Sambor Prei Kuk is an ancient and mysterious temple that means ‘the temple in the richness of the forest’ in Khmer. It is a fascinating temple complex that has raised questions about the meetings and interactions the Khmer empire had with the outside world.
Getting to Sambor Prei Kuk
Just off of the main highway, 10 minutes north of Kampong Thom city, the road to Sambor Prei Kuk is rarely travelled by tourists. However, after 16 kilometres, the road reaches an alluring ancient temple at the site of the former capital of the Chenla Empire.
Amid the dense tropical rainforest and bomb craters left by American attacks in the 1970s lie 150 ancient sandstone temples, all pre-dating the Angkorian era. Constructed on an area of approximately four square kilometres, the temples are divided into three clusters: the North Group, South Group and Central Group.
The incredible ruins provide not only a glimpse of seldom seen pre-Angkorian period art but of a mystery that has perplexed researchers and one that could shed light on the people and cultures that interacted with the ancient Khmer civilisation.
One of the most interesting temples in the Northern Group of temples at Sambor Prei Kuk is a brick sanctuary known simply as N16. It is situated outside the central group of temples in the Sambor Group, right alongside a dirt road. This square-based brick tower is of interest primarily for the relatively crisp carvings on its outer walls. These brick relief carvings feature the most famous motif found at Sambor Prei Kuk- the so-called flying palace.
The flying palace motif found here is similar to those found on the numerous octagonal shrines of the Southern Group. In the centre of a brick panel is a stylized depiction of a tiered, wooden palace, which literally seems to be hovering in mid-air. These celestial palaces have their roots in Hindu mythology and can be thought to represent the abode of the gods.
Mythology aside, they can also be thought to reinforce the temporal power of the Shivaite kings of Chenla. After all, the palace of the king of Chenla is thought to have been located at Sambor Prei Kuk, then known as Isanapura. The devotee coming to this sanctuary would have been reminded that just as the Hindu god lived in a celestial palace, the temporal king lived in an earthly palace. The link between the king and Shiva would have been impressed on the devotee, reinforcing the power and prestige of the ruling king.
By taking a closer look at the weather-beaten carvings, this impression is only strengthened. Firstly, the whole flying palace is said to resemble a palanquin: a covered sedan-chair with a large protuberance on top.
This was obviously an elite form of transport, predominantly associated with royalty. Palanquins were certainly part of ancient court ritual in ancient Cambodia; while wooden palanquins have not survived in their entirety, bronze palanquin fittings from the Angkorian era still exist. While travelling in a royal procession in a palanquin, the king would literally have been riding in the air, further strengthening the association between the king and the Hindu gods.
While the flying palace motif looks broadly similar between the various sanctuaries at Sambor Prei Kuk, there are some interesting variations in the fine detail. Being unusually crisp, the carvings at N16 offer more than most in this respect. In the crispest and most photographed of the panels, a male figure sits flanked by two shapely women.
Presumably, this is the king with female attendants, perhaps concubines. Further out you see other attendants, this time male figures, standing with long staffs. Perhaps their peripheral position reflects their comparatively lowly status. In the uppermost tier of the flying palace, there are five figures peering out. Perhaps these are gods or other celestial beings. And the whole structure is elaborately depicted in fine detail, reinforcing the sense of royalty and exclusivity.
Apart from the flying palace motifs, there is also a well-preserved false door on one of the sides of this temple. Overall, this makes N16 one of the most valuable within the Sambor Group and for people wanting to get a glimpse of some rare Chenla-era art.
Thanks to the meticulous work of Waseda University in Japan more and more temples are being rediscovered and restored in the temple complex which is now suspected to be far bigger than was initially thought.
The Kda Ouk Temple in the South Group of Sambor Prei Kuk. Inside, the reliefs depicting a dozen men with features that don’t depict Khmer people.
Facing the main temple, Prasat Yeah Poun, is a derelict construction called Kda Ouk. Its architrave – the beam above the columns – bears the carvings of 12 men. Each is different – some with strong, chiselled features, and others more delicate – but they have notable characteristics in common, including moustaches, long curly hair, big eyes, thick eyebrows and pointy noses.
The unique features of these men do not fit with the statues and engravings at the rest of the temples – nor, researchers say, with the physical appearance of Cambodian people. This has led to speculation that they are the portraits of foreigners. But who were these outsiders and why, in the seventh century, would they have been important enough to the Khmer people to have been literally put on a pedestal?
Smey Smak, 59, a tourism police officer born in Kampong Thom and stationed in Sambor Prei Kuk since 2004, shares the same hypothesis with Chiv Heng.
“I usually hear the tour guides explain to the tourists that they were Indian, but I do not believe that,” he said. “The busts look like the Spanish people, if one asks me, but I never learned that Spanish people came to Cambodia in ancient times.”
Given its decay and remoteness, today it is easy to forget that Sambor Prei Kuk was the capital of the Khmer Empire during the Chenla period, beginning during the reign of King Isanavarman I between 616 and 637 AD.
Two of the figures on the architrave. Heng Chivoan
The South Group of the site dates from 600-635 AD, with the presence of lingam and yoni sculptures – anatomical representations of male and female reproductive organs – proving the builders’ dedication to Shiva.
Dr Chen Chanratana, an archaeologist and the founder of the Khmer Heritage Foundation, has been studying the site for years. He said that no documentation or inscriptions exist explaining the purpose, or the dedication, of Kda Ouk Temple, nor of the potential foreigners’ portraits.
According to Chanratana, studying the site has been complicated by a combination of age and the destruction of war. Nonetheless, based on archaeological excavations elsewhere in the former lands of the Khmer Empire, he concluded that the reliefs depict men from either the Roman Empire or Persia – two of the Chenla Kingdom’s trading partners, along with India and China.
Archaeologists have found Roman coins at the O Keo archaeological site, in modern-day An Giang province in Vietnam, which once functioned as a busy port for the Khmer Kingdom. They have also found Persian coins in Angkor Borei district, in what is now Takeo province. The findings date back to the first century.
He postulated that the men were merchants who came to the Chenla Kingdom by ship to trade with Khmer people. To have their faces carved on the temple, Chanratana added, could be the result of their contributions to the king or senior officials, or even their financing of the construction of Kda Ouk.
While accepting the basis of Chanratana’s argument, and his proposed nationalities of the men, Sambo Manara, a Cambodian historian and Khmer culture specialist who has also studied Sambor Prei Kuk, believes that the temple was not a religious structure, as others claim.
Manara instead thinks it was a place reserved for the game of chess, especially between the king or high-ranking officials and the Persian or Roman merchants, since its name translates to “chessboard” in Khmer. The carvings, therefore, could have been made as a dedication to those merchants.
“The oldest form of chess was chatrang, which dated back to second or third century AD, and was brought to the Western world [including to the Romans] by the Persians,” Manara said. “Meanwhile, the term chatrang has also been used to refer to ouk [Khmer chess] in Cambodia.”
Whereas the Khmer people were religiously and culturally connected to India, those who came from Persia or Rome had a purely mercantile relationship.
During its peak, the Chenla kingdom stretched from what is today Cambodia all the way to southern China, covering the majority of modern-day Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. The temples it left behind are the remaining symbols of its wealth. During the same period, the Sasanian Empire of Persia and the Roman Empire were two of the world’s leading powers, reaching far and wide to trade silk, hides, pearls and other goods.
“People from those empires would not have played chess with Cambodian players unless they had seen them as equal to themselves,” Manara said. “Therefore, this argument could confirm the long-standing speculation about the prosperity and greatness of the Khmer Empire.”
Not everyone agrees that the 12 figures on Kda Ouk’s architrave bear the faces of foreigners. Dr Michel Tranet, a well-known expert in Cambodian history, culture and civilisation, as well as the former deputy minister of culture and fine arts, studied and wrote a book in the mid-1990s in French about Sambor Prei Kuk. He dismissed Chanratana’s and Manara’s hypotheses, saying the unique reliefs do not imply anything but “aesthetic influence in art”.
Whatever truth lies at Sambor Prei Kuk temples, one thing is for sure, they offer the visitor to Cambodia a unique and remarkable temple experience that will have you puzzled and amazed!