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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Angkor Thom: Last Royal City of the Khmer Empire

Angkor Thom: Last Royal City of the Khmer Empire

This is the fifth in a series in which Dawn Rooney presents articles related

to her new book, "A Visitor's Guide to Angkor." The author holds a doctorate

in art history and has written numerous books on the subject.

Angkor Thom, the last capital of the Khmer Empire, was a fortified city where priests

and officials of the palace and military lived. It also served as the center for

administering the kingdom. These structures were built of wood and have perished

but the remaining stone monuments testify that Angkor Thom was indeed a 'Great City.'

Temples inside the wall of the city that can be seen today include the Bayon, Baphuon,

Phimeanakas, Terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King, Prah Palilay, Tep Pranam,

and Prasat Suor Prat. Others within the wall such as the North and South Khleangs

and Prah Pithu are shrouded in jungle and await clearing.

Zhou Daguan, the Chinese emissary who provided the only existing first-hand account

of the Khmers, described the splendor of Angkor Thom at the end of the thirteenth

century. 'At the center of the kingdom rises a Golden Tower [Bayon] flanked by more

than twenty lesser towers and several hundred stone chambers. On the eastern side

is a golden bridge guarded by two lions of gold, one on each side, with eight golden

Buddhas spaced along the stone chambers. North of the Golden Tower of Bronze [Baphoun],

higher even than the Golden Tower: a truly astonishing spectacle, with more than

ten chambers at its base. A quarter of a mile further north is the residence of the

king. Rising above his private apartments is another tower of gold. These are the

monuments which have caused merchants from overseas to speak so often of "Cambodia

the rich and noble".

The city of Angkor Thom was larger than any of the walled cities of medieval Europe.

The laterite wall fortifying the city is square with each side about three kilometers

long. The area inside the wall comprises 360 acres. A moat (now dry) with a width

of 100 meters provided further fortification for the city. An entry tower and a long

causeway bisect each side of the wall except on the east which has two entrances.

The additional one, called the 'Gate of Victory', is aligned with the causeway leading

to the Terraces of the Elephants and the Leper King.

The five entry towers are among the most photographed of the ancient Cambodian ruins.

'Through here all comers to the city had to pass, and in honor of this function it

has been built in a style grandiose and elegant, forming a whole, incomparable in

its strength and expression'. Each sandstone tower rises 23 meters to the sky and

is crowned with four heads, one facing each cardinal direction, representing the

extension of royal power to the four regions of the kingdom.

The lower half of each gate is sculpted like an elephant plucking lotus flowers with

its trunk. The Hindu god Indra sits at the center of the elephant holding a thunderbolt

in his hand with a celestial nymph on each side.

The long causeway leading to each entry tower is bordered by a row of stone figures

on each side-demons on the right and gods on the left-guarding the city of Angkor

Thom. The demons have a grimacing expression and wear a military headdress and the

gods look serene with their almond-shaped eyes and wear a conical headdress. A few

of the heads on these figures are copies and the original ones are in safekeeping

at the Angkor Conservancy in Siem Reap.

A serpent spreads his multiple heads in the shape of a fan at the beginning of the

causeway. Its body extends the length of the causeway and is held by the gods and

demons. This composition forms a serpent-like railing, perhaps symbolizing the rainbow

uniting the worlds of man and the gods. The presence of Indra reinforces this representation.

The city of Angkor Thom follows rigorous cosmological laws. It is a microcosm of

the universe, divided into four parts by the main axes. The temple of the Bayon is

situated at the exact center of the axes, just as Mount Meru is the center of the

universe, and stands as the symbolical link between heaven and earth. The wall enclosing

the city of Angkor Thom represents the stone wall around the universe and the mountain

ranges around Meru. The surrounding moat (now dry) symbolizes the cosmic Ocean.

The Royal Palace situated within the city of Angkor Thom is of an earlier date and

belonged to kings of the tenth and early eleventh centuries. Although the foundations

and an enclosing wall with entry towers around the palace have been identified little

evidence remains of the layout of the buildings inside the enclosure. This absence

of archaeological evidence of the royal buildings suggests they were constructed

of wood and have perished. According to a general plan ascertained by the French,

the Royal Palace included the temple-mountain of Phimeanakas and surrounding pools

and residences and buildings for administering the capital which were probably at

the back of the enclosure. Jayavarman VII reconstructed the original site of the

Royal Palace to erect the city of Angkor Thom which was centered on the temple of

the Bayon.

Zhou Daguan described the layout of Angkor Thom. 'The wall of the city is some five

miles in circumference. It has five gates, each with double portals. Two gates pierce

the eastern side; the other sides have one gate only. Outside the wall stretches

a great moat, across which access to the city is given by massive causeways. Flanking

the causeways on each side are fifty-four divinities resembling war-lords in stone,

huge and terrifying. All five gates are similar. The parapets of the causeways are

of solid stone, carved to represent nine-headed serpents. The fifty-four divinities

grasp the serpents with their hands, seemingly to prevent their escape. Above each

gate are grouped five gigantic heads of Buddha, four of them facing the four cardinal

points of the compass, the fifth head, brilliant with gold, holds a central position.

On each side of the gates are elephants, carved in stone.

The walls, about twelve feet in height, are built entirely of cut stone blocks, set

close and firm, with no crevices for weeds to grow in, and no crenellations. On the

battlements sago palms have been planted at irregular intervals. Let into the wall

here and there are casemates. The inner side of the wall resembles a glacis, more

than sixty feet wide, at the top of which are huge gates, closed at night and swung

open in the morning. Dogs are forbidden entrance, as are criminals whose toes have

been cut of.'

The facades of the Terraces of the Elephant and the Leper king are sculpted with

life-size figures of animals and mythical beings. The Terrace of the Elephants is

over three hundred meters long. The main part of the panel on the terrace is decorated

with elephants depicted in profile. Realistic hunting scenes with elephants using

their trunks to kill animals and tigers clawing the elephants provide plenty of action

and drama for the viewer.

The terrace has a unique feature of an inner wall which was probably part of the

earlier royal palace. A horse with five heads in frontal position fills the wall

from top to bottom and is an exceptional piece of sculpture. It has a lively expression

and is remarkably worked.

A second wall is also found at the nearby Terrace of the Leper King. Both the

outer and inner walls are decorated with registers of bas-reliefs. On the exterior,

mythical beings-serpents, giants with multiple arms and a palace scene-adorn the

wall. The themes on the interior are similar. The lower frieze of fish, elephants,

and serpents is particularly fine.

The so-called 'Leper King' is a figure sculpted in sandstone. He is seated on the

terrace with his right knee raised. Although the original Leper King is in the courtyard

of the National Museum in Phnom Penh for safekeeping the copy is an exact replica.

The origin and meaning of the name of the king are uncertain. Some historians think

the figure represents Kubera, god of wealth, who allegedly was a leper.

A legend in a Cambodian chronicle recounts a minister who refused to prostrate before

the king, who hit him with his sword. Venomous spittle fell from the king who then

became a leper and was called the Leper king. And although some historians believe

that Jayavarman VII was a leper, there is no historical evidence to support this

theory.

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