On the Way to the Heart of Koh Ker

Increased trade contacts between Rome, India, China and Southeast Asia in the last centuries BC. resulted in international cultural exchange, including the idea of kingship (Fagan 1996-2004). Mon-Khmers groups started to absorb the idea of Buddhism or worship Hindu gods (bid.). That provoked building stone temples (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:19-20).

First Hindu shrines normally contained lingams (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48). In Hinduism, the term lingam stands for the phallic symbol of the deity Shiva (“Lingam” 2021; PWN 2007:230; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48) and represents “[the idea] of ‘divine royalty’” (Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47-48).

Map of Cambodia indicating the location of Koh Ker in relation to Angkor, near modern-day Siem Reap. Data obtained from Open Street Map. http://www.openstreetmap.org 04.04.2022.  (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2). Koh Ker is located in modern Preah Vihear province (Miura 2016:28). “More than 180 sanctuaries were found in a protected area of 81 square kilometers” (”Koh Ker” 2021).

Moats and reservoirs were constructed not only to supply water but also to represent the seat of the Hindu gods, Mount Meru, ruled by the god Indra (Fagan 1996-2004; Mazzeo, Antonini 1978:47). Its earthly reflection became Angkor, the state city established in 802 AD. by the king Jayavarman II after he moved his centre from the Mekong Valley to the lands between Kulen Hills and north-western part of the Lake Tonlé Sap (Fagan 1996-2004; Tully 2005:7). By then the process of unification of competing Khmer chiefdoms into the Angkorean Empire had started (Fagan 1996-2004; Tully 2005:7).

In the jungle

After about two hours and 120 km drive from Siem Reap, we were slowly reaching Koh Ker, a remote archaeological site with Cambodia’s second largest temple complex plunged in the jungle (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015).

Koh Ker is situated around eighty kilometres northeast of Angkor is (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1). It is an archaeological site, located in northern Cambodia, known for the ancient Khmers’ second largest temple complex and their second capital in the period from 928 to 944 AD., after when it was moved back to Angkor (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2015; Fagan 1996-2004).

First discoveries in Cambodia

In the second part of the nineteenth century, two French researchers, Étienne Aymonier (1844 – 1929) and Lunet de Lajonquière (1861-1933) studied the complex of Prasat Thom and a stepped pyramid of Prang (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021). Their research was continued in the twentieth century by Georges Coedès (1886 – 1969) who claimed Koh Ker a capital of the Khmer empire (928 – 944 AD), basing on inscriptions found on site (“Koh Ker” 2021). In the 1930s, monuments in the area were documented in a number of drawings and photographs by Henri Parmentier (1870-1949) (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:1; “Koh Ker” 2021).

Henri Parmentier à Sambor Prei Kuk in 1908, Angkor, Cambodia (Archives EFEO). Ecole Française d’Extrême Orient. In: Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Such fine discoveries were followed by expeditions of a more looting character, which especially intensified in the 1960s and 1970s. (“Koh Ker” 2021; Miura 2016:28). Many stolen artifacts are now preserved by the Musée Guimet in Paris or in private collections and museums in USA (“Koh Ker” 2021; Miura 2016:28). The problem of looting monuments in Cambodia has always been a serious problem, but was especially intensified during the civil war (1975 and 1979) (“Koh Ker” 2021; see: Miura 2016:28-31). Afterwards the field campaign at Koh Ker was continued by APSARA National Authority, along with French, Japanese and Australian researchers (“Koh Ker” 2021).

Latest discoveries

In the twenty-first century, the research was extended to 184 monuments having been studied in situ for five years since 2004 (“Koh Ker” 2021). One of the most intriguing facts about Koh Ker is a great number of temples supposedly built in the area just for two decades of the tenth century (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). Yet, excavations continued between 2004 and 2015 by Cambodian and international teams confirmed by radiocarbon data and LiDAR surveys the site had been inhabited in the prehistoric and pre-Angkor periods (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2), and there was also “post-10th century development occurring at the site” (Hall, Penny, Hamilton 2018:2).

King’s un/reasonable decision

In 924, for unknown reasons, King Jayavarman IV moved the capital of the Khmer Empire to Koh Ker from Angkor, located around 60 km away (Lawrence 2020).

The Empire of Khmers with its capital in Angkor was once a dominant power in South East Asia, from 802 AD to 1431 AD (Quijada Plubins 2013). “At its peak, [it] covered much of what today is Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and southern Vietnam” (Ibid.). First, mainly Hinduism, then Buddhism were dominant religions in the region. (Ibid.). The Khmer were great architects and engineers. They mastered designing and building huge monumental temples with intricate carvings and sculpture – the landmarks of contemporary landscape (Ibid.). They also constructed huge reservoirs, known as baray, canals and an extensive road network with bridges (Ibid.).

Off the beaten track

The site of Koh Ker is off the beaten track for tourists (Lawrence 2020) visiting mostly the medieval capital of the Empire – Angkor. Yet Koh Ker stays one of the most mysterious archaeological sites in Cambodia (Ibid.).

In the past, it was called either Lingapura (city of lingams) or Chok Gargyar (Higham 2001:70; Sibson 2019) – translated as a city of glance (hematite) (Jolyon, Chau 2013), or as an iron tree forest (Kàdas 2010:8-9; Sibson 2019). One of the most intriguing facts about it is a great number of temples (180 sanctuaries) built in the area just for two decades of the 10th century, especially when Koh Ker was the actual capital of the Empire (Sibson 2019; Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). As the area has only been partially de-mined after the war, only a small percentage of local temples can be visited (around 25) (Ibid.)

Three small prasats in the jungle

Making its way through the heavily forested area, our bus was bumping along muddy potholed and narrow road. Every ten seconds we were jumping up on our seats. Finally, I felt sick.

‘I have eaten too much soup for breakfast this morning,’ I admitted. ‘My stomach is coming up to my throat… The bowl was too big.’

My friend, Gosia, looked at me eloquently. ‘Too big?, ’she replied. ‘You could do hand washing in it!’

I was just going to defend my gluttony when our driver suddenly slowed down and exclaimed, ‘Take a look!’. He pointed out of the window to a row of three small sanctuaries of Prasat Pram, with two structures nearby, known as libraries (Lawrence 2020). They all looked like playing hide and seek behind the green paravane of trees. Nature had already taken over the site by its green branches sprouting upwards from the temples and cascading in tangled rooting down and around the buildings.

A while after, the bus stopped and its single door opened with a squeak.

‘Here we are, ‘the guide said. ‘Half an hour for this small marvel’.

The entrance to Prasat Neang Khmau. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At once, everyone spilled out of the bus into the humid and hot air of the jungle. Anyway, after one week in Cambodia I had already got used to this tropical weather with drops of sweat running constantly down my back. It was November. The rainy season was coming to an end, still with some disturbing heavy showers from time to time. It was at once hot and cool but I preferred that over the air-conditioned temperature inside the bus.

We stood just in front of another temple, the solitary Prasat Neang Khmau. Its walls had blackened, possibly due to a fire in the forest that happened in the past (Lawrence 2020). “Despite being dedicated to Shiva, it faces west, while almost all other Shiva temples built by the Khmers face east” (Ibid.). Before we came back to the bus I climbed up the temple to look inside. The lingam altar table (yet with broken lingam) was standing there in the middle with incense sticks and flowers left there as gifts. “Furthermore, the lintel carving above the door featured a rare depiction of Brahma, though this can hardly be made out now due to erosion” (Ibid.).

On the further way to the main temple of Koh Ker, we also took a glimpse of Prasat Chen, where the masterpieces of Khmer sculpture were once discovered (Lawrence 2020), and then we stopped at Andong Peng – rectangular pond filled with water (Ibid.). The area around us was heavily forested; each element was harmoniously merging with the jungle (Ibid.).except for a narrow path boring through the green thicket. After leaving the bus behind, it became our principal guide on the way to the heart of Koh Ker.

To the heart of Koh Ker

The chief component of Koh Ker complex is made by Jayavarman IV’s state temple – Prasat Thom. However, some of its structures had already existed, when Koh Ker became the capital of the Empire in 928 (Sopheak 2020).

We were approaching it from the south-west. To the east of our path, there was the capital’s central reservoir, called Rahal Baray but we turned westwards to face a procession way going along the east-west axis (more precisely 15 degrees to the north-east), on which the main temple is arranged (Sopheak 2020). The whole complex is surrounded by the outer wall, divided further into two rectangular enclosures (Ibid.). The front one defines the limits of a moat, whereas the rear one encompasses the true highlight of the main temple – a stepped pyramid, referred to as Prasat Prang (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Generally, the main axis runs through the horizontally arranged, successive levels of the temple to finally reach seven ascending steps of the pyramid and climb up its peak – the holy of the holiest.

Central and linear

The whole complex of Koh Ker is outstanding in the background of a typical Khmer urban planning, where the concentric ground plan is dominant, that is to say, where outer courtyards completely surround the inner ones (Sopheak 2020). In Prasat Thom, however, it is more a combination of linear and concentric designs (Ibid.). Whereas the temple within the front enclosure holds a typical concentric layout, the overall plan of the complex is characterized by an axis linear plan, with its successive compounds appearing one after another, according to their growing importance on the way to the peak of the pyramid (Ibid.). It immediately brings to mind an arrangement of ancient Egyptian temples of Karnak or Luxor, where the most important sanctuary was located at the very end of the temple, and was preceded by a line of pylons, courts and passageways.

In the heart of Prasat Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The central sanctuary of the complex is known as Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020). It constitutes “an ensemble of nine Prasat towers surrounded by three enclosures. A ring of elongated buildings called libraries surrounds the core area between the first (inner) and second enclosure, [with] an impressive moat between the second and third (exterior) enclosure walls” (Ibid.).

From the outside to the inside

At the doorstep of the temple and east of the main pyramid, there are a few important constructions. Yet before entering the outer (first) enclosure, we saw the ruined but once large (first if counting from the outside) Eastern Gopuram (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020; Cunin 2019). It is a cruciform gateway tower with equilateral wings in the form of elongated buildings (palaces) on either side of the axis (Ibid.). The constructions were lighted by large windows with balusters (Sopheak 2020).

The causeway with partially fallen pillars between Prasat Kraham and the the first (outer) enclosure. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Their walls were literary being devoured by offensive branches of trees and undermined by their roots. Then, the alley was leading through the successive compounds of the complex (Sopheak 2020). The first Eastern Gopuram opens to Prasat Kraham (also Krahom) Gate Tower (Sopheak 2020; Ciccone 1998-2020). The latter is the second Eastern Gopuram but may have once been a temple on its own (Sopheak 2020). As it is built of red brick it is usually referred to as the “Red Temple” (Ibid.). Prasat Kraham is the actual entrance to the successive enclosures of the complex (Ibid.) but it is itself “located outside the temple moat of Prasat Thom” (Ibid.). Prasat Thom, in turn, “[remains the only] temple on the artificial island surrounded by the moat, [within the third (inner) enclosure]” (ibid.). In other words, it is the kernel of the concentric enclosure (Ibid.).

By Cunin (2019): 3D rconstruction of the temple complex in Koh Ker.

Accordingly, Prasat Kraham led us further. First we entered the causeway through the moat with a series of pillars along the way (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). One of its rows had already collapsed, looking like fallen dominoes. From the beneath of the bases of still standing pillars, tree roots were crawling down the path. Consequently, some of them were leaning inwards as if subjects beating nods to the passing ruler. At the end of the way, the Eastern Gopurams of the second and then the third enclosure were guiding us inwards (Cunin 2019). By these means, we found ourselves in the heart of the temple but at the same time only half-way to its sanctuary – the pyramid. And this is (apart from the Prang pyramid) what makes the plan of Koh Ker highly intriguing. Such a concentric – linear resolution in architecture must have been successful as its main concept was also later applied in a nearby temple of Banteay Srei (Sopheak 2020).

Quite complicated, isn’t it …? Hopefully, the ground plan of the complex will give you a better understanding of its layout.

By Sopheak (2020): The central-linear ground plan of the complex.

Chaotic order

In the front enclosure preceding the pyramid, there is a real variety of structures: “sanctuaries, galleries, libraries and gates. Some of them are still standing, but many have been reduced to rubble” (Lawrence 2020).

At each step we took, we encountered precious remains of sculpture, smashed into pieces, and huge blocks of stone scattered around like mismatched puzzles. Some carvings and sculpture elements of the complex have been looted (see: Miura 2016), others are fortunately preserved in museums.

When the massive ‘Prang’ finally came into view. Copyright©Archaeotravel

“The chaotic appearance of the temple only [increased] the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally [came] into view” (Lawrence 2020). The pyramid grew in front of us like a mountain’s peak, just at the end of the procession avenue crossing Prasat Thom (Sopheak 2020).

Featured image: Sanctuaries of Prasat Pram along the access road to the heart of Koh Ker. Photo by Bluesy Pete – Own work (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo and caption source: “Koh Ker” (2021). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

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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