Sambor Prei Kuk: The Center of an Ancient Kingdom
My first encounter with Sambor Prei Kuk (SPK), the ancient archaeological site at the north of Cambodia, was in June 2010, when we did an excursion to the side with a group of my students. The splendors of the Angkorian temples, just 176 kilometers at the west of SPK, attracts thousands of visitors every year, ignoring the real roots of the Khmer civilization. In contrast with the busy atmosphere of fascinating temples like Angkor Wat or Angkor Thom in Siem Reap Province, the temples of Sambor Prei Kuk remain alone and almost untouched, although there is a permanent archaeological team in the side, waiting for a possible inclusion of these ancient jewels in the list of the UNESCO’s World Heritage – it has been as a silent and patient candidate since January 9, 1992 (UNESCO, 1992).
|Figure 2: One of the complete lions of Temple. Photo A. Rodas (2010)|
The temples are older than Angkor, giving to them a more mysterious tone, as I love ancient human and geological things. However, it is a real mysterious complex also because we possess very little information about its history, the one that corresponds to the very origins of the Khmer culture and identity in the context of Southeast Asia.
|Figure 3: Remains of one lion. Photo A. Rodas (2010)|
My favorite temple is the one of the Lions, as it is the popular name due to the presence of two complete lions’ statues at the main entrance. But its real name is Prasat Boram – The Dance’s Temple – and it is the main figure of the Central Cluster of SPK under the code C1. Definitively, it is the youngest cluster of the three, which construction is dated at the 9th century, just at the time of the decadency of the kingdom and probably it was an attempt of the new dynasty in Angkor to rescue the ancient city of Isanapura, as SPK was known at the time.
|Figure 4: Columns right side of the Temple. Photo A. Rodas (2010)|
The other two and more ancient clusters are the Group N – northern temples – and Group S – southern temples – corresponding to the 7th century and covering an area of 4 kms2 (1,000 acres) for a total of 150 temples dedicated to Shiva under the avatar of Gambhireshvara that in Sanskrit means The Auspicious One, according to my own research.
The name Gambhireshvara is obscure. SPK is the only place where this reincarnation avatar of Shiva is mentioned. Following the Sanscrit, gambhir (गम्भीर) translates ‘profound, deep, solemn’ and shvara is not other thing that the name of god Shiva, the Auspicious One. Many Shiva’s avatar names end in ‘Shvara’ or ‘Shwara’ like Bhooteshwara and Priyadarshana (see Vijaya Kumar, 2006).
Prasat Boram or the Lions’ Temple is well preserved, although it has been a victim of vandals through the centuries, an evidence that can be demonstrated in the absence of some of the original lion statues on empty platforms. Two complete lions stand at the main entrance, guarding both sides of the stairs of stone. At their background, with impotence and beauty, it is the ancient door, which composition include two slender columns holding the lintel on a big gap around the sign of an old collapse. The two slender columns are, evidently, a modern concrete reconstruction far from what the original architecture could be: elaborate pillars with Hindu ornaments and possible inscriptions, following the same concept of the lintel. It is possible to see today several lintels on the ground, many proceeding from temples that still erected, but others coming from several collapsed ones. This lintel in particular had remained on the ground probably by centuries and it explains the poor reconstruction of the concrete columns that have the purpose to hold it on its original place. A future reconstruction work should elaborate the columns following the many models on the side, including the same Boram Temple (see Fig. 4).
Many other figures are missing from the Temple’s façade besides the lions that should be six at the main entrance. Images of gods, angels, demons, kings and, of course, Shiva, which ruins still on different corners of the Temple’s walls, including the stony roof, now covered by tropical plants like a green crown.
The Temple is built in sandstone on a hill of the Central Cluster, following a pyramidal form that represents Mount Maru in the Hindu cosmogony – the Olympus of the Hindu gods, where Shiva is the Creator and Destroyer.
Nobody assures that even this name, Chenla or Zhēnlà, was the authentic name of an ancient kingdom, forerunner of the Angkorian time, because it is the name given by ancient Chinese sources, as it is argued by Ian Mabbett and David Chandler, who say that the Chinese sources mentioned a Khmer state called ‘Chen-la’, but whose meaning is obscure and probably ‘an attempt to represent a foreign name with Chinese syllables’ (Mabbet and Chandler, 1995, p. 79). I speculate that such name could be rather an attempt of Chinese dynasties to claim influence and even sovereignty over ancient Khmer principalities, since ‘Chen’ is the same word for Chinese in Khmer language (ចិន) and ‘la’ could have any meaning of connection to China.
|Figure 5: Interior of the Temple. Photo Rodas (2010)|
What we know about Chenla and its ancestor Funan is that they were serious attempts to unify the Khmer principalities on the central Indochina peninsula. For historians like Michael Vickery, Chenla was not about one kingdom, but the rivalries of several principalities around a royal lineage (Vickery, 1994). But all historians are agree that Isanapura was one of the main centers of what we know today as the Chenla Kingdom that was active between the 6th and 9th century, stretching between the decadence of Funan and the beginning of the Angkorian Empire. The Boram Temple was, probably, a last attempt to return to the splendor of the city by Javarman II (O’Reilly & Jacques, 1990, p. 113), the same founder of Angkor Wat. But the king has moved his capital several times, looking for a strategic position that would end in what we know as Angkor, abandoning definitively the old Chenla city. The Central Cluster, where the Boram Temple is today, was, therefore, that attempt to build new structures for a new period on the Cambodian history.
The lions indicate the royalty of the Temple, situated in the central area that is indicated as C1:
(…) the cella is large (8.35 x 5.5 m), the walls are divided into panels by pilasters with neither bases nor capitals, and which seem to support the ceiling inserted into a semicircular hollow created into the whole of the circumference at the top of the walls. Externally the sanctuary rests on a molded base, interrupted on the four sides by a flight of steps, the string walls of which were decorated with lions (Dumarçay and Royére, 2001, p. 43)
The official religion of Chenla was Sikhism, the worship to Lord Shiva, The Auspicious One, the Mahadeva or Great God, one of the three most important religions of Hinduism. Cambodia, located in the cross roads between India and China – Indochina – has gotten deep influence from these two Asian regions. As Chandler suggests ‘the connections between the land of Kambuja and any Indian prototype are equivocal and obscure’ (Mabbet & Chandler, 1995, p. 9), but it is possible to talk about a period of Cambodian ‘indianization’ around the first century AC that brought religions, languages and traditions to the primitive Khmer tribes.
Sambor Prei Kuk is full of symbols of Sikhism represented specially through the phallic form of Lingam and the Yoni (vagina or womb) of the female creative energy of goddess Shakti, the divine feminine creative wife of Lord Shiva. In every temple there is a lingam, that is Shiva himself and a yoni-altar:
The male sexual organ of the god Shiva and his omnipotence. The cylindrical shape was originally the symbol of the formlessness of nature. As a representation of clear consciousness, it is often depicted in many different ways together with the yoni (the female sexual organ and symbol of the origin of creation (Jansen, 2003, p. 46).
Figure 6: A lingam inside the ruin of a temple. Photo A. Rodas (2010)
The Boram Temple has lost these two important symbols of Sikhism through the centennial abandonment or the vandalism, but it does not mean that there are not elements to remember the original religious conception of its construction. The façade keeps the rests of several figures and inscriptions that can be contemplated with attention and luckily tiny forms, rests of Hindu faces and many other treasures surviving the centuries, provide us with their humble presence.
The interior is empty where once stood a proud giant statue of Shiva, but some rocks of the yoni-altar remain at place, while the tower rises over the head with monumental shoot through the space, remembering that it is the temple of the God Creator, but also Destroyer.
As in archaeology, imagination is a very important element to start when it is about investigating historical events with few evidences. The Boram or Lions Temple speak about the end of a mysterious kingdom, Chenla and the beginning of a new era, Angkor. As it is a royal temple, it is possible to imagine the king, most sure Javarman II, entering to venerate Shiva as the Gambhireshvara, with deep and solemn reflection, while putting together his ambitions to extend his dominion over all principalities. Dancing should be a very important element of the old traditions of the temples, dances of good omen to the king.
For some reason he did not stay in Isanapura and abandoned the city, letting it to the master of the jungle, to remain intact for future generations, ours, to joint pieces of our history and ancestors.
- Dumarçay and Royére (2001). Cambodian Architecture: Eight to Thirteen Centuries. Edited by Michael Smithies. Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2001. ISBN 90-04-11346-0
- Jansen, Eva Rudy (2003) . The book of Hindu imagery: gods, manifestations and their meaning. Binkey Kok Publications. ISBN 90-74597-07-6.
- O’Reilly & Jacques (1990). Early Civilizations of Southeast Asia. December 21, 2005.
- Mabbet, Ian and David Chandler (1995). The Khmers. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 1995. ISBN 0- 631-17582-2.
- Unesco (1992). Groupe de Sambor Prei Kuk. Tentative List. January 9, 1992. Link retrieved on July 22, 2015 from http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/61
- Vickery, Michael (1994). What and Where was Chenla? Recherches nouvelles sur le Cambodge. Publiées sous la direction de F. Bizot. École française d’Extrême-Orient, Paris, 1994
- Vijaya Kumar (2006). The Thousand Names of Shiva. Sterling Publishers, December 31, 2006. ISBN 10: 8120730089.