Ta Prohm Temple

Large buttress roots grow over the ancient temple of Ta Prohm, Cambodia.

Perhaps the most evocative and mysterious of all the temple structures at Angkor, Ta Prohm, which means Ancestor of Brahma, was a wealthy Buddhist monastery built during King Jayavarman VII’s reign (r.1178–1220).

During the Colonial period, the French started their archaeological restoration of the temple, making a deliberate attempt to maintain the structure as they found it by limiting restoration and cutting down little of the surrounding dense jungle.

As a result, the temple buildings remain smothered by the roots of giant banyan trees, preserving the atmosphere that 19th-century explorers must have experienced.

The Waterfall Tree is named for the cascading appearance of its roots down the wall of the inner gallery, this strangler fig tree has encompassed its host and dominates the temple’s masonry.

The Face Tower is the four stone faces are believed to represent Jayavarman VII. Seen above the west entrance, they are reminiscent of the huge faces carved into the Bayon.

There is a dinosaur carving in a narrow stone column in the complex has ornate circles that enclose various animal reliefs. One such carving depicts what seems to be a stegosaurus. No one has been able to explain the presence of this mysterious carving.

Another iconic tree here is named the Crocodile Tree. It is to be found on the easternmost gopura of the central enclosure is the strangler fig known as the Crocodile Tree. Every year its roots spread further across the complex.

Prasat Kravan

Dating to the 10th century, Prasat Kravan was built by high-ranking officials during the reign of Harshavarman I. It is located at a slight distance from the capital, Angkor since only royals could build temples close to the city’s centre.

Comprising five brick towers, it is one of the smaller temples in the Angkor complex and is dedicated to Vishnu. The temple, whose name means Cardamom Sanctuary, after a tree that stood here, is chiefly remarkable for its brickwork and bas-reliefs, the only such known examples of Khmer art. No mortar was used in its construction, only a kind of vegetable compound.

Partly restored in the 1960s, the bricks, added by Conservation Angkor, are marked with CA. These brick carvings represent Vishnu; his consort Lakshmi; his eagle mount, Garuda; a naga (serpent); and a number of other divine attendants.

The doorways and lintels of all five towers are made of sandstone. The southernmost tower has a fine image of Vishnu riding his eagle mount, while the northernmost tower has an image of Lakshmi. The central tower has a raised stone that was used to receive water for purification rites.

Banteay Srei

Located at the foot of the Kulen Mountain, the remote temple complex of Banteay Srei, meaning Citadel of Beauty, is ornamented with exquisitely detailed carvings. Executed in pink sandstone, the complex was built in the second half of the 10th century by Yajnavaraha, one of King Rajendravarman’s counsellors and future guru of King Jayavarman V.

Therefore, unlike most other monuments in Angkor, it is not a royal temple. Granted land along the Stung Siem Reap, Yajnavaraha commissioned the temple to be built here. What separates this miniature scaled temple from so many others in Angkor is the fact that most of its surface area has been elaborately decorated; little wonder that it is often described as the jewel of Khmer art.

Discovered in 1914, four of its apsaras were famously snatched by the future French minister of culture, Andre Malraux – who served under President Charles De Gaulle – in 1923. The statues were recovered and returned soon after. Rectangular in shape, and enclosed by three walls and the remains of a moat, the central sanctuary contains ornate shrines dedicated to Shiva.

The intricately carved lintels reproduce scenes from the Hindu epic, Ramayana. Representations of Shiva; his consort Parvati; the Monkey God, Hanuman; the divine cowherd, Krishna; and the Demon King, Ravana are all beautifully etched. Also exceptional are the elaborate and finely detailed figures of gods and goddesses carved into the niches of the towers in the central sanctuary.

The male divinities carry lances and wear simple loincloths. By contrast, the goddesses, with their long hair tied in buns or plaits, are dressed in loosely draped traditional skirts, and almost every inch of their bodies is laden with gorgeous jewellery.

Roluos Group

The earliest temple monuments to have been built in the Angkor region, the Roluos Group borrows its name from the small town of Roluos, 8 miles (13 km) east of Siem Reap. The temples mark the site of Hariharalaya, the first Khmer capital established by Indravarman I (r.877–89).

Three main complexes can be found here. To the north of Highway 6, en route to Phnom Penh from Siem Reap, is Lolei. Founded by Yasovarman I (r.889–910), this temple stands on an artificial mound in the middle of a small reservoir and is based on a double platform surrounded by a laterite wall. The four central brick towers have surprisingly well-preserved false doors and inscriptions.

To the south of Lolei stands Preah Ko, meaning the Sacred Bull. Built by Indravarman I, to honour his parents as well as Jayavarman II, the founder of the Khmer Empire, this temple was dedicated to the worship of Shiva. The main sanctuary consists of six brick towers resting on a raised laterite platform.

Close by are three statues of the sacred bull Nandi, for whom the temple was named, which are in a remarkably good condition. The motifs on the lintels, false doors, and columns are also well preserved. They include kala, mythical creatures with grinning mouths and large bulging eyes; makara, sea creatures with trunk-like snouts; and Garuda.

The temple sits resplendent in its serene rural setting. Beyond Preah Ko, the huge mass of Bakong, by far the largest of the Roluos Group, is well worth a visit. Originally dedicated to Shiva in AD 881, the temple has since become a place of worship for Buddhists. More than a 1,000 years ago, it was the central feature of Hariharalaya, as a temple mountain representing Mount Meru, the mythical abode of the gods.

Approached by a pathway that is protected by a seven-headed naga and flanked by guesthouses for pilgrims, the mount rises in four stages, the first three of which are flanked by stone elephants at the corners.

At the summit rests the square central sanctuary, with four levels and a lotus-shaped tower rising from the middle. The mount is surrounded by eight massive brick towers that feature finely carved sandstone decorations.

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