Seven-Tiered Mystery of Prang in the Khmer Empire

What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire of ancient Khmers (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although pyramids were very distinctive of the Khmer sacral architecture, yet Prasat Prang differs from its typical model in several aspects (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020).

Mysterious seven-tiered pyramid of Prang. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Firstly, it is not adorned like other Asian pyramidal temples; the successive levels lack of carvings, statues or sanctuaries, except for sculpted representations at the very top (Lawrence 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Secondly, it is visibly a stepped pyramid and only two such pyramids exist in Cambodia (Mohan 6th April, 2020). One of them is Prang and the other is called Baksei Chamkrong Temple from the same period (Ibid.). Some scholars also compare these two pyramids to a similar construction in Sri Lanka (Saumya 2020; Lapkura 2021; Manatunga 2009:204) (see Unique Pyramid of Polonnaruwa with Little Trace in History).

Thirdly, “the pyramid has [well-proportioned] terraces of regular hight, [and] their edges form the linear outline of an almost equilateral triangle, taller and more slender than [in the case of] the previous pyramidic state temples” (Sopheak 2020).

Furthermore, while Khmer pyramids have got usually four entrances and more than one stairway (Kossak, Watts 2001:71), Prasat Prang features the only stairway on its eastern side (Sopheak 2020). Yet “on the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Ibid.), which is another feature atypical to Southeastern temple towers.

Next, even if the concentric ground plan with enclosures and Gopuram gates was traditional to the Khmer architecture and was applied at Prasat Thom (front enclosure), and at some other sanctuaries in Koh Ker, the same idea was abandoned in the rear enclosure of the terraced pyramid (Sopheak 2020).

In front of the eastern (the only) entrance to the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Finally, contrary to the temples built elsewhere in the Empire, Prang pyramid does not illustrate the Mount Meru of Hindu-Buddhist cosmology (Ciccone 1998-2020). Instead it may have served as a pedestal for a linga (Ibid.), as much as a throne is meant for a king’s seat.

These definitely individual characteristic of the pyramid`s shape and symbology, had given rise to alternative theories regarding the history of Prasat Prang, which itself more closely resembles Mesoamerican stepped structures of the Maya than those of Southeast Asia (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020).

Another megalithic site

On a direct way to Prang, there is a huge compound wall erected around the pyramid, which was not typical of other similar constructions in Cambodia (Mohan 10th April, 2020). It may suggest the area had a strictly limited access (Ibid.).

The pyramid of Prang is a six-stepped pyramid but the pedestal of lingam on top forms its seventh level (Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85; see: Sopheak 2015). It means it is half higher than a typical royal temple ever built by ancient Khmers (Sopheak 2020; Osmanagich 2017). The pyramid is dressed in sandstone and its stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:85). Additionally, on some stone blocks there are protrusions, described as knobs, widely applied in other examples of megalithic constructions (Mohan 19th March, 2020). They are present, for example, in Peru, Egypt, Turkey and India (Ibid.)

The form of a stepped pyramid appears together with the cult of devaraja, “god-king”, and the king as an incarnation of Shiva, represented by lingam, which is confirmed by Sanskrit inscriptions in Prasat Thom (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). Such Khmer concepts can be enclosed in the name of Tribhuvaneśvara – the god worshiped in Koh Ker (Coedès in: Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:48), whose name is in Sanskrit an epithet of Indra or Śiva (Wisdom Library 2021).

In front of the pyramid. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“The artificial temple mountain […] is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). After Dr. Sam Osmanagich (2017), however, these official numbers are wrong. Having measured the pyramid himself, he has concluded that the length of the sides is 66 m and the height reaches to 40 m (Ibid.). Furthermore, he notices that the pyramid “is constructed with the combination of processed volcanic rock laid inside the structure and sandstone blocks on the exterior” (Osmanagich 2017). Also some stonework is finely joined with irregular blocks of sandstone carved into polygonal masonry (Sibson 2019): “exterior blocks are of different dimensions, and a combination of concave and convex, with four to six sides. Uneven dimensions resulted in the structural stability of the object, which is preserved until today” (Osmanagich 2017) (we encounter the same technique around the world). The author likewise observes that “the first level of the pyramid has 11 rows of blocks. The second level has 13 rows, and all other levels (third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh) have eleven rows of blocks. The blocks are joined with mastery – not binder, plaster, or cement. The hexagonal blocks serve to lock down the whole structure” (Osmanagich 2017). “On the south side of the pyramid, the sixth step additionally has a recessed false door” (Sopheak 2020). As Dr. Osmanagich (2017) points out the weight of stones differs from 500 kg up to 7 tons in mass. In this context, it is another example of a polygonal megalithic construction.

The uppermost tier and the passage to the underworld

The gateway to the underworld? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Although the pyramid’s stairway is not allowed to be accessed today, visitors can still climb up the top by means of a wooden provisional staircase constructed over to the side (Lawrence 2020). Moving, upstairs, we climbed up the highest terrace measuring 12 metres on a side. It is theorised the uppermost tier was once crowned by a Prasat tower to shrine a large Shiva linga or linga Tribhuvaneshvara (king’s state idol) (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). The Lingam is said to have measured over 9 metres in height and been made of transparent crystal (Mohan 14th March, 2020). Additionally, the city of Koh Ker is still referred to by locals as Lingapura (city of lingams) and the pyramid as the Sahasralinga Temple, which means thousands of lingams (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019; Zéphir 2015; Mohan 28th March, 2020). The city was also called Chok Gargyar (the grove of Hopea odorata) (Zéphir 2015, “Koh Ker” 2021), “translated as city of glance, […] or as iron tree forest” (Koh Ker 2021). The current names, such as Koh Ker and Prasat Prang are modern (Mohan 28th March, 2020).

The lingam from Prang had already gone but inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020; Mohan 6th April, 2020). The date is puzzling as the King Jayavarman the Fourth, who is believed to have constructed the Pyramid, came to this area only a few days before the given date (Mohan 6th April, 2020). Accordingly, the lingam must have been consecrated prior to the construction of the pyramid (see: Mohan 6th April, 2020; Sopheak 2020) or the pyramid is more ancient.

The linga may have simply been looted (Sopheak 2020), leaving behind a deep hole in the middle of the platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020; Mohan 10th April, 2020), which  is symbolically supported by telamon life-size lions statues (Cunin 2019; Mohan 10th April, 2020). These are Yali, lion-like figures, usually found in South India temples, shown as holding up a structure of a temple (Mohan 10th April, 2020).

The hole itself may actually be reaching down to the pyramid’s bottom (Lawrence 2020), “much like the central chambers of Angkor Wat and the Bayon” (Ibid.). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) describes it as the energy chimney. Apparently, Khmers’ pyramids were to symbolize a connection between the heaven and the underworld (Lawrence 2020).

The pillars taken over by offensive nature. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

White Elephant

To the west, behind the pyramid, there is the last component of the complex – a completely overgrown artificial mound, known as the tomb of the White Elephant (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Although no elephant has been found there yet, local people associate it with that animal as it symbolises a royal power in the South East Asia (Sibson 2019). For this reason, it is believed the mound may have been the burial place of the king himself (Ibid.). Yet there is no evidence to support it. In Hinduism, the White Elephant is also a symbol of the god Indra who is represented on the white elephant while holding the Vajra, a mythical device, by means of which, as locals claim, he built Prasat Prang (Mohan 14th March, 2020; 6th April, 2020).

Prang’s architect

Between Gopurams. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe, the King Jayavarman’s decision about moving the capital to Koh Ker was caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Undoubtedly significant was its geographical location; it was “along the royal road network that connected Angkor to many of its various peripheral settlements” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). Most important was an ancient highway between Koh Ker and Wat Phu in modern day southern Laos, which was first discovered by Lajonquière and confirmed in twenty-first century by another researcher, Damian Evans, as the most important strategic road of the Khmer empire (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the complex function as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is described above, Khmer architects designed temples to build a bridge between the celestial and earthly realms (Ibid.). The exceptional shape of Prang itself could be a key to its mystery. Its architect must have been an outstanding individual as much as the pyramid. And I was wondering where the inspiration came from …

Genius Loci

The heritage area of Koh Ker is situated near two villages: Koh Ker and Srayong (Miura 2016:27-28). Yet before the war, Prasat Thom, and especially Prang, were avoided by local villagers not only because of natural factors, like wild animals and snakes, but also due to the supernatural they felt unsecure about (Ibid.:28). They said that the site “was believed to have had such an enormous magical power that birds flying over it would drop dead” (Ibid.:28). ‘Only the French, ‘the ritual officer said. ‘Only they had enough courage to approach it (Ibid.:28).

Genius Loci of the site is still tangible. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Nowadays, people visit the temples on their holy days, especially on Khmer New Year, when even people from distant areas come to take part in the ceremony (Miura 2016:31). Although many younger Khmers have already abandoned ancient cultural attitude, older villagers still believe in a genius loci of Prasat Thom (Ibid.:31) … And so do I …

Featured image: Mysterious seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom (Prang) at Koh Ker, Cambodia. 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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