the Lolei, an ancestor temple dedicated to his father. But Yashovarman himself shifted the capital from Roluos to the area that later on became known as Angkor, a name derived from the Sanskrit word "nagara" for capital. Thus, Yahovarman I can be considered to be the founder of Angkor. In the vicinity of his new capital he constructed a reservoir much larger than that at Roluos. The so-called East Baray, now dry, remained to be Angkor's main reservoir during the next one and a half centuries. The original name of this reservoir was Yashodharatataka.

There is only one natural mound in the main archaeological zone of Angkor. It is called Phnom Bakheng. Yashovarman chose this 60 metres high hilltop as the centre of his new capital called Yashodharapura. That's why the Bakheng today is sometimes called "the first Angkor". The Khmer name for this hilltop was "Vnam Kandal", meaning "central mountain". It was surrounded by a 4 kilometres long and wide square city, larger than Angkor Thom later on. Parts of the exterior city embankment of Yashodharapura are still visible today. And this very first name for a capital in this area, "Yashodharapura", commemorating the founding King Yashovarman, remained to be in use for the city we nowadays call Angkor, throughout the whole Angkorian era, until the 15th century.

The modern name "Bakheng" is already mentioned in an historic post-Angkor inscription left by Theravada Buddhists, "Bakheng" means "virile". It may be an allusion to the original function of the temple serving as the abode of the Shiva Phallus, the state temple's Linga. Not surprisingly, it was called Linga Yashodeshvara. Yasho means "glory", dhara means "giving" or "bearing", and Ishvara is the Lord, usually Lord Shiva. The first Linga in Angkor erected on an Angkor pyramid was dedicated in 907.

At the foot of the hill there was a rectangular moat 650 metres long and 436 metres wide, not much is left of it. Three stairways led to the top of the hill, from the east, west, and north. The basis of the eastern stairway is protected by two large lion guardians. On the summit plateau there are Buddha footprints and a brick dagoba dating from much later periods.

The summit of the hill was leveled. But a natural rock on the plateau was used as the kernel of a five-tiered pyramid. The pyramid was cut from it and then faced with sandstone. It is 76 metres square at the base and 13 metres high. The central Prasat tower on the top of this Bakheng pyramid sheltered the state linga mentioned above. Its walls are covered with excellent ornamental and sculptural decorations, Bakheng is also the name of the art style of that period.

The central Prasat was surrounded by four more Prasats at the corners of the summit level. Their foundations can still be seen, but in the post-Angkor period the stones of those four towers were used for building a colossal sitting Buddha, which is not existing any more.

Art books generally call an arrangement of five buildings with four at the corners and one in the centre quincunx, which is a Latin word. The quincunx order is not exclusive, but typical of Khmer temples, particularly on top of state temple pyramids, such as Pre Rup, Ta Keo and Angkor Wat. This typical arrangement of five Prasat towers was introduced on the Bakheng, "the first Angkor". The quincunx symbolizes the cosmic Mount Meru, in Hindu mythology it is believed to have five peaks.

But there is much speculation about more cosmic symbolism of the Bakheng. Altogether 108 Prasats surround the central one, on the tiers of the pyramid and on the ground level. 108 is a holy number in Indian religions. It is 2 x 2 = 4 multiplied by 3 x 3 x 3 = 27. The numbers 4 and 27 symbolize the four lunar phases (weeks) and the number of days of a complete lunar cycle. On each intermediate tier there are 12 Prasats, corresponding to the twelve lunar cycles (months) of a year. Looking from one side (east, south, west, or north) one can see only 33 of the Prasats at once, 33 traditionally is said to be the number of principal Hindu gods.

In the 16th century the Bakheng seems to have been restored and since then has been used as a Theravada Buddhist place of worship. A huge Buddha image was placed on top of the pyramid surmounting the ancient Prasat. Astonishingly, Muslim pilgrims left a stele with an inscription at the Bakheng in Arabic language praising Allah. In the 20th century it was removed for preservation. The historically very significant Bakheng temple was in a poor condition, but in recent years comprehensive restoration work has renewed its splendour and glory, it is still in progress.

Phnom Bakheng is touristically well-known as Angkor's "sunset point". Elephant rides can be organized to the top of the hill. There are two reasons to visit the plateau in the late afternoon. From the south-east side of it you can see the towers of the Angkor Wat surrounded by the jungle and lighted up by the evening sun. Later on you can turn to the west side of the plateau for sunset. If you have very good luck, the sun will be mirrored in the water of the huge historical reservoir called West Baray.


Baksei Chamkrong

Baksei Chamkrong is easy to find as it is located just at the basis of Phnom Bakheng. It was not a state temple, but it is mentioned on this webpage because of its perfect pyramid shape. Baksei Chamkrong is attributed to the less important king Harshavarman I (ca. 915-925), who was the son and successor of Angkor-founder Yashovarman I. Baksei Chamkrong presumably was Harshavarman's ancestor temple for his parents. Baksei Chamkrong was a Shiva temple, like most other Khmer ancestor temples.

However, the temple inscription mentions a much later date of consecration, 23. February 948. So it would be the first edifice completed by the much more significant king and temple builder Rajendravarman II after he shifted the capital from Koh Ker back to Angkor. But usually Rajendravarman is supposed to have been only the restorer of an already existing structure at Baksei Chamkrong. Accordingly, the temple is attributed to the style of Bakheng, Yashovarman's and his sons' era. Otherwise it is considered to be an amalgamation of Bakheng and Koh Ker styles.

There is some speculation that its location at the north-east side of the Bakheng hill reflects the situation of Shiva's abode Mount Kailash, as the Kailash is, according to some Hindu traditions, believed to be north-east of the mythical mountain of the universe called Meru. There is no doubt that the nearby Bakheng symbolizes Mount Meru. Thus, Baksei Chamkrong near Phnom Bakheng could indicate Mount Kailash in the vicinity of Mount Meru.

Baksei Chamkrong is a very well proportioned temple pyramid. It impresses more by its elegance than by its size. As it is smaller than most state temple pyramids, Baksei Chamkrong is crowned by one single brick tower instead of a quincunx. Baksei Chamkrong's four-tiered pyramid is of 27 square metres at the base, it rises 13 metres. The total height including the brick Prasatis 23 metres. This step pyramid is the first one made of laterite blocks. Laterite is a soft iron rich clay, cut from the ground in blocks. It can be cut in its damp condition easily, but hardens significantly when left in the air and the sun. Besides sandstone and brick, Laterite is the typical material Angkor temple are made of. Laterite is easily distinguishable by its porous texture and its warm reddish shade.

Now there is a reclining Buddha from the 16th century inside the sanctum. Originally, according to the inscription at the door jambs of the Prasat, the temple contained a gold statue of Parameshvara, representing Shiva, probably iconically and not by a Linga. The inscription honours former kings, particularly the empire founder Jayavarman II (about 800). It also tells the famous myth of Kambuja-Desa's origins. A hermit called Kambu married the beautiful celestial princess Mera. She gave birth to the Khmer people. The name "Khmer" or "Khemara" is an abbreviated combination of "Kambu" with "Mera".

The Prasat tower's stone carvings are in a good condition at Baksei Chamkrong. The lintel at the east door shows a common subject, Indra on his three-headed mount called Airavata (or Eravan in Thailand). This sandstone carving is noteworthy for its details. In the garlands you can recognize the elephant-headed god Ganesha using his own trunk as a mount. The false doors are decorated with panels depicting foliage, too. It is typical of the Khmer stone relief styles of the tenth century to imitate wood carving.

Not much is left of the stucco decoration once covering this temple tower. The conspicuous holes in the brick walls, which are of remarkable precision, once carried the lime mortar. Almost certainly, the outlines of Devatas recognizable in the brickwalls were once covered with much more detailed stucco depictions of those semi-goddesses. A Devata is a female divine guardian spirit of sacred places. Devatas often occur in Hindu epics such as Ramayana and Mahabharata, and in some Buddhist scriptures, too.

The name "Baksei Chamkrong", as in the case of most Angkor temple names used nowadays, is not the original one. The modern name means "bird with sheltering wings". It refers to a legend of a Khmer king, who had to flee when Angkor was once attacked, but when, at this place, a large bird swooped down and spread its wings in order to shelter him he was saved from being caught by his enemies.

Prasat Prang (Prasat Thom, Koh Ker)

Koh Ker was briefly the Khmer capital during the reign of Jayavarman IV (928-942) and Harshavarman II (943-944). Jayavarman IV was a mighty regional ruler finally overcoming the Angkor kings. He chose his own residential town as new Khmer capital and erected his state temple called Prasat Thom in Koh Ker. The pyramid structure of Prasat Thom is also called Prasat Prang.

One of Koh Ker's original names was Lingapura, meaning Linga-City. Most probably, the royal Shiva-Phallus called Tribhuvaneshvara, meaning "Three World's Lord", mentioned in inscriptions, was placed on top of this temple mountain. Prasat Prang (Prasat Thom) was consecrated in 921. The 35 m high structure has the shape of a perfectly regular step pyramid with seven tiers. This is a Khmer monument which deserves the name "pyramid" beyond doubt. However, it is not situated in Angkor. For more details visit our separate Koh Ker page.

Baksey Chamkrong

East Mebon

The East Mebon is not a really a temple mountain, it is less steep pyramid with three levels. Originally it was an artificial island in Angkor's main reservoir East Baray. The East Mebon's temple structure was built half a century later than the surrounding lake. In the meantime Koh Ker had been the capital. After taking the capital back from Koh Ker to the Angkor area, King Rajendravarman II (944-968) decided to built the Mebon temple on the island of the huge East Baray. The inscriptions indicate that it was also built to help reestablish the continuity of kingship at Angkor.

The Mebon's architect was Kavindrarimathana, the only Angkorian architect whose name came down to us.

Construction activities started already in 947. According to its founding inscription the East Mebon was consecrated on Friday, 28 January 953, at about 11.00 am. The temple is dedicated to Shiva in honor of the king’s parents.

The foundation of the East Mebon measures 126 m by 120 m with a boat-landing platform on each side. As in the case of other temples constructed in the tenth century, the entrances were covered by wooden roofs. Only the laterite walls and sandstone window frames and columns still remain. The entrances are guarded by two seated lion statues.

The outer enclosure wall on the first level measures 108 m by 104 m and is built of laterite. There are many holes on it, as the top of the wall originally had sandstone sculptures in the forms of candles. Some of them are still in situ. The spouts of the drainage are designed as lion heads. On this first level rectangular shrines for pilgrim surround the higher platform. They are sometimes called "galleries", though they are only predecessors of those long roofed aisles called galleries at later temples. As with most Angkor temples, the east side is slightly wider than the west side, indicating that the temple is oriented to the east.

The base of the second level measures 65 m by 62 m. Most striking features, on both levels, are eight monolithic elephant statues in the corners.

Inside this inner enclosure five so-called library buildings are located at the corners (two in the southeast). There are eight more smaller brick towers surrounding the uppermost platform, in pairs at the cardinal points. They symbolize the eight Hindu guardians of the world's eight cardinal directions. Furthermore, they enshrined eight Lingas, representing the eight aspects called "Murtis" of Lord Shiva: heavenly bodies sun and moon; elements earth, water, wind, fire, and ether, last not least the transindividual eternal soul, Atman.

Some of the libraries and gateways on this second level bear well-preserved sandstone lintels with exquisite carvings. The most remarkable stone carving is at the east side of the west gate (facing the central platform). It depicts the lion Narasingha (Narasimha) clawing the demon Hiranyakashipu.

The uppermost platform is 3 m higher and measures of 30m by 30m. Five brick towers are arranged in a quincunx. The central tower in particular has excellent lintel carvings.

This central Prasat was dedicated to Shiva, it sheltered the main Linga. The northeastern tower was dedicated to Vishnu and the southeastern tower to Brahma, completing the Hindu trinity. The northwestern tower was dedicated to the King Rajendravarman’s mother, the southwestern one to his father. According to the foundation inscription, the latter two Prasats sheltered sculptures of Shiva and his consort Uma respectively "in the likeness of the mother and the father" of the reigning king.

Each of the five towers originally also had Linga sculptures on Yoni pedestals. As already mentioned, eight more Lingas were placed in the eight small towers of the surrounding courtyard. The Linga in the main sanctuary was called Rajendreshvara, "Rajendra, Lord of the World", indicating that the East Mebon served as a state temple, it connected worshipping Lord Shiva, as mighty protector of the king, with venerating the royal ancestors. However, it is not absolutely clear that the East Mebon was Rajendravarman's state temple, as the very same king with the very same architect also constructed Pre Rup, a much more imposing pyramid. Maybe, Rajendravarman is the only Angkor king who indeed had two state temples, the East Mebon being the one in the reservoir, the Pre Rup the one in the city to the south of the reservoir.

East Mebon

Pre Rup

Pre Rup ist die größte Khmer-Pyramide des ersten Jahrtausends. Sie markiert den Übergang von der vorklassischen zur klassischen Epoche der Khmer-Kunst. Pre Rup wurde 961 durch Rajendravarman II. (941-968) gegründet, wie bereits erwähnt. Rajendravarman II. ist einer der "großen Namen" unter den Angkor-Königen.

Der ältere Ost-Mebon war bereits ein Reichstempel für das Hauptsymbol des offiziellen Staatskults, das Schiwa-Linga, das den Namen des Königs trug: Linga Rajendreshvara. Das Linga auf Pre Rup heißt Rajendrabhadreshvara. Es gibt einen Gelehrtenstreit darüber, ob Pre Rup ein Reichstempel war wie die früheren Khmer Pyramiden Bakong in Roluos und Bakheng in Angkor, oder nicht viel mehr ein Bestattungstempel. Viele Anwohner glauben, Pre Rup war eine Art Grab für die Asche des Königs oder eine Gedenkstätte an dem Ort seiner Einäscherung. Selbst wenn Pre Rup König Rajendravarmans Totentempel sein sollte, hieße das nicht, dass er nicht auch sein Reichstempel hätte sein können. Khmer-Tempel hatten nicht auf einen einzigen Zweck begrenzt zu sein, zum Beispiel konnten sie Heiligtümer für Schiwa-Anbetung und gleichzeitig für Ahnenverehrung sein wie zuvor im Falle von Preah Ko oder Baksei Chamkrong oder dem Ost-Mebon.

Die Fundamente von Pre Rup sind aus Sandstein. Aber der warme rötliche Ton des Laterit dominiert dieses Mounment, Einfassungsmauern und die Stufen der Pyramide sind aus diesem porösen vulkanischen Gestein erbaut. Nur die Prasat-Türme und die zentralen Sektionen der Gopuram Portale sind aus Ziegeln.

Der Zentralturm beherbergte einst den oben erwähnten Linga Rajendrabhadreshvara, der Nordostturm eine Statue von Schiwa, der Nordwestturm eine Statue seiner gemahlin Uma, Der Südostturm eine Statue von Vishnu und der Südwestturm eine Statue von dessen Gemahlin Lakshmi. Der Schiwa geweihte Nordostturm trägt an seinen Türflanken eine Inschrift, die aus der Regierungszeit von Jayavarman VI. (ca. 1080 - 1107) stammt. Sie ist die einzige Quelle zu seiner Herrschaft in Angkor. Detailreiche und gut erhaltene Reliefs können immer noch an manchen Türstürzen dieser Prasats gesehen werden.

Es gibt einen ungewöhnlichen kleinen Kiosk in der Nordostecke. Das quadratische Bauwerk ist aus großen Lateritblöcken errichtet, das Dach, ebenfalls aus Laterit, ist gut erhalten. Der Innenraum ist nach allen vier Seiten hin offen. Die Grundungsstele wurde hier in der Nähe gefunden, aber nicht innerhalb dieses Kiosk. Die berühmte Inschrift von Pre Rup ist nicht mehr in situ. Ihre 298 Verse sind die längste Sanskrit-Inschrift im alten Kambodscha und in der ganzen Welt.

Neun langrechteckige Lateritbauten verlaufen parallel zu den Wänden der zweiten Einfassungsmauer, mit dem oben erwähnten Kiosk in einer Linie mit ihnen in der Nordostecke. Die Funktion jener länglichen Strukturen, die manchmal bereits Gallerien genannt werden, ist nicht genau bekannt. Sie markieren einen Übergang zu den durchgehenden äußeren Gallerien um Tempelhöfe herum, die am nächsten Reichstempel eingeführt werden, Ta Keo.

Pre Rub

Ta Keo

In contemporary inscriptions Ta Keo is called Hemagiri or Hemasringagiri, meaning "mountain with golden peaks". The modern name Ta Keo means "tower of crystal".

Ta Keo was the state temple of Jayavarman V (968-1001), son and successor of Rajendravarman II. Construction work began about 975, when the young king became adult and started to rule himself, after a period of government by other court officials. An inscription on the pilasters at the east gate record the temples's foundation. Like former state temples Ta Keo was dedicated to Shiva and enshrined a Linga as symbol of divine and royal power. Unlike other Khmer pyramids, Ta Keo was not built in the centre or inside the new king's capital.

Ta Keo is plainly decorated, only on the east face there are some damaged stone carvings of floral patterns. The complete lack of sculptures and lintel carvings is surprising. The usual explanation for this peculiaritiy is that Ta Keo remained unfinished, though severel successive kings continued construction or restoration works at this monument.

Ta Keo is surrounded by a moat, which is now dried up except after heavy rainfall. The outer temple wall, forming 122 metres long and 106 metres wide rectangle, is not built on ground level as usual, but at the edge of the first tier of the pyramid. This leaves the impression of a fortification. The Ta Keo pyramid is 21.5 metres high. Its less steep eastern stairway still has a 55 degree gradient and is not easy to climb. The central tower reaches a total height of 45 metres above ground level. All five towers are on cruciform bases and, as an innovation, open to all four cardinal points by projecting vestibules. So in this case there are no more false or blind doors at the outer Prasat walls (they are found only at the corners of the central tower).

The majestic Ta Keo is the first temple constructed entirely of sandstone. Enormous blocks were cut at the quarries of Phnom Kulen in 30 kilometres distance. Their accuracy is all the more astonishing as this kind of greenish grey sandstone, called feldspathic wacke or greywacke, is very hard to carve.

Furthermore, Ta Keo is the first Angkor temple with a straight gallery instead of a series of rectangular structures. Interestingly, these brick-roofed galleries of Ta Keo have no doors, they appears to have been purely decorative. Galleries became a main characteristic of later Khmer temples, particularly at the three biggest state temples, Baphuon, Angkor Wat, and Bayon.

Thus, Ta Keo introduces a combination of three classical characteristics of imperial Khmer architecture: rising levels, enclosures with galleries, and five Prasat towers arranged in a quincunx.

Ta Keo


Phimeanakas is a comparatively small but very steep temple pyramid, 35 m long and 28 m wide and 12 m high, located inside the compound of the Royal Palace. Despite its less impressive size, it served as state temple of one of the most important Khmer kings, Suryavarman I, who reigned during almost half a century, at the begin of the second millenium. However, the construction of Phimeanakas was already started in the second half of the tenth century in the Khleang style, but subsequent kings made alterations to it.

The modern name "Phimeanakas" means "arial palace". It refers to a legend told by the Chinese traveler Zhou Daguan. Every night the Angkor king had to climb to the top to visit a Nagini, a female serpent-spirit. The Nagini turned into the form of a woman. The king had to sleep with her before joining his wives and concubines. Otherwise great calamity would befall the nation. Similar myths of ritual sexual acts between a ruler and a goddesses in order to ensure fertility for the empire are known from many ancient civilizations around the world and often celebrated on top of temple pyramids.

Phimeanakas is predominantly a laterite structure, with some sandstone elements. There are not many carvings at this monument. The axial stairways, on all four sides, are flanked by guardian lions. Elephants were on the corners of the tiers, but most of them are broken. The stairways are extremely steep, for visitors there is a wooden stairway added at the west slope. At the top there are small sandstone galleries and remains of an elevated sanctuary, probably later additions.

A 12th century inscription at Phimeanakas mentions the enemy king of Champa, Jaya Indravarman IV, who was an usurper. He managed to seize Angkor by a naval attack from the Tonle Sap in 1177. The inscriptions reports that the very same king, "presumptious like Ravana", had attacked Angkor with an army already in 1170. The important Phimeanakas inscription K.485 includes details concerning the role of Jayavarman VII - the later Buddhist king who founded Angkor Thom - during that period of civil war within the Khmer empire and Cham invasions.



The Baphuon was completed about 1060 by King Udayadityavarman II near the Royal Palace. His new state temple, like all previous Angkorian state temples, was dedicated to Shiva, venerated in the form of a Linga in the central shrine on top of the temple-mountain. At that time, the Baphuon was the Asia's largest temple built from stone (as the even bigger Borobudur on Java is not a construction, but mounted on a natural hill).

The Baphuon's original height is unknown, because the central tower collapsed totally after only a few centuries. In the 15th or 16th century its stones were reused to erect a 9 meter high and 70 meter long colossal reclining Buddha at the west facade of the temple. But in the late 13th century the Chinese envoy Zhou Daguan (Chou Ta-Kuan) still saw the original state temple and called it "the Tower of Bronze". It was approximately 50 m tall. Now it is 34 m.

The Baphuon's outer enclosure wall is built of sandstone instead of laterite, which is quite unusual. Its rectangle form, 125 m width and 425 m length, is extraordinarily long. The reason for this elongation could be a later extension to the east, in order to align the Baphuon's new east entrance with the elephant terrace and other monuments at the Royal Square of the new capital Angkor Thom (about 1200). Connecting the new East Gate with the main temple there is a 200 m long stone causeway, similar to Khmer wooden bridges it is supported by three rows of round columns.

After crossing a second Gopuram building, which once was the original entrance gate, the visitor reaches the five-tired step pyramid, at the base it is 130 m long and 103 m wide. The first, third and fourth levels are surrounded by concentric sandstone galleries.

Baphuon has remarkable stone carvings, on the third level in particular. Most of them illustrate scenes from the Mahabharata and Ramayana. This is a surprising motif for a Shiva temples as both Indian epics deal with human Avatars of Lord Vishnu. Narrating scenes already appeared two centuries earlier at the state temple in Roluos called Bakong, but not on such a large scale. In Angkor the Baphuon is the first state temple with such scenic relief carvings. In this regard it can be regarded as the prototype for the famous Mahabharata and Ramayana illustrations in the galleries of Angkor Wat. An interesting specific feature are bas-reliefs of quite naturalistic animals, hunting scenes and depictions of daily life, all of them carved in small square panels.

Baphuon, by far the hugest Khmer temple before the Angkor Wat was built, collapsed already in medieval times. In recent decades it became famous as "the world's biggest jigsaw puzzle" and a masterpiece of modern restoration work. 300,000 stone blocks had to be reused at their correct positions. This enourmes task became even more difficult because after comletely dismanteling the monument archaeological records about the stones' original positions went lost (or were even intentionally destroyed) during the Pol Pot period. After many delays the Baphuon was finally reopened in July 2011 by Cambodia's king and the French Prime Minister. Since then the Baphuon temple is one of the most significant attractions of Angkor.

Angor Wat

Suryavarman II (1113-1150), one of the mightiest Khmer rulers, erected Angkor Wat within a period of only 30 or 40 years. Thus the contruction of the Angkor Wat must be considered as a masterpiece of logistic organization and coordination of construction work. It is known, that later on European cathedrals, though of smaller size, required several generations or even centuries of construction activities.

Angkor Wat's original name was Vrah Vishnuloka, "sacred Vishnu-abode". Angkor Wat was the first state or imperial temple dedicated to Vishnu, indicating a new state cult, though Suryavarman II also built Shiva temples. Angkor Wat, most probably, did not only serve as Suryavarman's state temple, but was constructed as his funerary temple, too, though a tomb for an urn or a cremation site has never been found. That's why many doubt Angkor Wat's unorthodox westward orientation is due to a funerary function. But there is even stronger evidence for the funeral purpose: The enourmous relief panels along the outer galleries must be read counterclockwise. Circumambulation of Hindu sanctuaries is always clockwise, it is counterclockwise only in Hindu funerary rites .

The Angkor Wat, of course, is the most imposing Khmer state temple. A more detailed description of Cambodia's landmark monument can be found on our appropriate webpage titled Angkor Wat.


The Bayon was the state temple of King Jayavarman VII (1181 - ca. 1218), who introduced Buddhism as the new state cult. Jayavarman VII was the founder of a new capital called Angkor Thom. Four straight avenues, starting at four of Angkor Thom's five city gates located at the cardinal points, lead to the Bayon temple in the centre of the city. It became the last state temple to be built at Angkor, and the only Khmer state temple which is Buddhist.

Remarkably, the Bayon has no outer enclosure walls. The city walls of Angkor Thom can be regarded as the temple's exterior enclosure. This means: the whole 9 sqare kilometres large city of Angkor Thom was, in actual fact, a temple. This idea appears less strange after considering: In India temples are often whole cities, with markets and dwelling areas. And before the Bayon of Angkor Thom was built, already the compounds of Angkor Wat and of the flat temple Preah Khan had comprised residential areas, too. So the concept of a temple including a city is a very common one.

Angkor Thom and the Bayon are famous for those huge enigmatic Buddha faces at the towers of the city gates and of the central temple. A similarity of those colossal faces to other statues of the King Jayavarman VII has led some scholars to the conclusion that the face reliefs represent the king himself. The renowned Angkor scholar George Coedès has theorized that the Buddhist Jayavarman VII stood in the tradition of the Hindu Khmer monarchs's veneration as god-kings called Devarajas. In this case, the self-depiction as a Buddha or Bodhisattva would be the culmination of deification of a king. But the meaning of the Devaraja-veneration is controversial. Most scholars disagree that the Devaraja was the king venerated as a god. Rather the Devaraja seems to have been a king among the gods, with the human Khmer king only closely connected, but not identified with him. Anyway, whereas most of Jayavarman VII's predecessors regarded themselves as associated with Shiva, or, in case of Suryavarman II, with Vishnu, the Buddhist Jayavarman VII, in this line of state cult (instead of Devaraja veneration), could correspondingly have considered himself to be intimately connected or identical with the Buddha or Bodhisattva.

For a more detailed description of the Bayon temple and structures in its vicinity, have a look to our subpage about Angkor Thom.


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