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).
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’.
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.
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). 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 (Ibid.). 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.).
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.
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.
“The chaotic appearance of the temple only [increased] the dramatic effect when the massive ‘Prang’ finally [came] into view” (Ibid.). 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).
Southeast Asian pyramid built by Mesoamerican design
What is really surprising, the seven-tiered, standalone pyramid of Prasat Thom hardly resembles any other structures built in the Empire (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 (Ibid.).
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).
Secondly, 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).
Next, “the pyramid has seven [well-proportioned] terraces of regular height, [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 [of] Bakong in Roluos and [of] Bakheng in Angkor” (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.
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
“The artificial temple mountain [has got seven terraces. It is] dressed in sandstone is 62 m wide and 36 m high, compared with 15 metres for the Bakong” (Sopheak 2020). AfterDr. 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). Dr. Osmanagich (2017) estimates the weight of stones 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
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), which would possibly make the pyramid reach the height of 64 metres (Sopheak 2020; Lawrence 2020). Although, the linga had already gone, inscriptions found in Prasat Thom give the exact time of its consecration, namely on Wednesday, 12th December in the year 921 (Ciccone 1998-2020). Accordingly, “the linga was dedicated prior to the construction of the rest of the temple” (Ibid.; see Sopheak 2020). Due to the lack of that element, however, the pyramidal outline of Prang is more emphasized (Sopheak 2020). Linga made of precious metal may have simply been looted (Ibid.), leaving behind a hole in the middle of the terrace, surrounded by a platform (Lawrence 2020; Sopheak 2020). The latter is symbolically supported by high-relief statues of life-size lions in the posture of atlantes (Ibid.). 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).
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.
I was sitting on one of the crumbling stones in front of the pyramid while observing its majesty. Maybe moving the capital of the Empire to the remote Koh Ker had been caused by special qualities of the site (Lawrence 2020). Specifically Prang seems to have played a crucial role in the function of the complex as if it had been a gate built to channel a specific energy or power (Osmanagich 2017; Lawrence 2020). As it is said 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 is. And I was wondering where his inspiration came from.
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).
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.
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