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Angkor Jungle Temples (Ta Prohm, Preah Khan and more)

Besides flat temples in the classical style of Angkor Wat, there are even vaster flat temple complexes in Angkor, from the Bayon style period, this means, they are from the time of the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII. He also built a temple mountain, the Bayon, as his state temple. But all his other projects of enormous dimensions were flat temples.

Accidentally, these Bayon style complexes share another common feature. Some of the many stone structures inside these Buddhist flat temple compounds are strangled by huge trees. This is why they are called "jungle temples" on this webpage. The one "jungletemple" par excellence, with many more stone cracking trees than others, is Ta Prohm. Preah Khan is even larger, but has less "temple trees". Another celebrated example of a jungletree on a temple building is the East Gate of Ta Som. Banteay Kdei has a living tree on the stones of the west wall of the temple proper. Ta Nei has one on the north wall of the temple platform. Inside the inner courtyard of Banteay Prei there are two big trees, but not on top of buildings. The tree surmounting the gallery of Banteay Thom fell down in April 2013.

Jungle Temple

Ta Prohm

Besides Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom’s Bayon, Ta Prohm is one of the three most popular Angkor attractions with tourists. Most foreign guests call “Ta Prohm” simply “the jungle temple”, as it is the monument most densely overgrown with trees. No other temple in the entire world has such numerous big trees on stones. Roots of some of them are strangling buildings spectacularly.

It is often told, that French archaeologists decided to leave Ta Prohm in the same condition in which they found it. But this is not the full truth. In fact, the temple has been cleared from undergrowth. And the giant trees simply could not be removed without damaging the building structure, too. But indeed, they wisely decided to preserve big trees as examples of the picturesque combination of stone and wood. Maurice Glaize, Angkor’s Conservator from 1937 to 1945, called the temple of 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".

Most iconic images of trees on temple roofs are from Ta Prohm, it became even a movie settings. Strangler figs (Ficus virens) entangle walls with a net of small roots. The even bigger Spong tress (Tetrameles nudiflora, called Sompong in Thailand and Thitpok in India) have less, but much bigger roots covering walls.    

Ta Prohm is among the largest monuments of Angkor, but it is a flat temple on ground level, not a temple mountain. It is located one and a half kilometres east of Angkor Thom (2 km by road). The temple proper, with three concentric enclosures consisting of galleries, covers an area of more than one hectare, but the whole compound measures 65 hectares and had two more exterior enclosures, altogether 5 (normally big Khmer temple complexes have only 3 enclosures). The wooden buildings of that compound (between third and fifth enclosing wall) disappeared and are completely forested now.

Most visitors enter the temple from the west, but, like most Khmer temples, Ta Prohm’s main entrance is from the east. The temple proper is set back to the west. Between fifth and fourth (exterior) enclosure walls is a fire house at the northern side of the east-west alley. A hall of dancers is located on the main axis between the gates of the fourth and third enclosure, restauration works are going on here (2014).

The temple proper is labyrinthic and romantic, but, to be honest, it is crowded with tourist. You should come before eight o’clock in the morning to listen to the sounds of the jungle. The pathes leading through the southern part of the temple proper and its satellite temple are usually less frequented. The satellite temples to the north and south were dedicated to the king's guru and his elder brother respectively. The southern temple has a famous pediment carving. This eroded, but excellent relief illustrates the "Great Departure" of Siddhartha, the future Buddha, from his father's palace. In contrast to Indian Buddhist iconography the saddle is not empty, the Buddha is depicted, this means, he had left his palace on a horse, but not yet left the horse, too.

All over the Khmer empire, Jayavarman VII (1181-ca.1210), the Angkor ruler who introduced Buddhism as state cult, embarked on a construction programme of a scale that surpassed all his predecessors. According to its foundation inscription, Ta Prohm was started 1186. It is one of the first major projects of this new king, who became the record temple builder of the Khmer. Only the neighbouring complex of Banteay Kdei is an earlier structure from his reign. The sculptural decoration of this first phase of the Bayon style (era of Jayavarman VII) does not differ much from the earlier style of Angkor Wat, despite that change of religion already mentioned.  

Ta Prohm’s original name was “Rajavihara”, "the king’s monastery". The modern name Ta Prohm means "ancestor Brahma". Jayavarman VII dedicated the temple to his mother. The main image depicted her as a representation Prajnaparamita, the female manifestation of perfect wisdom according to Mayayana Buddhist teachings.

The famous inscription of Ta Prohm records that it was home to more than 12,500 people (including 615 dancers). 3140 village with more than 800,000 people were dedicated to the monasteries maintenance and subsistence of its inhabitants. Indeed, Khmer monasteries served as a kind of administrative headquarters for farmland. The inscription also mentions enormous treasures horted in the arsenals of the monastery.



Preah Khan

Preah Khan is even larger than Ta Prohm. Outside Cambodia you will not find a wooded area of closely packed ruins as vast as Preah Khan. As in the case of Ta Prohm, achaeologists decided wisely not to remove the big trees unless it becomes unavoidable in favour of visitors' security or heritage conservation. Admittedly, there are less of those gigantic trees growing on the buildings of Preah Khan than in the compound of Ta Prohm. Nevertheless, the biggest stone-covering tree at Preah Khan is of magical beauty beyond imagination, a poem and a fairytale and a true story at the same time (click for image).

Though included in most two- or three-days Angkor tourist packages and visited by busloads day in and day out, Preah Khan is big enough that you will find an idyllic spot for yourself, undisturbed by noisy groups. The ruins of Preah Khan then will be an ideal location for your Indiana Jones phantasies.

Preah Khan was not only a temple. It was a Buddhist monastery with shrines for 430 Hindu gods, a Mahayana university with over 1000 teachers, an agricultural administration headoffice and a whole city. Preah Khan covered 56 hectares and had 100,000 inhabitants, as many as the contemporary biggest cities in Western Europe. For a short period Preah Khan was even the capital of the Khmer empire, since at the end of the 12th century King Jayavarman VII resided here during the construction of his future and much vaster capital, Angkor Thom.

Preah Khan's original Sanskrit name was "Nagarashrijaya" meaning "city of glorious victory", a reminder that Jayavarman VII had repulsed the foreign invaders and defeated the arch enemy, the Cham from present-day central Vietnam. In 1191 Preah Khan was dedicated to Jayavarman VII's father, the central statue was called "Jayavarmeshvara", meaning "Jayavarman, Lord of the world". Jayavarman's father was worshipped as a personification of the universal Bodhisattva of compassion and loving care, Avalokiteshvara, often called Lokeshvara in Southeast Asia. Avalokitheshvara is the most venerated saviour in popular forms of Mahayana Buddhism. This is the religion Jayavarman VII introduced as the new state cult, without suppressing former Hindu beliefs. Temples for Vishnu to the west and for Shiva to the north, accompanying the central Lokeshvara shrine, are integral parts of Preah Khan's layout. Now a stupa (chedi) is placed in the central Prasat of Preah Khan, where once the Avalokiteshvara statue stood. The stupa was built in the 16th century, already in the Theravada Buddhist era of Cambodia.

The first (inner) enclosure is divided into four parts by a cruciform gallery, each part almost completely filled by later irregular additional buildings. The south-western and north-western courtyards have central pillars with a peg on top, a symbol of unknown meaning (click here for photo). The edifices of these two courtyards are richly decorated with patterns of leaves and volutes, and rows of hermits seated with their legs crossed.

The third enclosure wall is 200 by 175 metres. Its western Gopuram, leading to the western satellite temple of Visnu, has many pediments with carved scenes, such as a kind of chess game, Krishna raising Mount Govardhana, Shiva cremating the god of love Kama, the battle of Lanka, Rama and Ravana. The latter is one easily recognizable by his usually ten heads and twenty arms, differing from this common iconographic charakteristic this depiction shows only ten of them (click here for photo). The massive guardian Dvarapalas in front of the gate are beheaded.

In a courtyard of the northern cloister dedicated to Shiva, there is the best example of a pediment carving depicting Vishnu reclining on the serpent Ananta (click here for photo), and to the east the Hindu Trimurti of Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma. Furthermore, there is a carving showing the dancing Shiva in this northern satellite temple. An unusual reference to Shiva inside the shrine are two feet on a pedestal.

The hall of dancers to the east of the temple proper has wonderful carvings of groups of dancing Apsaras (click here for photo). By the way, according to the detailed account of the famous Preah Khan inscription, there were 1000 dancers employed at Preah Khan.

Just north to the hall of dancers, there is one of the most unique and mysterious structures. It is a two storey structure, the only one of its kind in Angkor (click here for photo). Furthermore, it is the only example of a major building in Angkor with cylindrical columns. It is said to have housed the "Sacred Sword" ("Preah Khan").

To the east of the hall of dancers is the East Gopuram of the third enclosure. It is the southern wing of this Gopuram that bears the celebrated couple of silk-cotton trees mentioned above, one dead, one alive, with their roots at the same time destroying and, becoming a part of the gallery columns, supporting the roof of the sacred monument. A roaring lion in front of the gallery's south gate protects the incredible scene of marriage of wood and stone, emblematic of Angkor.

Halfway along the path leading from this east gate of the third enclosure t that of the fourth one, there is a structure to the left considered to be a Vahnigriha, a "Fire-House", nowadays also called Dharmasala "teaching-hall" (click here for photo). Vahnigrihas were a kind of post relay stations along the mainroads of the empire.

The outer laterite wall of Preah Khan (fourth enclosure) bears 72 Garudas, at 50 m intervals. They are 5 m tall, at the corners even taller. Visnu's mythical sun-eagles hold Nagas in their claws. A fourth enclosure, instead of the common three of a Khmer temple, indicates that the outer walls served a second purpose, they were city walls as well.

The avenues in front of the east and of the west entrances are flanked by rows of richly decorated pillars (click here for photo). Each entrance has a causeway over the moat with Naga balustrades (click here for photo), smaller but similar to those at the future capital Angkor Thom, another hint that at Preah Khan the city element was more significant than at other Angkor temples.

Notice: We offer a separate page with image gallerie for Preah Khan, you can see 48 photos, 900 x 600 dots, with slideshow function.

Preah Khan

Banteay Kdei

Completing the trio of huge flat temples in the Bayon-style, Banteay Kdei was the first major monument built by the Buddhist king Jayavarman VII (1181-1221), who left nearly as many large monuments as built by all his Hindu predecessors together. Many (not all) of Jayavarman's buildings have face towers, a second landmark of Angkor besides the five towers of Angkor Wat. Like the nearby complex of Ta Prohm, Banteay Kei is one of those face-tower-temples. The huge face carvings are additions from the early 13th century. You can see four colossal Buddha faces looking into the four directions at Banteay Kdei's four entrance Gopuras of its outer enclosurte walls, they are located at the four cardinal points, as usual. But the Buddha faces are not quite as large as the famous ones of the Angkor Thom city gates and the numerous of the Bayon temple.

Banteay Kdei is a kind of first example in a negative sense, too. The construction work was hastily done, not as precise as at the Angkor Wat any more. And the sandstone was of poorer quality. Inaccuracy and crumbling led to much of the deterioration visible today.

Only a few months after he had liberated Angkor from foreign Cham rule and after his coronation, Jayavarman VII dedicated the Mahayana Buddhist temple Banteay Kdei to his teacher (guru). One meaning of today's name "Banteay Kdei" ("citadel of the cells") could be a reminder of the school function, meaning the novices' cells in an education centre. But more probably, the name alludes to the many rooms inside the temple proper. Only the vicinity of the stone monument served as the campus. Residence buildings for Buddhist monks and novices were made of wood and are not existing any more. Banteay Kdei remained to be an abode for monks over the centuries. This is why it is not as overtaken by the jungle as the neighbouring Ta Prom. Only at the back of the temple proper (its western side) you can see an impressive pituresque tree breaking up the temple surface and growing on top of it.

The outer temple wall is built of laterite and measures 700 metres from east to west and 500 metres from north to south. The four entrance gates with face towers mentioned above are made of sandstone.

A cruciform terrace in front of the first temple halls is decorated with Naga balustrades, they are in a sound condition. A rectangular building between entrance (called Gopuram III East) and temple proper was the hall of the dancers, as in the case of Preah Khan. It is only slightly smaller than that at Preah Khan, but has many more pillars. They are decorated with bas reliefs showing dancing single or paired Apsaras. The group of stone buildings, including the hall of dancers and the temple proper, is surrounded by an inner temple moat measuring 329 metres by 300 metres.

The art of Banteay Kdei marks the transition of the Angkor Wat style to the Bayon style of the dawning era of Jayavarman VII. The temple seems not to be built in accordance with one initial ground plan. More and more corridor galleries were added later on, connecting the 13 towers. This resulted in the confusing labyrinthic arrangement of halls. But it is still less complex than the floor plans of Ta Prohm and Preah Khan later on. Anyway, the arrangement of the 13 towers is strictly symmetrical. The central tower is surrounded by four towers in the cardinal points and four more in the corners of the inner (first) enclosure, forming altogether three rows of three towers in regular distances. Four additional Gopuram are in the cardinal points of the second enclosure.

Inside a corridor slightly to the north of the central tower there is a relief scene above a doorway, depicting the assaults of Mara, aimed to disturb the meditation of the Buddha to prevent him from attaining enlightment. But the Buddha remained unwavering. The scene is an allegory for the triumph of virtue over evil and may have served as a symbol of the victory of Jayavarman VII over the Cham invadors. His shift to Buddhism is sometimes explained as means to replace the former religion of the defeated and now restored Khmer empire by a new powerful religion not connected to that defeat.

After the Buddhist rule of Jayavarman VII the royal court in Angkor saw a revival of Shivaism. And the fanatic Hindu king Jayavaman VIII at the end of the 13th century even ordered the destruction of Buddhist sculptures. This is one reason why so many faces of Buddha sculptures are damaged or missing in Banteay Kdey. Additionally, as in the case of Preah Khan and many smaller temples, art theft during the years of civil war contributed to the destruction.

Banteay Kdei

Ta Som

Ta Som is in the north-western corner of the Grand Circuit route, 2 km east to Neak Pean and 2,5 km north to the East Mebon. It was located slightly north to the east-west axis of Preah Khan and the "Northern Baray" called Jayatataka with its central sanctuary, the Neak Pean. It lies at the foot of the embankment.

There was a stele in Preah Khan that probably mentions Ta Som, this is how the temple's original Sanskrit name was identified: Gaurashrigajaratna, "Propitious-Holy-Elephant-Jewel". The same inscription says it was home of 24 deities.

Ta Som is a medium-sized monastic complex, smaller than the similar Bayon-style temples Banteay Kdei, Ta Prohm, and Preah Khan. It is a typical structure of the era of Jayavarman VII.

It is one of the monuments with face towers, but of smaller scale than at Angkor Thom. Ta Som's Buddha faces are on the Gopurams at the two entrances from the west and east. They mark the outer (third) enclosure, measuring 240 m by 200 m, which may have been a later addition from the reign of Indravarman II in the first half of 13th century.

The eastern face tower is one of the most photographed Khmer monuments. For today's visitor starting at the car park it is at the opposite end of complex. It is crowned by a superb example of Angkor's world-famous stone-cracking trees, a quite dramatic sight. The strangle fig still stands upright, but it died in the 1970s, this means it does not grow any more, and because of decomposition it will fall down one day, in a not too far away future.

The second enclosure is surrounded by a moat. Again, both gates, from the east and from the west, are Gopuram towers.

Ta Som's temple proper, consisting of laterite galleries (inner enclosure) includes a cruciform Prasat sanctuary and two libraries built of sandstone. It is much like a miniature version of Ta Prohm, 30 m long and 20 m wide.

Many of the carvings are in sound condition. They are of better quality craftsmanship than other Bayon-style reliefs that usually appear to be worked out more hastily. The Devata (Apsara) carvings show an uncommon individuality compared to other contemporary Khmer temples.

A former pediment now on the ground to the south of the temple proper (inside the second enclosure) has a huge and lovely carving depicting the Bodhisattva Lokeshvara. The North Central Fronton of the North Gopura, of similar size, was reconstructed recently by the WMF and the APSARA Authority. The south pediment of the north Gopuram (inside the inner enclosure) shows a smaller Lokeshvara, at whose feet are four praying figures on lotos buds.

In the south-west section of the temple's courtyard (first enclosure) you can see more excellent carvings on the ground and a pillar with a peg on the top. The symbolism of it is unknown. Similar stelae are found in contemporary temples, e.g. two in Preah Khan and one in Banteay Prei.

Ta Som

Ta Nei

At the Small Circuit, between Ta Keo and Ta Prohm, there is a jungle path leading 1 km northwards to Ta Nei. Ta Nei is one of the many flat temples built by the Buddhist ruler King Jayavarman VII in the late 12th century. At this romantic temple you can still listen to the sounds of animals instead of clicking cameras or noisy groups of amused travellers.

The compound is of medium size, 55 metres long and 47 metres wide. Many of the structures in the temple court have collapsed, and it is difficult to walk around over stones and boulders. Nevertheless, this is exactly why Ta Nei is an extraordinary Khmer temple experience and worth a visit.

You will discover lintel carvings in a pretty sound condition here, as they were less effected by the anti-Buddhist vandalism during the Hindu resurgence under Jayavarman VIII than those at other Bayon style temples. Some of Ta Nei's stone carvings depict quite unusual topics. For example, on the north pediment of the Prasat there can be seen a person on a boat giving a blessing, flying figures carry parasols.

Ta Nei

Banteay Prei

Banteay Prei is one more of the many edifices founded by the record-breaking temple-builder Jayavarman VII, about 1200. Inside the exterior (counted "third") enclosure there is a moat surrounding the core compound. It measures 80 m by 60 m. The galleries forming the inner ("first") enclosure are 30 m from east to west and 25 m from north to south, they connect small towers in the corners and Gopurams in the cardinal directions.

There is a pillar with a peg motif of unknown function in the southwestern part of the courtyard. Similar stelae were found in other Bayon style temples, e.g. two in Preah Khan and one in Ta Som.

Banteay Prei

Banteay Thom

Prasat Banteay Thom, too, was erected under the famous first Buddhist ruler in Angkor, Jayavarman VII. Banteay Thom is completely untouristed, due to its remote location. It is difficult to find and the access path is often flooded.

Banteay Thom's main entrance is from the east, as usual. A second gate is at the west. Only the eastern gate is preceded by a typical cruciform terrace. This outer East Gopuram is of impressive size and crowded with Bayon style ornamental and figurative decoration, male Dvarapala guardians and Devatas (Apsaras) figures in particular. Regrettably, many Devata reliefs of Banteay Thom were rudely damaged recently. Banteay Thom is a victim of looting.

A moat or, more precisely, a series of water basins, as at Prei Prasat, is inside this second enclosure. The pools have laterite steps. The first (interior) enclosure has vaulted galleries throughout. Their roofs are overgrown with grass, but otherwise in a good condition, only parts are collapsed. You can walk through long dark aisles full of spiderwebs here. A rotten tree, once surmounting the south-east corner of the enclosure gallery, collapsed in 2013.

The main structures are three Prasat towers, lined north-south. They are built of sandstone. Facing them, there are two library buildings. Inside the northern tower robbers have dug a hole in search for treasures. There are numerous reliefs, though not in the best state of preservation. Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are scratched out presumably during the late 13th century when the reemerging Hinduism turned out to be intolerant. The Buddha's "Great Departure" on his horse Kantaka can be seen at the south face of the southern tower. A Mahayana Buddhist female representation of highest wisdom, Prajnaparamita, is in situ, too. The Hindu carvings depict Vishnu on Garuda and Aniruddha imprisoned by ropes. Some more carved stones lie on the ground.


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