Palaces of the Gods: Khmer Temples of Isaan

Story posted: Saturday, 21. May 2011 by CPA Media

Pictures From History / Themes / KHMER TEMPLES OF ISAN




Palaces of the Gods: Khmer Temples of Isan




The high plateaus of northeastern Thailand -- or Isan, as the region is most commonly known today -- boast the country's longest and most continuous cultural heritage. From Asia's earliest bronze-age culture 4000 years ago to present-day Thai nationhood, Isan has remained intimate with virtually every key historical transition mainland Southeast Asia has seen.


Of these important cultural phases none has captured the world's imagination as much as the Angkor civilization, which flourished in northeastern Thailand and northwestern Cambodia from the 9th to 13th centuries. This era began with the AD 802 crowning of King Jayavarman II near present-day Siem Reap, Cambodia, introducing the region to the devaraja or 'divine king' cult, in which the monarch became the worldly representative of Shiva and Vishnu.


Inspired by the Hindu-Buddhist architecture of central Java, where the king was educated, Jayavarman II became the first ruler in mainland Southeast Asia to sponsor the building of religious monuments bearing brick or stone towers. Over the next 350 years, this style of architecture evolved into the sophisticated set of walled and moated temple complexes known collectively as 'Angkor'. As the Angkor empire expanded, its emissaries built Angkor-style complexes across northeastern Thailand and as far west as Kanchanaburi in central Thailand.


Khmer tower against a modern Buddhist temple, Wat Sa Kampaeng Yai.
David Henley / CPA
Khmer tower against a modern Buddhist temple, Wat Sa Kampaeng Yai.

Although often neglected in favor of the famed Angkor city complex in Cambodia, the Khmer monuments of Isan represent key architectural milestones in the development of Angkor design and ritual. In fact virtually every Angkor-period monument played a role in an elaborate cosmology that linked the entire network, half of which lay in what is today Thailand.


Although Thai folk belief holds that the larger, cruciform-plan monuments served as 'palaces' for Angkor's all-powerful kings, in fact these buildings were considered temporary abodes for the Shiva, Vishnu, Maitreya and other Hindu or Buddhist deities called to earth via ritual architecture. To preserve their religious power, Angkor priests regularly traveled between the various monuments to perform complex ceremonies involving fire, water, and linga (sanctified stone sculptures representing Shiva's phallus).



Brief Guide to Khmer Art & Architecture


Isan's larger complexes, known to the Thais as prasat (from the Sanskrit, prasada, a term applied to cube-like religious structures), feature elaborate monuments of brick, sandstone or laterite, richly carved with religious themes empowering the shrine for ritual use.


These complexes either line up along a single axis or else are grouped in a square or rectangle around a central monument. Khao Phra Viharn and Prasat Khao Noi are examples of sites which follow the axil plan, while Prasat Muang Tam and Prasat Phimai were built around a central plan. Some sites, such as the magnificent Prasat Phanom Rung, combine the two, placing a walled quadrangle complex at the end of an axil series of structures. Only Khmer monuments found in Thailand, in fact, exhibit this axil-central combination.


The terracing of the bases on which the various shrine have been erected comprises another important architectural hallmark, one that reinforces the impression of height. Oftentimes the corners of the bases are reticulated to produced multiple indentations in the floor plan. Viewed from the air -- as the gods might see them? -- the reticulated floor plans may have served as yantra, elaborate visual patterns emanating ritual power.


Phanom Rung Festival.
Joe Cummings / CPA
Phanom Rung Festival.

Prasat Phanom Rung extends the terracing notion to great effect in the approach to the site's main entrance. Built over a series of inclines shaped by the builders from a natural slope, Phanom Rung's terraced entrance is the most dramatic of any Khmer monument visible today, including Angkor Wat.


Phanom Rung Festival.
Joe Cummings / CPA
Phanom Rung Festival.

Arguably the single most prominent architectural feature at all Angkor-period sites are their tall, tapering towers. Known to the Thais by the Khmer term prang, these corncob-like shape allude to Mount Meru, the mythical peak at the center of the Hindu-Buddhist universe.


The largest prang-topped building in a complex contained the central image, whether it be a sculpture of Shiva or Vishnu (for Hindu monuments) or Maitreya Buddha (in Buddhist complexes). Here the most important religious rituals were observed by the clergy and monarchy. Some sites, such as Prasat Sikhoraphum, consist of little more than one central prang-topped cubicle flanked by a two to four smaller ones.


Smaller prang-topped structures either leading to the main shrines (in the case of axil plans) or surrounding them on four sides (in central plans), are known as gopura, a Sanskrit term applied to entrance pavilions. Historians today believe that the gopuras were used for preparatory rituals performed by supplicants en route to the central shrine.


At some sites, such as Prasat Phimai and Prasat Kamphaeng Yai, gopuras are incorporated into the main surrounding wall at equally spaced compass points. At others, most prominently Prasat Phanom Rung and Khao Phra Viharn, gopuras are arranged in a straight line leading up to the main shrine. Other buildings found at the larger complexes include 'library' halls where palm-leaf religious manuscripts were once stored.


Alongside the entrance pavilions, or occasionally between the entrance pavilions and the main shrine, the larger complexes featured rectangular ponds most often known by their Khmer name, baray. Fed by natural streams or springs, these ponds were used for ablutions -- ritual cleansings -- by all who entered the complex.


As worshippers came close to the buildings inside the complex, they were treated to exquisite sculptural ornamentation carved into the supporting pillars, thresholds, and doorway lintels by master artisans of the time. These rich carvings, usually carried out after the stones or bricks had been sized and put into place, had the dual purpose of educating worshippers about Hindu-Buddhist mythology while consecrating the enclosed space for the appearance of the deities themselves during sacred ceremonies.


A full tally of the Hindu or Buddhist figures found sculpted onto these monuments has yet to be catalogued, but the variety and number never fails to impress the first-time visitor. Common representations of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and renewal, include his stately 'dancing king' or Nataraja pose, and the deity is also occasionally seen riding Nandi, his bull mount, alongside his female consort Uma.


The central cell at Prasat Phanom Rung contains a pillar-like shiva-lingam, the deity's phallic image. Among the most important of the moveable sculptures found in Angkor-period monuments, shiva-lingams could be transported from one complex to another in order to consecrate newer sites.


Among temple reliefs dedicated to the Vishnu, the Hindu preserver god, one of the most iconographically rich motifs depicts the deity asleep on the sea of eternity, sometimes represented by a naga (a mythical multi-headed sea serpent). A lotus flower growing from his navel branches into several blossoms, on one of which sits Brahma, the Hindu god responsible for creating the universe. One of the most famous reclining Vishnus of this sort can be found in an elegantly carved lintel at Prasat Phanom Rung. Vishnu also makes frequent appearances as two of his major incarnations, Rama and Krishna. At Prasat Phimai, visitors can view a relief depicting Krishna defeating the demon Kamsa at the eastern portico of the main prang.


The naga, which represents a worldly force that comes forth to protect Hindu or Buddhist deities in times of crisis, is a common sculptural detail at many Angkor-period sites. At Prasat Phanom Rung, massive nagas undulate along lengthy balustrades leading to the complex's main entrance.


Floral motifs, which run extensively along the cornices, colonettes, and lintels of virtually every Isan Khmer site, are yet another representation of the natural world juxtaposed with the heavenly world of the gods. Oftentimes carved as flower garlands, they call to mind the extensive offering of flowers that once would have occurred at these shrines.


One of the more intriguing figures found at these sites is a disembodied head with bulging eyes, a frightening row of upper teeth, and flower garlands disappearing into its open mouth. Most often found over the doorways of entrance pavilions, this is Kala, the Hindu god of time and death. Devouring all in his path, Kala serves as a reminder that everything in the natural world -- represented again by the flowers -- is eventually consumed by time.


With nearly 200 sites of Khmer origin found in northeastern Thailand, Cambodia's deservedly famous counterparts tell only half the Angkor story. Thus for anyone interested in the historic art and architecture of the period, a circuit of Isan Angkor sites is well worth the effort, especially coupled with the added incentives provided by delicious northeastern Thai cuisine and legendary Isan hospitality.




Text copyright © Joe Cummings / CPA Media 2011

Category:  Thailand

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