We began our day at the Angkor complex with a visit to Ta Prohm, the modern name of a temple built in the Bayon style, largely in the late 12th and early 13th centuries, and originally called Rajavihara. Ta Prohm is located approximately one kilometer east of Angkor Thom on the southern edge of the East Baray. You might recognize it from the Hollywood movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Some scenes from the movie were shot here.
Ta Prohm was founded by the Khmer King Jayavarman VII as a Mahāyāna Buddhist monastery and university. Unlike most Angkorian temples, Ta Prohm has been left in much the same condition in which it was found: the photogenic and atmospheric combination of trees growing out of the ruins and the jungle surroundings have made it one of Angkor’s most popular temples with visitors.
When our tour guide talked about this temple, he said that it was originally built for both Hindu and Buddhist worship. That is different from what history I can find on the Internet, saying it was built first as Buddhist. The Buddhist roots are clear; Ta Prohm housed the Buddhist deity Prajnaparamita, the “the Perfection of (Transcendent) Wisdom,” a central concept in Mahāyāna Buddhism and its practice and understanding are taken to be indispensable elements of the Bodhisattva Path. Ta Prohm was consecrated in 1186. Like many Khmer kings, Jayavarman VII had the deity carved in the likeness of his mother. The Prajnaparamita statue was surrounded by 260 lesser divinities, each housed in their own sanctuaries.
We got an early start, at 6:30 am, in order to visit Ta Prohm while there were fewer tourists there. We got off our bus and started walking through the parking lot.
First we pass through outer gates, not shown on the map, below. Many of the stones have fallen. On the right side there are some figures carved into the wall that have survived.
This path through the trees give me a feeling of ancient times. No cars or bikes, just people walking through the trees to the temple. The calls of jungle birds in the early morning added a romantic note to our adventure.
This sign shows that reconstruction work here is being sponsored by India. If this temple had no Hindu background, I wonder if India would be involved in its restoration?
We start to approach the temple. Below is a temple map. We will approach from the east, the right side of the map.
The temple grounds were large. The temple covers barely 2.5 acres, but its walls and moat encompass 148 acres, which would have sheltered a town attached to the temple. The temple was wealthy, controlling 3,140 villages. In the temple 12,640 people lived, (including 18 high priests, 2,740 officials, 2,202 assistants and 615 dancers), supported by a population of 79,365 who worked in nearby villages to provide food and supplies. The temple owned a set of golden dishes weighing 500 kg, as well as 35 diamonds, 40,620 pearls, 4,540 precious stones, 876 veils from China, 512 silk beds. This information is from stone tablets, stelae, found on the site.
One feature of this temple is the House of Fire, or Dharmasala, the name given to a type of building found only in temples constructed during the reign of late 12th century monarch Jayavarman VII: Preah Khan, Ta Prohm and Banteay Chhmar. A House of Fire has thick walls, a tower at the west end, and south-facing windows. Scholars theorize that the House of Fire functioned as a “rest house with fire” for travellers. An inscription at Preah Khan tells of 121 such rest houses lining the highways into Angkor. The Chinese traveller Zhou Daguan expressed his admiration for these rest houses when he visited Angkor in 1296 AD. I think the House of Fire is in the lower left corner, shown on the map below.
The temple was also the headquarters of a vast hospital network created by the good king. From Ta Prohm, supplies filtered out to 102 hospitals located throughout the empire. The Khmer kings seem to have taken the Buddha’s call to mercy into their own hands. This also shows something of the kind of infrastructure that a large-scale urban area like Angkor, with a population of about one million people, required.
Below, the east entrance to Ta Prohm. The main entrance with its pillars still stands, but you can see that the wall on the right has sagged in the last 900 years.
A closer view of the building. I do not see any mortar in the joints between the stone. During this period in India, temples and walls were built without mortar. Could it be that way here, too? When I researched how Angkor Wat was constructed, this is what I found (from Wikipedia):
The stones, as smooth as polished marble, were laid without mortar with very tight joints that were sometimes hard to find. The blocks were held together by mortise and tenon joints in some cases, while in others they used dovetails and gravity.
Ta Prohm was built about one hundred years later, so, I think, used the same methods. So when you look, think, ‘no mortar.’
During the later reign of Jayavarman VIII, during a Hindu revival period, he commanded carvers to remove any Buddhas that were carved in to the walls.
This can be seen in the bas-relief below, where the central figure has been defaced.
When French explorers rediscovered Ta Prohm in 1947, it had been invaded by two kinds of parasitic plants, 200-year-old spong trees and strangler figs. These trees can grow on rocks or other trees, and even on top of one another. The French government cleared out most of the spong trees, but left a few untouched so that people could see what condition the temple was in when they found it. Here is one tree that was left in place. It is the trees growing in the ruins on on the walls of temple buildings that give Ta Phrom a most special feeling. This is a spong tree, below.
Here is a figure carved into a wall that was not defaced. It is obviously some kind of female figure, perhaps a devata, the equivalent of guardian spirit. If they seem to be dancing, then they are Apsara, beautiful, supernatural female beings, known in early Hinduism (found in the Rig Veda) and early Buddhism.
In the interior spaces there are a number of these small temple towers. Each would have housed its own divinity.
These small temples with towers are a common feature of Cambodian temple architecture. They consist of a Cella (chamber) and a Prang (tower). The cubic Cella was entered via a small porch, usually aligned to the east, which was called the Mandapa. Over the Cella rose the central tower, the bud-shaped Prang, modeled after the cosmic mountain Meru, crowned by a top stone in form of a lotus bud.
This was over a doorway. There is a reclining figure, I would guess a reclining Buddha. The position of the hand indicates that the Buddha is resting. It looks like the figure at the top was destroyed.
This gives you a good idea about the invasive growth of the trees in the temple.
Piles of fallen stones, part of a restoration project to come.
A wonderful stone frieze; a meditating figure in the center, probably Apsaras on the left.
Another tree grows over the temple. Note that the bright blue behind the building is a cover screen in a restoration project.
Another angle of the tree. Can you imagine what it must have been like for the French explorers to first walk through this place? This gives a bit of that feeling.
This mandapam, pillared hall, is being restored. It will be wonderful when this job is done.
Ta Prohm is of Khmer ‘flat’ style, as opposed to a temple-pyramid or temple-mountain, where the inner parts are higher than the outer. Later today we will visit a temple in this “mountain” style.
There are many corridors, or halls, in this temple. The one shown below, open to the outside, is called a gallery.
So much more work needs to be done for the restoration of the temple. India promised US $6 million for Ta Prohm’s restoration, so the work is funded.
This doorway has withstood the span of time without collapsing. The strong construction of the lintel is what made it possible.
Figures on the wall. Apsaras? Devatas? They are not dancing, so maybe they are guardians.
Iron rods have been installed to support the buildings. There had been iron rods placed in the temple earlier, but they were salvaged by the Khmer Rouge during the wars to make weapons.
Another doorway, with its guardian spirit.
More temple towers in the middle of the structure. Remember when you look at these that they were constructed without mortar.
A doorway through a wall.
Another temple tower.
A picturesque tree and root. Notice the iron support rods under the tree.
The carved figures are extraordinarily well done. Guardians, I think. Devatas.
On the corner of the wall, a five-headed Naga.
Look at the tree and root. It is amazing that the walls still stand underneath it.
Below, our Gecko Adventures tour guide, Rong is explaining something about a carving atop a doorway.
A row of meditating figures.
A doorway with guardians on both sides. These are Devatas. Do you see the clubs that they hold in front of them?
The doorway below was in The Temple of Doom. It is a very popular place to take photos. Rong noted that this is where Angelina Jolie emerged from the inside of the temple.
I think all the smaller roots are from a strangler fig. I love this spot!
More figures and carving on this wall. I wonder if there was a Buddha in the niche?
In the center of the building there was this stone shaft going all the way up. Experts are not sure, but think the round holes were used to add wood facing, so this would have been a wooden-walled room.
The shape in the center of the wall is some kind of stress relief.
More Apsaras, youthful and elegant, and superb in the art of dancing.
Another carving over a doorway, with the Buddha destroyed.
The base of a lingam. This must have been put here after the temple was built, since this is Hindu, not Buddhist.
I love the way that the roots climb all over the temple walls.
Inside the central building it is dark, with corridors surrounding the center. In the center I can see some kind of idol, dressed in saffron cloth.
A closer view from the back side. I still cannot really see what this is. It looks like it might be on a broken lingam base.
Now that I see the front, I still don’t know what it is. It looks like some temple fragments that have been piled up, and dressed with a piece of saffron cloth.
Back outside, two more feminine figures on the wall. From the hand positions I think they must be dancers, and so are Apsaras.
I love these small stand-alone temple towers. They are ancient, and look it. There is something mysterious about them to me.
On a wall were carved these flowers. I bet they are intended to be lotus flowers.
Tree meets wall. Tree wins.
The tree between these two towers does not seem to even touch the ground. It must, though somewhere out of sight.
Two rows of seven figures, meditating.
Another carving above a doorway. Again the central figure is demolished. It is hard for me to understand why the new king would have all this destruction done.
This seems like a classic view of Ta Prohm.
Below are Carol, a doorway through the wall, and a tree.
More restoration work in progress. I wonder how long this work will take? It will be great to see this place when the restoration is complete! What a big job.
The temple tank, now dry.
As we left the temple we saw this gate tower (gopuram). The faces are the face of Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas. He is one of the more widely revered bodhisattvas in mainstream Mahayana Buddhism.
We are to see him again at the temple, Bayon, which we visit next.
Wow! What a start to our day of Angkor temple tours. Next we will go to Bayon, then later to Angkor Wat. Already what I have seen is amazing, and if this was all that we saw, I would be very satisfied.