It was a cloudy early morning when we traversed a distance of more than 35 kilometres from Siem Reap to reach the foothills of the verdant Kulen mountains replete with gorgeous waterfalls. We were now on our way to see a temple that was a complete miniature version of a unique Angkor temple. Red sandstone walls and intricate carvings of gods and goddesses mark this small, complex group of temples that is situated at the centre of Angkor Thom, the capital city of the great Khmer empire. Also known in modern parlance as ‘the citadel of women’ Banteay Srei is a must for every visitor to Cambodia, if one wants to see the exquisite carvings of the Khmers. Ironically, this temple was not built by any King but one of the courtiers of Rajendravarman II followed by additions during the reign of Jayavarman V.
Our guide informed us that this temple was built at a time when the Khmer empire was reportedly gaining territory and more power. Built by Yagnavaraha, a Brahmin priest and his brother Vishnukoma, the area surrounding the temple was called Eshwarpura with the Seam Reap River flowing close by. This is purely a Hindu temple albeit a small one with three towers that stands side by side on a common, low platform. The sculptures and carvings are so fine that Banteay Srei has been often called as the jewel of the Khmer art.
The temple has a number of pediments where many Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva and Parvathi, Narasimha killing Hiranyakashipu, Vishnu, the rain of Indra, the killing of Kamsa as well as scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata have been carved beautifully. The carvings are from both Vaishnavite and Shaivite themes. Added to this, other pediments have ashtadikapalas while the walls of the temple complex are covered with one of the best carving examples of Angkorian art. Discovered by French archaeologists in the 19th century, the temple is a miniature version of other temples in the Angkor region and in fact, has a fairyland ambiance with pink hues and ornate designs. As we progress from the exterior of the temple to the interiors, there is a progressive reduction in the size of the structures.
Located in the heart of the forest, this miniature temple is made up of three concentric enclosures with the third one straddled by a moat. If one has to reach these enclosures, a long causeway takes you there after crossing a cruciform tower. The principal images are located in the first enclosure which also has numerous multi-carved pediments that is embellished with narrative decorations from the Hindu mythology. The carvings are especially delicate and fine maybe because the Khmer artists found it easier to carve on sandstone just like wood. The smiling, youthful faces of the male and female guardians on the doorways of the sanctuary towers are considered very unique to Khmer art.
Elephant terrace: The dangling trunks of a few elephants which is reflected in the surrounding large pond near Baphuon attracted me to take a look at this unusual heritage of the Khmers. This is nothing but a raised platform built by the King to view the return of the victorious army. Considered another remarkable heritage from the Angkorian period which one should not miss at Angkor Thom is the unique Elephant terrace.
The 300 metre long Elephant Terrace wall with incredible elephant carvings and an impressive array of garuda bas-reliefs attached to the ruins of the royal palace is pretty impressive, although in a pitiable condition, being continuously exposed to the elements. In the heart of Angkor Thom, the wall is located in front of Baphuon and the Phimeanakas (the Royal Palace area). If the southern part of the wall has Indra’s three headed elephant, the middle part of the wall is interspersed with a chain of pachyderms hunting the lions and the water buffaloes. Apart from this, the northern part of the wall has finely carved scenes of warriors, dancers including Balaha, the five headed horse.
The five-meter-high laterite wall which was built by Jayavarman VII in front of the Royal Palace has undergone modifications several times. With the original structure disappearing, today only the foundation platform of the complex remains.
As we go to the north west side of the Royal Palace, very prominently sits the statue of God Yama which has also been called as the Leper King. But nobody is really sure whether this is of a King or Yama.
Unusually, it is in a sitting position and Javanese style but completely naked unlike other Khmer sculptures. The statue was known as the Leper King because discoloration and moss growing on it was reminiscent of a person afflicted with leprosy and it also fitted in with a local legend of an Angkorian King Yasovarman who had leprosy.
The present statue is a replica as the original statue lies in the courtyard of the National Museum at Phnom Penh. However, the name Dharmaraja was once etched at the bottom of the original statue. According to our guide, this terrace with dramatic bas reliefs of standing and seated gods and goddesses with fanciful sea creatures at the lower end was once a royal cremation site.
Coming to the concluding story on Cambodia, I would like to mention that I have only been able to detail a few well known temples and other architectural heritage in the Angkor region but outside this region too there are lot of Khmer temples that are waiting to be visited and lot others too waiting to be excavated.