Koh Ker - ephemeral capital of the Angkorian Empire (928-944 AD)

Wednesday 16 September 2015: conference Koh Ker - ephemeral capital of the Angkorian Empire (928-944 AD) by Thierry Zéphir, Study Engineer at the National Museum of Asian Arts Guimet.

Thierry Zéphir introduced Koh Ker based on the study of the temple of Tribhuvaneshvara (the Lord of the Three Worlds), a form of the god Shiva.

This period of Koh Ker begins “officially” in 928, with the accession to the throne of Jayavarman IV, and continues until 944 when the Khmer royalty returns to the site of Angkor.
Continental Southeast Asia has been strongly indianized since the beginning of the Christian era with the help of trade and so Cambodia is steeped in Indian traditions including Hindu. Historical Cambodia covered a much larger area than the present as it traveled from southern Laos to southern Vietnam and overflowed into present-day Thailand.

Koh Ker is about 80km north-east of Angkor. This site existed before 928 and there are inscriptions dating back to 921. Most of the construction is due to Jayavarman IV-Paramashivapada who reigned from 928 to 944 and his son Harshavarman II-Brahmāloka (941-944).
In this city formerly named Chok Gargyar (the grove ofHopea odorata) or Lingapura (the city of (or) lingaJayavarman IV had 921 erected linga appointed Sri Tribhuvaneshvara. The temple which sheltered it, the most important of the city, is known nowadays under the name of Prasat Thom.

koh ker_map1

General plan of the site

Map of Henri Parmentier.d52146b

Plan and section of Prasat Thom after Henri Parmentier

Koh Ker is known since the XIXe century when the French explorers began the study of the monuments of Cambodia and the first description of the site is that of Louis Delaporte in 1873. Unfortunately the site did not receive as much attention and care as that of Angkor because it was considered of less importance and was once located in a disadvantaged and difficult to access area. Since the independence of Cambodia, the site has fallen into disrepair and, even before the civil war, was subjected to many looting that lasted until the 1990 years.
The site evokes in "reduced model" the famous city of Angkor with a stone architecture for the temples and the presence of a large reservoir (baray in Khmer) which was used to feed the canals for irrigation. In Koh Ker this baray is referred to as Rahal; it is bordered by various monuments. The Rahal is partially surrounded by dikes and partially built in the sandstone flush with the ground. The main temple, Prasat Thom, is located to the north-west of the Rahal and we observe that the majority of the smaller monuments, located to the east of the baray, open towards the West what seems rather irregular in the Khmer architecture. This orientation is probably due to the fact that a major communication route connecting Angkor to the northeastern regions of the Khmer Kingdom, and more particularly to the Vat Phu Temple in present-day Laos, was along the eastern side of the Rahal.
If Koh Ker was of great importance, it is probably because Jayavarman IV, who became Jayavarman IV, was already a very powerful high dignitary in this region and began to erect monuments even before he became king. When he became king, he seems to have preferred to move political, administrative, economic and religious institutions rather than change their place of residence.
The first in-depth study of the site is due to Henri Parmentier (1871-1949) who made many surveys and drew plans and elevations of the monuments.
Prasat Thom Koh Ker is a complex plan focused while in general, when it comes to royal foundations, Khmer monuments are centered plan. This East-West axis seems to be a feature of a number of monuments in Northeast Cambodia, such as the famous Banteay Srei temple, a little later.
The central part of the Tribhuvaneshvara temple erected in 921 is inside a moat and the large pyramid which takes place at the rear, surrounded by its own enclosure, was added in 928. This addition is part of a tradition which will assert itself thereafter: a king had to build a temple-mountain to place there the main divinity who protected the kingdom under his reign.

Prasat Kraham 2

Prasat Kraham


Molding of the central part of the East lintel of Prasat Kraham Vishnu Narasimha MNAA-Guimet

Siva Head 1

Upper head of the statue of Shiva dancing. Sandstone National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

Siva Head 2

Lower left face of the dancing Shiva statue. Sandstone National Museum of Cambodia, Phnom Penh

Most of the structures are very ruined but they reveal a peculiarity of this temple: everything to the east and outside is larger than what is inside the central enclosures. There is a significant gradual reduction of buildings from the outside to the inside of the complex.

When we approach the whole East, we meet the gopura IV-East (theoretical pavilion of access to the fourth enclosure) of cruciform plan, composed of a central part developed to the North and the South by two large galleries blind towards the outside but pierced with numerous openings towards the interior. These sandstone galleries were covered with wooden frames supporting a roof with two slopes covered with tiles.
Once crossed this gopuraIn a relatively small space, there are two rectangular rooms whose destination remains unknown, as well as two large towers built laterite and sandstone, which probably housed images of divinities.
The third speaker opens with gopura III-East, named Prasat Kraham (red temple), which is a large tower shrine built in brick and giving access to the most sacred part of the temple. This Prasat Kraham was not a place of passage but a full temple with a whole set of sculptures of very high quality. The doors leading to the third enclosure are on each side of the building.
The eastern door of the temple is surmounted by a lintel formerly adorned in its central part of a relief of which Louis Delaporte had made a molding. This motif is a representation of Vishnu Narasimha, Vishnu lion-man disembowelling the demon Hiranyakashipu. The entrance itself was preceded by two statues of gana, these beings with human bodies and animal heads populating the slopes of Mount Kailâsa, the “personal” home of the god Shiva.
Thanks to the photographs of Henri Parmentier and the recent works of Eric Bourdonneau, we can reconstruct the entire statuary that took place in this temple. The central figure, standing on a pedestal with Atlantean lions at the four corners, was a representation of Shiva dancing with five heads and ten arms. This monumental monolithic complex (about 5 meters high), statue and pedestal, had been subjected to fire in order to explode it and recover precious elements of the foundation deposit which, traditionally, is under the pedestal of the statues of worship. A number of fragments were saved in the 1950 years thanks to Jean Boisselier who repatriated them to the museum of Phnom-Penh. The upper and lower left and six hands were preserved. If the sculpture has the stylized forms characteristic of early Khmer arte century, it presents an extremely neat workmanship and the faces are characteristic of the Khmer aesthetic of this time with an expression at the same time hieratic, distant but also benevolent. Some of the attributes held by these hands are easily associated with Shiva (skull cap, shield); others, of which only the handle or part of the handle remain, cannot unfortunately be identified with precision. This image of dancing Shiva was accompanied by various sculptures including the famous representation of dancing Umâ brought back by Louis Delaporte, one of the great masterpieces of the MNAA-Guimet. This figure reveals the particular originality of Koh Ker's art: an acute and controlled sense of the representation of movement. Other sculptures that have now disappeared are known from the photos of Henri Parmentier as a drummer and a representation of a terrifying female deity, Châmundâ, one of the Seven Mothers of the Shaivite pantheon.

Siva dancing

Restitution of the statue of Shiva dancing. © Eric Bourdonneau

One of the

Umâ dancing. Sandstone. © MNAA Guimet.

Garuda and Naga

Photos by H. Parmentier showing a Garuda and a naga.

At the rear of Prasat Kraham, the third enclosure is almost entirely occupied by a moat. The architecture of Khmer monuments is fairly repetitive: the enclosures alternate with one or more moats, which makes it possible to transpose into the world of men the sacred devices described by religious texts as being the celestial sojourns of the deities, mountains surrounded by oceans themselves. - even surrounded by mountains ... Access to the second enclosure was via two causeways (East and West) bordered by galleries and very spectacular sculptures. The galleries were bordered by two parapets in the shape of a long serpent naga polycephalous whose heads were turned towards the third enclosure; behind these nagaThere were two large sculptures of the Garuda bird in a dynamic posture, with outstretched wings and arms pointing forward as if to master the fabulous multi-headed serpent.
Le nagasymbolically linked to water and the riches it provides, is also a kind of metaphor on the rainbow that leads the beings of the earthly world to the celestial world. The fight of Garuda and naga makes sensitive the opposition fire-water, light-darkness; but the naga also suggests access to the world of the gods. Of the four Garuda which took place on the western and eastern causeways of the third enclosure of Prasat Thom, only one remains today; this majestic work has been reconstructed from fragments from different statues. The Garuda precede the gopura II-East which allows to cross the second enclosure. This gopura is cruciform and, in this, comparable to that of the fourth enclosure but much smaller; it has the same structure: a roof of tiles, probably glazed, supported by a frame with two slopes. Its main porch is surmounted by a triangular pediment, while two side passages give access to the enclosure itself.

Gopura II East

Restitution of the east facade of gopura II-Est by H. Parmentier.

Gopura II East Delaporte

Sketch of the interior of the gopura II-Est by L. Delaporte.

Gopura II is 2

Interior of gopura II-East. Photo H. Parmentier.

A series of remarkable images were inside this gopura. Louis Delaporte had made a sketch of it in 1873 which turns out to be of great accuracy and which made it possible to recognize in this set a large-scale representation of the post-mortem judgment to which a king had to submit in order to be able to access the residence of Shiva. All those involved in this judgment are represented there: Yama, the judge of the dead, some of his assistants, the Sun, the Moon, other deities and, of course, King Jayavarman IV. In the southern niche, Yama was seated on a buffalo (once considered a bull, but the recent discovery of its horns has correctly identified). On either side, at the front of this niche, were Dharma and Chitragupta not far from Sûrya (the Sun) and Chandra (the Moon) which were on either side of the eastern entrance. Another sculpture, recently returned to Cambodia, shows a hunchbacked figure, probably an assistant to Yama. The northern niche housed, among other things, a statue long considered to represent an unidentifiable secondary deity. The monolithic work, pedestal and figure kneeling in a hieratic attitude, is recognized today as an idealized portrait of Jayavarman IV. The king would thus appear before Yama and his assessors to be judged before reaching the world of Shiva. This sculpture is said to be one of the earliest known royal portraits for the Angkorian period.

Gopura II is 1

Restitution of the interior of the gopura II-Est. © Eric Bourdonneau.

Jayavarman IV

Presumed statue of Jayavarman IV. Sandstone. © MNAA Guimet.


Photograph of H. Parmentier showing the statues of Dharma and Chitragupta in situ. Photograph of H. Parmentier showing the statues of Dharma and Chitragupta in situ.

Crossing the second enclosure then the first one enters the holiest area of ​​the temple. The very ruined structures were built in a less noble material and especially less resistant than the external buildings since it is brick. In the central part of the complex stood a tower housing the linga Shri Tribhuvaneshvara and preceded by mandapa (rectangular room). This whole area was to be frequented only by the high clergy or the king because of its smallness and its eminently sacred character.

Central tower

Inside the central tower that housed the Shri Tribhuvaneshvara linga.

Siva and Parvati

Photograph of H. Parmentier showing Shiva and Pârvatî on Nandi in situ.


Photograph of H. Parmentier showing the group of Arjuna and Shiva in situ.

Springing from the back we crossed the gopura I-West, then the gopura II West. This one, like its eastern counterpart, housed a set of images. The central image was Shiva and Pârvatî on the bull Nandi, work reconstituted by H. Parmentier but left in place because too heavy and now disappeared. Other sculptures were in this gopura and should form a coherent whole like that of Yama's judgment in the gopura II is. A representation of Trimûrti is attested with Shiva in the center, Vishnu on his left and Brahma on his right. Another group represents the scene of the fight between Arjuna and Shiva disguised as Kirâta. Shiva, a mountain hunter, wears a simple loincloth, while Arjuna is decked with rich jewels as a prince. The group illustrates, better than any other, the ability of Koh Ker's artists to represent the movement.
Continuing the journey, we arrived at the gopura III-West, much smaller than its Eastern counterpart, for
Unclog on the posterior enclosure, equivalent to the surface of the original complex and probably added in 928. In this chamber, Jayavarman IV built a pyramid surmounted by a temple, the prang. This six-storey pyramid (36 m) is the highest in the Khmer world and the temple at the top, of which only the basement remains - admitting that it was never built - housed a linga quite remarkable mentioned in inscriptions and renowned for its dimensions. This linga symbolized the god Shiva protector of the kingdom.
The Prasat Thom complex bears witness to the exceptional quality of early Khmer Khmer architecturee century and the extraordinary originality of the site of Koh Ker whose main monuments were built in a very short period of time.

Prang map

Plan and elevation of Prasat Thom temple and prang.

Prasat Thom pyramid_o

Restitution of the hypothetical profile of Prasat Thom prang.

Eric Bourdonneau's research tends to show that the most important Khmer architectural ensembles, not content with sheltering the protecting deity of the kingdom under the rule of this or that sovereign, were also used to prepare the afterlife of the founding king, acquiring hence a funerary vocation. This would explain the need for each king to erect his own mountain temple.

Recently, a number of sculptures from another important Koh Ker temple, the Prasat Chen, have been restored in Cambodia and have helped to reconstruct another coherent group illustrating an episode of Mahabharata : the fight of Bhima against Duryodhana.


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