Inside Angkor Thom
Angkor Thom was the last capital of the Angkor empire and was founded in in the late 12th century by Jayavarman VII. It is famous for the Bayon temple and the gates with their monumental faces.
“Angkor Thom” is not the original name of this city. The modern name was only used from the 16th century onwards, when Angkor Thom was no longer the Khmer capital. “Angkor”, derived from Sanskrit “Nagara”, simply means “city” or “capital”. “Thom” means “big, large, grand, great”. There were no contemporary cities in Europe of the size of Angkor Thom, not even Byzanz. But the secular buildings in Angkor Thom were built of wood, which have since then disintegrated. Today most parts of Angkor Thom are reoccupied by the jungle.
Angkor Thom’s founder King Jayavarman VII was one of the two most significant Khmer kings (the other one being Suryavarman II, founder of the Angkor Wat). Jayavarman VII. is famous for at least three achievements. In 1181 he managed to drive out the Cham invaders who had sacked Angkor in 1177 and ruled it for several years. Furthermore, Jayavarman VII. is the first Khmer king who chose Mahayana Buddhism as the official religion of his imperial cult. Last but not least Jayavarman VII was the most prolific temple builder in the history of the Khmer empire. Half of those monuments that are Angkor’s major tourist can be traced back to his building program, the most famous being the Bayon Temple.
There had been previous Angkor cities covering some parts of what became the new capital. Even parts of the first capital in Angkor, Yashodharapura, which was founded in the late ninth century and was located further southwards, overlap with the the area of the new Angkor Thom.
Apart from Yashodharapura, another Angkor capital, that of Surayavarman I and Udayadityavarman II in the eleventh century, had almost the same centre as the new Angkor Thom founded by Jayavarman VII. This is why Phimeanakas and Baphuon, their former state temples dedicated to Shiva, are located close to Jayavarman’s new Mahayana Buddhist state temple Bayon. The former Royal Palace from the eleventh century just north of the Baphuon and surrounding Phimeanakas was again inhabited by King Jayavarman VII, who integrated this palace perfectly well into the layout of the new Angkor Thom. Furthermore the two Khleangs from the 10th century and some of the five Preah Pithu temples from the Angkor Wat period in the first half of the twelfth century already existed when Jayavarman VII decided to build the new Buddhist capital. Interestingly another Hindu temple, called Western Prasat Top or Monument 486, was altered and now became a Buddhist sanctuary.
Angkor Thom’s main attraction is the Bayon temple at its centre. Apart from the Angkor Wat, it is the most visited and photographed monument of Angkor. It is famous for its face towers. Originally there were 54 Prasats, each of them with 4 giant faces, looking into the cardinal directions. On the upper platform you will feel observed by them from each and every angle. Apart from the facetowers-platform there is another major attraction the Bayon is famous for. Its outer gallery is decorated with relief bands of exceptional vividness and beauty. They are less exquisite than those of the Angkor Wat, they seem to be made wore hastily. But they are full of fine detailed scenes narrating not only the king’s achievements, but depicting everyday life in the 12th century.
Remarkably the large Bayon temple has no outer enclosure wall, though this is obligatory for a temple compound. This could be explained by regarding the city walls of Angkor Thom as the Bayon temple enclosure walls at the same time. In this case the whole of Angkor Thom would be a temple, containing lodgings and markets in its premises, just like other temples such as the Angkor Wat, too. Angkor Thom then would be the second largest temple compound in the world, extending over nine square kilometres, ampler than Angkor Wat. Only Preah Khan of Kampong Svay (also called Prasat Bakan in Preah Vihear Province) is even larger.
Terrace of the Leper King
The so-called “Terrace of the Leper King” is located just to the north of the Elephant Terraces and is considered a part of the larger Royal Terraces ensemble, a 360 meter long sandstone wall that forms the eastern boundary of the Royal Palace area. The terrace is named after a statue of the “Leper King” that originally stood at the center of the terrace. The original statue now stands in the National Museum in Phnom Penh but a modern replica remains on site, kneeling in a ‘Javanese’ pose with his forearm supported by his right knee. The statue traditionally belonged to the “Leper King”, Prince Preah Thong, an Indian who came to Cambodia to marry the daughter of the Naga King and found the city of Angkor.
The association of this statue with this leprosy may have happened as a result of the statue’s dilapidated appearance–its lichen-covered face and missing fingers and toes may have been mistaken by locals as a deliberate representation of leprosy. However, close examination of the statue–which was carved as a nude–show no traces of disease. Modern scholars believe the statue may represent either Shiva or perhaps Yama, the Hindu god of death. If this is correct, the terrace may have served as site for royal cremations (the placement of the terrace on the north side of the royal palace lends credence to this theory).
Terrace of the Elephants
The so-called “Terrace of the Elephants” is part of the Royal Terraces, a 360 meter long sandstone wall that forms the eastern boundary of the Royal Palace area. It runs north-south and faces the Prasat Suor Prat towers across a wide esplanade to the east. The terraces are about 4 meters high and 15 meters wide along their entire length, although the north, south, and central sections include flights of stairs that project eastward toward the parade grounds. The Elephant Terraces are distinct from the Terrace of the Leper King, which stands just to the north, though they form a continuous visual ensemble. The terraces are named after the rows of life-size elephants carved in high relief along the walls and fully in the round with projecting trunks along the stairs.
The terraces probably served as an observation point from which the king and his retinue could observe military reviews, dances, and various ceremonies in the large open area to the east. The terraces likely appear in the annals of the Chinese chronicler Zhou Daguan, who visited Angkor at the end of the 13th century. He wrote: “In the place for doing official business there is a gold window, with rectangular pillars to the left and right of the crosspieces. About forty or fifty mirrors are arrayed on either side of the upper part of the window; the lower part is made of images of elephants.”
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