Royal Terraces without a Palace of the Kings

We had just left behind a stone forest of the fifty-four towers of the State Temple of Bayon, situated at the very heart of Angkor Thom. They followed us with the eyes of the faces looking out to the Baphuon Temple, and further on to the North Gate.

The both temples, Bayon and Baphuon, are definitely the most beautiful and complete in comparison to other numerous remains of temples and secular structures of different ages and styles scattered around Angkor Thom (Teo 2014); there are ruins of Prasat Chrung, composed of “four temples located at the corners of the wall, in southwest, northwest, northeast, and southeast” (Ibid.), then Preah Pithu Group, Prasat Suor Prat, the Khleangs, Tep Pranam, the so-called Monuments 486 and 487, and the Royal Palace area with the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and two monumental terraces (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; Teo 2014).

Perished Palace of Angkor Thom

The city of Angkor Tom “was [once] inhabited by tens of thousands of common people who lived in wooden houses, that have long gone. The city was highly developed with a system of roads and waterways, as well as four hospitals” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020).

One of the main stairway leading to the Terrace of the Elephants. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Elephants” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The city of Angkor Thom was not evenly covered with ever-lasting stone structures; in comparison to southern part of Angkor Tom, which seems now desolate, the northern side of the city abounds in various architectural creations, unfortunately now mostly in ruins. To the North of the Bayon the king Jayavarman VII built his Royal Palace (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020). “Since it was built of perishable materials as were other urban constructions, nothing of it remains today except for the Royal Terraces that were made of stone” (Renown Travel & Tour Agency 2010-2020; see Pałkiewicz 2007:176). Consequently, both the Elephants’ Terrace and the Leper King’s Terrace has still marked the eastern extremity of the Royal Palace enclosure (Ibid.).

Terrace of the Elephants

We walked to the north, from Baphuon in the direction of Phimeanakas, two former state temples incorporated to the twelfth century’s Royal Palace (“Angkor Thom” 2020). There is a huge square adjoining the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014). Its two and a half-meter tall edifice is really impressive: it extends in length for over three hundred metres; we observed that it already starts at the foot of the Baphuon Temple and reaches northwards to the second Terrace of the Leper King (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014).

Terrace of the Elephants’ long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal. Photo by Marcin Konsek (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source:Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Nevertheless, these two boundaries of its large architectural construction “remain imprecise in their layout and the terrace itself shows evidence of additions and alterations” (Glaize I 1944), made partially by Jayavarman VII in the late twelfth century, and then continued by his successor (Teo 2014).

Elephants everywhere

The terrace’s long wall is adorned with intricate carvings, major part of which represents royal and holy animals – elephants, which proudly walk along the terrace’s pedestal (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Hence the terrace’s name (Ibid.:165). During the golden age, the royal cavalry consisted of two hundred thousand elephants, the pride of the army, as well as a large number of horses, oxen and carts (Ibid.:170).

Often the result of a battle depended on the number of elephants that took part in it (Pałkiewicz 2007:170). Wars on land usually started in the dry season, which made it easier for the troops with elephants to move quicker around (Ibid.:170). During the battle, clouds of dust stirred up by elephants rose in the air, which, as the verses of an epic Khmer poem say, even covered the Sun (Ibid.:170).

Five-headed horse

The terrace’s wall spans the front of Baphuon Temple, the Royal Chapel of Phimeanakas and the Royal Palace area in the centre of Angkor Thom (Teo 2014). The northern segment of the wall (a part of an ancient façade) shows a panel densely decorated in high relief with the five-headed horse, around which there are complex, possibly mythological scenes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014): “the king’s horse sheltered under tiered parasols, […] surrounded by apsaras and menacing genies armed with sticks who chase some terrified smaller figures” (Glaize I 1944). Three sections of retaining walls of the Terrace of the Elephants together with its two side walls compose five outworks extending towards the square in the centre (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014).

Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by Diego Delso (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Their middle sections are covered in life size legendary Hindu bird-like creatures, called Garudas, and lions, all depicted in the pose of atlantes (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Towards either end of the wall, the entire length of the panel is sculpted in a high relief, representing a parade of nearly full in size elephants depicted in profile and mounted by famous Khmer mahouts (Glaize I 1944; Teo 2014). Various level changes in the wall are in turn ”marked with lions sculpted in the round and Naga-balustrades on blocks with [their opponents, Garudas], on the [snakes’] hoods” (Glaize I 1944).

Three-headed elephant

The Terrace is double-levelled, and its upper part has furthermore two levels with an elevated platform, whose base is carved with Hamsas (sacred geese) (Glaize I 1944).

Three-headed elephant from the Terrace of the Elephants, Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by Anita (2014). In: kolibri5. Photo source: Free images at Pixabay.

Five stairways, as many as there are gates to the city, lead to the Terrace of the Elephants (Glaize I 1944). They are all also fully covered in carvings but three of the staircases seem most dominant of all (Ibid.). The southern one displays exceptionally beautiful sculpture (Ibid.), namely, it is “framed by motifs of [a three-headed elephant, Airvan], with trunks forming pillars tugging at lotuses, [the sculpture already found on the gates of Angkor Thom] (see Passageway through the Stargate). The same arrangement can be seen on the two secondary stairways which frame the central perron” (Ibid.). The stairway on the northern façade is partly sculpted in a bas-relief of horizontal bands; there are “scenes of sport, wrestling, chariot racing and polo, […] which originated from India” (Ibid.).

Royal stand

Around eight hundred years ago, the Terrace of the Elephants must have been a spectacular meeting place (Teo 2014); it was probably “used as a giant reviewing stand for [spectacles], public [and religious] ceremonies, and served as a base for the king’s grand audience hall” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:165). Triumphant military parades and colourful spectacles took place at its foot, and despite the fact that the construction had been damaged many times, its majestic appearance still makes a great impression (Pałkiewicz 2007:165). The bas-reliefs of the Terrace of the Elephants, and the whole Angkor Tom, show how great the magnificence of the royal court of Khmers really was (Ibid.:170).

Terrace of the Elephants is the largest of the two in Angkor Thom. It is compsed of five outworks with five stairways leading to double-levelled platform. The terrace may have served as a ceremonial stand. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A traveller and journalist, Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:170) imagines the ceremonial protocol of that time: here is the divine ruler with a tiara on his forehead, seated on a high terrace in the shade of ceremonial umbrellas. Handmaids in colourful, silk robes are approaching him, while offering refreshing fruit (Ibid.:170). The king is surrounded by an entourage of clergy, dignitaries and diplomats (Ibid.:170). In their company, the ruler is watching the infantry and cavalry troops heading towards the central Palace (Ibid.:170). Flags and banners are fluttering in the wind (Ibid.:170). It was a real propaganda for the diplomats, envoys and travellers who came from abroad (Ibid.:165,170).

Envoy’s reports

The contemporary chronicles also report a great prosperity in trade in the Khmer Empire (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). Gold was imported from Sumatra and Korea, tin and fabric from Malaysia, mercury from China and an extremely valuable aromatic tree, silk from India (Ibid.:174). Spices and dyes were transported by water or by carts drawn by Indian buffaloes or by men from lower castes (Ibid.:174).

An envoy from China, Chou Ta Kuan, reports that people from lowest classes in Angkor had dark skin and lived a very simple life (Pałkiewicz 2007: 174). On the other side, aristocrats and inhabitants of the Royal Palace, both men and women fair complexion, which is probably due to the fact that their skin had not been exposed to sunlight (Ibid.:174). Generally, both men and women only wore a loincloth (Ibid.:174). They bound their hair up at the top of the head and walked barefoot, including emperors’ wives (Ibid.:174). According to the envoy’s records, the king had five wives (Ibid.:174). As for concubines and palace maidens, their number ranged from three to five thousand (Ibid.:174). They were divided into many classes, but these women rarely had the opportunity to be in the royal quarters (Ibid.:174). The best noble families competed with each other, offering their daughters to the king, thus seeking privileges (Ibid.:174).

Terrace of the Leper King, Angkor Tom, Cambodia. Photo by Olaf Tausch (2015). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Angkor Thom” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Apart from the being admired at his Terrace of the Elephants, the king equally gave audiences twice a day at his Royal Palace, which, unfortunately, no longer exists (Pałkiewicz 2007: 170). Chou Ta Kuan writes that this Palace had colourful interiors decorated with wood and gold (Ibid.:170). And the king himself, during the audience, appeared in the window with golden cornices, holding his sword in his hand (Ibid.:170,174). The entire ceremony was performed to the accompaniment of music (Ibid.:170). After being summoned by the king, a minister or another official sat on a tiger’s skin before the king and submitted interpellations (Ibid.:174). While leaving the site, I thought about a mystery of those ancient times, yet brining back in such details by the envoy’s contemporary reports and magical movements and dance of the sculpted stone figures frozen in the past.

Terrace of the Leper King

Soon we reached the second terrace of the Royal Palace, called the Terrace of the Leper King, situated at the north end of the Terrace of the Elephants (Teo 2014); it is aligned with it but forming a separate architectural unit of twenty-five metres wide by six metres high (Glaize II 1944). The Terrace resembles a bastion, which is entirely sculpted in the mixture of high and low relief (Ibid.). All the filigree carvings are depicted in five visible registers (Maurice Glaize II (1944) mentions seven); unfortunately, some of the sculpture, especially the uppermost, is strongly damaged or worn out, and thus hardy readable (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:174).

Dense sculpture encrusting the Terrace of the Leper King in Angkor Thom, Cambodia. Photo by one_life (2016). Free images at Pixabay.

Both the internal and external reliefs show lines of seated mythological figures of Naga, Garuda, and Kumbhanda (Glaize II 1944). There are also meditating silhouettes of women, images of monarchs in crowns, armed with short swords, various species of animals, hunting scenes, games and activities (Pałkiewicz 2007:174,176). All of them “haunt the flanks of Mount Meru, shown as giants, […] sometimes with multiple arms […], sword or club bearers, and women with bare torsos” (Glaize II 1944).

Apsaras in pearls

When I approached the construction from its north side I saw yet different looking sculpture; there was a sword swallower and some figures wearing a curious side-chignon, who kept following him (Glaize II 1944). Having moved to the south side, I entered the internal corridor or passage dividing the carved mound in two (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176). I admired a well preserved set of carvings whose décor is composed of the same elements as the exterior but it is additionally adorned with my favourite Hindu characters, graceful and benevolent Devi, also called Apsaras (Glaize II 1944).

The summer light penetrating from the above fell on the sculptures covering the interior walls, emphasizing the shapely naked breasts of charming female upper bodies adorned only with strings of pearls (Glaize II 1944; Pałkiewicz 2007:176) and “triangular head dress with flaming discs” (Glaize II 1944). Some sculpted characters on the south side were also seated upon a lower frieze built up of depictions of fish, elephants and a river running vertically (Ibid.).

Leper King

Following the rows of scenes, I eventually climbed laterite steps to the upper level of the Terrace, where “[surrounded by three smaller decapitated statues carrying clubs on their right shoulders, the ‘Leper King’ sits in the Javanese manner with his right knee raised” (Glaize II 1944). Possibly his position has originally been on a simple stone slab he is seated on (Ibid.). The sculpture is itself unique in Khmer art, as it represents the King entirely naked, with no trace of his genitalia though (Ibid.).

Seated statue (a copy) venerated in Buddhist orange clothes in the photo gives the Terrace of the Leper King its name. Photo by McKay Savage (2009). CC BY 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

I looked at the figure and I immediately got an impression he is smiling, pleased with his entourage and location, or maybe visitors taking him loads of photos. When I started wondering why the seated figure is called the Leper King, I unexpectedly found the answer to my question: although the figure has no sign of leprosy as such, it is discoloured. Anyway, the original sculpture of the ‘King’ had already been replaced with a copy (Pałkiewicz 2007:174); “[the] statue was moved from the Terrace in Angkor Thom to the National Museum in Phnom Penh” (Miura 2015).

The statue which gave the Terrace of the Leaper King its name has been replaced by a replica. Photo by Serinde (2004). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Terrace of the Leper King” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Maurice Glaize (II:1944), as a French architect, archaeologist, and Conservator of Angkor from 1937 to 1945, had an opportunity to describe the original statue in his the guidebooks to the Angkor monuments. He writes that besides being stained and disfigured, it also bears a few patches of lichen, which may have resembled a person with leprosy (Glaize II:1944; see Pałkiewicz 2007:174). The source of the King’s and thus the Terrace’s name could be also because of a Cambodian legend of an Angkorian king, Yasovarman I (889–910 AD.), who was a great creator of Angkor and possibly he died of leprosy (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Consequently, he went down in history as the Leper King (“Terrace of the Leper King” 2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:174). Yet, he had reigned much earlier than the Terrace was constructed in the late twelfth century.

Sculpture of the so-called Leper King from the Terrace named after that figure. Does he really represent a king? Or maybe a demon or the god of the dead? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some scholars neither the statue represents a leper nor a king. Actually, the identity of the sculptured character is unknown. It is held by some that it represents ‘Shiva ascetic’, others believe that a later inscription on the Terrace’s base, which reads a ‘Dharmaraja’ reveals the statue’s real name (Glaize II:1944).“[It] is sometimes given to Yama and sometimes to one of his assessors – ‘the Inspector of Qualities and Faults’ – the supreme judge in the hour of judgement, [and so] the ‘god of the Dead’” (Ibid.). However, the hairstyle of the individual, namely composed “of thick coils starting from the front and covering the nape of the neck – emphasises, like the two ‘fangs’ near the corner of the lips, his demonic character” (Ibid.). Is it then one of demons from Hindu tradition? Is it maybe a depiction of Ravana?

Dharmaraja at Mount Meru

It is probable that the Terrace of the Leper King was once dominated by the sculpted mound, possibly complemented with pools, and with the buried wall; this curious arrangement may have been a symbolic representation of Mount Meru (Glaize 1944).

On the other side, “the fact that it occupies an area to the north of the Royal Palace – the area […] reserved still now for royal cremations known as ‘Val Prah Men’ (the name of the pavilion prepared there for the funeral pyre) – leads one to suspect that the Terrace of the Leper King was none other than a permanent [Val Prah] Men, which would explain why, when this cult was still remembered [in the fifteenth century, the name] of Dharmaraja [as the god of the dead, had been] placed [just] there” (Ibid.).

Ancient heritage

From the main entrance to the Royal Palace, that is halfway along the wall of the Terrace of the Elephants, there is an almost one and half kilometre long Victory Way that leads to the fifth and most important passage within the citadel of Angkor Thom, the Victory Gate or the Fifth Gopura (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).

Following the road I kept passing by numerous remains of ancient structures of Prasat Suor Prat, plunged in the greenery, and I was thinking about their links to modern times of Cambodia. I looked around and except for tourists from abroad, there were many Khmers visiting the city. Contemporary inhabitants of the country, although fiercely experienced by the regime of the Red Khmers, are still very proud of the ancient past of their country, and happy to show that it boasts a great medieval culture, as does Europe (Pałkiewicz 2007:176).

Featured image: Devi, also called Apsaras among the sculpture from the Terrace of the Leper King; the inside passage. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.

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