Angkor Thom ( Nogor Thom in Khmer meaning Great City) was the last capital of the Khmer Regime. Established in the late 12th century by King JayavarmanVII , this is one of the most visited tourist spots today. Covering an area of nine square kms, it has several temples and monuments built by King Jayavarman and his predecesors.
Angkor Thom was established as the capital of King Jayavarman’s Empire and the centre of his massive building programme.
The city lies on the banks of the Siem Reap river around seven kms north of Siem Reap city and around two kms north of Angkor Wat.
The walls of the city of Angkor Thom are flanked by a moat and made of laterite .There are gates at each of the cardinal points from which roads lead to the Bayon at the centre. The gates have towers with faces on them which are similar to the faces on the Bayon and probably represent the King himself, the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, guardians of the cardinal points or a combination of these.
A causeway spans the moat in front of each tower. This causeway has a row of faces of Devas on the left and Asuras on the right holding a Naga. The gates were probably closed with wooden gates. The South gate is by far the most visited as it is now the main entrance to Angkor Thom.
The supporting wooden poles at the gate gives us the feeling that some major repair work is on. Yes, that is true; renovation and restoration of the temple is going on in full swing.
South gate of Angkor Thom , the road , moat, causeway, Naga and the Devas and Asuras.
The tower at the South gate with the face on the tower (note the supporting wooden poles for renovation)
The Deva statues on the left side of the causeway
The Asura statues on the right side of the causeway
This richly decorated temple at the centre of Angkor Thom was the state temple of King Jayavarman VII.
The original name of Bayon was Jaya Giri or Mountain of Brahma ( Jaya is another name of Brahma and Giri means mountain). The most distinctive feature of this temple is the smiling faces of Brahma on each of the four sides of the towers.
The Banyan tree is very sacred to the Buddhist ideology as Buddha got enlightenment under the banyan tree. This temple is called Bayon from the word Banyan.
As one reaches the temple, one is greeted by a flight of stairs with the guardian lions on either side. Climbing up the stairs, one reaches a platform from where one enters the main temple.
View of Bayon temple from the road.
The stairs with guardian lions on either side.
The main entrance.
As one enters the temple, one reaches a narrow corridor with pillars on either side. As one walks along the corridor, there are blocked doorways, stairs and small yards and the labyrinth of the temple becomes obvious.
The first enclosure opens up into two inner galleried enclosures. All these are crowded together and unlike Angkor Wat which gives one a feeling of space , Bayon gives the feeling of being cramped together.
The walls of the outer enclosure features bas reliefs depicting historical events and the daily life of the people. The outer enclosure encloses a courtyard with two libraries. Beyond this level, entry was restricted due to restoration work . But they are believed to contain bas reliefs of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and Ravana.
The Upper Terrace appears to a later addition to the plan as there is hardly any space between the inner gallery and the terrace. This level features the famous Face Towers of Bayon. There are 49 towers and more than 200 faces on these towers. In various stages of ruin, it is not possible to give the exact numbers of these.
There is some disagreement on the identity of the faces. The similarity of the faces led historians to believe that they represent King Jayavarman VII himself. Some scholars believe that the faces represent Bodhisattva of campassion called Avalokiteshvara. Locals still believe that the faces represent Brahma and not Buddha as they have three eyes and Buddha does not have three eyes. The predecessors of Jayavarman VII were Hindus but Jayavarman VII was a Buddhist.
The Face Towers of Bayon
The central tower and sanctuary is believed to have contained a Buddha statue in a meditative pose shielded by a serpent hood. This was removed by the next King, Jayavarman VIII who followed Hinduism and was recovered in a damaged condition from a well.
A closeup showing the obvious reconstruction attempt
After the visit to Bayon temple, we started for another popular temple near Angkor Thom….The Ta Prohm.
Enroute, Sarath pointed out the famous Elephant terrace to us.
The terrace is named after the sculptures seen on it. Several elephant heads protrude out from the wall and their long trunks almost extending to the ground. It was used as an audience hall and for public ceremonies. The King often listened to the complaints of the people from here. Many parts of the terrace are in a state of collapse.
Ta Prohm (Ancient Brahma)
Our next halt was at Ta Prohm, a unique temple in Angkor Thom which many of you would have seen in English movies. This temple is a very popular film shooting destination and one of the most popular movies shot here is Tomb Raider.
History of Ta Prohm
Built by Jayavarman VII between the 12th and 13th centuries, this temple was originally called “Rajavihara” meaning Royal monastery. He built this temple in honour of his family. The main image here was modelled on the King’s mother. The site was home to more than twelve thousand people including high priests and dancers. In addition, the surrounding villages has lot of inhabitants.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 15th century, this temple was abandoned and neglected. Restoration and reconstruction work started here in the 21st century. But the location and the way the temple had merged with the jungle and the trees had grown all over the structures, it was decided to not alter the overall picture as it was unique in many ways.
Ta Prohm is slightly different from Angkor Wat and Bayon in that it is built very flat and at one level. There are entrance gopuras at the four cardinal directions but many of them are in various stages of collapse. There are libraries , bas reliefs depicting Buddhist mythology and images of devatas. The temple was highly ornate and decorated in art styles of different periods in time.
But the most captivating feature of this temple are the trees. The trees growing out of the ruins is a distinctive feature of this temple. The silk cotton tree and fig tree are the main species of trees growing out of the ruins. When one visits the temple, one forgets about the gopuras and sanctum sanctorum and gets spell bound by the tall trunks of the trees growing from in between the stones of the temple wall and ending in a green canopy against the sky on one end and the huge roots encircling the monument walls and spreading on to the ground. The trees have so encircled the complex that one looses orientation of the place as one manoeuvres in between the giant roots.
The main gate used as the entrance by visitors today is the western gate. Outside the gate were plenty of shops selling curios, souvenirs and other articles. Lot of vendors, particularly women tried to woo us with their wares. Needless to say, they were successful to some extent!!
The western gate has a gopura with the faces as seen at Bayon. The gate itself was supported by scaffolding poles probably as a support to prevent collapse. We also entered through the western gate.
At the west gate of Ta Prohm ( note the supporting metal poles as part of reinforcement and restoration)
Soon we were inside the complex. Surprisingly, we entered a vast expanse of farmland and jungle with a trail in the centre . This area was probably the place where the inhabitants in service of the temple lived in dwellings which no longer exist. A long walk of around two kms took us to the main sanctuary. There are signages all along but most people find their own way, some even exploring the jungle on either side.
Walking along the trail, I was attracted by some melodious music and I approached a small shelter where I found around six men playing different musical instruments in harmony. A closer look , and I noticed that many of them were handicapped and then I noticed a board saying these people were the unfortunate victims of landmine blasts during the various conflicts that the country had seen.
What wars and conflicts do to humanity!!!
Melody from pain….
A moat with a bridge, a few terraces and a couple of gopuras and we finally reached the location of the most iconic pictures of Ta Prohm.
No amount of description by me is going to give you a perspective of the trees and their massiveness. So, I leave you with these pictures which speak a thousand words. Take a look…
Note the huge trees at the back, they are actually growing on the back wall
This is perhaps the most iconic picture of Ta Prohm, the entrance with the roots encircling it!!
Sarath obliged us with this picture at this iconic location….once in a lifetime!
The sheer massiveness of the roots and branches require support from scaffoldings to prevent it from falling
From the pictures above, it must be obvious to you that what we see at Ta Prohm is perhaps an ongoing battle between the trees and monument. It seems like the trees have taken a vice like grip on the monument and the monument is struggling to free itself. At places, the trees seem to have not been able to undo the artistic monument but at places, they have won the battle with the monument in ruins!!
A spot which nature has still left for us to admire the artistic work (partly reconstructed)
A spot where the trees have won the battle !!!
It left all of us in complete awe and disbelief….
Restoration of Ta Prohm
India is very much involved in the restoration work at this temple that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Archaeological Survey Of India has restored parts of the complex. Wooden walkways, platforms and roped railings have been put in place to protect the monument from further damage. The Hall of Dancers has been totally renovated.
A board at Ta Prohm that made us proud…
Leaving Ta Prohm with mixed feelings we headed back to the hotel for a relaxed evening after taking in a lot of history, architecture, art and nature.
Ta Prohm’s ruins left me with delight and awe at what one man did and despair and regret at what has befallen it over the years. The overpowering forces of nature are in full display here. NATURE HAS FULL CONTROL OVER ANYTHING MORTAL…..
Hope you enjoyed your visit to Bayon and Ta Prohm with me. Do give me your comments and feedback to keep me motivated!
See you next week at another destination in Siem Reap that speaks of the grandeur of the Kings…Phnom Kulen