The Angkorean Temple-Mountain

Diversity, Evolution, Permanence

By: Thierry Zephir

Originally Published in 1995

View PDF

In many ancient religions, mountain tops—from the Greeks’ Mt. Olympus to the highest Himalayas of Hindu mythologywere believed to be the privi­leged home of the gods. Southeast Asia, largely depen­dent on India for its principal religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, is no exception. On the island of Java in Indonesia, for example, the ancient holy site of Dieng was established in the crater of an extinct volcano. Its name in old Javanese, Di Hyang (in Sanskrit, Devalaya), means, in effect, “home of the Gods.”

In Cambodia, in the classic Khmer architecture of the Angkorean period, we find a temple type in which the sanctuary is built atop a stepped pyramid. Nineteenth century archaeologists called these “temple- mountains.” Each important sovereign was apparently obliged to build one in order to establish his power (see Stern 1954).

Let us explore this architectural expression of royal eminence through three of its aspects: diversity, evolution, and permanence.

Diversity: the Symbolism of the Temple-Mountain

In the Indian religious context, a sanctuary functions primarily as the terrestrial dwelling place of the gods, the place from which they will be able to pro­vide aid and prosperity to humankind. Many countries of Southeast Asia were under Indian influence; each resolved in its own way the problem of creating a divine residence in the world of human beings. Generally, architects and builders based the construction of their sanctuaries on strict religious texts (unfortunately, we have none from ancient Cambodia). To the rules pre­scribed by these texts were added numerous others relating to astronomy, geomancy, or numerology, the meanings of which are often lost today. Our lack of knowledge of almost everything that guided the cre­ation of the sanctuaries makes it difficult to understand them and to explain their symbolism.

In Cambodia, however, the study of local ancient epigraphy has furnished a variety of insights into the symbolism of religious architecture. In the light of some of these inscriptions, we can make a con­nection between Mount Meru, the center and axis of the universe in Indian cosmography, and certain temple-mountains of Angkor, the ancient Khmer capi­tal. These structures provide an image, a kind of repre­sentation of Mount Meru on a human scale. The best known example is the sanctuary built around A.D. 906 on the top of Phnom Bakheng, the precise center of Yasodharapura, Angkor’s first capital (Fig. 2). In addi­tion to being constructed on one of the rare hills (phnom in Khmer) of the region, the monument was conceived as a square pyramid with five levels. Locating the pyra­mid on a natural hill at the geometric center of the royal city underlines the symbolic identification of the monu­ment, center and axis of the city, with Mount Meru, center and axis of the universe.

In fact, the temple of Phnom Bakheng restates, with much greater complexity, the symbolic principles expressed earlier at the temple of the Bakong, founded in A.D. 881 (Fig. 1). At the Bakong, the summit of the five-level pyramid is occupied by a single sanctuary tower, whereas 5 towers arranged in a quincunx (a square of 4 towers with a fifth in the center) occupy the summit of Phnom Eakheng. Again, 12 temple annexes occupy the fourth level of the Eakong, but at Phnom Bakheng these 12 annexes appear on each of the five levels. Finally, only 8 large brick sanctuary towers are distributed at the foot of the Eakong, whereas 44 com­parable towers ring the base of the Phnom Bakheng pyramid.

The temple-mountains of the Eakong and the Eakheng seem to suggest similar symbolic considera­tions in their main features, although those of the latter are more lavish. But the interpretation of the other tem­ple-mountains at the Angkor site is different, at least in part. No temple-mountain of Angkor is truly compara­ble to another. Contrast the simplicity of the early tem­ple of Eaksei Chamkrong (Fig. 3) with the immense complexity of the Bayon (Fig. 4). Eaksei Chamkrong was founded under the reign of Harsavarman I as the representation of Mount Kai lasa, private domain of the god Siva; the Eayon was the state temple of Jayavarman VII in which secular symbolic Hindu principles and new Mahayana conceptions from the reign of the founding king were unified.

If there was any continuity in the function of the temple-mountain, it was above all as the seat of the protective divinity of the realm. In addition to personal prestige and the exaltation of his chosen divinity (usu­ally the god Siva), each builder had in mind special concerns such as his ancestral cult or that of the royal person. His successors did not necessarily care about these concerns, at least not in the same way.

What we know about temple-mountains at the present time, therefore, seems to con­found any attempt at analysis based on firm, well-established principles of continuity. It is better to regard each of these creations of Khmer architectural genius as the specific expression of changing religious principles at a particular period, in response to rules that were probably evolving from one reign to another.

Evolution: Long Rooms into Galleries

While the symbolism of temple-mountains does not follow a clear evolutionary line nor fit into an unchanging tradition, their architectural conception is a different story. It is not possible here to cover all aspects of the rigorous evolution of their layout nor the diverse structures they comprise. Instead, I shall take one par­ticularly explicit example: the transformation of long rooms into galleries, as evidenced in the concrete record of the construction itself.

The oldest temple-mountain available for study is the Bakong (founded A.D. 881). Within its first enclosure is a series of five rectangular build­ings of which four are symmetri­cally distributed north and south of the monument’s principal east-west axis. These buildings are normally called long rooms. Although not found at Phnom periphery of the first levels of the pyramids of the Eastern Mebon (A.D. 952) and Pre Rup (A.D. 961; Fig. 5). At the unfinished temple of Ta Keo (end of the 10th, beginning of the 11th century; Fig. 6), the series of long rooms of the two preceding temples is transformed into a ring gallery along the perimeter of the second level (Fig. 7). This gallery at Ta Keo was covered with a framework and tiles and is, curiously, totally inaccessible.

To be rigorously accurate, it should be pointed out that the transformation of long rooms into galleries could be simply an innovation, an addition, to temple mountain architecture. However, it might signal a pro­found symbolic or cultural change. Technically, never­theless, the appearance of galleries, whether involving a new creation or the organic transformation of pre-exist­ing long rooms, clearly represents an evolution, a fur­ther step in Khmer construction.

The next phase is at Phirneanakas where a ring gallery was set up on the third and last level of the pyra­mid in the first half of the 11th century. This gallery is the first to be entirely vaulted in sandstone (Fig. 8). At the Eaphuon, in the third quarter of the 11th century, three ring galleries occupied the first, third and fifth levels of the pyramid; moreover, the highest gallery rests on two series of columns and has, probably for sta­bility, a windowed center wall (Fig. 9).

The following phase is at Angkor Wat (first half of the 12th century), the major accomplishment of Angkorean Khmer architecture (Fig. 10). Here, the three levels of the pyramid are girded by vaulted sand­stone galleries. These rest, at the first two levels, on a wall and columns, and at the third level, on columns alone. Side aisles, which themselves rest on columns, buttress these galleries. This system is adopted at the Bayon several decades later for the monument’s two enclosed galleries.

These diverse observations indicate, therefore, that the architects worked in a consistent way in terms of technical boldness and the visual lightening of the structures. A comparable evolutionary line can be drawn, although on the basis of different criteria, for the sanctuary towers themselves and for other buildings such as the “libraries” (for this type of structure, see Coedès 1911).

Far from being rigid, Khmer architects have always questioned their art; their research was only interrupted by unfavorable historic circumstances after the reign of Jayavarman II in the 13th century. Would they have been able to go farther still and glorify new monuments with new architectural solutions? Nothing could be less certain, for Angkorean Khmer architecture evolved with a major handicap: the vaulting method routinely used was, in effect, corbelling, which necessar­ily limits the interior span. Having conducted a rich dialectic between covered and uncovered spaces, which path would Khmer architecture have chosen, given the methods of dry wall construction they used? The ques­tion remains unanswered here but it invites reflection and is worth asking.

Permanence: The “Architecture-Image”

The most constant aspect of Khmer architec­ture, whether individual structure, sanctuary complex, or city, is that of “architecture-image,” that is, the rep­resentation in architectural form of images provided by the texts. Khmer epigraphy often refers to a monu­ment’s precise place in Indian cosmography (see Eoisselier 1970). As mentioned above, in the Indo-Khmer reli­gious perspective the sanctuary could be likened to a mountain. In the case of Phnom Eakheng, the quincuncial arrangement of the five sanctuary towers at the summit corresponds in a very concrete way to the peak of Mount Meru buttressed by four other strong mountains. All forms of religious architecture in Angkorian Cambodia must there­fore be as close as possible to the image suggested by the texts.

The image of a divine home, in this case that of Siva, is shown in what seems to have been its most important form in two famous bas-reliefs on the Eanteay Srei temple (consecrated in A.D. 967-968) near Angkor. The reliefs occupy the tympana of the pedi­ments on the southern library in the monument’s first enclosure. They show us Siva surrounded by many divine or semi-divine personages in his private celestial home of Kailasa; he is seated at the summit of a stepped pyramid (Fig. 11). It is thus perfectly appropriate to des­ignate the stepped pyramid monuments at Angkor as temple-mountains, even if it hints of redundancy in that every sanctuary in the Indian tradition is akin to a mountain. In building their pyramids, the Khmer sim­ply solidify this image.

The bas-reliefs of the library present another picture of the inhabitants of Siva’s home: hybrid figures with human bodies and animal heads. These figures are also found on the stairs leading to the monument’s three sanctuary towers and, again, permit us to regard these temples just as though they were divine mountains.

According to Professor Jean Filliozat, the con­formity of the architecture to the texts is such that some of the texts may have been inspired by the architecture (1961). Professor Filliozat concludes that the descrip­ tion of the Hari (Vishnu) Temple in the Indian text KurmaPurana may have been purely and simply inspired by the temple-mountain of Angkor Wat. Its builder, the great king Stuyavarman II (A.D. 1113 to at least 1145), was a fervent devotee of Vishnu. Whether the text influenced those who created the temple, or whether the temple—well-known, important and prestigious—influenced the description in the Kurrnapurana matters relatively little, given the text’s uncertain date.

The moats and the system of concentric walls at Angkor Waft certainly will arrest one’s attention more. These features characterize all the temple-mountains. They evoke divine residences perched on top of concentric chains of insurmountable mountains surrounded by oceans, in the image of Mount Meru. At Angkor Waft, the small courtyard situated at the same height as the cruci­form gallery on the second level, as well as those that surround the central sanctuary at the summit of the pyramid, could even be likened to the primordial ocean, seat of repose of Vishnu during his sleep between two cosmic eras. In fact, during the rainy season, these courtyards fill with water. It is easy to imagine that on certain occasions, with the drainage systems blocked, they were turned into basins.

Our last example of an “architecture-image” is that of Angkor Thom and the Bayon, an immensely complicated monument with multiple meanings. The equivalence of the Bayon to Mount Mandara has long been invoked to explain the birth of the city. Using Mount Mandara as a churning rod, giants supporting the body of an immense serpent stir and agitate the Sea of Milk just as the gods and demons have done from time immemorial. In Hindu mythology, the purpose of stirring up the Sea of Milk was to obtain the elixir of immortality. This elixir appeared only after the appear­ance of a certain number of other precious things, among them the goddess Sri (Beauty, Prosperity), the elephant Airavata (the god Indra’s mount), or the aPsaras (celestial nymphs). The churning myth also helps us to understand Angkor Thom, the city of Jayavarmnan VII, as a source of benefits, treasures, or riches, and by extension, the source of prosperity of the Khmer Empire itself. (See the Vishnu purâna [Book I, chapter 9] and the Bhâgavata Purina [Book 8, chapters 6-11] for versions of this myth.)

In the case of Angkor Thom, however, several images are superimposed on one another. Professor J. Eoisselier sees in the Eayon an image of the Room of Good Order (Sudhammasabha) of Buddhist mythology.

Viewed this way, the monument’s striking towers covered with faces would be in communication with the Brahman Sananlcumara (“perpetually young”), those who transmit the teaching of Buddha to the Buddhist and Hindu divinities periodically reunited in the Room (Fig. 13). Angkor Thom thus becomes a replica on earth of the city of Indra—the king of the gods—at the center of which this Room was built. Situated on the summit of Mount Meru, the city of Indra is guarded by the four great kings of the East; it is their faces that one should recognize in the monumental gates of Angkor Thom (Fig. 12). Moreover, 54 giant figures supporting a mas­sive serpent are stationed on each side of the dikes crossing the moats; they recall the image of the Churning of the Sea of Milk. We might go further and liken the giants to divine or semi-divine armies assuring the protection of the city (see Le Bonheur 1989). And finally, the scene recalls the symbolic equivalence of the serpent (nag) and the rainbow—a celestial bridge per­mitting passage from the human world outside the city to the divine world created at the heart of Angkor Thom by the Bayon itself (Fig. 14).

Diverse, evolving, permanent: Khmer architec­ture, of which the temple-mountain is at once the best-known and most important expression, remains one of Asia’s major contributions to the world’scultural patri­mony. Despite the considerable number of studies, both general and specific, devoted to it, it is far from having been completely explained. It still constitutes a field of exploration and research as rich as the religious tradi­tions that gave rise to it.


This article was translated from the French by Bruce Pearson.

Cite This Article

Zephir, Thierry. "The Angkorean Temple-Mountain." Expedition Magazine 37, no. 3 (November, 1995): -. Accessed May 22, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to