Some Less Well Known Temples
Ta Som is one of the smaller major temples built by the energetic ruler Jayavarman VII. Standing to the east of the Jayatakata (the baray of Preah Khan), the temple lies in what is today a relatively remote area within the Angkor archaeological zone. It may have been the temple referred to as the ‘Gaurasrigajaratna’ (the Jewel of the Propitious White Elephant) which is recorded on an inscription of Preah Khan. If so, it would be one of the few Angkor temples of which we know the original name–Ta Som being a modern appellation.
The layout of the temple is an extremely simplified version of Banteay Kdei or Ta Prohm. The outer laterite wall, now mostly vanished, measured 240 x 200 meters, within which sat a second enclosure surrounded by a moat. The inner enclosure is a rectangle with four corner towers and four gateways at each of the cardinal directions, with a central free-standing tower in the middle. Apart from two ‘libraries’ of varying size there are no ancillary buildings. In Jayavarman’s time, devotees would have entered the temple from the east, whereas modern visitors usually approach from the west.
Thommanon is a small temple built at the end of Suryavarman II’s reign, around the middle of the 12th century.It is nearly symmetrical to Chau Say Tevoda, another of Suryavarman’s temples that stands nearby.Although the placement of Thommanon and Chau Say Tevoda neatly frame the east causeway to the Angkor Thom complex, this was probably not the original intention, since in Suryavarman’s time the center of the capital was closer to Angkor Wat.Thommanon is architecturally more advanced than its predecessors.The designers took advantage of the natural qualities ofsandstone, rather than simply carving it in imitation of wood.
Although it now difficult to make out, Ta Nei is located only 150 meters west of the East Baray, and only 150 meters south of a bend in the Siem Riep river. Hemmed in by these two borders, the area was probably once densely settled, as there are significant traces of masonry and foundations in the immediate area which are now obscured by the forest. The historian Jean Laur notes that it is possible that the royal residence of Jayaviravarman was located here. However, at present, the site is somewhat isolated and only accessible by car following a narrow dirt road from the south.
The temple’s overall layout follows the usual motif at Angkor with a central sanctuary surrounded by multiple enclosures. At Ta Nei, only the inner enclosure was ever fully built, with the east and west gopuras the only completed portions of the planned second enclosure. The temple’s inner enclosure measures 46 x 27m, but it is obvious from the plan that it was originally intended to be 35 x 27m. For unknown reasons, the change in plan occurred after construction had already begun, resulting in either the east or west wall being moved 11 meters to enlarge the courtyard. There is some disagreement as to how the temple was extended: Jean Lear believes the west wall was moved 11 meters west, whereas Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques suggest that the east wall was moved eastward. In either case, one of the original gopuras then became a freestanding tower inside the courtyard, and a new gopura (either the east or west) was added.
The temple was one of many commissioned by king Jayavarman VII and was dedicated to the Buddha. The present name of the temple, meaning “Old Nei” is a modern appellation that refers to one of the informal caretakers who lived on site when the French conducted surveys of the temple in the mid-20th century.
Prasat Suor Prat
The twelve towers known as the ‘Prasat Suor Prat’ are located just to the east of the Royal Terraces in the vicinity of the Royal Palace. Although the modern name means ‘Towers of the Rope Dancers”—referring to the legend that they were used for royal entertainments involving tightrope walkers—there is no definitive evidence for this. In fact, the function of the towers remains a mystery. Intriguingly, Zhou Daguan, the 13th century Chinese diplomat who visited Angkor, recorded that they were used to settle disputes. He wrote:
“If two families have a dispute to resolve and cannot agree on right and wrong, there are twelve small stone towers on a bank opposite the place, and the two people concerned are sent to sit in two of them. Outside, members of each family keep guard against the other. They may site in the towers for a day or two, or for three or four days. Then for sure the one who is in the wrong becomes visibly ill, and leaves.” [Trans. by Harris, Peter. A Record of Cambodia, Chapter 14].
This account is greeted with suspicion by modern scholars, partly because the towers appear to be shrines of some sort. If so, their design is quite unusual, as each has three windows on the ground floor facing north, east, and south. At no other location do we find Khmer shrines with windows in the main sanctuary. For this reason, some scholars believe the towers may have been used as reception halls for foreign visitors (perhaps accounting for why Zhou Daguan was able to access them). All but two of the towers face the parade ground, and each is elevated on a terrace, which would make them useful for viewing the many large ceremonies conducted to the east of the royal palace. A problem with this theory is that the king’s own palace was made of wood (and has long since vanished), making it unlikely that the Khmers would have used high quality stone for guests while leaving their own monarch in a wooden palace.
In any case, the towers are relatively good condition with the majority retaining much of the original appearance. Each is spaced about 25 meters from one another and faces west, apart from the two central towers which face one another across the path leading to the Gate of Victory. The interior of each tower measures 4 x 6 meters, with three large windows providing ample light and air. They were probably built in the early 13th century by Indravarman II or his successor.
LThe so-called ‘Preah Pithu’ temples are a group of 5 monuments located northeast of the Royal palace area, just to the north of the Prasat Suor Prat towers. They are given the unremarkable designations T, U, V, X, and Y due to general uncertainty regarding when they were constructed, though it is possible that they were among the last of the temples built at Angkor (as late as the 13th century). Although they are located near the center of the monuments at Angkor they are rarely visited, probably because they are difficult to make out in their forested setting, and also because their unremarkable names gather little attention.
Preah Pithu X is the southeasternmost of the group. It is a cruciform temple located on a square base measuring 30 meters on each side. The interior of the sanctuary is filled with 37 seated Buddhas located in several rows above the doorways. As these are one of the few instances of surviving Buddha images at Angkor, due to the iconoclasm following the rule of Jayavarman VII, it is likely that these were carved later–perhaps the 14th to 16th centuries when the Khmer Empire had irrevocably declined.
This small temple is located in a wooded area northwest of the Royal Palace. Although it was probably built in the late 13th or early 14th centuries–perhaps during the reign of Jayavarman VIII–it has several unusual features. First, and most importantly, it is the only Angkor-era temple with surviving Buddhist imagery. This is problematic as Jayavarman VIII was a notorious iconoclast who ordered the effacement of Buddhist images on all the other temples in the Angkor area. One theory (per Michael Freeman and Claude Jacques) is that it may have been built late in his reign when he became more tolerant of Buddhism.
Another usual feature is its tall, tapering central tower which is characteristic of later Angkor monuments. It may have originally been faced with another material which would make it unique, as this technique was never employed elsewhere. The tower may also have been a later addition built on top of the pre-existing base.
The layout of the temple comprises a 50-meter square laterite wall pierced by a single gopura on the east which is decorated with extensive Buddhist bas-reliefs. The central shrine is a 19-meter tall tower constructed above a three-tiered sandstone base with a total height of 6 meters. The lowest tier measures 25 meters on each side, whereas the highest is only 12 meters per side. The central chamber of the shrine is only 5 meters square with four porches facing the cardinal directions. To the east of the temple, a royal causeway measuring 33 meters extends eastward, and is topped with a cruciform terrace measuring 8.5 x 6 meters. In between the causeway and the gopura is a relatively modern Buddha figure under a wooden canopy.
The Royal Palace Phimeanakas
The name ‘Phimeanakas’ is a derivation of the Sanskrit words ‘vimana’ and ‘akasha’ which together mean ‘celestial palace of the gods’. In contrast to this illustrious name, the temple itself is a fairly modest edifice measuring 36 x 28 meters at the base and 30 x 23 meters at the top, rising only 12 meters above the surrounding landscape. It was constructed during the reign of Rajendravarman II or Suryavarman I and probably functioned as a private temple for the king and a select group of invitees. Evidence for this is the location of the temple within the royal palace compound, as well as the limited space on the upper terrace which permitted only a single tower (rather than the usual five on other temple-mountains). There was also no causeway leading to the temple, and access to the top level could only be obtained by climbing extremely steep staircases without landings.
The temple is made mostly of laterite though the upper gallery was the first at Angkor to be built entirely of sandstone. When the Chinese delegate Zhou Daguan visited Angkor in the 13th century, he referred to Phimeanakas as a ‘Tower of Gold’, strongly suggesting that it was gilded. He also relates a legend that the temple housed a nagini–a girl with a serpent’s body–which the King was required to bed each night prior to sleeping with his wives and concubines. If he failed to keep his appointment, the kingdom could expect to meet with misfortune. Worse still, if the nagini failed to appear, it was a sign that the king’s death was imminent.